The City Planning Commission has OK’d the new Robért Fresh Market on the corner of Elysian Fields and St. Claude. If it goes up — and there’s no reason to think the City Council won’t grant approval — it will signify the changed status of the neighborhood as much as the original Schwegmann Bros. Giant Supermarket did when it opened on that corner in 1946.
The proposed structure has a Whole Foods look to it: sleek comfort, dressed-down luxury. It will be shiny and clean, and will probably not have the funky features that define the Healing Center’s effort to represent neighborhood culture — the voodoo vévé out front, Devin Myers’ NOLA primitivist mural out back.
I have come to like the riverside downtown corner of Elysian Fields and St. Claude the way it is right now, but I know I’m on the fringe. My favorite thing about the corner is its function as a megabus depot. I love watching the crowds line up and board the buses to Houston, Birmingham, etc. And maybe a large abandoned building is best for anchoring a neighborhood struggling to remain affordable. I remember messing around in the old Jax Brewery when it was condemned. The Quarter was never the same after it was redeveloped.
My personal preference for returning the old Schwegmann’s property to commerce? Put it back exactly as it was in 1979, which is very close to how it still was in August 2005. I realize that my sentimentalism isn’t shared by the majority of neighborhood residents, however pleased I am that sentimentalism has become a viable argument for preservation in New Orleans.
I still wake up and realize I had been in the narrow aisles of the old Schwegmann’s just seconds ago, in dreams. I could walk you straight to the coffee or toilet paper or headache medicine. I could do it blindfolded.
I bought beer and cigarettes there for my parents as soon as I was old enough — about eight or nine — to walk over on my own from our house on Frenchmen Street. The staff all knew me. Schwegmann’s had a house liquor brand labeled “Piety and Burgundy” that intrigued me, since in my mind Piety and Burgundy was quite far from Elysian Fields and St. Claude. I later learned that the label was an homage to the original Schwegmann’s, which stood at Piety and Burgundy and was known as the Bell Foods grocery store when I was a kid.
One time I was mugged on the way to Schwegmann’s. It happened alongside the Paris Theater, a porn house on the corner of Elysian Fields at Burgundy. A couple of well-known neighborhood toughs showed a pocket knife and advised me to hand over my grocery money. The police came quickly and knew Schwegmann’s was the first place to look. I walked across the parking lot with the two uniformed cops and spotted the boys coming out with foot-long hot-dogs doused in chili and mustard.
The cops were optimistic about the pocket knife. They said it might make an armed-robbery charge stick. They confirmed that these guys — brothers or cousins I saw often enough to know their names — were bad seeds. They might benefit from a stint at “Juvenile,” the cops said, which I knew meant jail for kids.
I also saw my first gunshot victim at Schwegmann’s, an older black man, balding. Dressed in a polyester shirt and slacks, he sat on the ground by the parking lot side door waiting for the police, who were said to be on the way. His left leg was in a pool of blood and he had a bunch of bloody paper towels all over the wound to his thigh.
I remember once seeing a dead man in the Schwegmann’s, too — probably a heart attack victim. He was in the back corner by the paper goods, cleaning supplies, and pet food, three aisles that jutted back at a perpendicular angle to the other aisles. He was surrounded by employees and what I assume were EMT’s, so I saw just his feet. But I was happy to help spread the word around the neighborhood: “They had a dead guy in Schwegmann’s!”
It was the first store I shoplifted from. (Never got caught, either.) I was almost as comfortable there as in my own house. I went there nearly every day.
I bought my first condoms at Schwegmann’s — the first, that is, not from a machine. My brother was breaking into a giggle-fit a few yards behind me. Teenagers. The lady behind the pharmacy counter had known me since I was riding in a cart.
I’m happy that my son got to experience the place. It was called Robért by then, but in the early years of the 21st Century was barely changed. They had closed the pharmacy and put the liquor there; they no longer served beer and snacks, but the layout of the aisles was mostly the same, and they still had a window where you could pay utility bills, something that I doubt Robért will have when they re-open. As my son grew from infant to toddler, the staff all got to know his love of bananas. I’d roll him in past the old pharmacy, turn right into the produce aisle, and he would point and beam and squeal: “Banana!”
Katrina didn’t fundamentally alter everyone’s life, especially close to the river, but the loss of the Schwegmann’s (which we still called it years after Robért had put up its sign) was felt deeply. Joshua Clark depicted the store in his 2006 Katrina memoir, “Heart Like Water.” It’s well written, but differs from my mother’s account. Clark’s version is frightening, alarming, with rumors of a senseless murder in the aisles.
My mom reports that she was scared to go in, so she stood on Rampart and watched customers — well, all right: looters — come and go until a friendly older man offered to accompany her inside. They went in through the rear delivery entrance, on Rampart, which worked fine because Mom was after cat food, which was way in the back. She said it was dark and quiet, with footfalls and murmuring, but no screams or gunshots.
I was mightily offended by the notice the Robért people put out front after the building was boarded up and entered its long coma. It said it would take a while to re-open because of how severely damaged it had been by looters. Seemed to me they should have thanked the looters for taking out the meat and other perishables before they started to stink. I swore I would never shop there again. .
But the post-Katrina adrenaline has worn off, taking with it the deeply personal grudges of that angry and paranoid time. For years, I simply felt abandoned by my old Schwegmann’s, and I blamed Robért — despite knowing that Schwegmanns and Robért were locked in a legal battle over whose insurance should pay to fix the place. During those years, other businesses came through, and I’m reluctant to abandon them.
The first was Mardi Gras Zone, a corner store whose eccentricity fits right into the cultural fabric of the neighborhood. Then the New Orleans Food Co-op, planned since well before Katrina, finally opened in the new Healing Center. The Co-op’s slogan —”100% owned by the 99%” (I’m an “owner” myself) — is far more in keeping with my kind of Marigny identity than whatever attempt Robért will make to appeal to neighborhood authenticity.
Between Mardi Gras Zone and the Co-op, unless Robért can match Rouse’s prices, I really can’t come up with a reason to go there. It won’t be anything like the mystic Schwegmann’s of collective memory, but then, how many neighborhood residents today share that memory? And of those who do, how many remember it more fondly than not?
In my more rational moments, I remember that before Katrina I was a lot less nostalgic about the city in general. One of the psychological effects of Katrina, and it has only increased with the accelerating gentrification of the old neighborhood, is a knee-jerk defensiveness about the status quo ante. The more I hear about how terrible the city was before the storm, the more I remember its unterrible charms.
Before the storm, however, I was one of the people loudly wishing Marigny would become a lot more like it is now. During all the years I lived away from New Orleans, I told every hipster I met (though the word had different connotations then) that they needed to get to New Orleans to help realize the bohemian utopia that had been nascent in Marigny and Bywater for decades. I wanted more innovative restaurants, bars, coffeehouses. I wanted gourmet grocery options, not the same-old Schwegmann’s (whatever the name on the sign) with its unimaginative inventory and bad hot dogs at the snack bar.
These days I can be critical of my nostalgia, but I don’t like it when newer transplants dismiss us older residents for taking refuge in memory. The “ain’t dere no more” mode is something we treasure. Newer residents sometimes feel we’re challenging them on the local authenticity scale, so they overcompensate by bad-mouthing the dear shabby city we all loved (though often critically) before they got here.
Allow us to cherish our memories and don’t take it the wrong way. Youthful memories are, in fact, a chief distinction between how native-born locals and transplants view New Orleans. Even if the whole city is bought up by folks from somewhere else — folks with more money, ambition, whatever — our weepy nostalgia will be one thing that the new New Orleanians won’t be able to colonize.
In my more rational moments (which I treasure less than my sentimental moments), I think it’s a great thing that Robért has opted for a total re-design of the riverside downtown corner of Elysian Fields and St. Claude, and I’m glad the design doesn’t resemble an oversized Creole Cottage. Replacing a 1946 structure with something shiny and new won’t much damage the neighborhood’s tout ensemble; it would be far more embarrassing to have the corner dominated by Floridian pseudo-colonial architecture. I’m just glad I already own my home, because this development could be the final nail in the coffin of a Marigny social culture that for the first two centuries of its history was defined by its affordability.
C.W. Cannon teaches New Orleans Studies and English at Loyola University.