After Protests, Cantrell Backs Off City Hall Move: 'We Are Open To Other Options'
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has walked back her controversial proposal to move City Hall into the neglected Municipal Auditorium.
After hundreds of protestors gathered inside Louis Armstrong Park Thursday to protest Cantrell's plan to move City Hall into the empty concert hall, she released a statement Friday saying she will continue to have open discussion on the move.
“We are open to other options for the relocation of City Hall and for the renovation of Municipal Auditorium,” said Cantrell.
The protest included two second-line bands and members of the original Freedom Riders, who took to the streets Thursday to demand the park stay a cultural heritage site.
FEMA gave the city $38 million to reconstruct the Municipal Auditorium, which Cnatrell says needs to be spent by the end of this year. Cantrell said the plan to transfer City Hall to the Treme location would be a cost-saving measure as the current City Hall is too small and the city currently rents two other locations to maintain its activities.
But opponents of Cantrell’s plan argue the concert hall is not large enough to hold the city's business and have enough space for parking. They also say the location has too much historical significance to become a city building. Congo Square is where enslaved Africans could congregate and celebrate their native cultures.The site was also home to indigenous people before settlers, said Luther Gray, who led a drum circle to start the protest.
Before announcing the she continue discussions on the matter, Cantrell had scaled back her original plan Wednesday, which would have added a five-story parking lot inside the park.
Residents from Treme, which is one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in the country, are also wary about another attempt at a government entity building in their neighborhood. City Councilmember Kristin Palmer, who represents Treme, spoke to the crowd about the raised overpass of I-10 that pushed many Black-owned businesses away from the corridor and the recent influx of short-term rental properties that have decimated the historically Black population of the neighborhood.
“The people of Treme need to be at the table for any type of decision on this, and they have not been,” said Palmer on Thursday. “City Hall is supposed to be reflective of the people, and it’s become very evident to me that no one really supports this project.”
The Municipal Auditorium has sat vacant since Hurricane Katrina damaged the property. Opening in 1930, the venue showcased New Orleans-born artists like Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong, and internationally famous musicians like Elvis, Led Zeppelin and James Brown. Several protestors spoke on the fact that many New Orleans citizens also held their graduation ceremonies inside the venue.
Originally, the concert hall did not allow people of color to enter the building, until 1940, when Black concert goers protested to gain access to the balcony to see Black opera singer Marian Anderson.
Cantrell is not the first mayor to want to move the current City Hall, but several speakers at the protest called Cantrell’s proposal insensitive. Citing the fact that Cantrell was not born in New Orleans, so she did not understand the ancestral ties the community has towards Congo Square.
Musician Davell Crawford told the crowd, “This is a land grab of the oldest African American neighborhood in the country.”
The march ended in Duncan Plaza, in front of the current City Hall. Sabrina Mays, a member of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Co-Operative and an organizer of the protest, gave a fiery speech that accused Cantrell of betraying her representatives. “An honorable mayor would admit she made a mistake,” Mays told the crowd.
State Rep. Royce Duplessis, a Democrat from New Orleans, told the crowd that the 33 organizations that came together in protest need to be heard before the move is final. The organizations formed the Save Our Souls Coalition and organizers say they're drafting a plan and hoping to meet with the mayor. The NAACP has also voiced its opposition to the move as well as many smaller organizations in New Orleans.
Cantrell took to Twitter Friday afternoon saying that the money given by FEMA needs to be spent by the end of the year and that she will “continue engaging the community around what should happen with Auditorium and the area.”
“A shoddy, unhealthy City Hall building has been a problematic issue for far too long, and so has the blighted property that is the Municipal Auditorium,” said Cantrell in her press release. “We must be proactive, but we also must be collaborative. That is why I am open to creating a commission to publicly review all of the options.”
“I hope to meet with orgizational leadership to further this dialogue,” Candrell wrote.