Feb 012012
 

The gym is relocating to O.C. Haley. (photo by Jean-Paul Villere for UptownMessenger.com)

Jean-Paul Villere

The invention of gunpowder was an accident. So was plastic. Viagra too. The reinvention of Freret similarly so. Despite decades of best efforts of local government, administration pledges, and the citizenry alike and at large, Freret couldn’t get any measurable play until after Katrina. But to be clear, no one thing has made Freret what it is today. It has taken a village, um, of events, so to speak. But let’s start with the birth of the Freret Street Boxing Gym, established seven years ago. At the time, Freret’s business offerings were basically tattoos, red beans and hardware. Today, as it has been for decades upon decades, the hardware store is still there. But not the tattoos. And not the red beans, either. And, as of the last month, the gym has moved as well — to O.C. Haley Boulevard.

Among the many truisms in real estate, ‘highest and best use’ defines what happens, to what degree and ultimately where. When Mike Tata opened for business on Freret, the floodwaters of Katrina quick on his arrival did not wash him away. Instead, as the city recovered, he began to hold a monthly event that quickly caught on and brought new attention to the corridor. Friday Night Fights, once held inside the gym, in short order reached a capacity following and to accommodate further growth was moved outdoors to the nearby city-owned parking pad. There the fights were held for years, until recently the building Mike was leasing sold. Under new ownership the rent would now be higher, so Mike politely declined and found new digs at O.C. Haley and Euterpe, directly across from Cafe Reconcile.

The interior of the gym's new space. (photo by Jean-Paul Villere for UptownMessenger.com)

Personally this change to me remains somewhat bittersweet, for selfish reasons, as I live two blocks from where the fights were held; I absolutely loved seeing this monthly madness take place. But, being in real estate, I fully understand that use evolves. And while Freret has garnered a relatively quick reputation for excellent local businesses heavy on restaurants, the traffic that the gym brought will now seed the O.C. Haley corridor, a change that arguably will be marked as a tipping point for unsure investors and homebuyers. No longer need anyone wonder if O.C. Haley might one day be great again. It’s happening. Right now. The gym is being reborn in an old bricked two-story corner facade retrofitted with new I-beams and concrete, and it’s gorgeous. The fights too will return shortly after the end of Carnival season: first, one indoors to celebrate the new space, then future outdoor ones to be held at a to-be-determined nearby site.

The site of the former Brown Derby corner store. (photo by Jean-Paul Villere for UptownMessenger.com)

But Freret’s rebirth may not be easily handed over to one single success story like Mike’s, nor to those who came in afterward and refurbished old buildings and started new businesses. Or even the monthly Freret Market. The dynamic goes much deeper. But you have to know your history. The Brown Derby once stood at Freret and Louisiana, a landmark corner store not known for much more than being just that – a corner store. It burned down some time in the Katrina void and has not been rebuilt. Rumor mills aside, having the Brown Derby not rebuilt or re-opened changed the visual field and foot traffic of this intersection. And at the other end of the corridor, where Lusher High now sits, the site once operated as Fortier. Before Katrina, when this school let out at day’s end, it erupted into chaos. Each day. So much so that not one but often two squad cars would flank the building in hopes of reigning in the student body.

Lusher High School, seen from down Freret at Joseph. (photo by Jean-Paul Villere for UptownMessenger.com)

Call it the perfect storm of events or whatever, but these two independent events of school shift and corner grocery elimination in this writer’s opinion opened up the two entrances to the Freret corridor in ways that no amount of legislation or investment could ever accomplish. They were coincidental, accidental, and in hindsight substantial with unexpected results. Drivers who once locked their doors at red lights on Nashville exhaled. And the sleepy storied set of dilapidated commercial spaces between Napoleon and Jefferson for the first time in forever fostered new looks and inspired investment. Two other noteworthy events also took place: the city changing the corridor’s overlay and the birth of Green Charter School. These of course have contributed to Freret’s resurgence as well. But I would submit these are supplemental plusses and that the advent of Lusher High and Brown Derby’s demise laid the foundation.

Mike Tata now has a 10-year lease at his new location. And Freret’s unfortunate loss is undoubtedly O.C. Haley’s gain. Don’t cry for Freret though. One may expect more examples of highest and best use to come — on both commercial corridors. You see, before Mike took over 1632 O.C. Haley, it was an empty building awaiting its next purpose. Highest and best use applies everywhere, all the time. The rest of story remains unwritten. So what could possibly be next for O.C. Haley? I don’t know. Let’s chew on it for awhile and chat between bouts next month.

Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and the Du Mois gallery on Freret Street and father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at UptownMessenger.com, he also writes an occasional real-estate blog at villererealty.com and shares his family’s adventures via pedicab on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Jackson

    I can’t say I’m surprised by this at all. While I enjoyed Friday Night Fights, it seemed to become more and more obvious that the Freret St. Boxing Gym didn’t fit in with the new ambiance of the Freret St. corridor.

  • http://www.slowsouthernstyle.com Christy Lorio

    I’m definitely bummed that the gym moved, but OCH is in for a treat. Friday Night Fights is such a wonderfully weird amalgamation of entertainment. I always said the crowd was just as diverse as the event itself.

    As far as the rest of Freret goes, I don’t want it to be all high end, new and shiny. I like the mix of old businesses coupled with the new kids. Part of what gives Freret it’s edge I think is having such diverse offerings. I like that the barber shop is still there, and Beans Formal wear, for example. Now I’m not complaining about the new businesses at all, but it would be ashame if all of the established ones had to move.

  • wow so gross

    wow, this is amazingly disgusting. guess the charm would wear off a bit if you just said outright “the black people disappeared from freret”

    i was never scared near fortier. and many people UNLOCKED their car doors there, to pick up their children from school.

    i suggest you check out “the housing monster” to understand the implications and structural drivers of “highest and best use” which to those without the money to pay for such a use sounds an awful lot like “the rich take over the best of everything and force the poor to always be moving into shitty areas, even if they are the ones who spent the time and money to make a formerly undesirable area nice again”. the rich take away everything nice from the poor.

    the housing monster: http://libcom.org/files/the-housing-monster.pdf

    • Jean-Paul Villere

      Only the black people have in fact not disappeared from Freret St nor are they going to, and Lusher has a much more diverse student composition than Fortier ever did. What’s changed is negative foot traffic, and the corridor now better reflects the spectrum of the city’s residents, young, old, black, white, what have you.

  • Fat Harry

    Nice article and interesting theory about the bookeends of Freret causing the rebirth of the neighborhood. And I totally agree that Lusher plays a large part in the rebirth and cannot thank them enough for taking over the school.

  • http://trickywicket.wordpress.com Tricky Wicket

    Wait a second. Who wrote this article? And who took the pictures? What does this person look like? God, Uptown Messenger, can you please give people a little credit for their hard work?

    • Jean-Paul Villere

      Yes, I need an agent. Are you available “Tricky Wicket”?

  • Owen Courrèges

    Jean Paul,

    . No longer need anyone wonder if O.C. Haley might one day be great again. It’s happening. Right now.

    I disagree. The jury is definitely still out on O.C. Haley. I recently made inquiries and was told that it’s a fool’s errand to try and get a new liquor license on O.C. Haley right now. It sounds to me as if the neighborhood (unlike with Freret) is still trying to maintain tight controls.

    One business moving into a district that’s almost entirely inhabited by non-profits doesn’t convince me that said district is actually open for business or that commercial redevelopment is an inevitability. There’s still work to be done here before O.C. Haley is really a destination. I hope Stacy Head can make that happen, but we’re not there yet.

    • Jean-Paul Villere

      Hmmm I understand your POV Owen, but I think FNF’s move will be the proverbial first on the dance floor at the wedding. Now that they’re out there, watch the law of attraction kick in. At the very least I’m willing to bet you might be walking over from your home to attend a couple of bouts. And I might add with some assurance that on any other Friday evening you might not walk OCH. And that change in behavior multiplied by hundreds over the course of months is bound to demonstrate some significant and positive impact.

      Who knows? Maybe a food truck or two will pop up for the main event! Stranger things have been known to happen in NOLA -

  • Linda Bordenave

    Nice article Jean Paul, very well written. Do you know what is happening with the pottery business that is supposed to move into the Freret area, Jena, I think.

    • Jean-Paul

      The Freret Clay Center is in queue and I think breaking ground this year.

  • Alfred W. Bostick

    This is easily the most class and race drenched bigoted crap I’ve read in a long, long time.

    • Jean-Paul

      Painting with such a broad brush of a comment, I am really confused. As the headline says: discuss.

  • Robyn Flanery

    Wow, Jean-Paul, I can see why some people are a little upset. I like your article, and I like you. But, parts of it made me cringe. You know, back in the day: Fortier was a wonderful school. So many of my friends parents graduated from there. Lusher is still called “The Fortier Campus.” I am a Lusher parent, my kids have gone to Lusher from kindergarten to now (they are both in high school now) I never ever drove past Fortier before it was Lusher Fortier Campus with my doors locked! Holy crap! There were kids there just trying to get a decent education in a city that didn’t provide many options unless one was wealthy.
    I could smell “hipster” all over this piece. Still cringing.
    Regardless of what you wrote and where it came from: I love the Freret corridor and I am a big proponent for growth, for everyone everywhere.
    Peace,
    Robyn

    • Jean-Paul Villere

      Robyn, keep in mind in addition to those seeking an education there were also kids there that were potential threats to themselves and others; the 2 squad cars weren’t there for kicks, and given public school budgets I’m certain they weren’t paid details either. Additionally I’m certain Fortier was an excellent school “back in the day.” But I’m not talking about then.

  • Kimberlee

    Wow, I’m not sure I agree with the assessment of Freret before Katrina, nor did I ever lock my doors driving past Fortier. I’m a new resident of the Freret neighborhood and love the Green Charter school and some of the new businesses that have invested but I miss Dunbar’s and some of the other businesses who have not returned (or been unable to afford to return). The owner of the property that used to be Dunbar’s is selling it and I really wish they would renovate it and get them back in there. I don’t want Freret to be so gentrified that it doesn’t reflect the neighborhood living there, and it seems to me, that’s where its headed. Its sad that the gym is moving, but I do think it will be good for OCH.

    • Jean-Paul Villere

      For clarity, according to what I’ve heard, Dunbar’s elected not to return given Loyola set them up in their Pine St Grill by the law school post storm. I think we can all agree having Dunbar’s return would’ve been amazing, but I believe the building may’ve been more of an obstacle / headache for them. Additionally I believe rather them being the ones selling it presently they actually defaulted with the city over the years and lost it at tax sale this past year. The present owner is simply flipping it.

  • uptowner

    Nice article. I hope this starts O.C. beautification off on the right foot! And people, this article is neither classist nor racist. The implication that every time an editorial is written on this site promoting the rejuvenation of an area of town it comes with the sinister undertone of a hatred and fear of black residents is starting to make me ‘cringe’ too. It’s not a broad comment about sweeping out a color. It’s about getting good, honest people that want to start businesses up and running in formerly run-down areas. I for one, think that’s a good thing. Thanks J-P.

  • Karran Harper Royal

    So Lusher has been good for Freret street. My heart still breaks for the students who used to attend Fortier. Rather than make sure they too, got good school options following Katrina, they were scattered to the wind. I know for a fact that, that scattering caused some to drop out. I was the advocate for one child who dropped out and I counseled another parent to keep her son in Texas since his school (Fortier) was no longer available to him. Thankfully, that kid graduated with a real diploma and is now in Jr. College. Of course my kid gets to benefit from Lusher’s expansion into the Fortier site, but it leaves such a bitter taste that I can’t celebrate my kid’s fortunes since I know it comes at the expense of other kids who had fewer options. I guess it’s somewhat like this story, OC Haley’s gain is Freret street’s loss. Somehow I think Freret Street won’t suffer from the loss of the boxing gym anyway near the way those kids who lost their school have suffered. Now, if only we can figure out how to transform children’s lives and their academic performance instead of pushing them around the city so some of us can have a nicer environment. Maybe then we wouldn’t be dealing with this horrible crime problem. I hope one day we will figure out that we must educate all of our kids, not just the ones that make us feel safe. We can run, but we cannot hide.

    • Kimberlee

      Karran Harper Royal -thank you for writing this! Until our city starts to care about educating ALL of its students to the same high standard, so they have genuine life altering opportunities for their future, I fear we will continue to live in a city where children kill children, and poverty kills their dreams. Current policy seems to be that government starves the education system and then claims that its failing.

  • Robyn Flanery

    Tears in my eyes, Karran Harper Royal. So well put. And Kimberlee, very well said.
    Thank you both.

    • Karran Harper Royal

      I don’t know why but I am so amazed when things like this happen. Yesterday I made the comment about the former Fortier students. Today, the grandmother of one of those students called me and I got to talk to this child who is not a child anymore. She’s 21 years old, unemployed and desperately wants to get her GED. She’s a special needs student and loves animals. One day she hopes to work with animals, but needs to get some education first. For now, she’s looking for another low wage fast food, grocery store job or anything she can to earn some money. I gave her some good next steps and told her to call me any time even if it’s just to ask a question or say hi. It was so good to her her voice and I told her that I was just thinking about her, which was so true. I just can’t believe she’s 21, how did this happen so fast? I just hope she gets it together while her Grandmother is still with us, she’s in her upper eighties. I wonder if there’s a job to be had for this young lady somewhere on Freret Street. If not she’s surely to become someone’s crime problem, as he mother was once incarcerate and her father is currently incarcerated. This is what happens when we throw away children who have already been thrown away. Folks, we have to educate all of them!