Given the explosion of commercial growth on Freret Street — from only a single restaurant four years ago to 14 blocks of highly-lauded cuisine, new entertainment venues and businesses ranging from a dog-groomer to a craft-cocktail lounge — concerns about gentrification should be expected. But after that heated meeting in March, the proponents and opponents literally walked away from the school building together down the sidewalk, relying on relationships and respect forged over decades to find a middle ground — suggesting that, perhaps, something is different about what’s happening on Freret.
‘THE SCARY PART’
The history of Freret Street has become familiar amid its rebirth of the last few years: Named for a former mayor, Freret boasted a streetcar and dozens of shops in the 1920s and ’30s, but it suffered during the decades of suburban sprawl and white flight, hitting its nadir with the murder of baker Bill Long Jr. in his shop on Freret in 1987. Various revitalization efforts have been under way for years, but they began to take off after the floodwaters following the levee failures receded. In 2009, Cure, Beaucoup Juice, Sarita’s Grill, Village Coffee and Freret Street Po-Boys and Donuts all opened their doors; by 2011, restaurants were on nearly every block and the whole city was talking about the Freret renaissance.
A quarter of restaurants fail in their first year, and about 60 percent by the third year, so statistically Freret should have had some casualties by now. Instead, all its new restaurants are still standing strong, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some close calls. Sarita Fernandez opened Sarita’s Grill in July of 2009 — the only restaurant at the time, though, “We always believed that Freret was going to come back,” she said. As her lease renewal approached this year, she began getting nervous.
“I was stressed because so many people are trying to buy properties, that an investor would come by, somebody that has money in their pocket,” Fernandez said. “That was the scary part, because I noticed a lot of people were trying to buy buildings. That was scary, to know that if my lease was up, that someone could just take it.”In the end, Fernandez credits a fair-minded landlord with offering a renewal price she could afford, and now she and her husband are actively working toward buying the building themselves. But her fears are being felt by a rising number of residents in the neighborhood, said Stan Norwood of Dennis Barber Shop, a longstanding institution on the street. It’s the classic pattern of gentrification — an influx of new residents driving up property values and rents, making it hard for older residents to keep their homes. One disabled neighbor of Norwood’s, for example, has already protested his increased property tax once, because his house hasn’t changed and his income is fixed. This year, two more houses are under construction in the block for more than $400,000, Norwood said.
“Now that we have two houses sold in his block, we’re expecting it to go up a little higher,” Norwood said. “I don’t know how he can hold on to his house on a fixed income.”
And yet, despite years of redevelopment on Freret, Norwood says he doesn’t actually know anyone who has literally had to move out of the neighborhood because they could no longer afford it. It’s close — he named five or six families struggling to stay in their homes for various reasons — but no one has been priced out.
“They haven’t moved as of yet, but they’re struggling with the situation,” Norwood said.
Part of that is because there is so much available abandoned housing stock — a feature of a once-weak housing market, said Tulane geographer Richard Campanella. In markets characterized by blight and disuse, like New Orleans of the recent past, any development is viewed as positive — unlike “strong markets” like New York and San Francisco, where new projects in dense environments necessitated displacement of the original residents.
“People aren’t getting put out of their houses become some developer from Boston wants to come and make something new here,” agreed Greg Ensslen, whose Go Mango renovation company has been involved in dozens of residential and commercial projects in the neighborhood. “There’s enough abandoned property that we can have a revolution here without having to put anybody out. We haven’t seen it yet.”
‘Yet’ may be the operative word, in New Orleans and in Freret, Campanella said.
“What’s happening in New Orleans, since around 2008, is that we are slowly emerging from the depths of the ‘weak market’ group, and the small amount of (mostly welcome) gentrification that we used to have, is now becoming not so small, and not so welcome,” Campanella wrote in an email interview. “Marigny and Bywater are at the cusp of this transition, but places like Freret are starting to feel it next.”
The development was welcomed by residents, said Andrew Amacker, president of the Freret Neighbors United community group, in part because they explicitly asked for it. After Hurricane Katrina, the neighborhood had a number of gatherings to envision its own future, and the common desire was for a diverse, walkable community with a vibrant economy at its core. People wanted more retail (like groceries, clothing and perhaps books) than the restaurants that have led the way, but for the most part Freret looks like the residents wanted it to, he said.
“This not something that’s being done against our will,” Amacker said. “This is something that we decided on.”
And meanwhile, Ensslen said, all the property owners are benefiting. For most families, the home is their primary asset — and if it’s in the Freret area, it’s almost certainly worth more than its original purchase price.
‘FROM THE NEIGHBORHOOD’
“It’s indigenous,” said Ensslen, who moved to Freret in the late 1988 while he was at Tulane School of Architecture. “It’s people from within the community making things happen. There hasn’t been the wholesale displacement of people. There’s not the animosity.”
Norwood agreed. At the big meeting about the security-district proposal, he sat at the “Against” table while Michelle Ingram of Zeus’ Place sat at the “For” table. One reason they were able to move immediately from that controversial night into a collaborative discussion of solutions more palatable to the neighborhood, Norwood said, is that he and Ingram are neighbors just around the block. Likewise, Norwood said, Ensslen is well regarded by older residents because they have seen him out in the streets working for Freret’s renewal for 25 years.
“Greg has been a person who has been around here for years,” Norwood said. “He wasn’t trying to run anybody off. I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”A traditional point of contention as new businesses open in gentrifying neighborhoods is employment. The residents have to put up with the parking headaches surrounding hot new eateries, but are they directly partaking in the increase in commercial activity?
The issue is difficult to quantify, but some effort seems to be being made. Ensslen said he can name a number of people from the neighborhood who have gotten jobs in the businesses, and he doesn’t know anyone who has been turned away. Biderman says Company Burger has three neighborhood residents on staff, and they stand out as hard workers — the restaurant has very little staff turnover, he said, but his guys from the neighborhood have had some of the longest tenures there.
“They were great applicants; they were the greatest people,” Biderman said. “Our guys from the neighborhood are amazing.”
One of those workers, Erone Hymel, has lived in the Freret area for 35 years. “I think it’s open doors for opportunity for the neighborhood,” Hymel said. “I think people around here appreciate that they can walk up here and see businesses that are running, instead of seeing abandoned buildings.”
Another way that Freret may defy stereotypical patterns of gentrification may be in the structure of the new families. Earlier this year, Tulane geographer Richard Campanella wrote a lengthy discussion of the pattern of gentrification in his own neighborhood, the Marigny/Bywater area. Among his greatest concerns was the lack of children being born around him: young, bohemian first-wave gentrifiers rarely have children — and when and if they do, they move away to areas with more and better schools. After they leave, prices have risen too high for other young parents, and the neighborhood “grows gray,” Campanella writes: gone are the children who “might represent the neighborhood’s best hope of remaining down-to-earth.”
Freret, by contrast, seems rich with children — which Campanella suggested may partly be a natural result of higher nativity rates in Freret than in the downtown historic districts. The majority of the new business owners who live and work on the corridor have kids, and the neighborhood is surrounded by schools: Samuel J. Green, where the neighborhood meetings take place, is well respected for its local leadership and rising scores; Holy Rosary School is in the Our Lady of Lourdes building on the corridor itself; the highly desirable Lusher High School is in the former Fortier building just up Freret (which remains perhaps the most visible example of a forced displacement in the neighborhood); McMain High School and Ursulines Academy are on nearby Nashville; Newman is on adjacent Jefferson; ENCORE Academy and Crocker are in a gleaming new building on the other side of Napoleon Avenue. In short, the entire spectrum of public and private education in New Orleans is within walking distance of the Freret corridor.
‘THE WELCOME MAT’
But another issue strikes far deeper. The neighborhood association is usually a small group, and has attracted some “newer” residents who have been on the corridor for five to 10 years, rather than 30 to 60. Though gunshots still ring out at night from time to time, the neighborhood actually seems safer in terms of actual attacks on people than it has in years to those longest-term residents. So to be taxed to place armed security in the hands of relative newcomers who don’t know the neighbors, and don’t know the neighbors’ teenage children or grandchildren, Norwood said, creates a sense of indignation — and apprehension of what might come of it.
Talking about the situation while cutting hair in his barber shop, Norwood gestured at the TV news playing in the corner, still dominated by fallout from George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin shooting. For residents, he said, now is not a good time to be discussing inviting strangers in to police the streets.
“We’re not saying the neighborhood is squeaky clean, but it’s nowhere close to the way it used to be,” Norwood said of the crime situation in Freret. “It’s New Orleans. It’s not a cakewalk. If this neighborhood was so bad, why would you want to move here?”
Another problem, said Norwood (who also builds and renovates homes in the neighborhood), is that public policy in New Orleans actually seems to favor the newcomers. Getting blighted property “back into commerce” is now as tiresome a phrase as it is laudable a goal; tax sales are well publicized and seminars are held for people looking for property to acquire. But on the other end of those code-enforcement actions are real people, Norwood said, New Orleanians who may well still be trying to come home, but battling complicated inheritance disputes, tight personal finances or long commutes back to town as they slowly move renovations forward. And these people, unfortunately, have never heard of the historic tax credits or other benefits that the new residents are using for renovations, Norwood said.
“The welcome mat is rolled out to the people from everywhere else,” Norwood said. “It’s not rolled out to the people who are already here.”Before The New Freret rose to prominence after Hurricane Katrina, another group was founded with many of the same goals — the Uptown Swingers second line group, which first paraded in 2004 from Latrina’s lounge on Freret. The destruction of Latrina’s, the group’s meeting place, was a blow to the Uptown Swingers, but they regrouped and marched from Dennis Barber Shop after the storm. Amid complaints about post-parade trash on the corridor from Freret businesses, however, the Uptown Swingers moved its starting place again — to Hymel’s mother’s house on Loyola Avenue — and now merely crosses Freret Street, rather than parades on it.
When Hymel’s uncle Ezell Hines founded the Uptown Swingers, Hymel said, Freret was at a low point. The second-line, the picnics — all of that was intended to revitalize the neighborhood, in very similar ways to The New Freret today.
“We wanted bring back some joy in the neighborhood. We wanted to set the example that we could have fun without having problems,” Hymel said. “It’s a small neighborhood, but we had big dreams for the neighborhood. I think we really made a difference. … We would like to play a bigger role.”
The controversial security-district proposal was quickly shelved after the March meeting. The New Freret business and property owners association is instead creating a campaign to install ProjectNOLA security cameras in homes near drug-dealing hotspots around the neighborhood — a solution that many of the longtime residents have actually been asking for. It’s a “happy medium,” Norwood said, that will focus on actual criminals.
“There were four different people walking their dogs who could say, ‘I saw him go that way,'” Ensslen recalled. “It’s a neighborhood where we’ve got people out in the street again.”
The economic pressure on residents is not being ignored, either. The Freret Neighborhood Center has an anti-blight campaign that pairs pressure on delinquent properties with offers of assistance to homeowners struggling to return. While it’s still too easy for the municipally-savvy land speculators to use code-enforcement actions and other bureaucratic threats to pressure long-time residents, Norwood said the neighborhood center’s more compassionate approach represents a good first step.
Like Norwood and Hymel, Amacker said he wasn’t aware of anyone who has lost their homes due purely to rising property taxes, but he did know one family with a disabled member who had to move away from the corridor (though still in the neighborhood) because of parking pressure from the businesses. But if the economic issues are the next challenge, Amacker said, neighborhood leaders already have their eye on them.
“We prepared everybody for the first stage,” Amacker said. “Now we’ve got to prepare them for the long run.”
The struggles and issues being faced in Freret are strongly representative of those facing the city as a whole, and its population serves well as a microcosm of the city. In both the City Council District B general election and runoff, results in Freret precincts mostly closed mirrored those of the district as a whole — just as the results in Freret were similar to the citywide totals posted earlier in the year when Stacy Head ran against Cynthia Willard-Lewis for the vacant at-large seat.
Perhaps, as neighborhoods around New Orleans work through their own issues of security and diversity, opportunity and prosperity, Freret and its loud community meetings where the old and “new” residents end the evening walking side by side can serve as a different kind of lesson, not in gentrification and displacement, but in how to add to a community while respecting what is already there.
A version of this article was first published in Gambit through our news-reporting partnership.