Like most evenings, Ashé is abuzz with activity as it welcomes a community meeting, one of many the space hosts, this time for the Young Leadership Council (YLC). The gathered crowd quiets as speakers, including Saundra Reed of the Crescent City Renaissance Alliance (CCRA), take the floor. The Alliance, whose comprehensive neighborhood planning process began before Hurricane Katrina, is thankful for Ashé's presence in the community, says Reed. "Ashé is Central City's living room," she jokes. "Everything you could possibly imagine happens here."
In The Times-Picayune recently, a local attorney called this very neighborhood a "triangle of death" because of a mid-summer shootout that left five Central City teens dead, but the mood at the meeting is buoyant as Reed praises Carol Bebelle, Ashé's director and a collaborator on CCRA's Central City Manifesto. "She makes a way for us to have space to connect with our community," Reed says. "She is a connector."
Making creative community connections has been at the forefront of Ashé's efforts since it opened in the 6,600-square-foot multi-use space eight years ago. "We came at a time when it was hard to get taxi drivers to come here," recalls Bebelle. "When concierges were telling people they were taking their lives in their hands if they came over here." Since then, Bebelle has seen -- and played a large part in shaping -- a gradual transformation of the O.C. Haley corridor into a vital cultural linchpin for New Orleans artists, cultural workers and neighborhood activists.
AT THE CORNER OF MARTIN LUTHER King Jr. Boulevard, 1427 Oretha Castle Haley sits. Waiting. Owner Christian Labat is in no rush to open the future jazz club and artist rehearsal space; he's been working on this dream since the early '90s, when he first became interested in this corridor -- the former Dryades Street, home to more than 200 African American-owned businesses during the first half of the 20th century. Even with setbacks dealt by Katrina, Labat is in the home stretch now, and until his opening day, 1427 O.C. Haley will wait, surrounded by the transformative energy of a street intent on defining itself and the surrounding Central City community.
As the boulevard attracts more attention, its identity becomes ever more strongly tied to the promise of a multi-disciplinary arts district capable of attracting the kind of culture-based tourism called for in January's Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) report from the Cultural Committee co-chaired by acclaimed musician Wynton Marsalis. For the community artists already working on O.C. Haley and those like Labat and comedienne Yvonne Landry, who recently purchased a lot across the street from Ashé, the strength of future success comes from their partnerships -- with each other and with their Central City community.
Nick Slie, actor and co-founder of Mondo Bizarro, a local multi-disciplinary performance group, says he sees Central City as a "visibly changing neighborhood in New Orleans," and that the progress taking place in the artistic community is a "small metaphor for what the city can do when neighborhoods are developed properly, with respect to the existing narrative and history of the place."
This fall, Mondo Bizarro will begin the planning stages of a yearlong project based in Central City, deepening its relationships with local artists and community residents to create audio recordings that will capture memories and reflections on places within the neighborhood. The recording sessions will become an accessible, interactive piece of the neighborhood. Signs will be placed at destinations throughout Central City, with instructions on how to call in via cell phone to listen to a resident's story about that very spot.
Slie plans to partner with several organizations on the project, including Ashé. "By partnerships and coalitions, we become much stronger when we stand together; you empower people by getting them to come together." The united front is key, says Slie, not only for creating art, but also for standing ground as a local community in the face of rising rents and talk of condo development. "The art organizations and nonprofits on O.C. Haley have strong ties to the community. They're planting seeds, they're giving back. They're also operating at a very high level professionally, but most importantly, they haven't divorced themselves from their community."
This community arts-centric business model may well prove to be the best line of defense against growing fears of outsiders developing condominiums and ousting residents raised in Central City and changing the community. In February, the lease for the Zeitgeist and Barrister space will expire, and the artists there fear a rent increase, or worse, eviction. The old Handelman building at 1824 Oretha Castle Haley is a living example of sustainable development: it has more than 40 apartment units in a newly opened building, many of them earmarked for low-income residents and artists. The street also boasts a YMCA, charter school, nonprofit resource center and credit union, all with strong ties to the local organizations and community partnerships that, for the most part, leverage strength in a collaborative environment.
Next door from the YLC meeting at Ashé, Rene Broussard, founder and director of Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center agrees, saying of his neighbors, "We're not competing. We're all trying to make this neighborhood happen." Broussard readies the screening room for a Taiwanese film The New York Times described as "why cinema exists." It's a Wednesday night, the air is thick with the day's heat and humidity. Broussard closes the long curtains lining the picture windows and says he hopes people will show up.
"Last night I had two people here," Broussard says, shrugging his shoulders. "Why is that?" The question is mostly rhetorical; Broussard, has run Zeitgeist for nearly 20 years, the past seven of which have been spent in a space shared with Barrister's art gallery on O.C. Haley. Shortly after Katrina, Zeitgeist saw packed crowds for screenings and performances, which Broussard attributes to the combination of the young volunteer workforce that was in town, plus a wave of support for the few businesses and creative venues that opened in late 2005. Because of the shootout that killed five teenagers less than a half-mile from Zeitgeist's doors, there's been a slump.
"I directly attribute it to fear," Broussard says. "Are people not going Uptown or to Metairie after the shootings there? Of course they're still going. But this is a primarily black neighborhood, so some people are quicker to write it off." After problems at several locations through the years (aggressive panhandlers on Magazine Street, a stray bullet shooting through a window in the Bywater, a knife-point hold-up on O'Keefe), Broussard says he feels safest in Central City and that the O.C. Haley location for Zeitgeist is the best he's had in 20 years. But the impact of crime on attendance -- not to mention the looming question of whether Zeitgeist and Barrister will be able to renew their lease with their shared building now on the market -- hangs tangibly over the sparse audience that files in for the night's screening.
"I'm an eternal optimist," Broussard says ruefully. "It's like Field of Dreams: if I show it, they will come. I mean, we have some world-class programming this summer, so whatever's keeping people away, it's not the programming."
In addition to the sudden spike in violent crime, the boulevard suffered another blow this summer when longtime fixtures Sandra Berry and Joshua Walker of the Neighborhood Gallery announced they were leaving the neighborhood after a one-two punch of storm damage and a sold building (a problem troubling many local art merchants following the storm). In a June 30 interview with WWOZ's Street Talk, Berry described the O.C. Haley corridor as "one of the most beautiful places, filled with culture and spirit," and said she and Walker are excited about going "to another space that needs our spirit." Berry remained optimistic throughout the interview, but said she has real concerns about the area continuing to include minority businesses. "I am hoping that this street will be reflective of the residents, of nonprofit organizations, but most importantly, business. It is extremely important that there be a visible presence of the African American in business, particularly in the arts."
Carol Bebelle says she thinks this is why Ashé has been called to work on O.C. Haley -- to preserve and cultivate New Orleans' unique culture. "The African and Caribbean influences are so important in this city, but we don't have distinct areas of town which really showcase these elements," she says. "This street aspires to be a cultural corridor that can spotlight those African and Caribbean influences without excluding others." Ashé's focus on diversity includes honoring the voices of young people and elders, welcoming all people from the community to its many performances, workshops and community forums, and, above all, respecting artistic contributions to the community. "Artists have always been trash-to-treasure people," Babelle says. "That's their brand of magic. When people come home, we want to show them what's possible in this drab, hard situation."
Yvonne Landry, an improvisational comic and New Orleans native, knows about hard and drab. Pre-Katrina, she spent years training and working in Chicago and Los Angeles before coming back to New Orleans and starting La Nuit, a training center that served 50 students in August 2005. After the storm, Landry was down to eight students and had lost her home and car. "I want to be in the city I love, doing what I love," she says, frustration edging into her voice. "I'm really looking forward to not being bitter and angry about this hurricane." In a small lot just across the street from the building that houses Ashé, Zeitgeist and Barrister's, Landry plans to break ground on a new space this September -- a combined comedy club and improvisational theatre school, one of the only comedy training centers in the Southeast.
Landry arrived on O.C. Haley after a three-year search and a long battle with the New Orleans City Council over zoning. "This city is pretty friendly to liquor, but not entertainment," she says. It turned out the corridor was one of the few places in the city with proper zoning for performance artists to work legally, besides the French Quarter, a location that would have been prohibitively expensive. Now that she's committed to the area, Landry says she's excited about joining the community on O.C. Haley. "I'm really proud of the people who have stuck by me and worked to rebuild this theatre company. Once we get going, we're going to be a force to be reckoned with." Landry's confident the club will be a great draw for tourists and conventioneers, but the heart of the school lies in developing local talent and putting New Orleans on the comedic map. Part of the plan is a scholarship program for at-risk 17- to 22-year-olds that would allow them to work with locals like Landry and comics from around the country.
"It's going to be great," she says. "We need a theatre district; the neighborhood needs a shot in the arm. I want to laugh again. That's what it's about: a whole lot of people who are looking to laugh again."
Back at 1427 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, plans are in the works for an opening sometime during the first quarter of 2007. Labat envisions the space as a jazz club with a foundation of local music acts. "We want to let the music and artistic community know: this is going to be a creative outlet, and a venue to make some money," says Labat, who wants to see artists stay at home but knows they need to be able to support themselves in order to do so. While the BNOB Cultural Committee report calls for supporting the 5,500 artists, 750 commercial artistic ventures and 260 nonprofit arts organizations in New Orleans with several million dollars in government support, Labat, like his contemporaries along O.C. Haley, wants to start simple -- by giving musicians a place to play and artists a place to work.
"Every time I'm over there, I get such a good feeling," he says. "More and more people are out and about, there's so much positive talk and there are lots of projects in the initial planning stages." Labat is excited about working with the existing organizations on the block and hopes a great music spot will best complement the work already being done by spaces like Ashé and Zeitgeist.
"Arts and culture in New Orleans, it's probably what's going to carry us through this," Labat says. "What has kept New Orleans on the map is people coming to hear the music and eat the food. We just have to stay focused and try to keep our dream alive."