POSTED Fri. Nov 1, 2013
Central City: renaissance and renewal

Editor’s note In this essay, Carol Bebelle tells the tale of Central City, one of New Orleans’ integral neighborhoods.

Central City is where the pivotal Civil Rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership conference (SCLC), was born. It was where one of the cultural arms of the Civil Rights movement, the Free Southern Theater (FST), was located. It presently is where Mardi Gras Indians gather in parks, and Second Line clubs fill the streets on Sunday. Central City is where culture thrives and reinvents itself, despite a recent past that has been marked by blight, violence, unemployment and hopelessness, This unique and maybe prophetic community is evolving, shaped by the forces of struggle, disaster, opportunity, community, culture and creativity into a vibrant and resilient beacon for today’s New Orleans.

Like so many American urban communities, Central City constantly juggles the impression others have of it with the real experience of being a lived-in community. Residents are driving the renaissance so visible in the neighborhood today, working to align all perspectives into the reality of a healthy, welcoming, economically vital, diverse and culturally authentic area.

Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, locally known as ‘the Boulevard’ and historically as Dryades Street (streets in this part of town and the Lower Garden District were named for the Muses of Greek mythology), is the clearest evidence of Central City’s come bacj. That renewal stems from a vision created in 1995 by a made of residents, government, universities and non-profit organizations seeking to create a black cultural tourism district for this historically African American neighborhood..

The arrival of Ashé Cultural Arts Center in 1998 marked the beginning of the evolution of that vision, and the beginning of the ‘Boulevard’ becoming a state-designated cultural corridor. (Editor’s Note Ashé was founded by this author and Douglas Redd).

Today Ashé brings over 28,000 visitors a year to the Boulevard. The center’s schedule includes over 800 meetings, conferences, theater productions, exhibits, field trips, specialized community programs, receptions, and tourist offerings.

Ashé work to restore the cultural vitality of historic Dryades Street has opened the way for renewal across the corridor, evidenced by establishments like Casa Borrega, which features Mexican cultural food and art experiences; Café’ Reconcile, a favorite restaurant and home of a nationally recognized youth workforce development and training program; Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Center, offering year-round film showings, music and art events; the soon to open Southern Food and Beverage Museum and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra led by Irvin Mayfield.

Added to this collection of cultural experiences are coffee and tea shops, a yoga studio, the McKenna Museum, the Gris Gris Bag and four apartment complexes housing nearly 400 residences, offering affordable housing to attract artists, cultural bearers, historic residents and community activists.

To support this bustle of culture, innovation and entrepreneurship is the Good Work Network, a training and support service for entrepreneurs and small businesses, and the YWCA, which offers community services and a fitness center with an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Central City is a sweet slice of New Orleans, and “the Boulevard” is a destination for tourists who want to experience authentic local life and the powerful exchange and fusion of cultures that overlay the city: African, Caribbean, Mexican, Native American and ultimately American. The neighborhood beckons visitors – not in a loud, shiny, bright and obnoxious way – but rather with natural New Orleans charm: personal and intimate, full of fun, food and cultural fellowship.

It’s a neighborhood where the greeting “hey neighbor” is a daily ritual that symbolizes the covenant between residents. It is where community involvement is a collaborated effort aimed at overcoming disaster and managing the remnants of benign neglect, racism and rage, all while creating and opening doors of opportunity. Central City has been raised from the depths of need and despair to the reality of togetherness and accomplishment, all the while rooted in a commitment to community, culture and the goal of commercial vitality.

Above: Scene from The Origin of Life on Earth—An African Creation Myth, a dance/theater adaptation of the book of the same name by Dr. David Anderson. Photo by Peter Nakhid

Cover image: The Ashé Cultural Arts Center mural


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    • The Arts Council of New Orleans
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    The Arts Council of New Orleans

    The Arts Council of New Orleans is a private, non-profit organization designated as the City’s official arts agency. The Arts Council serves as one of eight regional distributing agencies for state arts funds and administers available municipal arts grants and the Percent For Art program for the City of New Orleans. The Arts Council works in partnership with the City of New Orleans, community groups, local, state, and national governmental agencies, and other nonprofit arts organizations to meet the arts and cultural needs of the New Orleans community through a diversity of initiatives and services.


    WWNO, the NPR member station for New Orleans, serves southeast Louisiana and parts of southwest Mississippi by broadcasting balanced news, thought provoking analysis, classical music, jazz and other musical styles, intelligent entertainment, and unique local content. We broadcast on 89.9 FM, and KTLN 90.5 FM in the Houma-Thibodaux area as a public service of the University of New Orleans. All of WWNO’s programs, including its growing local news coverage, are available online at


    WWOZ 90.7 FM is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Station offering listener-supported, volunteer-programmed community radio. WWOZ covers many events live in and around the city and across the United States, and broadcasts live from the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival annually. WWOZ’s mission is to be the worldwide voice, archive, and flag-bearer of New Orleans culture and musical heritage.


    Preservation Resource Center (PRC) has been preserving, restoring, and revitalizing New Orleans’ historic architecture and neighborhoods since 1974. Throughout its history, PRC has acted as an advocacy agent on a local, regional, and national scale, spreading the word about the city’s rich architectural heritage and the economic importance of preserving this heritage. PRC also takes a hands-on approach to preservation, with a history of successfully restoring over 1,400 properties. The center strengthens and revitalizes New Orleans in a way that is forward-looking and sustainable, yet sensitive to the city’s past and its heritage.


    As a nexus for the arts in New Orleans, NOMA is committed to preserving, interpreting, and enriching its collections and renowned sculpture garden; offering innovative experiences for learning and interpretation; and uniting, inspiring, and engaging diverse communities and cultures.

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    The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Its holdings comprise more than one million items from more than three centuries, documenting moments both major and minor. Its four exhibition spaces–the Williams Gallery, the Louisiana History Galleries, the Boyd Cruise Gallery, and the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art–faithfully depict the multicultural stories of the region, from permanent displays exploring the evolution of Louisiana to rotating exhibitions showcasing history and fine art.

    Southern Food

    The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. While based in New Orleans, the Museum examines and celebrates all the cultures that have come together through the centuries to create the South’s unique culinary heritage. The Museum is also home to the collections of the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Galerie d’Absinthe, and a demonstration kitchen.

    Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

    The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities to all Louisianans.

    The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ mission is to provide all Louisianans with access to and an appreciation of their own rich, shared and diverse historical, literary and cultural heritage through grant-supported outreach programs, family literacy and adult reading initiatives, teacher professional development institutes, publications, film and radio documentaries, museum exhibitions, cultural tourism, public lectures, library projects, and other public humanities programming.



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