Editor’s note: We had originally intended to do a listing of “most popular” posts on UptownMessenger.com in 2011, but in the process decided that a focus on the most important stories of the year in Uptown New Orleans would be more substantive. What follows is our assessment of the stories we’ve covered over the past year that continue to matter the most, with some commentary explaining our thinking. And, for anyone curious, those “most popular” posts are included at bottom as well. Thank you to everyone who read us in 2011, and we look forward to another year.
The city’s unyielding — in fact, substantially growing — murder rate is arguably the single most important story of New Orleans in 2011, and Uptown New Orleans was by no means spared in the epidemic. In fact, the increase was particularly strong in the Uptown-based Second District, which recorded nearly 20 homicides in 2011 — up from fewer than 10 the year before (the Sixth District held steady around 20 both years). While the loss of each of those lives is a tragedy in its own right, what follows is a chronological glimpse of a few of the Uptown killings that made the biggest impacts on the community’s consciousness beyond the victims’ individual deaths:
• One of the first homicides of the year took place on Freret Street in front of notorious college bar Friar Tuck’s. After breaking up a fight in the bathroom, Errol Meeks was gunned down outside by one of the combatants for merely refusing to identify the other individual in the fight, police said — tragically illustrating the hair-trigger mentality among some of the city’s reckless young gunmen. (William Baham was charged in the shooting; he was indicted in May and his next hearing is set for Feb. 2.) Friar Tuck’s closed thereafter — to the whispered relief of some neighbors — and has been reborn as Origami, an upscale sushi restaurant participating in the Freret renaissance.
The Freret neighborhood would suffer more bloodshed less than a month later, when 22-year-old Donald Brown was gunned down about a block away from Freret Street — drawing Councilwoman Stacy Head to meet with Freret residents on aggressive strategies to deal with “problem properties.” That case remains unsolved, but gun violence has almost completely subsided around the corridor.
• In September, authorities touted the murder conviction of accused drug lord Telly Hankton after a convoluted trial fraught with false alibis and attempted jury tampering. A month later, Curtis Matthews, the brother of one of the trial’s key witnesses, was gunned down outside Jazz Daiquiri in what authorities described as possible retaliation for the testimony that locked Hankton away. Walter Porter, an alleged associate of Hankton’s (and former Freret neighborhood resident), was arrested in the case, and Jazz Daiquris has since reopened “under new management,” according to a large banner across the front of the establishment.
• In November, Ray Maxwell was shot to death on Monroe Street just a few yards from the campus of James Weldon Johnson Elementary School while class was in session. While no children reportedly were outside during the shooting, it demonstrated the warlike conditions some of the city’s children are educated in — and underscored neighbors’ pleas to move the school to a safer location (see below). No arrest has been made.
• In July, a handful of residents around Annunciation Street begged Second District officers to do something about the crowds of men who they saw congregating and flashing guns in the area of General Taylor Street. Undercover officers were sent in, but no crimes were observed, and no arrests were made. In August, however, a drive-by shooting killed one man and injured another, and in December two more lives were claimed — all in a small stretch of a street surrounded by some of the most peaceful blocks in Uptown New Orleans. (Both cases remain unsolved.) One theory is that the shootings are linked to an ongoing feud with rival neighborhood groups in the Sixth District — and in fact the entire area becomes the Sixth District’s responsibility after the New Year. Will the violence on this small stretch subside in 2012?
• If the shooting outside Johnson Elementary was a warning about the proximity of New Orleans children to danger, it was cruelly realized a month later when Kiera Holmes was gunned down days before her second birthday in the crossfire of two vehicles on a shooting rampage through the B.W. Cooper projects. Though arrests were made quickly, her death was met with outrage and even a call for the return of the National Guard, but it also raised the question of whether any lessons were learned from a similar tragedy last year, the fatal shooting of 2-year-old Jeremy Galmon during a gun battle on Dryades Street.
(On a personal note, we’d also offer this moment to remember two other promising young lives tragically lost in the past year. Melissa Martinez, a 17-year-old Irish Channel resident, had her life cut short just three days before the end of 2010 in a deadly fire at a warehouse in the Lower Ninth Ward; her story and those of the other victims of that fire were recently revisited in a gripping, insightful article in the Boston Review. And just after the new year, Mariah Woods, a Xavier Prep graduate, was killed in a drug suspect fleeing police slammed into the car she was sitting in outside her Milan Street home; the circumstances of that chase have since led to a lawsuit by a friend of Woods’ also injured that night.)
For all the grim prominence of the city’s murder problem in the headlines, the progress made by the city’s public schools could serve as a hopeful counterpoint. High-performing schools continued to achieve strong growth while opening new seats, and radical announcements about individual campuses were made on a seemingly monthly basis.
• The Uptown school devoting the greatest effort to challenging the status quo of public education in New Orleans this year has been the International School of Louisiana. With a long-held commitment to broad expansion, ISL opened its second campus on the Westbank in the fall, and this month received permission to open a third school in Jefferson Parish next year.
The school has been unsuccessful so far in earning approval to step outside its current full-immersion model by opening a new “language-focused” school, where foreign language is a core subject taught daily in every grade, but all other subjects are taught in English. As the National Association of Charter School Authorizers’ recommendations about new schools have become increasingly conservative, however, the Orleans Parish School Board has decided to take a second look this month at ISL’s latest request — placing the school at the heart of the citywide debate over whether new charters will be awarded to truly local entities.
• The most significant impact on Uptown educational choices this year was clearly the opening of a new school, Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans, a French-immersion program that plans to adhere to the French national curriculum and even award French high school diplomas. Although its first year has not been without criticism, LFNO will move into a prominent new location on State Street next year and is even considering faster-than-anticipated growth.
• Audubon Charter School had both highs and lows in 2011: From a purely educational standpoint, it continued its upward trajectory on test scores, making it an A+ school and one of the highest performing in the city. Now, school leaders are reopening a French program for 3-year-olds that was shuttered in earlier budget cuts and revisiting the often-discussed idea of opening a new high school.
Audubon’s facilities plans, however, have faced continual setbacks. With renovations planned for the Broadway campus, an initial plan to build a temporary campus in the Lower Garden District drew heated opposition from parents when high levels of lead were discovered, and the state ultimately rejected the plan. School leaders delayed the start of renovations by six months as they scrambled to find a second-choice location, and settled on the Jean Gordon site in Gentilly, where students will be moving in next week. However, the timeline of the Broadway renovations remains unclear after neighbors filed a lawsuit that could slow the process. Meanwhile, the other supposedly-temporary campus on Carrollton Avenue remains in dire need of renovations, with no decision from state or parish officials about a permanent home even on the apparent horizon.
• James Weldon Johnson Elementary School has shown dramatic gains under the leadership of principal Wanda Brooks over the past few years, this year rising above “failing status” for the first time, with more gains expected. The Carrollton-Riverbend neighborhood has rallied around her, becoming fierce and untiring advocates this year for moving her campus to the site of the old Priestley campus on Leonidas — widely perceived to be safer, more prominent and more promising for becoming a neighborhood school — and have secured promises that they will be involved in an evaluation of the proposed site. Johnson’s challenges were cast into tragic relief, however, when a man was gunned down just outside the campus grounds during the school day in November.
• Walter L. Cohen High School, once a proud destination for academic excellence, has sunk in recent years to among the lowest performing in the state, and likely the nation. This year, a plan was announced to gradually transition Cohen over to the control of a more successful charter, New Orleans College Prep, a move that Cohen’s deeply involved alumni support. More controversial, however, is what appears to be a long-term plan by the Recovery School District to merge Cohen/College Prep with Booker T. Washington High School — members of both schools’ communities worry about the feasibility of running such a large campus.
• Lusher Charter School — seemingly the flagship public school of Uptown New Orleans by virtue of its size, off-the-charts test scores and political clout — has had a relatively stable year. It continued both its stellar performance and its search for room to grow, and saw its most significant victories in securing millions of dollars in renovation money as well as a 10-year renewal of its charter.
• One of the city’s most significant educational failures this year was at Sojourner Truth, which recently decided that amid continued struggles with performance and morale it would not seek to continue operating beyond this year.
• The development success story of the year — certainly for Uptown, if not New Orleans as a whole — has to be the Freret commercial corridor. It went from the eclectic outpost of a few pioneers — Cure, Freret Po-Boy, Saritas and Friday Night Fights, to name a few — to a culinary mecca featuring some of the city’s most celebrated new restaurants: Dat Dog, High-Hat Cafe, Ancora Pizza, Midway Pizza, the Company Burger and Origami, with more restaurants and music venues planned in 2011. For our readers, one of the first glimpses of the coming revolution was the delivery in February of Ancora’s wood-burning oven.
• By contrast, one neighborhood victory against development has drawn criticism from around the city, the ruling against the reopening of chef Greg Sonnier’s Katrina-shuttered Mid-City restaurant The Gabrielle in the Uptowner building on Henry Clay. Culinary enthusiasts across the city flocked to Sonnier’s support, but the Burtheville Association of Neighbors convinced the City Planning Commission and City Council that a number of technical reasons should prevent the banquet hall’s conversion into a full-time restaurant. Sonnier has not given up, however; he continues both to make overtures to the larger Audubon-Riverside Neighborhood Association and to resurrect the Gabrielle menu at periodic dinner events at the Uptowner.
• Perhaps the most understated triumph of 2011 was the resurfacing of most of Magazine Street. The project had some hiccups at either end, but was mostly praised for its speed and efficiency by Magazine Street merchants. With work concluded on that thoroughfare, however, a project with much more potential to disrupt traffic looms on the horizon: the installation of major new drainage culverts on Louisiana, Napoleon and Jefferson avenues.
• While the city has been touting its progress fighting blight this year, a demolition question of a different sort arose on St. Charles Avenue when the owners of a house built by a prominent architect received permission to tear it down and replace it with a new mansion of their own design. Much of the debate at the time focused on the role of the owners’ political connections and of the neighborhood associations involved, but one underlying issue — whether the decision creates a precedent that weakens the protections for historic properties along St. Charles Avenue — remains to be seen.
• A major story for the coming year will be the construction of a new football stadium on Tulane University’s Uptown campus. The project was triumphantly announced in early December with a quick two-year timetable for construction — but it remains to be seen how neighbors will react. A more tentative recent announcement — that wholesale retailer Costco is considering a site on South Carrollton — may also prove to be a major story of 2012.
4) Armed robberies
While murders are the most visible sign of the city’s crime problem, robberies at gunpoint continue to be endemic as well. A number of cases shocked Uptown residents, such as the shooting of a patron at the Saint bar in the Lower Garden District during an attempt to steal his iPhone, another robbery and shooting of a well-known chef outside his home in May, a brutal home invasion of a prominent resident near Audubon Park, and a string of robberies of people on their way to make deposits at a bank on South Claiborne. Detectives made significant arrests in a number of individual cases, and district officials shifted patrol officers to whichever spot was suffering the brunt of the cases any given week, but the combination of ongoing departmental reforms and the soaring homicide rate seemingly make preventing armed robberies a relatively low priority for city leaders (the word “robbery” does not appear in the 2012 NOPD crime-fighting strategy released Monday, for example).
5) Minor victories
In a year fraught with major challenges, Uptown residents had a number of minor victories to celebrate as well. The “Lusher hump” was flattened; the school board finally cleaned up its overgrown cottage on Annunciation; the historic Lorraine Apartments and the LaSalle school building last used by NOCCA were both granted new leases on life, and, perhaps most importantly, catastrophic flooding of the Mississippi River was averted and hurricane season passed with little more than a fallen oak and a Broadway Street sinkhole.
* * *
While the past year has provided some dark moments, it is impossible to forget that we live in one of the greatest places on Earth — but we don’t need headlines or top 10 lists to tell us that. All it takes is to step outside, walk to the corner for a bite of some of the best food in the world, go a little farther and hear some world-class live music, get together for a Saints or the Hornets game, or stand on the sidewalk for the weekly celebrations by our Social Aid and Pleasure clubs or the annual Carnival festivities.
Here’s to making 2012 our best year yet. Thanks again for reading UptownMessenger.com.
Those were our most important stories of the past year. What were the most popular?
5. Opening day on Freret; Adolfo Garcia’s High Hat Cafe and Ancora Pizzeria: Photos of new restaurants opening were consistently popular, but the two Adolfo Garcia projects that heralded the beginning of 2011’s Freret restaurant boom attracted immense interest.
4. Former Nine Inch Nails recording studio slated for redevelopment into doctor’s office, shops: We found the issues with the proposed redevelopment of this old funeral home interesting, but fans of Nine Inch Nails around the country flocked to our site to read about the band’s old studio.
3. Employee charged with theft of hundreds of pairs of designer jeans: Honestly, the popularity of this story took us by surprise.
2. City lays the law down on Maple Street bar: Our reporting on the city’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board has drawn high interest from readers since the first meeting we covered in 2010, sanctions against the former Friar Tuck’s on Freret even before the shooting outside it. This article, about sanctions against Rocco’s Bar on Maple Street, prefigured alcohol enforcement against college bars that would affect several other nearby bars as well.
1. Bang-proof bling: Man’s gold tooth deflects gunshot, police say: These four paragraphs about bulletproof dental work were destined for greatness. The story took less than a lunch break to type up after hearing about it from detectives, but it landed on not only websites around the world, but also the front page of The Times-Picayune.