Neutral Ground Coffee House keeps on truckin’ — with a little help from its loyal friends

Even a fire, hurricanes, financial collapses and a pandemic cannot keep the Neutral Ground Coffee House from being there for its devoted regulars. 

Last summer, as the coronavirus raged, it was saved once again when two new owners, James Naylor and Phant (a.k.a Caroline) Williams, stepped in and purchased the venerable Uptown coffee house. “We are a community, some of whom have been here since 1977,” Naylor said. “Really, it’s like family – very inclusive and multigenerational too.” 

The bohemian enclave goes back to 1974, when a graduate student named Greta Lee opened the Penny Post on Maple Street. It featured not only coffee, tea and pastries but live music, chess and backgammon, and lively conversation. By the time it closed after a fire in 1977, it had a loyal following.

Vals restaurant and bar on Freret brings new life to former service station

Last summer, in the midst of the pandemic, the team behind Cure opened a restaurant in a building many New Orleanians remember as a gas station and as the Freret Service Station. Vals, at Freret and Valence streets, serves Latin American food with a focus on Mexican flavors. It is the latest member of the CureCo family, which includes the nearby Cure and Cane & Table in the Quarter. Vals didn’t just come together over night. Owned by partners Neal Bodenheimer, Turk Dietrich, Matthew Kohnke and chef Alfredo Nogueira, the project was five years in the making.

How junction boxes on Uptown neutral grounds are transformed from blight to works of art

As Uptown resident Ivana Dillas drove home from work every day along Louisiana Avenue, she noticed how the junction boxes on the neutral ground attracted tags and graffiti and were surrounded by litter. “Studies have shown that neighborhood beautification reduces these unsightly activities, as well as crime,”  Dillas said. 

She saw the website address for Community Visions Unlimited, the organization behind the beautification initiative, written on painted boxes elsewhere and contacted them. She asked how she could help, especially along the Louisiana Avenue corridor. “I loved the idea of putting artists to work, and I began fundraising and directing donors to the CVU website,” Dillas said. Then Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who had supported the project when she was on the City Council, got wind of the effort, and her office stepped in with a significant donation. The section of Louisiana Avenue now has almost all of the junction boxes painted. 

Two of the Louisiana Avenue boxes, the “Horn Players” at Baronne and “The Dancers” at Carondelet, were painted by Linda LeBoeuf, the artist behind 39 art boxes citywide.

Amistad Research Center, Hancock Whitney partner to ‘use history to uplift’

New this month is a virtual exhibit that shows how New Orleans has benefited from Black leadership and engagement since the 19th century. Hancock Whitney and the Amistad Research Center at Tulane have partnered to present this curated collection, entitled “The Things We Do for Ourselves: African American Leadership in New Orleans.”

The exhibit uses Google Cultural Institute’s platform to create a virtual expansion of a past physical exhibition at the center. The virtual collection went live in celebration of Black History Month, though it was created as a free, permanent and accessible way to give back to the communities the organizations serve. Christopher Harter, deputy director of the Amistad Research Center, said it is important for the local community to see how African American civic leadership helped shape New Orleans. The purpose of this collection, he said, is “to educate the public about not only the historical materials that are housed in Amistad’s collections, but how these materials are relevant to the questions and issues that we’re facing today.”

The Business Bar on Freret caters to mixing business and pleasure

A new restaurant and bar that aims to support the business community opened on 4525 Freret St. on Friday. A combination bar, restaurant and workspace, The Business Bar was already packed on opening night when it held a happy hour for entrepreneurs. Laughter and conversation bounced off the walls; some customers grooved in their seats to the R&B music playing overhead, while others mixed business and pleasure as they worked on their laptops while also clinking cocktails with names like “Old Fashioned Grind,” “Bloody Fresh Start” and “Break Even Expresso.” 

The co-owners of the restaurant were putting in sweat equity as they rushed to keep up with the flood of customers on opening night. Jade Newman, 31, sprayed down tables and greeted customers while Jessica Robinson, 32, manned the bar.

New wine shop from Second Vine Wine proposed for Magazine Street

The stretch of Magazine Street between Gen. Pershing and Milan streets has seen a lot of comings and goings of businesses through the years, and even more recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One new business that plans to open in the next few months is Second Vine Wine, in the space that most recently housed the Claudia Croazzo clothing store, at 4210-14 Magazine St. If the wine shop’s name is familiar, it’s because Second Vine Wine was previously located in the Marigny Triangle. It closed last year in March, just after the pandemic and lockdowns began. But you can’t keep a wine lover and educator away from Bacchus’ call, and Troy Gant, one of the previous Second Vine Wine owners, is harvesting a new wine shop.

How Ceaux’s Carnival poster series reflects the Black Mardi Gras experience

Every year since 2016, New Orleans-born-and-raised multimedia artist Courtney “Ceaux” Buckley, of Axiom Gallery on Freret Street, has been painting vibrant and detailed posters that depict the Black Mardi Gras experience. Through this annual poster series, Buckley said, he not only aims to provide a representation of the Black experience during Carnival season, but that he also intends to normalize it. “I don’t think we should always be presented like a big deal,” he said. “These things go on all the time, every year, it’s recurring.”

He adds that it is important for Black people from New Orleans to see representations of their culture in this more generalized way opposed to only packaged news stories and documentaries. Inspiration and communal Black experiences

Buckley said that the poster series was inspired by childhood photos lost in the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina.