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Longtime businesses closing on Freret Street 

Four shops on Freret announce they’re shutting their doors. Is it gentrification?

click to enlarge Daniela Zapata stands outside her Full Blossom Chic consignment store on Freret Street, which is closing after two years.

Photo by Robert Morris

Daniela Zapata stands outside her Full Blossom Chic consignment store on Freret Street, which is closing after two years.

Nearly six years ago, James Carville famously told Anderson Cooper on Hurricane Katrina's fourth anniversary that "A little bit of a sense I have is: How Freret Street goes, how goes New Orleans."

  At the time, Carville was speaking to all the optimistic signs of the city's recovery — the reopening of storefronts that had long been shuttered, the return of longtime residents and the arrival of new ones. His words, however, remain just as true today, now that Freret Street has become such prized real estate that some neighborhood and startup business owners have closed their doors, while new, deeper-pocketed investors line up to take their places.

  Four Freret Street businesses have announced their closings in recent weeks. Three of them were African-American-owned, and two were operating in the neighborhood long before Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods and the city's subsequent recovery.

  The first to close was the biggest: Freret Garden Center, which traces its lineage back two generations to the 1970s, when it opened as Weber Garden Center, a pioneering black-owned landscaping business. Today, the large corner lot sits vacant, with a "For Lease" sign offering it for a new undertaking.

  Thea Marvin, granddaughter of the garden center's founder, August J. Weber, and co-owner with her brother, said they sold the property because of ongoing ownership issues with their extended family and because they kept getting offers from people who wanted to buy the lot. The siblings plan to reopen in Broadmoor in the fall, Marvin said.

  "We figured it was just time to do it," Marvin said. "I would have loved to stay on Freret Street forever."

  Greg Ensslen, a developer who has been renovating properties in the Freret area for decades, said he is sorry to see some of the corridor's most established business leaders leave.

  "They've been a fixture of the neighborhood for generations," Ensslen said. "The identify of Freret is really with that family, and it's sad to see them go."

  Greg Ensslen, a developer who has been renovating properties in the Freret area for decades, said he is sorry to see some of the corridor's most established business leaders leave.

"They've been a fixture of the neighborhood for generations," Ensslen said. "The identify of Freret is really with that family, and it's sad to see them go."

Freret Service Center, where the hand-painted sign by Tom the Sign Man boasts "Good Old Fashion Service," abruptly closed its garage bays for the last time at the beginning of June. Pat Shelby, whose family has owned the property for 50 years, said she has no immediate plans for the space but wants to keep the old building intact.

  "I like the nostalgic look," Shelby said. "I'm going to save as much as I can with that look."

  Jaques Clothing, a boutique for men that opened a year and a half ago, announced it would move following a "Summer Melt Down" sale June 13. The store is now empty. Jordan Barlow, who has been a tattooist in New Orleans for 15 years, said he planned to open the Abracadabra tattoo parlor there next month.

  Daniela Zapata has announced that Full Blossom Chic, her consignment boutique that opened in the summer of 2013 offering clothing for women "with curves," will close at the end of July. Foot traffic on Freret Street remains as high as ever, but Zapata said Full Blossom couldn't attract enough paying customers to remain open.

   "It's just slow," said Zapata, who plans to return to school for an advanced degree in counseling. "We're staying afloat, but just barely. We would rather close before we start losing."

  Zapata speaks warmly of the reception she received two years ago when she opened Full Blossom Chic in what had long been an empty storefront. She initially planned to move her residence to the Freret neighborhood from Gentilly, but said she never found a home she could afford to rent. As she prepares to close her doors, Zapata said she feels the neighborhood changing.

  "I don't want to say that it's not going to be small-business friendly," Zapata said. "But I do feel like the neighborhood feeling of it is no longer here."

Whereas the Freret renaissance of a few years ago consisted of entrepreneurs opening in buildings that had sat vacant for a long period, those opportunities are mostly gone and the next wave of investment likely will primarily replace businesses that were already operating. Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer and author, said this pattern is common in cities across the country as communities transition from "weak" markets to "strong" markets.

  "The patterns of gentrification emergent in 2013 — four to five years after the dismal 'recovery' narrative of the early post-Katina years began to transform to the heady 'renaissance' storyline of today — have only spread and intensified, both citywide and in the Freret area," Campanella said in an email. "The inner historic core of New Orleans, from Bywater through the (French) Quarter and CBD along the riverfront and Uptown, Freret, Carrollton, Bayou St. John and Mid-City, plus parts of the Lakefront and Lakeview, all exhibit the characteristics of a strong housing market, with all the affiliated implications of high costs of living, rising rent, gentrification, social transformation and lack of affordable housing."

  The initial investment in Freret Street — the first new restaurants, the first abandoned homes restored for new families — was praised. But that success, forged largely by business owners with roots in the neighborhood, attracted increasing attention from others and now has a different feel.

  "It's not just Freret Street that's changed a lot — it's five or six blocks on either side," Marvin said. "All that's changed. A lot of older black people who owned houses, they didn't come back. People just kept going in there and flipping [those houses]. It's not a bad thing, but older people just can't afford the property taxes anymore."

  Campanella said he has observed that some housing prices appear to be reaching a plateau and increasing at a more natural, gradual rate. The pattern observed in areas like Freret, the Carrollton riverbend, Marigny and Bywater and Mid-City now is spreading to nearby neighborhoods, suggesting a future city that is wealthier at its core and poorer at its edges.

  "I expect this to continue, although not necessarily at a constant rate," Campanella said. "Spatially, I predict it will spread into neighborhoods that are perceived to be historic, interesting, walkable, or otherwise culturally and structurally desireable, and adjacent to areas already seeing reinvestment, or that had never suffered divestment in the first place.

  "On the urban and suburban periphery — that is, in New Orleans East, St. Bernard Parish, nearly all of the West Bank and most of East [Jefferson Parish] — housing remains relatively affordable if not flat-out cheap, compared to nationwide standards. This being the case, we should expect to see more of the trend that has been going on for a number of years: working-class and lower- to middle-class families shifting outwardly in a centrifugal pattern, while wealthier households, particularly young professionals and empty-nesters, moving inwardly in a centripedal shift."

  Most businesses on Freret Street remain local, with Domino's the only chain on the corridor, though a chain yogurt shop is planned for the new development at the former Frank's Steakhouse. Among the new businesses on Freret Street are some owned by African-Americans, such as Axiom Art Gallery and Ice Cream 504; other notable commercial properties are still owned by black families.

  "It is sad to see these long-time ones are going, but it is opening up an opportunity for new ones," Ensslen said. "I think they'll also create a legacy for Freret. These are all business people making their own effort, and I'm grateful for all of them."

  It remains to be seen, however, whether future businesses will open to serve the needs of people already in the neighborhood — like a grocery or a laundry — or if new ventures will continue to seek the most profitable customers. While excessive focus on who owns what can be a "shallow way of thinking," Stan Norwood of Dennis Barbershop said it is more important to judge the businesses on how well they integrate into the makeup of the neighborhood.

For example, the loss of longtime local businesses results in the loss of jobs for their employees who live nearby, with no guarantee that the next owners will hire them.

  "The sense of comfort, the sense of welcoming, it's not there," Norwood said. "It's changed, but in a different way. I still want to remain optimistic because there are a lot of things going on that are successful. But is that success inclusive of everyone?"

  This kind of change on Freret Street is obviously better than what sparked change in prior decades, Marvin said. Her grandfather was able to buy the parcel of land on Freret because owners of the fried chicken restaurant that operated there wanted to leave the area after being robbed repeatedly.

  The change happening now, Marvin said, is simply the price of progress.

  "It's not like people were bullied out," she said. "They just couldn't afford to live in their houses any more. I'm glad that the area is picking up. It's just sad that a lot of people are gone that will never come back."

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