Lawrence Batiste remembers when this part of the Central Business District was a bustling residential neighborhood.

“This place was busy all the time, almost like Mardi Gras Day,” said bass drummer Batiste, 76, one of the city’s oldest working musicians and a self-styled historian who can vividly recall dates, names, and addresses from several decades ago.

On the Canal Street side of the neighborhood, some businesses, like Meyer the Hatter, had been serving customers for a half-century and are still operating today, selling apple caps and straw and felt hats.

Batiste’s family moved around, renting apartments on Gravier and Perdido streets. He can still close his eyes and see blocks of South Rampart lined with honky tonks, loan offices, groceries, meat markets and bakers that served visiting sailors and military men, as well as low-income, multi-generational Third Ward families, many of whom moved there directly from rural areas of Mississippi and Louisiana.

His family and neighbors were displaced in the late 1940s, as the city flattened much of the Third Ward to build a “Civic Center”: a new City Hall and courts buildings, Duncan Plaza, and a central library. The area became a weekday hub, but like it was silent after commuters locked up and went home.

A few decades later, in 1970, contractor and preservationist Jack Stewart moved to Julia Row in the Lafayette Square historic district of the CBD because, as he says, he didn’t like mowing grass. He described the area as “pretty trashy,” standing across from one of the area’s most intact blocks, across from old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

In general, the CBD was built up as the American sector in the late 1700s/early 1800, he said, and the architecture blends Eastern seaboard and New Orleans styles. But it was bleak in the 1970s. “There were no trees,” Stewart said. “Everything had been chopped off. The buildings were so plain and they were painted in a dreary manner.”

Street life was nonexistent, except for the vagrants from a nearby Skid Row area, and when Mardi Gras parades rolled, residents were stuck inside “the Carnival box” unless they got on the Pontchartrain Expressway, headed across the river, then turned around.

Stewart’s Julia Street area was crammed with automotive and engine services places, including the classic automotive-glass shop, “Don’t Gus, See Gus” at the corner of Camp and St. Joseph. “We had our choice of eight mechanics,” he said, pointing to one of the buildings that was part of the first wave of attorney’s offices to re-do historic properties, using what were then new and sizeable historic tax credits.

Today’s City Center

In some ways, the CBD has now come full circle since Batiste’s days. It’s one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in New Orleans: the population grew by 37 percent from 2000 to 2010, thanks to the lofts, condos, and apartments created here since the 1984 World’s Fair.

Finally, residents say, they have their own grocery store: the Rouse’s on Julia Street. And growth is expected to continue apace for years to come, due to the massive, five-block South Market District, which will begin filling apartments in November.

Even City Hall has gotten more neighborly, with the addition of greeter Loretta Boutin, who somehow seems genuine every time she says “Welcome to City Hall.”

But the boom is different this time. Almost without exception, the new residents who mill on streets after-hours are empty nesters and young professionals, 96.6 of whom have no children under 18, according to census data.

The intervening years have been hard on Batiste’s childhood haunts, most of which are asphalt now. “There are so many parking lots now, you lose perception of what was there,” he said, pointing out a spot where his parents leased.

In fact, they leased a series of different places on Perdido and Gravier streets, just around the corner from the 400 block of South Rampart, which jazz fans consider ground zero in their idiom, since five buildings on the odd side of the block were key to the development of early jazz. Batiste knew many of the buildings’ owners personally from a childhood job, running numbers for lottery sheets.

Where the music was

The Eagle Saloon at 401-403 S. Rampart is best known as an early jazz venue, where pioneers Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, John Robichaux, and Sidney Bechet played. Batiste recalls how his mother sold hot dogs on Mardi Gras Day from a board set in front of the saloon’s left-hand entryway.

That corner, Perdido and South Rampart, was also famous because brass bands often set up there and because neighborhood son Louis Armstrong, then 11, stood there on New Year’s Eve 1912 and fired a blank from a gun into the air that landed him in the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys.

On Mardi Gras Day, 1929, when Batiste was 11, his parents woke him early and sent him to a nearby bar, Uncle Al’s, to have his face made up for that year’s Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade. His uncle then walked with him to where the Superdome is now, onto a barge floating in what was called the Jahncke Basin. There, the parade’s king, Louis Armstrong, looked down at the young man, shook his hand and said, “How you doing?” in his distinctive growl.

Jack Stewart was just moving to the CBD when the Romig family began providing the signature voice of the Superdome. The beloved Jerry Romig was the stadium’s public-address announcer for 44 seasons. When he retired in 2013, he handed the microphone to his son, Mark Romig, who walks up to the Superdome’s booth each week to announce the game, always waiting for the chance to say, “Touchdown, Saints!”

Mark Romig’s dayjob is president of New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation. But during Saints season, he returns tothe CBD on Sundays, driving along business-district streets that are increasingly lined with shops and cafes that serve residents along with visitors. The Superdome both anchors that end of town and contributes to the neighborhood resurgence through constant “activity and life” that keeps the Third Ward busy, like it used to be.