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Bayou Road’s Black Business Owners Stake Their Claim Through Cooperative Economics

by Anitra D. Brown

It all started long before Hurricane Katrina. Tribune co-publisher Beverly McKenna remembers that Marc Morial was still the mayor. It was late into his first term or maybe early in the second. About that time she became aware of and began to hear from some unhappy “neighbors” lodging complaints about a long-standing nightclub at 2441 Bayou Road. These folk even took to posting protest signs that read, “City Hall, Are You Listening?”

She knew the spot. It was more of a neighborhood hangout, not unlike similar neighborhood spots that can be found across the city—in the Seventh Ward or the Ninth Ward, in Tremé or Uptown—nothing upscale, but a friendly place, with inexpensive drinks, good music and where no one is a stranger. It was in her neighborhood, just a few minutes from The New Orleans Tribune’s office; yet she couldn’t recall even once having concerns about noise, loitering or security at the location.

“I would walk my dogs early on a Sunday morning, presumably after a long Saturday night of patrons going in and out, partying at the bar, and not find one speck of trash on the streets.”

She couldn’t think of any reason for a legitimate complaint about the business except as a subterfuge on the part of interlopers to push out the owners, close the business and eventually buy the building.

Determined that that would not happen, she chose to speak out favorably on behalf of the building owners, even traipsing to neighborhood association meetings to provide another perspective on the matter.

One of then Mayor Morial’s slogans, “Rebuild New Orleans Now” surfaced in her mind. The slogan actually referenced the mayor’s 1995 bond campaign that carried over into his second term to fund public works projects and street improvements. But McKenna took it a little more personally. To her, it was a clarion call, encouraging her family and others like them to do more.

To be sure, buildings along the two-block stretch of Bayou Road were rundown and in need of repair. When she coupled that with the fact that she didn’t much care for those she deemed “outsiders” coming into the neighborhood and trying to get a local bar that had been there for years shut down or defining what was or wasn’t acceptable in one of the oldest and most culturally-significant neighborhoods in the city, she took the “Rebuild New Orleans Now” call to mean that in order to have a real voice, a real stake in what her community looked liked, who lived there, worked there and owned businesses there, she would have to do something.

A long conversation with her husband Dr. Dwight McKenna, with whom she shares a worldview, convinced her that “something” meant ownership—buying and renovating property along the street and eventually making commercial storefronts available to Black entrepreneurs at affordable rates. The first property they purchased was the building at 2441 Bayou Road. The African-American family that operated the bar owned it. It just so happened that they were ready to get out of the business, so they put it on the market.

It is now the home to Club Caribbean, a Reggae club in the heart of the Seventh Ward, and just one of several Black-owned businesses on the historic street.

Before long, the McKennas, in a spirit of resistance, bought other buildings on the block—one before Katrina in 2003 and another a few years after the storm. In all, these buildings are now home to eight Black-owned businesses, many of them new. There is nothing happenstance about this cluster of businesses. Offering affordable commercial property that was within reach of Black entrepreneurs, for whom access to capital is a perennial challenge, was intentional, McKenna tells.

Kelder Summers, co-owner of Whiskey and Sticks.

“There is such a synergy on this block,” says Kelder Summers, co-owner of Whiskey and Sticks. “You can come to Bayou Road to have dinner, you can take in a show, have desert, get manicures and pedicures. After that, you can come into Whiskey and Sticks, meet friends, have cocktails and good conversation. The thing about how all these businesses work together reminds me of the history of Bayou Road and Treme where you had Black people whowere merchants throughout the area. The history of this place encourages Black businesses and enterprises.”

Taking Care of Business

Many of the business owners along Bayou Road and adjacent blocks on Broad Street, have banded together, creating their own business association, which they have named Black Bayou.

Melissa B. Woods co-owner of Cupcake Fairies is just one of the Black businesses owners who understands the importance of defining and sustaining the neighborhood.

Cupcake Fairies, Michele Burton-Oatis and Melissa Woods.

“The reason why it is so important to not only be a Black-owned business, but also to be a Black-owned business on this street is the history. It’s about keeping a legacy alive,” says Woods. “And it’s also about the growth and expansion of our community, of our race.  And in all honesty, we’re not doing anything new. I mean Black people have owned business from the beginning of time! This isn’t new, it’s just that we haven’t seen it for so long that it seems like its new. And if we are honest with ourselves it’s just about connecting to who we really are.”

To be sure, there have been thriving Black business districts in cities large and small across the nation throughout its history—from Black Wall Street in Tulsa to Chicago’s southside to Harlem to The Avenue in Fort Wayne, Ind., to the once-thriving Black commercial district along Claiborne Avenue right here in New Orleans—-each of which met its demise through either blatant acts of destruction fueled by racist hatred or more insidious acts of systematic racism.

But, it’s that history that makes what is happening now on Bayou Road so special.

Woods continues, “Supporting one another, building our community through commerce. And to be able to see so many predominately Black businesses that are doing well and working together — I think that is one of the reasons I love being here.  It was the vision of the McKennas to have this; but it’s also the visions of the business owners to grow and make this a stand-out destination.”

Owner of CoCo Hut restaurant, Pam Thompson, is one of the veteran business owners of the block.

Pam Thompson, owner of CoCo Hut.

In fact, Thompson was also one of the first local businesses to get up and running after Hurricane Katrina. She was honored by both the City Council and former mayor Ray Nagin for those efforts.

Back then, Thompson said there was no doubt that she and her husband Moses would reopen CoCo Hut, which features Caribbean and Latin food. After returning in February 2006, she, her husband and her brother Ricky, got busy right away, cleaning up the Bayou Road restaurant in time to reopen in April 2006.

In those months after the storm, Thompson was not alone on Bayou Road. In addition to a daycare center and a natural hair care salon, both of which have now moved on as new enterprises have filled the spaces, the Community Book Center and its owner Vera Warren-Williams were also on Bayou Road, in the building she purchased in 2003 to house her bookstore.

Warren-Williams spent seven months in Chicago after Katrina before returning to repair and reopen.

“In my mind, I knew I had to come back and at least give it a try,” Warren-Williams told The Tribune in 2006.

Owner of Community Book Center, Vera Warren-Williams.

And after returning to New Orleans in March 2006, Warren-Williams worked to get her business re-opened so that it could once again fill any one of its various roles—book store, gathering place, community center. The 4,000-square-foot facility sustained roof and flood damage. And insurance claims did not cover all of it. But Warren-Williams did not let that stop her. By early 2007, Community Book Center had reopened.

More recently, Warren-Williams reflected on why it’s important for her to be among the collective of Black businesses on Bayou Road, charting their own destiny and defining what community means.

“It’s important for Community Book Center to be on Bayou Road because Bayou Road and the Black businesses here exemplify the seven principles of Kwanzaa which are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. We work together as a cohesive unit to make sure our people receive our best service which is culturally-sensitive and culturally-centered.”

And it seems that Warren-Williams has called on the same drive and determination that guided her to reopen after Hurricane Katrina to face Community Book Center’s latest challenge.

Earlier in the month, her building was damaged by fire. And nearly every day since, Warren-Williams along with volunteers have come together to clean and repair the building so that it can open for business.

“What’s going on on Bayou Road and at Community Book Center is we’re continuing to fight this fire and we’re looking forward to being on track really soon. Hopefully in time for Kwanzaa which is Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. And each night of Kwanzaa, we will light the candle for the principle of the day,” says Williams.

Owner of Half Shell on the Bayou, Mark Lawes.

Mark Lawes, owner of Half Shell on the Bayou, moved his restaurant to its Bayou Road location a little more than a year ago. For him, business on Bayou Road is as much about making money as it is about owning and preserving the authentic culture of a people.

“There are so many out-of-towners coming into New Orleans, opening up restaurants and cooking New Orleans food,” says Lawes. “Because of this, it is important for me as a Black, native New Orleanian and restaurant owner, to preserve the traditional flavors of New Orleans’ Seventh Ward Creole cuisine.”

In addition to Warren-Williams’ bookstore, two restaurants, the cupcake shop, the cigar lounge and Club Caribbean, Black-owned businesses on Bayou Road also include a gift shop, Material Life, featuring vintage arts & crafts from around the world and Ego Gentleman’s Spa, a full-service salon that caters to men. And the buzz on the Bayou has spread to more than just Warren-Williams’ bookstore and the close-knit businesses operated there. Just around the corner is local favorite McHardy’s Chicken & Fixin’, Journee’s Art Studio on Broad Street and Keys of Beauty Hair Studio is just across Bayou Road.

Business owners in the area see the locale becoming a destination for both locals and tourists, especially those looking for an authentic taste and vibe of the city away from the downtown hustle.

“I think that this area is going to become a centerpiece of the city because it has a lot of charm and charisma,” says Alvi Mogilles, co-owner of McHardy’s. I think a lot of people have turned to this area because you can walk to get to the various shops and restaurants. On Bayou Road, we tend to be more mindful and watch out for each other. We are very supportive of each other’s businesses. For instance, we don’t have desserts, but I love recommending Cupcake Fairies, which is right around the corner.”

The business owners on Bayou Road readily acknowledge the McKennas’ efforts of resistance to gentrification and all that it means to the historic neighborhood. By purchasing property in the community and keeping rents at affordable levels for emerging Black businesses, they have created a space and opportunity for these enterprises to grow and thrive.

Material Life’s Carla Williams.

Carla Williams, owner of Material Life, says, “I am really lucky to be here among other Black-owned businesses. And of course, it is extremely important to patronize Black-owned businesses because if you do not shop here, we will not be here and that makes a huge difference in our community.”

Thompson echoes the sentiment.

“Now that there are more Black businesses, I feel really proud because there are more Black people experiencing the block and more Black people coming out,” she says.

And while that may be nice to hear, accolades aren’t at all what the McKennas are looking for. They simply want to see more—more Black people investing in property in their community, more African Americans starting their own businesses, more Black folk patronizing Black-owned businesses, more self-determination, more resistance.

“I want to see more Black New Orleanians investing in their communities and their neighborhoods, buying property and opening businesses. If we don’t, there are others waiting to do it. They will come in, smile and play nice, asking seemingly innocuous questions about “our” vision for the neighborhoods. Mind you,  our families have called these communities home for generations. The McKennas have been fixtures in the Seventh Ward for over 100 years. It’s not our own vision that should be questioned. It is theirs. We should be asking them about their so-called vision for our neighborhoods.” McKenna sardonically remarks. “That’s why we have to invest, reclaim and maintain. We have to put resources in what’s important—our community. Right after the storm and over the past few years, you have seen the impact of this encroachment by others in places like the Seventh Ward. We have to keep resisting here. But let’s also look to other places that are vulnerable—the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East. We can’t waste any more time.”

Bayou Road’s Black businesses owners agree.

“I think that it’s very important to be a Black business owner period,” says Ashlea Unique, co-owner of Ego. “I think the only way we will be able to advance in this world is if we begin to invest in ourselves, invest in our own communities, invest in our own businesses and grow by creating jobs and resources for one another. There are so many things built against us and entrepreneurship and ownership are the only way out.”

Going and Growing

Co-owners of Ego’s Gentlemen’s Spa, Akil Mitchell and Ashlea Unique.

With the help of small grants from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s Façade Renewal Program, the buildings have been recently updated.

The burgeoning boom on Bayou Road has not gone unnoticed.

This little section of the city—a tiny island strip in an ocean—caught the eye of Alembic Community Development, which redeveloped the old St. Rosa de Lima Church on Bayou Road and two other buildings around the corner on Columbus Street. Several months ago, Southern Rep Theatre moved into the old church.

And the Broad Community Connections, a non-profit, community development organization that describes itself as “devoted to revitalizing Broad Street as a vibrant, equitable, and inclusive commercial corridor by promoting the health and economic, residential, and cultural development of its diverse surrounding neighborhoods” has identified this section of Bayou Road as part of its Broad Street corridor, reaching out to business owners on Bayou Road as it works to impact neighborhoods along Broad Street.

And while the Black business owners along Bayou Road are not opposed to new neighbors or mutually-beneficial partnerships, they value their autonomy and the importance of maintaining the authenticity of the community, while promoting Black entrepreneurship and self-determination. Plus they have plans of their own to grow and nurture their businesses and the community, collectively and individually. Some of them, like Pam Thompson and Vera Warren-Williams have been on Bayou Road now 15 or more years. They know how to survive, progress and succeed. For them, Bayou Road is not an emerging corridor that needs revitalization. It is a historic one that has the support of the people who have made it what it is today.

Thompson says a refurbishment is on deck for her longstanding business, along with some new menu items.

“What’s coming up for CoCo are renovations, expanding on aesthetics of the restaurant to create an atmosphere that feels like the beach or like you’re on an island. We also will have more vegetarian and vegan options.”

Lawes also has a lot planned for his establishment as well.

“Coming up for the Half Shell, I am looking forward to having nights with live music showcasing local, unrecognized, African American musicians. We’re calling it Sunday Afternoon, Jazz on the Bayou. We are also adding a few more specialty drinks to our happy hour menu. We are hoping to open the bar in the patio area to promote it as an event venue for parties, social gatherings, and pop ups.”

In fact, just about everyone has something new and exciting planned for 2019.

But it’s not just their own businesses they are looking to grow. Black Bayou is currently promoting a plan to first rename the grassy triangular knoll along Bayou Road, which is now called Kruttschnitt Park for   E.B. Kruttschnitt, a racist politician, attorney and Orleans Parish School Board president who was one of the architects of the 1898 state constitution that disenfranchised Black residents across Louisiana, to Callioux Plaza, in honor of Andre Callioux, one of the first black officers in the Union Army to be killed in the American Civil War.

While Broad Community Connections has joined Black Bayou in the effort to have the park renamed, the Black business owners association wants to see much more take place than a name change. They want to see more commerce, and they are hoping to get approval from the City to have the space turned into a small open air-market where budding entrepreneurs without actual storefronts can set up shop selling products and grow their businesses.

The group has been busy enlisting the help and guidance of city officials in making this a reality.

A young entrepreneur that began using the space to sell fresh fruit a while back inspired the idea. His effort has been hampered because of pushback from newcomers in the neighborhood complaining about his presence. To McKenna, it is yet another example of those not connected to this community coming in and attempting to control and define it.

But for Black Bayou, encouraging that sort of entrepreneurial spirit is what the community needs.

The proposal has already picked up steam, with Byron Stewart, a Black architect who has drafted a rendering of the open air market with kiosks and a group of Black contractors who have expressed interest in helping to construct the booths if city officials approve the plan.

“This is our community,” says McKenna. “This is our space, and in this space there is room for everyone.”

Chipo Kandake contributed to the reporting of this article.

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