I think we're the prophetic community in New Orleans, and New Orleans is the prophetic community of America. We got the do-over chance. We had lots of problems before the storm, and we got the chance to start over.
O.C. Haley Corridor
Culture, commerce, and community is the mantra of the O.C. Haley Boulevard Merchants and Business Association (OCHMBA). The renowned corridor that stretches from the expressway to Philip Street has celebrated and welcomed businesses, social services, historic preservation, performing and visual arts, and much more. “We even have schools,” OCHMBA Executive Director Linda Pompa says.
Of course, the history of the corridor (formerly known as Dryades Street), with its welcoming spirit, dates to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Jewish and Italian merchants, African American doctors and insurance companies, dairymen and German bakers alike set up shop, seizing the entrepreneurial opportunities available to anyone with the ideas and t energy to become a success. “We have many elder residents still here,” Pompa says. “People who remember what it was like to shop along this Boulevard and buy fabrics, and shop for clothing for school; people who have lived in the area for over 50 years.”
Over time, new residents have come, along with new businesses. From restaurants like Casa Borrega, the noted Toups South, to the popular venues like Southern Food and Beverage Museum and the New Orleans Jazz Market, to vendor spaces like Roux Carre’ and Lot 1701, the O.C. Haley corridor has remained an eclectic avenue celebrating diversity in entrepreneurism and community. It’s no surprise this storied thoroughfare is a 2017 Great American Main Street award winner. The corridor has been recognized nationally as an accredited Main Street three years in a row.
During the 1970s and ’80s the Dryades Street area, like many inner-city commercial neighborhoods across the country, saw dozens of historic properties fall into disrepair and some were even demolished. Living Witness Church established itself to help stabilize and clean up the corridor, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s and the arrival of investor-anchors Cafe Reconcile and Ashe’ Cultural Arts Center that a long-term, collaborative effort began to bring visitors and commerce back to the commercial district. At this time, the OCHBMBA was founded to advocate for neighborhood stakeholders, including businesses, non-profits, residents, and culture bearers committed to the community.
The corridor experienced yet another period of resurgence. Like other areas in the city, O.C. Haley saw devastation as result of Hurricane Katrina. During the recovery, the corridor and OCHMBA took on an active leadership role, implementing the strategy to repopulate the Central City neighborhood with its former residents and new like-minded neighbors.
Over the past two decades, the corridor has evolved from empty and blighted structures to bustling activity. Since the late 1990s, thirty-two new businesses have opened, 176 jobs were added, and more than $83 million in private and public funds has been invested in the district for rehabilitation, new construction, historic preservation, and infrastructure improvements. The corridor is a well-rounded community that enriches the life of its residents, providing easy access to education, business opportunities, art, recreation, and entertainment.
The corridor invokes many things, but inclusion is what comes to Linda Pompa’s mind initially. It’s a place where everyone’s aspirations are embraced. “Gulf Coast Housing Partnership: working hand and hand with the New Orleans mission on building improvements, or a café reconcile graduate can go on to work at a restaurant on the Blvd. if he or she chooses,” Linda Pompa says. “It’s a true partnership.”
The streets that one time saw multiple streetcar lines, now see pedestrian and bike traffic. Despite the evolution, the O.C. Haley Corridor may be the city’s best model of headway working alongside history. An example is the popular Dryades Market. The market, hailed as a key to the corridor’s revitalization, is a modern approach to fresh foods that has kept the exterior of the historic New Orleans school site intact. The interior, complete with mounting ceilings and an open-air feel, pays homage to the Myrtle Banks Elementary/McDonough 38 school days by way of a cocktail bar. The market space is also home to Bar 38, with an appropriate “schoolhouse on the rocks” theme.
Streetscape enhancements are some of the more recent aesthetic additions to the corridor, completed in the spring of 2017, which complement the existing community art murals and restored buildings. Very few thoroughfares have succeeded in the formula of using art and culture to support human, community, and economic development like the O.C. Haley Corridor. The area is sure to serve as a beacon of progress in infrastructure and community resilience for centuries to come.