City Hall in Treme

When I came to New Orleans more than a decade ago and first drove by the present City Hall, I guffawed. The boring lackluster modern design of it should be expected for municipal buildings built in 1957. The pebble concrete exterior is darkened with decades of mold and dirt. A yearly pressure wash was never in the budget, apparently. Add to that the incredibly tacky and poorly installed neon signage that crowns it, which equals cringe-level architecture. The city is forced to lease additional space in nearby buildings to accommodate workers. Perhaps it is time for a new City Hall.

A few large vacant buildings could be renovated to house the city government. The phallic shaped eyesore Plaza Tower, located at 1001 Howard Ave., comes to mind.

Recently, shards of the neglected facade that have come crashing to the ground only highlighted the urgency to do something with the building. This month, proposals have been brought forth for high end condos and hotel space. Hopefully it will come to fruition, unlike previous proposals. It’s in the best location, not far from the existing municipal buildings.

Purchase use the old Charity Hospital and renovate that. The building is not only structurally sound, but a beautiful example of Art Deco design built in 1939. Sure it would be costly to renovate it to current standards, but it would be preserving a historically significant structure that is important to the appeal of New Orleans.

The mayor is proposing to move City Hall to the vacant Municipal Auditorium in Treme next to Congo Square. The square was sanctioned as a location for enslaved Africans to congregate in 1817 and was considered by many in the Afro-Caribbean community as a “sacred place.” If New Orleans is the birth place of jazz music, then Congo Square would be the birthing table. The significance of the site cannot be overstated.

There is a strong opposition from the Treme community with concerns of the municipal building changing the essence of Congo Square and Armstrong park area, as well as the neighborhood over all, should it be converted into City Hall’s new location. Nearly 1,000 parking spaces would be added, including a five-story, 700-space parking garage.

There have been comparisons made to the construction of the I-10 overpass that runs over Claiborne Avenue in 1966. The overpass destroyed a tree lined commercial district in the predominately black neighborhood. Opposition to the project had no political clout to prevent it. There is still bitterness in Treme over what was lost to progress and to deaf ears.

The proposal has gotten a lot of push back on social media from residents’ objection to the idea. Latoya Cantrell has tried to smokescreen the controversy by pointing to other infrastructure projects involving a few street repairs and the Sewerage and Water Board working with Entergy to update the power sources for the pumping stations.

The Municipal Auditorium was built in 1930 and had many uses over the decades, from concerts to basketball and hockey games. It was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has been vacant ever since. The 7,800 seat auditorium is just that, an auditorium. The amount of re-design and modification to turn the large open space into a multi floor efficient office space would be staggering. It could be done, but at the cost of destroying the interior beauty.

Certainly one appeal to the city is 40 million dollars that FEMA had earmarked for the building following Katrina. It wouldn’t cover the entire cost of renovation but would be a nice offset. Local governments love that federal money.

Cantrell’s proposal has brought a heated backlash from the Treme community over the impact on the area. Cantrell’s response was that Congo Square will not be touched. There is no dispute the overall area will be impacted by additional traffic and parking.

In this day and age we should also consider that moving City Hall there will change it from a cultural space to a political space. Expect to see protests and rallies to spill over into adjacent areas. Congo Square and Armstrong park could easily turn into “Occupy” camp ground if enough outside protesters were bused in. Sounds far-fetched? Look at such public spaces in many cities around the nation.

The mayor relied on her favorite political catch phrase: “Time to re-think the use.” The same jargon she applied to the idea of turning streets in the French Quarter into pedestrian malls.

If you are dating someone and they say “It’s time to re-think our relationship,” just leave. It’s never a positive term. Whoever may be running against her in the next election should use the campaign slogan: “It’s time to re-think our leadership.”

Eric T. Styles is a Quarter rat and loves to hear your feedback. Email him at styles@thequarterrat.com.

Gypsy Lou Webb, French Quarter publisher of Bukowski and Kerouac, dies at 104

(Photo: Gypsy Lou Webb | Infrogmation | CC)
Gypsy Lou Webb, publisher of a 1960s French Quarter-based literary journal that featured Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski and other contemporary writers died earlier this month. She was 104 years old.

Webb resided at Greenbrier Nursing Center in Slidell at the time of her death, which was on Dec. 13, according to Michael Patrick Welch, an New Orleans-based journalist who was the first to cover her passing.

Born Louise Dorothy Madaio on April 29, 1916 in Cleveland, Ohio, Gypsy Lou was still a high school-aged teenage when she met future husband Jon Webb, who was a next door neighbor living with his family.

Years before the two met, Webb served a three-year sentence for armed robbery at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield before he was released in 1934.

Webb allegedly robbed a Cleveland jewelry store in an attempt to get a divorce from his first wife, Opal, according to researcher Leo Weddle.

Webb and Madaio married in a 1939 civil ceremony and moved to St. Louis later that year. Penniless, the newlywed couple moved to New Orleans one month later.

By 1940, they had already begun to establish themselves as writers and were among a group of French Quarter cohorts that included Tennessee Williams and New Orleans writer E. P. O’Donnell, according to Weddle.

Lou was also a painter who sold her work along Pirate’s Alley. She earned her “gypsy” nickname following a newspaper columnist who described her as a “startling” artist wearing a “full black cape, her beret or perhaps a gold-flecked bandana, and her metallic threaded slippers,” according to Weddle.

In 2013, Welch interviewed Webb about her experience.

“You do a lot of shit when you’re selling paintings,” Webb told Welch. “You talk funny, you look funny, the whole damn thing.”

In 1960, the Webbs started Loujon Press, publisher of The Outsider literary journal. The first issue, published on an old hand press in their 638 Royal St. residence, hit the stands in 1961 and they sold lifetime subscriptions for $12.90.

Following the success of the first issue, the Webbs used the proceeds to purchase a motorized Chander and Price printing press, which they operated out of the 618 Uruslines St. home, according to Weddle.

According to Welch, who interviewed Webb in 2013, the press took up much of the space inside their residence and its operation drained the couple’s finances.

Their magazine, however, continued to be a critical success. Contributors to the Webbs’ magazine also featured poetry from Diane Wakoski; and Beat Generation writers such as William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Loujon Press ventured into book publishing, printing books by Henry Miller and Bukowski, who also accepted The Outsider’s first “Outsider of the Year” award.

The Outsider folded in 1969 after publishing four issues. Jon Webb died in 1971.

A Loujon Press collection can be found inside The Historic New Orleans Collection Williams Research Center located at 410 Chartres St.

Commission recommends renaming French Quarter street to honor civil rights attorney

(Photo: Courtesy of Infrogmation | CC)
An initial report issued last month by a city commission recommended that the name of a French Quarter Street memorializing a Confederate general and Louisiana governor should instead change its name to honor a late New Orleans civil rights attorney.

Governor Nicholls Street, which runs through the French Quarter from the Mississippi River to Broad Street, should be called Lolis Edward Elie Street, according to a report issued by the New Orleans City Council Street Renaming Commission Nov. 30.

The recommendation is one of 37 made in the report, which was the result of the work of more than four dozen academics and librarians across Louisiana and beyond who were tasked by the commission to develop a list of alternatives that will go before the City Council.

City Council, which ultimately has to approve the list, formed the commission on June 18 to reexamine New Orleans’s streets and other locations with Confederate or white supremacist ties following the George Floyd protests and demands from groups, including Take Em Down Nola.

“Anything that we vote on now is an initial recommendation subject to change at any point, even beyond our final recommendation,” said Karl Connor, commission chair, during a Dec. 16 public meeting. “Voting on it today isn’t anything final, just to be clear.”

The commission’s regularly scheduled meeting, which was held remotely due to COVID-19, lasted more than three hours and included hundreds of public comments that came in response to the commission’s report.

In addition, commission members considered changes to the list, which it will eventually submit to the City Council for an upcoming vote. A video of the Dec. 16 meeting can be viewed here.

Prior to the commission’s report, several local meetings were held throughout the city to solicit name suggestions since last summer.

Elie’s (pronounced E-lie) career spanned more than four decades and his work included defending clients such as Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, former New Orleans mayor and Louisiana legislator, and the activists arrested in the McCrory lunch counter sit-in protest in 1960. He also negotiated segregation agreements with city merchants.

Elie lived much of his life on Governor Nicholls Street, according to the report. Elie died in 2017 at the age of 89.

The street is currently named after Francis T. Nicholls, a former Confederate brigadier general who lost his arm and foot in Civil War battles. Nicholls became Louisiana’s governor as a result of the Compromise of 1877, which also marked the end of Reconstruction.

Nicholls also owned slaves, according to the report.

The street was formerly Hospital Street until it was changed in 1909 under ordinance 6136 to honor his Civil War service. Nicholls died in 1912 at 77 years old.

During public comment, Scott S. Ellis, an author on French Quarter history, suggested that Governor Nicholls Street should be named after Clay Shaw, a prominent figure in the preservation and renovation of the French Quarter.

Shaw was also prosecuted as a John F. Kennedy assassination conspirator by then Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison, but was found not guilty on all charges.

“[The] city has never issued an apology of the notorious prosecution by Jim Garrison,” Ellis said.

The commission deferred the renaming of other French Quarter locations, including Jackson Square and Washington Artillery Park, until future meetings.

Washington Artillery Park, which sits in between Decatur Street and the Mississippi River, was added to the list due to a plaque on the monument that commemorates a still active military unit that was put into Confederate service during the Civil War, but also served in both World Wars.

One suggestion included renaming the park after New Orleans Police Detective Marcus McNeil, who was gunned down in 2017.

Connor questioned whether Washington Artillery Park fits within the commission’s directive. The site’s owner wasn’t known until the Dec. 16 meeting, when it was revealed the city owns it.

“There’s an argument to be made that WAP does fall under the terms of the ordinance [and] the argument for Washington Park is less strong,” said Suzanne-Juliette Mobley, a panel researcher. “Frankly, given both of those sites, given the prominence of them, given the opportunity to do a process that is targeting those locations and the users of those locations in a thoughtful process, I would say that they should not come within the bounds of this commission.”

Quarter Rat #18: The Halloween 2010 Issue

Tourists were often derided as part of original Quarter Rat humor, even though the magazine could not have existed without them. One of its core principles, however, was to bite the hand the fed it. The two ideas were not mutually exclusive. Staff often had fun mixing the two, similar to the way in which a local bartender makes a cocktail, then tops it off with an offensive joke — and still gets tipped.

But let’s be a little honest: anyone who makes a living working in the French Quarter and/or lives here every day bears witness to the absurd spectacle that is the balance of attempting to preserve a crumbling historic neighborhood while attracting an ever-inclusive sector of tourists by appealing to the basest of desires. Combine this with the fact that the city was built on mud and is literally sinking. People love it, though.

And one person who was able to capture this madness was Eric T. Styles, who moved from the Jersey Shore and to the Vieux Carre. He found work as a film extra, but only after getting rejected from numerous low-wage barker jobs.

He eventually started contributing art to the Quarter Rat and designed his first cover for the Halloween 2010 issue. We preserved a copy, one of the few in existence.

John Kennedy Toole, ‘Confederacy of Dunces’ author, New Orleans native was born today in 1937

(Photo: Ignatius J. Reilly bronze statue on Canal Street. | Todd Murray | CC Flickr)
John Kennedy Toole, late author of Confederacy of Dunces, was born on this day, Dec. 17, 1937 in New Orleans. Happy Birthday.

Toole’s novel is considered an original fictional piece and hailed as a Southern comedic classic. The book is praised for its picturesque and highly accurate descriptions of people, sounds and sights in the French Quarter and beyond at the time.

Ignatius J. Reilly, the story’s protagonist, is a slightly overweight, anti-modern and somewhat delusional 30-something-year-old man living with his mom and who blames his misfortune on the world around him. Yet he became so loved by the people of New Orleans that they erected a bronze statue of him in front the Hyatt Centric hotel in the 800 block of Canal Street, along the French Quarter side, in 1996.

But Toole would not ever live to see the success of his work.

Much of Dunces was written in the early 1960s while Toole served a two-year U.S. Army stint in Puerto Rico.

Toole’s attempts to publish his book were unsuccessful. Despite interest from Simon and Schuster, Toole became disillusioned with the editing process and fell into a deep depression.

In the years following the rejections, Toole’s became increasingly erratic and paranoid. He committed suicide in Biloxi, Miss. on March 26, 1969 at the age of 31, after running a garden hose from the exhaust pipe into the cab of his car.

Coincidentally, Toole died on the birthday of Tennessee Williams, a famed playwright who wrote the “Vieux Carre” script from his apartment located at 722 Toulouse St.

For the next five years, Toole’s mother, Thelma, pushed for the publication of his novel and was ultimately successful in getting it published under Louisiana State University Press in 1980. Thelma died in 1984.

The following year, in 1981, Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

John Kennedy Toole