Overlooked Spaces

Black-owned businesses and community centers in New Orleans are in crisis.

By Jordan Flaherty Mar 01, 2007


After nearly 15 months of shuttered storefronts, a street of Black-owned businesses in New Orleans celebrated a rebirth in December. The stores, on Bayou Road in the Seventh Ward neighborhood, are a precious spot of hope in a city where 60 percent of the population remains displaced and many businesses still have not returned. The Community Book Center, a vital neighborhood gathering spot in the middle of the block, reopened despite still having no front windows and a floor in major need of work.

Neighborhood spaces like the Community Book Center have long been central to New Orleans’ organizing, serving as gathering places for people and ideas. Many who have come to support New Orleans–whether foundations, nonprofits or other national allies–have missed this aspect of the community, and spaces like the Community Book Center have received little outside support. In fact most are working unsustainable hours while living in a still-devastated city.

Vital community spaces around the city remain shuttered, including the Neighborhood Gallery, a Central City—based venue for everything from theater and art to dance parties and community meetings, and the Marcus Garvey Cultural Center, a community space for Black youth located near the former Magnolia housing projects. "We’re looking and struggling every day," said Neighborhood Gallery founder Sandra Berry of her so-far unsuccessful search for a new home for the gallery.

As with many spaces, the Neighborhood Gallery is a victim of a housing market that has doubled in many areas. With much of the city still blighted, non-flooded properties have been snapped up by speculators and affordable spaces have all but vanished. Businesses around the city are suffering, and for Black-owned businesses and community spaces, the situation is at a crisis.

Two community spaces that share a Central City building, Ashe Cultural Center and Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, faced no storm-related damage, but were given a choice to either buy their spaces or be kicked out, as the building they were located in transformed to condominiums. Ashe’s leaders embarked on fundraising to buy their space, while Zeitgeist is still searching for a space.

Many residents feel that the media depiction of Black residents as "looters" and violent criminals in the aftermath of Katrina, and the bias and racism that it reflects, is in part to blame for the reluctance of major funders to give money directly to the people most affected.

An article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy last year argued that the amount given to post-Katrina New Orleans was "small-potato giving for America’s foundations, which collectively have $500-billion in assets." The article’s author also asserted, "just as deplorable as the small sums poured into the region are the choices foundations have made about where the money should go." In other words, very little of the money had gone to organizations directed by or accountable to New Orleanians.

Foundations, according to the Chronicle article, "seem to have been preoccupied with the issue of accountability. Many foundations wondered how they could be certain that grants to local groups would be well spent and, therefore, publicly accountable."

But many residents say the message coming from major funders has been that New Orleanians cannot handle the money appropriately. "Twenty-seven years running a business, and they don’t trust us with money," comments Jennifer Turner of the Community Book Center. "They think we’re all stupid or corrupt."