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With Memories Of A Bustling Past Still Fresh, O.C. Haley Blvd. Slowly Coming Back To Life

Jason Saul

Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City has recently seen a lot of redevelopment. This Monday, the new location of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum opens its doors. Other large-scale projects are underway, too, and developers expect them to bring new life to the area.

But O.C. Haley has seen a slower resurgence than some other nearby commercial districts. Why has it been so hard to bring business back to this boulevard?

Carol Bebelle says she started coming to Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. when she was a little girl.

“I started going to the dentist that’s down the street. Dr. Widell Williams became my dentist,” when she was 11 or 12 years old, she says. “The Free Southern Theater was here; I came to theater on this street, and part of my growing up happened on Dryades St.”

In the 1940s, Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., then called Dryades St., was the city’s largest African American commercial district and the birthplace for the civil rights movement in New Orleans. But in the 1960s and 70s a lot of businesses moved out of New Orleans and into nearby suburban parishes.

By the 1990s there were more vacant buildings on the boulevard than occupied ones, and the surrounding Central City neighborhood suffered from high rates of poverty and crime.

Bebelle, now grown, was working as a social worker for the city. She saw potential on the boulevard.

“There was a history that beckoned, particularly in a city that has so much that is derivative from African and African American culture,” she says. “There are so few places that have any kind of a dedication thematically to that, so here was the opportunity to create a cultural corridor.”

Credit Jason Saul / WWNO
The front lobby of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center.

In 1998, Bebelle and her businesses partner opened the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. The center became a hub of life on the street. They hosted community meetings, supported local artists, and brought in funding from national foundations. And so, over the course of the next 10 years, more cultural organizations and non-profits began popping up along what was now called “O.C. Haley.”

But the boulevard couldn’t reach a tipping point into widespread redevelopment, even as other areas of the city did after Hurricane Katrina. Bebelle watched as Oak St. landed dozens of restaurants and specialty stores. Freret St. went from little more than a donut shop and a thrift store to a bustling strip of restaurants and night-life.

So, why not on O.C. Haley? Jeff Hebert, of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, says it’s about scale.

“Much of the historic fabric that is still here [on O.C Haley] represents those larger department stores that served the entire city,” he says. “You have many small businesses along Freret and Oak — whereas on O.C. Haley, you had, for example, a large multi-thousand-square-foot abandoned school building, or you had what used to be the Dryads Market across the street. The ability to finance thousands and thousands of square feet in what was once a weak market neighborhood causes there to be a gap in the financing.”

According to Jeff Hebert of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, $7 million of public investment into O.C Haley Blvd. has leveraged over $53 million in additional private investment.

That’s where NORA comes in. NORA is a city agency that has become the pass-through for a lot of public redevelopment money. They help businesses that want to take over these commercial spaces, but can’t quite afford it.

“You propose your development to us, you put your financing together, and we will review that and see if we can participate in those projects,” Hebert says.

So, with NORA’s financial help, a bunch of large scale projects are underway along the boulevard: there’s Jack and Jake’s Grocery in the old Myrtle Banks School, and the New Orleans Jazz Market in the old Gator’s department store.

So far, NORA has invested over $7 million into the corridor. According to Hebert that public investment has leveraged over $53 million in additional private investment, and the boulevard now hosts businesses that don’t need public subsidies.

One of these is the new location of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Liz Williams, the director of the SoFab Institute, says she has watched O.C. Haley change over the years.

“There were some already very stable cultural institutions that were here: Café Reconcile, Ashé, Zeitgeist,” she says. “And you could just see that slowly over the years things had been changing in the neighborhood. We saw that this neighborhood was about to experience a renaissance, and we thought we could be a part of it.”

Credit Jason Saul / WWNO
Putting the finishing touches on the new home of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

When SoFab moved from their old location in the Riverwalk mall adjacent to the French Quarter, the organization wanted an historic building for their museum. Williams says O.C. Haley was one of the only places in the city that had affordable, historic options that didn’t need to be completely retrofitted in order to move in.

Williams says they were able to finance most of the construction with historic tax credits. Now, a year and a half later, the museum is taking the place of the old Dryades Market at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and O.C. Haley Blvds.

SoFab isn’t just a tourist attraction. The museum will host an incubator kitchen for aspiring cooks and chefs to grow their businesses.

“So I think we’ll be bringing people to the neighborhood, but we’ll also be another resource for the neighborhood,” she says.

Carol Bebelle of Ashé says that SOFAB is not the only new businesses paying attention to the community. She thinks the way development is happening on O.C. Haley could be a model for the rest of the country.

“Because they want to know how,” she says. “’You mean, the businesses came and hired the people in the community, and they found ways to be able to have products that were for the community, as well as products for more upper-end clientele? How did you guys do that?’”

Bebelle says that in a lot of places, new businesses might be viewed as a threat. But here the nonprofits were here first — and many of them own the buildings they occupy. So they’re not going anywhere, anytime soon.

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum will have its ribbon cutting ceremony Monday afternoon — 1504 O.C. Haley Blvd.