Honored Guests

So, it’s a beautiful autumn day on Jackson Square in the French Quarter. The press photographers gather outside of 520 Saint Peters Street waiting for the front-page shot. France’s President Emmanuel Macron steps out onto the second-floor wrought iron balcony festooned with the red, white and blue flags of our nations. Photos taken from behind him are views of the square and the historic Saint Louis Cathedral. The press is surrounded by street performers, musicians and artists with their paintings hanging on an iron fence topped by fleur de dis.

(Scratching record sound effect)
Nope, not this visit.
This is the first French President to visit France’s former colony in 45 years. In 1976 we were visited by leader Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and by Charles de Gaulle in 1941. Wouldn’t it be great if we could offer the best view and accommodations to our special guest of such a prestige? The City of New Orleans did have such a place. It’s since been converted into “Teedy’s Boom-Boom Room.”

Just 10 years ago myself and a good friend, Robert Hotalen, were painting contractors hired by the Upper Pontalba property management to renovate that very apartment. We considered it to be quite a privilege, not just to be hired to work on a historic 1850s era structure, but also this particular apartment.

We gushed over the assignment and asked the property manager many questions. His response from what i remember:
“The mayor doesn’t actually live here, it’s primary purpose is to be a guest residence for visiting dignitaries and VIPs. The mayor may host parties here for special events or hold meet and greats.”
“Hold campaign fund-raisers and the like?”
“Oh no. He wouldn’t be permitted to use it for that since its a city owned property. It’s only for city affairs and special visitors.”

It’s not like Macron would be there for long. It would function like a base of operations during his brief visit. A secure location for him and his entourage. From the standpoint of security, it’s ideal. One main front entrance, a small courtyard only shared with the adjacent 522 Saint Peters Street location. The stairway only shared by two other apartments with full-time residents.

A short walk down Lower Decatur Street, (OK, maybe beef up the security on that route) to visit one of the few remaining statues in the city. A gift from France in 1972, the statue of Joan of Arc is still an impressive landmark. “Joany on a pony” as we locals like to affectionately refer to her. Show the people of France that we do still have it and mostly graffiti free. A majestic monument to transgenderism. Again, a magnificent photo opportunity for both the press and the city.

Maybe followed by a stroll up to the river, a city skyline as a backdrop to answer reporter’s questions and more pictures. A short walk back to the Pontalba apartment to return important phone calls and state business. Perhaps an overnight stay or probably just a quick shit and shower before he hops in a limo to the airport to jet back to Frogland.

New Orleans needs all of the positive press it can get at this point. Most images hash tagged #Neworleans lately have been those from blurry security camera stills of hooded figures pointing firearms at crowds. It’s a tourism downer to be known as the deadliest city in America. It’s about optics, something our mayor has no clue as to the meaning of.

Back when I was painting the 12-foot-high walls I imagined what the finished room would look like. Adorned with valuable fine art on loan from collections, antique furniture that wouldn’t see daily use, only for very special guests. I hate to think how it must look now. I envision bean-bag chairs and a day-glow poster of Snoop Dog hanging over the marble fireplace. The apartment probably smells like the VIP room at a strip club by now.

Maybe the city can book him a room at the Four Seasons on Bourbon Street. After all, it’s where the old French Opera House use to stand before it burned down. President Macron can stroll Bourbon Street for the international press. Toss a few Euros to the bucket kids, toss a couple more Euros to the dude who knew where he got his shoes. We’ll even comp him a Fishbowl drink.

The local press giggling at Macron’s security getting jumpy at the sounds of gunfire from Rampart Street by people who never even heard of Macron. Thanks Latoya. We really wish to be seen as a world class city, not a worldstar city. A chance to polish the image of the city in eyes of the world and you blew it like, well, you know, a cop.

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.