Opinion
 

So much for Satchmo: How about another downtown parking lot?

Central to Louis Armstrong’s life, the South Rampart Street block awaits a parking facility. photo: Karen Gadbois

I passed the 100 block of South Rampart Street last night, much as I often do. Each time I drive that route I find myself thinking, “No parking lot, yet.”

A nine-story parking garage was supposed to be constructed on that corner. In order to make room for the structure four buildings needed to be destroyed, most notably, Morris Music, the music store of Louis Armstrong’s friend and mentor, Morris Karnofsky. As a young boy Armstrong worked for the Karnofskys, a Lithuanian Jewish family. More importantly, they helped nurture him and even loaned him the money to buy his first cornet.

Elie

Perhaps if Louis Armstrong wasn’t the greatest figure our state has ever produced, perhaps if we hadn’t torn down his boyhood home in the 1960s—long after he was an established international star—perhaps if other landmarks associated with him weren’t already threatened with demolition by neglect, the destruction of these buildings wouldn’t be such a big deal. But it is a big deal for at least two reasons: First, we’ve lost a priceless landmark that could have informed scholars and attracted the ever-important tourists in ways that would both maintain our city’s architectural identity and generate the tourist revenue that seems to be City Hall’s most cherished commodity. Second, we repeated a pattern whereby we demolish architecturally significant landmarks to make way for projects that never get built.

Anybody shopped at the Albertson’s in Central City lately?

Because the destruction of these landmarks happens so often, I see it not as a group of isolated incidents, but as a pattern of behavior rooted in a mentality that is fundamentally at odds with the character of our city. No matter how many times the politicians invoke gumbo or jazz or streetcars, I find very little evidence in their behavior to suggest that they understand the essential function these cultural icons play in maintaining whatever greatness the city can lay claim to.

Rather, what I hear when they speak and what I see when they act is a generic mindset, the kind of thing that you would expect if the brain of a politician from Arkansas or Arizona or Alaska was placed in the body of a politician from New Orleans. Our “leaders” embrace a one-size-fits-all capitalism that destroys our most valuable resources in the pursuit of trinkets that have proven profitable in places that have nothing else to sell but office towers, parking lots, and easy highway access to suburban enclaves.

Why else would you consistently arrest jazz musicians playing our music in our streets for our entertainment?

Why else would you harass Mardi Gras Indians on such a regular basis?

Why else would you try to enforce a noise ordinance on jazz musicians in Jackson Square while allowing Bourbon Street night clubs to blare rock and roll without regard to the decibel level?

Why would you raise the parade fees on second-line organizations to such an extent as to threaten the continued viability of this emblematic parading tradition?

In the case of the buildings in the 100 block of South Rampart, a devil’s bargain was reached in 2000. The city ruled that “the developer of the parking building must replicate the appearance of the demolished building in the design of the new building. Thus, the parking garage structure shall incorporate salvaged ornamentation from the original buildings, as well as replicas of those items that were too fragile or difficult to save, in a design that closely mimics the historic buildings. In addition, the first floor commercial space in the parking garage will incorporate an area to commemorate the history and culture of the site. Plaques will also be installed on the exterior to mark the site and briefly relate its history.”

Facades are, of course, bogus almost by definition. Even one that provides an accurate sense of the building behind it can’t begin to convey the richness of the history destroyed in its creation. But in the compromise that paved the way—quite literally—for a parking lot, there was at least the possibility that passersby would catch a whiff of the time when that block was a cornerstone in our city’s long-forgotten Chinatown.

In the city of New Orleans, there is no consequence if a developer tears down a historic building and then fails to develop the project he tore down the buildings to develop. No mayor in my lifetime has seen fit to secure a performance guarantee to insure that the promised work ever gets done.

Now there is a new proposal for that corner of Rampart Street. The owner, Muckeget, LLC,  would like to create a 60-space, surface parking lot on the site. The staff of the City Planning Commission recommended against the surface parking lot, but now the proposal goes before the City Council. If the Council allows a surface parking lot in this location they would be making a mockery of themselves. It’s as if this new proposal assumes that the current city council is too forgetful or too dim to remember the recommendations and reasoning of its predecessors.

I doubt that the City Council will ever value our 19th-century history as much as I do. But I’m cautiously optimistic that a precedent set in the first decade of this century might yet hold sway over the fate of South Rampart.

A filmmaker, barbecue expert and story editor with the HBO series “Treme,” Lolis Eric Elie delivers a keynote address Saturday at the Rising Tide media conference on New Orleans recovery.

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  • Joelle Morrison

    Lolis, this mindset — shared by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who never met a developer or a high-rise he didn’t like — is not unique. He has happily destroyed much of NYC’s special character and worse, its’ neighborhoods and many of the jobs of ordinary people.

  • http://www.thepeoplesayproject.org B Boyles

    Next stop: the Eagle Saloon.

    If concerned preservationists and/or non-profits worked with more focus and fiscal responsibility, such invaluable land might be purchased to thus obstruct what has always been–and seems likely to remain–a gov’t and business community happy to approve ANY capital project that includes concrete contracts and short-term gain. Consider the many empty office buildings in the CBD and the promises heralded in the 70′s and 80′s when they were first erected over the remains of Chinatown and Black Storyville. I mean, have you walked the lower blocks of Baronne Street lately? Not only do we blithely erase historical architecture–we demand nothing of their replacements. A parking lot?

    No doubt the Eagle Saloon would make a fine Hooters once the streetcar line finishes up months late. Gov’t and business won’t reverse this trend. “That’s jobs!” they counter. Perhaps a community of pooled resources and shared values might have a slim chance to exert political and financial pressure to win a few battles. Perhaps there are jobs in that, too, in a city that expands its tax base by preserving its cultural treasures, not erasing them to grab small change. Now or never?

  • Beth Butler

    But the Preservationists approved — the buildings were insignificant! (pardon the dripping sarcasm)

  • Marian

    How fascinating that the home of New Orleans most famous musician is long gone while the house that Edgar Degas lived in for only one year is still around.

  • John in Tucson

    You’re absolutely right about Arizona. Our history is not as long or deep as Louisiana but we have some. Well, we had some. Historic sites torn down because the developer absolutely had to start on the auto dealership by a date certain. You know the rest. Never built, vacant land for sale after the bulldozing, some other innocuous structure in its place. I think there’s a problem with a narrow definition of capitalism which defines capital as only money. There’s human capital, historical capital, goodwill capital, other ways to look at return on investment other than dollars of profit. Having just attended Satchmo SummerFest last month as we continue to grow our love and respect for Louis Armstrong, I’m particularly saddened by this mistake – this unforced error – happening in New Orleans. It should not have to be this way.

  • Frank

    While we can all agree that there is great value in our cities history this article is neglectful of many of the facts surrounding this site.

    The reality of the situation is yes the former developer of this site was to build a garage on the site. However, from the time the deal was struck and now two things happened.

    One the financial crises of 2007 made financing the project inconceivable or at least extremely difficult.

    Two the taking of the State tenants from the 1010 Common Building (owned by the same developer as the land) by Tom Benson as ransom for keeping the Saints in town significantly decreased the feasibility of new construction in the area.

    These two items killed the dream of a garage for the near future.

    Additionally, new construction in the area of retail or other use is not feasible economically. Just look at all the vacant ground floor retail and buildings surrounding the site. That space is already built and it can not be leased. No one is going to pay the rents that would be needed to support new construction.

    Now, the current owner, NOT the one that made the agreement would like to put this land back into commerce with the ONLY use that is economically feasible, a parking lot.

    I know surface parking is the creation of the devil himself, but believe it our not it is actually an essential part of the continued revitalization of the Downtown area. If parking rates keep going up it will prohibit people from entering the downtown market.

    What is one of the main complaints from businesses and residents downtown? The cost of parking. Well… unless you increase the supply (afford-ably) the price will just continue to rise. It’s pretty basic, less supply and more demand equals higher prices.

    The other thing is surface parking is a temporary use. This developer will still have the ability to incorporate the facade in any building that eventually goes up. I am sure that he waits eagerly for the day that he can build upon the site.

    If preservationists want to save structures get a group together put your money where your mouth is and renovate them. Otherwise, do not block development it will only lead to even more decay within the City. The problem in the past was not greedy developers, but a city that was so difficult to do business in that everyone left. This stripped the demand for these buildings which caused them to decay, no one could afford to keep them up.

    New Orleans has a great thing going after Katina we have reinvigorated the entrepreneurs, but these attitudes that are devoid of economic reality if not changed will quickly send us back to the dark days.

    The reality is the buildings are gone. This has nothing to do with the current owner. I say let pave the lot, put more downward pressure on parking prices, and wait for the day that new construction in the CBD makes economic sense.

  • Jenel

    Me I like the word No. It should be occasionally preceded by Hell. We need to learn to tell the developer, respect our history first, then we’ll talk about what else you got.

  • Pam Folse

    This is bad but not as bad as the second battle of New Orleans to stop the riverfront expressway. Thank god we won that one.

  • http://www.ibiblio.org/laslavve Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

    Hi, Lolis. A bit of nostalgia. My cousin Nick Karno (Morris Karnofsky)hired me to work in his music store in the 100 block of S. Rampart Street. I worked there for several weeks in 1945-6 when was 16 years old. The whole time the loud-speaker blared out the Cuban Santaria hymn Babalouae in the street.I lived in the 500 block of Rampart Street where jazz and R&B was blared out of jut about every store and everybody who was on the street rocked to the same rhythm instead of walking.

  • http://jazzedit.org Vernhettes dan

    Seen from Europe, the attitude of the authorities in N.O. is un-understandable. The Bechet house (that I photographed many times) was torn down last year, after so many others. Not much remains in the Trémé, just a few ghosts for jazz bugs with imagination…
    Seems like there is no political wish, no political force to take a sensible policy. Imagine the Italians destroying the Colosseo or the French the Eiffel Tower. No comparison? Of course, there is. Imagine if Jane Alley had been preserved… imagine the cultural (and touristic) impact. Destroy the Karnofsky and the Eagle?… pure vandalism. Why cannot you organize a public support for architexture and levees when you spend billions in stupid wars? Mass destruction weapons are in the society itself…
    Mrs. Midlo Hall, would you please write to me directly at jazzedit@sfr.fr I have questions about the Karnofsky family. Thanks in advance.
    Swingingly, Dan Vernhettes, Paris, France

  • JazzLunatique

    Frank, did you really use the phrase

    “These two items killed the dream of a garage for the near future.”

    Dream of a garage? I laughed so hard at the preposterousness of that phrase that I fell out of my chair.

    And Ms. Midlo Hall, thanks for all the work you’ve done over the years. We are in your debt.

  • Nick Varrecchio

    I too agree that the loss of those four buildings, and many others on So. Rampart in recent years, is folly – historical malpractice. It is most damnable when City Hall-coddled developers raze history and texture for projects that simply never get built, as evidenced here in Mr. Elie’s article. Next thing you know, we will start in with the Memphis Method – Nice fake bronze plaques where historic buildings used to be, instead of buildings remaining where and as it should be.

    Recent years have seen others in addition to this particular loss; the loss of the Hummingbird Grill for a “Tabasco Store” that never even began construction; the loss of the Top of the Mart Lounge – a true 1970 time capsule that actually sustained itself through business – for a worthless hipster “W” Bar to be concepted by and owned by Hollywood trash glitteratti – with the proposed “W” never even buying the first new stool, and instead locating in the namesake “W” Hotel that is truly a glorified Motel Six on Poydras Street.

    If there is a Purgatory, indeed, a Hell for violators of the civic trust, these developers are going there. Many of us loved the history, indeed the living history, of our South Rampart Street. Now, all I have left is the visions of Dix Barber Shop/Liqour Store, and a tattered, terrycloth pullover from The National Shirt Shop to remind me of our departed South Rampart memories ….

  • Belyin

    Lolis,

    There is only “one-size-fits-all capitalism,” and under its reign “All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned …” Or so said Karl Marx, who should know of what he speaks when it comes to Capitalism. The constant churning, the “creative destruction,” are the only constants the Capitalism can support.