When artist Dawn Dedeaux's 1993 exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center caused an outcry over how it depicted African-Americans, Carol Bebelle knew she had to do something. Bebelle — not yet the director of the Ashe Cultural Arts Center — had long been disturbed by what she felt were negative stereotypes of black people, pervasive in television shows, movies and art galleries. Dedeaux's Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths, which featured black gangsters and men in jail, was simply indicative of a larger problem in New Orleans and beyond, she thought.
So Bebelle teamed with local artist Douglas Redd to make the multimedia installation Efforts of Grace, meant to counter racism and reclaim the image of New Orleans' African-American community. The project burgeoned into a new performing and visual arts organization that eventually required its own space. In December 1998, the Ashe Cultural Arts Center was born in a then-underdeveloped area of Central City, inside the old Kaufman's department store on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
"In a very real way we were born out of the controversy of stereotypical images of black folks," Bebelle said of Ashe, which would act as a pioneer for a neighborhood that had a rich cultural community but no space in which to foster creativity. "We need something that's more literal. We want people to see the beauty, and the power, and the contribution of black people in a literal way," she added.
Sixteen years later, Bebelle is preparing for another major project for the Ashe Cultural Arts Center — the opening of its new state-of-the-art campus, the Ashe Power House.
The Power House, located at 1731 Baronne St. just around the corner from Ashe's existing Oretha C. Haley Blvd campus, speaks to the growing need for more performance and creative space in Central City. It comes amid a business boom on O.C. Haley and the Central City Historic District.
"Ashe's work is really about making things happen, and not just happen for the people who work here, but to make it happen for culture bearers and artists and activists and community," Bebelle said. "So this is another place that we have to have that transformative work going on."
Located in the once-blighted New Orleans Public Service Inc. Polymnia Streetcar Substation, the Ashe Power House hosts a performance center and visual arts gallery. Original exposed brick walls line a gallery space equipped with track lighting and exposed steel structures. Twenty-foot ceilings are perfect for large-scale installations. The 1924 building, rehabilitated with a $7.4 million development, has more than 10,000 square feet of usable space.
Next to the gallery is the flexible performance space, equipped with theatrical lighting, controls and a lighting grid. An open control booth for sound and lighting is situated above a retractable seating platform. Two fully equipped dressing rooms are in the basement.
"We're looking to really up our game," said Jo Ann Minor, the associate director of Ashe Cultural Arts Center, as she led a tour through the newly renovated building.
At Ashe's other location, cluttered window displays feature Mardi Gras Indian suits, 7-foot-tall painted drums and African artifacts collected from Bebelle and Redd's travels. The Power House carries the theme with a subtle but symbolic paint job. Throughout the space, deep purple and bright orange color walls and staircases, in a scheme the late New Orleans artist and dancer Jeffrey Cook called the "Central City palette." The colors are reminiscent of kente cloth, a type of silk and cotton fabric common in southern Ghana.
"Central City's development has been about culture, community and commerce," Minor said. "We're reminding the commerce that it couldn't happen if culture and community didn't happen first."
Developed by the local nonprofit Gulf Coast Housing Partnership (GCHP), the Power House represents a milestone in the 16-year relationship between the organization and Ashe Cultural Arts Center, according to Bebelle.
Ashe has attracted more than 40,000 visitors a year since first renting and eventually buying the Oretha C. Haley campus developed by the GCHP. But the performance areas lack dressing rooms and visitors contend with a one-stall bathroom. Evening programming is limited because people live in apartments above the commercial space. So when Ashe was given the opportunity to become tenants in a new state-of-the-art location, Bebelle jumped at the chance. Now, she said, Ashe can better accommodate theater performances, concerts, workshops and small conferences and will be able to extend programming into late-night hours.
Southern Rep Theater is scheduled to hold the rest of its current season in the brand new space, and Ashe to Amen, an exhibit curated by Leslie Hammond King, is slated to open there this spring. Beyond that, Bebelle said, Ashe will better cater to people looking for nighttime activities following the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and other events.
"This gives us an ability to stay out late with the big girls and the big boys," she added, laughing.
Along the Central City corridor where Ashe is located, previously dilapidated buildings are being renovated as part of a redevelopment effort that took a decade to come to fruition, due in part to a 2006 Louisiana Main Street and Cultural Products District designation that helped funnel $40 million of funding into the area following Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods.
Celebrated developments include a $20.6 million mixed-use project spearheaded by the new New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), and The Good Work Network's $1.6 million small business incubator located in the Franz Building. A $900,000 Community Development Block Grant for streetscape improvements has been allocated, and improvements should begin soon. Jack and Jake's 23,000-square-foot market is due to open next month a block from the New Orleans Jazz Market, future home of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Two blocks down the street is the new 30,000-square-foot Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
"It's really exciting," said Constance Thompson, the social media strategist for Ashe Cultural Arts Center. "You see things happen like a ripple effect. There's so much energy."
With redevelopment, of course, comes gentrification, where rents increase and residents worry about being pushed out to make room for high-end developments.
"Nonprofits and cultural institutions are clustering together, giving this neighborhood its flavor and making sure it will retain its flavor instead of becoming overdeveloped or developed into something that doesn't serve the neighborhood," said Linda Pompa, executive director of the Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard Merchants and Business Association. "And Ashe as a campus and as an institution is extremely welcoming to everyone."
That, Bebelle adds, was the whole goal in the first place. Right now, Ashe is only a tenant of the building that houses the Power House. Bebelle says she hopes to eventually buy the space and continue to honor African, African-American and Caribbean cultures that have long been celebrated in Central City.
"There was a huge effort on our part to have social justice be a part of that so that we were always setting a table that everybody could sit at," Bebelle said. "This is the same horse we're going to ride and the same dance we're going to dance going forward."