New Orleans Municipal Auditorium (Charles Maldonado/The Lens)

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s proposal to transform the Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium into the new city hall proved to be a galvanizing force. Unfortunately for the mayor, the various groups and individuals who raised their voices to comment on her idea were united in their absolute and well-founded opposition to it. 

The mayor and her allies argued that the current City Hall is in disrepair and is too small to accommodate all of government’s functions. They also said the city must move quickly to repurpose the auditorium or risk losing $38 million in funding from FEMA to repair damage the building suffered as a result of the failure of the federal levees during Hurricane Katrina. The federal offer of funding expires in 2023.

Sorely lacking in the mayor’s original proposal was a basic understanding of the significance of the auditorium and the sacred ground on which it sits. Most famously, Congo Square was one of the precious few places that African Americans could gather and maintain their musical, religious and cultural traditions during slavery. Even now, it remains the spiritual center for Black New Orleanians, hosting festivals, music performances and freedom celebrations. 

The auditorium is also surrounded by Louis Armstrong Park, a fitting lipstick-on-a-pig afterthought devised by Mayor Moon Landrieu to lessen the impact on the Treme neighborhood of a disaster wrought by Mayors Chep Morrison and Victor Schiro. They bulldozed dozens of homes and businesses in the hope of creating a Lincoln Center-style cultural center that never materialized. 

Treme, long one of the city’s most livable neighborhoods is increasingly beset by increased traffic and parking woes that would only be worsened by the mayor’s scheme. Moreover, much like Schiro and Morrison, Cantrell was asking that the Faubourg Treme sacrifice its land and character for the great good of the city. Even if you think the city would benefit from moving City Hall, there’s precious little good in the plan for the taxpayers of Treme.

The mayor has opened the door for discussion of other possible uses for the 1930s facility and I’d like to accept her invitation. I think the auditorium, which comprises roughly 325,000 square feet, should become a cultural complex and house three uniquely New Orleanian cultural institutions, each of which is in need of the kind of home the auditorium could provide.

In 1999 the state legislature passed a bill to establish the Louisiana Civil Rights Museum and mandate that it be built in New Orleans. But in the 20 years since then, the state hasn’t even selected a site for the museum, much less provided adequate funding. 

The New Orleans African American Museum, which is located on Governor Nicholls Street in Treme, was created during the administration of Mayor Marc Morial in the hope of turning a crumbling Creole mansion into a museum and economic development magnet. But the 1820s residence, for all its beauty, has never been a perfect building for the housing of a museum. A move to a more commercial building could help remedy the facility’s imperfections. (Full disclosure: I sit on the national advisory board of the New Orleans African American Museum, but I am writing now in my private capacity. The museum’s board of directors has not endorsed the idea of moving into the auditorium site.)

For a few years now, the actor and writer Harry Shearer has been floating the idea of a national slavery museum to be located in New Orleans, the site of one of the nation’s largest slave markets. As our city owes much of its wealth and culture to the slave trade, our city would be the perfect home to such a facility.

The Cantrell administration’s estimate that moving City Hall into Congo Square would require more than $100 million means that there would need to be a significant city investment on top of the $38 million in federal money. Investing that money in this kind of museum complex would be an unprecedented statement about the primacy of African American contributions to the economy and identity of New Orleans. 

The mayor’s proposal to desecrate Congo Square has already done such damage to her reputation that hundreds of New Orleanians have risen up in opposition to her plan. Reversing course and creating a place for institutions that would honor the legacy of Congo Square could go a similarly long distance to restoring confidence that the mayor understands the significance of this sacred ground. 

Lolis Eric Elie is a New Orleans born, Los Angeles based writer, journalist, documentary filmmaker, and food historian best known for his work as story editor of the HBO drama Treme and story editor of AMC’s Hell on Wheels.  He is a former columnist for The Times-Picayune and a contributing writer to The Oxford American. His work has appeared in Gourmet, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Bon Appetit, Downbeat and The San Francisco Chronicle. Lolis is the author of “Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country” and co-producer and writer of “Smokestack Lightning: A Day in the Life of Barbecue,” a documentary based on his book. He is editor of “Cornbread Nation 2: The Best of Southern Food Writing.” He is a member of The Lens’ Board of Directors.

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