By Samuel Cook III, The Lens contributing opinion writer
Saint Bernard Avenue runs through the 7th Ward, a central vein of this historic community. And the iconic Circle Food Store once served as its pulsing heart, a locus of cultural, social and economic activity. In a single outing , shoppers could make groceries, catch a quick meal at Two Sisters, take in a show at Capital Theatre, and be at the Autocrat Club by the time the band struck up its first tune. Known to many as the “Creole Canal Street,” for decades St. Bernard Ave. exemplified the strength, character and resilience of this community within a community.
Today, St. Bernard Avenue is a shell of its former self. Landmarks such as United Bakery, Liberty Hardware and Trecey’s Restaurant sit empty and abandoned, their old signs cracked, peeling, barely legible. The once-bustling corridor is now something of a ghost town, with far more neglected or abandoned buildings than thriving businesses. Residents, who could once walk less than a mile for most of their shopping needs, now travel nearly 20 minutes to Chalmette, pumping their tax dollars into St. Bernard Parish, rather than Orleans. It’s a disheartening time in the annals of what was once one of the city’s most bustling commercial districts.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
A cadre of resilient, visionary small-business owners is leading a revival centered at the junction of St. Bernard and Claiborne avenues. Recent news that the Circle Food Store is preparing to re-open has triggered excitement across the 7th Ward and, indeed, the city. The Wisdom Reception Center (with almost as high a profile as the Circle Food Store) continues in operation as a flourishing venue for special events and social engagement. And a crop of new businesses have popped up along the St. Bernard corridor, including the Downtown Sports Bar, which serves some of the most decadent soul food in the city at thrift-shop prices. Avenue Quick Stop recently opened at the corner of St. Bernard Avenue and North Villere Street. Owner Joseph Williams, who had operated a clothing store at that location since 1989, reinvested in the 7th Ward community when the opportunity presented itself and now serves wings and po’boys.
But while these are signs of hope, the desert of boarded up windows and shuttered doors attest that there’s more work to be done and much more progress to be made.
And so, as a 7th Ward resident and director of a community-based non-profit, I have launched an initiative—we’re calling it “Restore. Rebuild. Reinvest.”— to promote job creation, expand the tax base and improve the quality of life for disadvantaged and neglected neighborhoods throughout the Downtown area. The Initiative marshals public resources, private sector financing, tax incentives and a variety of training and funding tools for entrepreneurs to support economic development opportunities in underserved communities. The initiative focuses on returning vacant, abandoned and nuisance properties to commerce.
In the 7th Ward community, we have launched the “Creole Canal Street” project to attract small businesses to the St. Bernard corridor, especially minority-owned small businesses that fill a discernible void in the market and provide employment opportunities for 7th Ward residents. By 2012, the Restore. Rebuild. Reinvest Initiative hopes to have assisted five small business owners to invest in the “Creole Canal Street” project, and is actively working to find buyers for several blighted properties.
In the coming year, the Initiative will recruit the owners of three existing business interested in expanding into new markets and will assist two start-up businesses willing to put down stakes along the St. Bernard Ave. corridor. Ultimately, the Restore. Rebuild. Reinvest. Initiative envisions St. Bernard Ave. undergoing the same kind of renaissance seen on Magazine and Freret streets, where residents and the business community have worked together to reinvent the neighborhood. Of equal importance, however, is ensuring that the St. Bernard corridor maintains its cultural identity and that local small-business owners get the support they need and deserve.
Small businesses are the engines of economic growth and development, accounting for roughly 64 percent of new jobs nationally. In New Orleans, small-business owners created an amazing 75% of new jobs last year. That’s one reason why the city these days consistently is ranked among the nation’s top environments for small businesses and entrepreneurship.
But beyond the numbers, robust private sector investment improves quality of life conditions. A strong local business community not only buttresses the local economy, it enhances social, environmental and health conditions, as well.
I’ve heard it said by many of the older generation that the “Creole Canal Street” is a has-been— that its halcyon days are behind it. I’d respectfully submit that St. Bernard Avenue is back on the road to greatness; its best and brightest days are still ahead. With a renewed sense of purpose and direction and a spirit of unity, we can rebuild a St. Bernard Avenue that is again the pride of the 7th Ward.
Samuel Cook III serves as director of the 7th Ward Neighborhood Center, a project of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans. A resident of the 7th Ward, he is in his second year of residency as a Ph.D. student at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Southern University.