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Art ... But No Commerce 

Alex Woodward on the burgeoning St. Claude arts district, which is bringing theaters, nightspots and galleries ... but few essential services

click to enlarge Andy Antippas moved his Barrister's Gallery from Central City to St. Claude after Hurricane Katrina. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Andy Antippas moved his Barrister's Gallery from Central City to St. Claude after Hurricane Katrina.

St. Claude Main Street oversees nine blocks holding 99 total lots, and each is a snapshot of the street's offerings: small businesses, art galleries, ambitious community projects and community theaters, as well as blighted or vacant properties — and not a single full-service grocery store in sight.

St. Claude Avenue is both thriving and in perpetual collapse. The arts-minded Colton School project during the Prosepect.1 arts biennial provided a catalyst for the district's art scene, while next door, the "opening soon" New Orleans Healing Center (NOHC) is getting a fresh psychedelic paint job. Low rents are attractive to both artists and developers, though blighted property owners are reluctant to clean up or sell while businesses want a piece of the neighborhood. The street is alive with diverse arts and entertainment hotspots, yet it hasn't forced out low-income residents or added high-rise condominiums. Its unconventional art scene, represented by the St. Claude Arts District (SCAD), continues to grow, and neighborhood groups are supportive — but there are a host of other problems a thriving arts scene can't solve. While the neighborhood celebrates the arts and encourages the arts district, its residents' most basic needs aren't necessarily being met.

Behind the Marquer Drugs facade at St. Claude and St. Roch Street, the Shadowbox Theatre's roundhouse seating arrangement surrounds a bare stage and a tiled floor, with a few props — the set for Women Who Kill. Beyond the stage is a dressing room, then another room serving as a lobby (with a bar). "The Shadowbox allows performers to do whatever they want with it," theater director Richard Mayer says. "The imagination of the creative team is the limit of what the space can do."

Mayer, a 24-year-old Tulane graduate, opened the theater inside the former drugstore in March 2010. Heather Lane, who owns Byrdie's Gallery and Coffee Shop down the block, convinced Mayer's landlord Neil Morris to use the property as both housing and a community theater. Since its debut, the Shadowbox Theatre has hosted more than a dozen main stage shows with runs of more than a week, and about 30 patrons attend each night. Some 85 people turned out for a standing-room-only performance earlier this year by the "Acro-Cats," felines performing tricks and playing music.

"The St. Claude audience community is pretty brave," Mayer says. "They want to see new things. ... If you're just doing traditional theater ... they're not satisfied with that. We're always looking for something more interesting. You want a show you can only see in New Orleans."

Across the street is Barrister's Gallery, Andy Antippas' more than 30–year-old gallery that relocated to St. Claude following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. Barrister's, Byrdie's and the Shadowbox are part of SCAD, which spans 30 galleries and performance spaces in as many blocks, from St. Anthony Street to Poland Avenue, along St. Claude and in its neighborhoods. Galleries districtwide hold openings for new art shows the second Saturday of every month.

The Hi-Ho and AllWays lounges face each other on opposite sides of the avenue, and both could have wildly different lineups any night of the week: heavy metal and bluegrass at the former, bounce DJs and burlesque at the latter. Near Poland Avenue, installations at Good Children Gallery and The Front may seem alien to Barrister's, which gallery owner Antippas jokes is the most traditional venue on the avenue, despite his sometimes unorthodox, eclectic shows. Earlier this year, during an opening featuring the works of artist Lillian Butter, neighborhood punks packed the gallery ("And drank all the wine," Antippas says. "I usually have a bottle left over.") "You never would've seen that on Julia Street. They would've called the police."

Antippas claimed the upstairs of his building as his home in 2004 and hoped to use the space underneath for an apartment. Instead, after Katrina he moved Barrister's there from its former Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard home in Central City. He says SCAD's modus operandi is idea-sharing and cooperative spirit — unlike, he says, Julia Street's more commercially driven arts district. Since Katrina, SCAD has expanded rapidly with gallery and performance space openings and artists. But don't call it bohemian, Antippas says: "It's industrial."

St. Claude Avenue is a state highway and hurricane evacuation route. It faces rush hour traffic jams, and passing trains along Press Street periodically bring traffic in both directions to a halt. Even with all that traffic, however, there's little standard commercial development.

"We need more commerce on St. Claude," Bywater Neighborhood Association (BNA) president Christopher Lorenzen says. "What happens there determines what happens on both sides of St. Claude."

A new streetcar line, scheduled to open sometime in 2012, will run down St. Claude from Elysian Fields Avenue to Press Street, linking New Orleans neighborhoods and creating a commuter- and tourist-friendly network from Uptown and the CBD to Treme, St. Roch and the Faubourg Marigny. Neighborhoods and transit advocates are pushing for the line to pass Press Street and continue to Poland Avenue.

"Our feeling is it's now or never," Lorenzen says. "We have to get it down there now. ... I've been contacted by at least four different nonprofit and community development organizations ready to jump on our end of St. Claude. They have visions of how you can bring more commerce, improve quality of life, things like that. There's a lot of interest from within the neighborhood and outside of the neighborhood to get the streetcar there."

For SCAD, more transit options mean more gallery visitors and theater patrons. Otter's Backyard Ballroom on St. Claude in the Bywater plans to open an art gallery and boutique and to spruce up the theater using funds from St. Claude's pending New Orleans Redevelopment Authority grant. A streetcar running in front of the venue is a no-brainer.

"Tourists (and) locals will hop on and check out the arts scene," Lorenzen says. "It's going to bring a lot of new people to the neighborhood that can show appreciation for it."

Another pending boost to St. Claude's simmering arts scene is the NOHC, the ambitious anything-goes facility at St. Claude and St. Roch in the former Universal Furniture building. Following Katrina, it served as an arts gallery, a community space and New Orleans Police Department's 5th District substation. Workshops and classes are set to begin next month, but a full opening is still in the works. Planned storefronts and vendors inside the NOHC include performance and gallery spaces, restaurants, yoga studios, classrooms, and perhaps the building's largest project, the New Orleans Food Co-op, a full-service community-run grocery store desperately needed in this part of town.

The St. Roch Market across the street — currently owned by thecity — still is in vague development stages. Built in 1875, the market in the past was St. Claude's cornerstone, says Eva Campos, who manages the St. Claude Main Street program. Since 2005, however, it's been unoccupied and a blighted pockmark on the avenue. In 2009, the city and developers (including architect Lee Ledbetter) held community meetings to determine the best use of the building, but nothing has been decided. Earlier this year, a film crew used the market's storefront as a run-down Panamanian grocery and flea market, even though it was not close to opening let alone offering anything like a mercadito.

"It is literally the centerpoint of St. Claude Main Street," Campos says. "It's the cultural center, the historic center. Everything about it is what brings people here. If you go down St. Roch, there is the cemetery. Tourists go down there every day. They drive past that market."

Another blighted grocery store, the former Robert Fresh Market at Elysian Fields and St. Claude, also continues to rot while residents nearby commute as far as Mid-City or Chalmette to shop at a full-service grocery. "Nobody wants to come in and set up shop and have [Robert] reopen and draw away business," Lorenzen says. Small neighborhood convenience stores, like Hank's Seafood & Supermarket on St. Claude, sell the basics.

Since November 2010, Sankofa Marketplace has operated a weekly farmers market on St. Claude in the Lower 9th Ward. Director Rashida Ferdinand says it's not a replacement for traditional groceries but presents a new way for the community to find sustainable food solutions in the interim. "The market is an experience," she says. "It's a part of knowing where your food is from. It's a community event where people come together."

The market began as a monthly event, but neighborhood demand for more fresh produce prompted Ferdinand to expand. She says Sankofa soon will partner with St. Claude's KIPP middle and high schools (the former Frederick Douglass) to have students work with the market and neighborhood farms in the Lower 9th Ward.

Lorenzen says a couple of properties in Bywater have been identified as potential food stores, and national healthy foods advocates have descended on the neighborhood to find solutions, but "nothing has happened with that," he says.

Attracting a grocer to St. Claude is one of the challenges BNA is addressing in 2011; blight is another. The same goes for the rest of St. Claude.

Kirsha Kaechele's KK Projects, St. Roch's cluster of homes-turned-art projects in 2007-2009, now are slated for demolition because of neglect and have returned to their pre-Katrina blighted state. In December 2010, eight people (some identified as artists, travelers and musicians) were killed in a fire inside a St. Roch warehouse.

Alexandre Vialou, who chairs the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association's (FMIA) blight committee, issued the FMIA's blight report in October 2010, which reported 7 percent of commercial and residential properties in the neighborhood are blighted. Half of those properties lie within the St. Claude corridor. According to the report, owners of blighted property either ignore fines the city continues to impose against them or are low-income residents who don't have the money or resources to improve their properties. Others, Campos says, not only ignore the fines but can't be convinced to do otherwise.

"I go to the national Main Street meetings — people from all over the country have the same problems," says Campos, pointing to a graying building with a yellowed "For Rent" sign in its window next to a Shell gas station on St. Claude and Franklin. "She's being fined $500 a day. You can't make someone put their building into commerce if they don't want to."

Despite offers from small business owners, nonprofits and other prospective buyers, many owners aren't interested in selling. "I have two or three people call a month wanting space on my part of St. Claude," Campos says. "The roadblock is space. People are recommended to me, people contact me from the website or other places looking for space, but I have nothing, unfortunately. And it's heartbreaking."

Like many neighborhoods across the city, crime also is a problem in the 5th District along St. Claude and in its surrounding neighborhoods, particularly in St. Roch, which has witnessed violent crime sprees and home invasions. In March, Christopher Goodly replaced Capt. Bernadine Kelly as the 5th District police commander, inheriting both a weak public perception of NOPD within the district as well as rashes of violence and drug-related crime in neighborhoods crippled by blight.

Campos says St. Claude isn't necessarily excluded — there's a memorial garden in Bywater at Press Street dedicated to Jessica Hawk, a young woman who was murdered during a home invasion five blocks from St. Claude in 2008. But the neighborhoods, she says, are seeing increased police response.

"I don't want to dismiss other people's concerns," Campos says. "I see the police cars, patrols, going by my house every hour. I don't want people to think it's not safe to be here. I'm out here every weekend; there's a lot of people out here, and it does my heart good to see people so happy."

New York transplant Otter opened St. Claude's Backyard Ballroom theater in 2005 after she met New Orleans Fringe Festival director Kristen Evans. "It felt like a no-tomorrow kind of thing. Nothing to lose, what the hell, might as well, never know what's around the corner kind of thing," Otter says. "I [took] a financial risk to make the theater a real theater. I'm glad I have the reckless courage, because it happened."

The space has embraced works by performers Dennis Monn and Michael Martin, as well as newer groups like Skin Horse Theater, whose production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch was a huge success last month.

"What I really love is nurturing artists," Otter says. "Artists are like seeds in these projects. You've got to water them, nurture them. And sometimes that's all it needs. Give someone permission and a place that's not intimidating, (that's) approachable, accessible, and their idea can become a fully produced work of art."

In the Marigny, AllWays Lounge celebrated its two-year anniversary in February with a revue showcasing performers working along St. Claude.

"I'm proud of the whole corridor's development," Otter says. "Proud in the way one's proud of one's neighborhood."

For his next venture, Mayer hopes to make Shadowbox a weekly comedy destination — "The place to see local professional comedy," he says. "I know it's a diverse neighborhood and diverse city — you go two blocks and there's something different. I try to cater to all the artistic voices in the neighborhood. If someone has an idea, I want to help them push that forward."


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