A recent addition to the retail revitalization along South Claiborne Avenue includes a newly constructed Taco Bell at the corner of Washington Avenue. Yet another fast-food joint from a national chain? Should we weep and pound desktops with our fists? Maybe not. Taco Bell succeeds a Pizza Hut* on the same spot.
In a community that presumes to value its own backyard over the almighty dollar, swapping a Pizza Hut for a Taco Bell amounts to a wash. A continuing corporate presence sure beats abandonment, but the shift is neutral — unless you acknowledge that more of the same is an opportunity lost in a city that prides itself on superior cuisine of local origin.
Now, let’s take a look at the more ambitious proposal to change the corner of Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street. A blighted former gas station has stood there for as long as anyone can remember. It’s something of an icon, testament, perhaps, to New Orleans’ sometimes stifling inability to move forward. Habana Outpost, a national restaurant chain, plans to put this very visible spot back into Big Easy commerce — a big task, but not an easy one, given pushback from neighbors and preservationists.
Is it as bad as Habana Outpost’s detractors say? A little from column A, a little from column B, perhaps.
From the revenue and jobs perspective, it looks like a definite plus. But it sure ain’t local. Old-guard Quarterites are portraying it as a Disneyfication of the Vieux Carré, something like an ESPN Sports Bar with Latin flare erupting from the moldering banquettes of a francophilic neighborhood.
Ever been to an ESPN Sports Bar? I have. In fact, it was at Disney World. I was at a conference with fellow baristas (yes, I once worked for Starbucks) and the drinks were overpriced. But was it all that far a cry from a loathsome fellow astride a stool wearing a T-shirt that says HUGE ASS BEERS? That’s the French Quarter we have now, is it not?
Your average New Orleanian, whether native or naturalized, champions the local brand to the nth degree — but not everything can be homegrown.
In the rebirth of the Freret Street corridor over the past few years, not one of the businesses that’s popped up has been a chain-linked outsider. The Domino’s Pizza that anchors the street’s midsection? Not so fast: It was there before gentrification’s current wave swept Freret. And note that Midway Pizza, a one-off just one corner away, is competing just fine with the Paleozoic Domino’s. If anything, Domino’s provides choice, and clearly consumers choose both. Even me. Even you.
The ebb and flow of commercial ventures in New Orleans — chain vs. indigenous, traditional vs. updated — keep the public debate over land use a shouting match. Opinions are heartfelt, but never even close to scientific. The reactionary battle cry “not in my backyard” vies with the equally illogical impulse to preserve absolutely everything that’s been around long enough to start falling down, however hideous or inconsistent with the main currents of the city’s architectural and cultural history. Dragons vs. dungeons? Nimbyism vs. No-you-don’t? It’s noisy and it’s exhausting. But consider the alternative: the deadening power of indifference.
Case in point: the recent closing of the Ace Hardware on Oak Street, a venerable neighborhood institution that simply withered away in the deep shadow of Lowe’s, a post-Katrina behemoth just over the Jefferson Parish line. Another mom ‘n’ pop establishment bites the dust? Yes, it’s true. But let’s not forget the abject dismay with which truly independent hardware stores greeted the entrance of chains into the New Orleans market — or had you forgotten that Ace, after all, is a chain?
Is Habana Outpost better than a dead gas station? Yes. Is it better than a local venture? No. But it ain’t a Domino’s, nor is it a Pizza Hut. Bottom line: The glass is half full. Outsiders with money want to invest here. Just because they’re not offering a homegrown brand does not make every proposal inherently bad.
*Scholarly note: The Talking Heads’ song “Flowers” contains the lyrics This was a Pizza Hut / Now it’s all covered with daisies / You got it, you got it. Moral of the story: Daisies don’t pay for city services. Ultimately our consumer choices make a difference, though the impact may take years to unfold. Consider what businesses you support. The quality of life in your home town may depend on it.
Jean-Paul Villere writes a Wednesday column for Uptown Messenger and practices real estate in the New Orleans metro area.