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Posts Tagged ‘New Orleans’

When I was in New Orleans last week, a friend was kind enough to host me at his house one block off of Freret St. south of the universities. When I lived in the city a few years ago, this stretch of Freret St. was pretty much a dead-zone, off all of the main arteries with plenty of (relatively) affordable housing but few transit options and no amenities. So I when I arrived for Mardi Gras, I figured that I’d have to travel quite a bit just to get the basics.

But the area has turned into a testament to what can happen when people — officeholders, businesspeople, community advocates, and planners — come together to revitalize a neighborhood. In 2007, a need was clearly identified. Over the next several years, the local City Councilmember pushed through zoning changes, including a loosening of parking requirements. The business community collaborated with residents to identify what was actually in demand in the area, and coupled a vision of an hoity “arts entertainment” district with the basics like grocery stores, a friendly coffee shop, and an upscale cocktail bar.

New Orleans, LA – January 10, 2011 – District “B” Councilmember Stacy Head and Kellie Grengs of The New Freret (The Freret Business + Property Owners Association) have taken note of recent difficulties that businesses have experienced while locating in, or developing on, certain commercial corridors. Their response: “Choose Freret!”

The Freret commercial corridor between Jefferson Avenue and Napoleon Avenue is experiencing a rebirth. The surrounding neighborhood embraces additional commercial development and, in fact, invites modern architecture, increased density, and the loosening of parking requirements. Zoning laws were recently created to encourage arts, music and culture, including restaurants, galleries and live music, through the Freret Street Arts and Cultural Overlay District, which was passed unanimously by the New Orleans City Council.

Check out the website of the new district, which is pretty snazzy. A neighborhood that was essentially an auto-dependent food desert now has a high walkability score. Even NORTA’s infamous “mass transit” has significantly improved, with a bus line going right through the heart of the district and better signage and information that I witnessed first-hand. Yes, it’s just one data point in one city, but this is one of the most notoriously slow, cumbersome, and contentious city-business relationships anywhere. I’m sure there’s opposition and I’m sure I’ve missed some of the project’s negative effects, but as a visitor I was wowed.

The New Freret gives me optimism for New Orleans and other urban revitalization projects around the country.

UPDATE: Apparently the neighborhood association has a Facebook page, and they’ve published this post as evidence of their successes. Sweet! I will accept free food and drinks as kickbacks.

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I’m back from New Orleans and still struggling with a post-Mardi Gras return to reality. I hope to have several posts on the Big Easy in the coming days, but I wanted to start with a simple observation: Mardi Gras parades make absolutely no sense.

The idea is that people line up on the side of the road in eager anticipation. Hundreds of thousands of brave souls descend on the city. Many veterans camp out (with tents, grills, the whole she-bang). Then they stand and wait, rain or shine. As traffic across the city is blocked and re-routed to the point of making driving anywhere virtually impossible, ridiculously over-the-top and expensive parade floats begin to assemble on their pre-determined parade route. People on the floats dress up in various types of costumes, normally with a French aristocratic style. Then the floats start rolling.

At this point, parade-watchers become crazed animals reaching up in the air for free Mardi Gras beads. The beads themselves are worthless (you can buy a pack of a hundred them in any store for pennies), and yet people stand for hours, arms aching, desperate to catch one. Grown men trample little girls in pursuit of The Beads.

Maybe at one point in time, this form of entertainment made sense. But even with Cable TV, YouTube, and a thousand other things pulling us towards our couches, people still maintain all of the Mardi Gras traditions. And to be honest, I had a blast. I didn’t know why I was standing in the rain watching a old man dressed as Marie Antoinette throwing me worthless plastic and enjoying myself. But the sense of community was overpowering.

No profound insights here, other than the fact that any policy predicated on human beings’ rationality probably is flawed to its core.

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