The mere mention of the words evokes fear in the minds of many New Orleanians: “Central City.” With a violent crime rate among the highest or New Orleans neighborhoods, the words are virtually synonymous with poverty, crime and seemingly insurmountable social disorder.
This being the case, one would think that nobody would be rushing to become Central City’s lead cheerleader. However, District B City Councilwoman Stacy Head has embraced the role wholeheartedly.
This past Saturday, various local groups organized the Central City Tour of Homes and the Oretha Castle Haley Art Market. Head disseminated a news release in advance of these events proclaiming: “Central City is New Orleans’ next great rediscovered neighborhood.”
Central City’s one major commercial artery, which has definitely seen better days, has become Ms. Head’s go-to subject of discussion when confronted with disputes over commercial development. Head famously suggested to Greg Sonnier, in rejecting his perfectly reasonable request to reopen his noteworthy Gabrielle Restaurant on Henry Clay Avenue, that he instead reopen on – you guessed it – O.C. Haley.
Head boasts that $75 million in investments have already been made along O.C. Haley, and suggests that the street is in the infancy of a spate of commercial redevelopment akin to that recently experienced nearby on Freret Street.
Alas, Head’s optimism is misguided. With apologies to the departed Lloyd Bentsen, ‘I know Freret Street, Freret Street is a favorite destination of mine; Oretha Castle Haley, ma’am, is no Freret Street.’
What has occurred on Freret Street is truly marvelous, I have no doubt. After Hurricane Katrina the street was a virtual ghost town, replete with flooded, moldering commercial buildings. However, some brave entrepreneurs started setting up shop, and today the movement has snowballed into a thriving commercial corridor.
Oretha Castle Haley, on the other hand, is still largely moldering, and is largely bereft of any commercial development. Instead, O.C. Haley is chock full of nonprofit entities. Driving down O.C. Haley from the freeway gives the distinct impression that “profit” is a foreign concept in Central City. One first notes the fire-gutted McDonogh 38 School, which is slated to be redeveloped into a non-profit entity. Next is a continuing cascade of nonprofits, including Cafe Reconcile, the Zeitgeist Multidisciplinary Arts Center and the Juvenile Justice Project.
With all due respect to non-profit entities, they are not an indicator of a healthy economy. Most survive largely on donations and government grants (the Zeitgeist is an exception, but only because it fears government control over the films it screens).
What a neighborhood like Central City needs is good, old-fashioned commerce. I’m talking about businesses that make no bones about wanting to earn profit, first and foremost. Central City needs to generate wealth, not just shift money around.
Right now, commerce is what Central City is sorely lacking. The old businesses that lined O.C. Haley back when it was Dryades have gone and have not returned. Nonprofits are a poor substitute.
This is not to say that Head is wrong to try to encourage commercial development along O.C. Haley, because that is exactly what it needs. However, let’s not go overboard. Comparing O.C. Haley to Freret is ridiculous, and proposing that a fine restaurant like Gabrielle move to Central City is patronizing. Her cheerleading, frankly, has degenerated into comic relief.
In saying this, it is not my intention to kick Central City when it’s down. I actually lived on the edge of central City in the 1700 block of Toledano Street for two years. I was never the victim of any crime, and I saw firsthand that some of Central City’ s reputation is unfair.
The point is that Central City needs to improve from the ground up, and it needs to do so by solving its crime problem and promoting business sensibly. Local government won’t be able to force a renaissance, and neither should it try.
The efforts of the Central City Renaissance Alliance and like-minded groups are praiseworthy and must continue, but until we answer the question of why O.C. Haley has few for-profit businesses left, Stacy Head’s PR campaign will fall on deaf ears.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.