As the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival approaches, Cecilia Treffinger loads up on fresh citrus and maple sugar. She doesn’t usually go to the festival, she said, but she likes that a lot of people pass her family’s house on their way to festival stages on the New Orleans Fair Grounds.
Each person who passes is a potential customer.
As she stands behind the wooden stand she built with her dad, Cecilia, who is 10, keeps an eye for fellow kids, who can be relied upon to beg their parents for icy jars of lemonade, she said.
Though it’s home to the Fair Grounds, Gentilly’s reputation isn’t based on throngs of people. Instead, it’s known as a place where you’re more likely to hear a lawnmower than a tuba, as a verdant, residential paradise that’s close to the noisy crowds but not part of them.
Just after the turn of the 20th century, developers from the Gentilly Terrace Company promoted this high-ground part of Gentilly as an alternative to the “congested” city. In 1912, the developers built a model house on St. Roch Avenue that’s sometimes called â€œLouisiana’s finest California-style bungalow.â€
The “Bihli House,” named for its first owner, is now the home of Mary Sommers and Burt Brunson, and its architecture typifies the surrounding neighborhood.
“If you have to pick one house as an example, this would be it,” said Brunson, as he and Sommers gave a tour of their house with its glass-fronted built-in cabinets and broad front porch.
A Geography of Canals
The London Avenue Canal, which spans from the city to the lake, helped to form Gentilly, since by the 1930s, pumps emptying into the canal had markedly improved drainage in the area. But in 2005, the canal’s flawed levees gave way in two places, deluging nearly everything in sight. It’s said that only the Lower 9th Ward and Lakeview sustained more damage than Gentilly.
One of the first places to recover in 2005 was Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, which is best known in the city for its annual Greek Festival, held on Memorial Day weekend. Renowned for the intricate, hand-painted, gilded portraits of saints that line its dome and altar wall, the cathedral took in water up to the top step of its altar, a floodline that has been preserved by the congregation.
But the building was cleaned rapidly with the help of a crew of U.S. Navy sailors and determined congregants, who worshiped together in the cathedral that Christmas and had working electricity when no one else in this part of Gentilly did.
“We were the first ones to come back. Neighbors called us ‘the oasis,’” said church administrator and longtime member Vickie Catsulis. “I think we were a beacon.”
The congregation, which is the oldest Greek Orthodox community in the Western Hemisphere, wanted to expand and so, naturally looked, to the growing community of Gentilly, which wasn’t too far from their site in Mid-City. The site on Robert E. Lee Boulevard was chosen largely because it sits on Bayou St. John as it makes its way from Lake Pontchartrain into the city, Catsulis said.
“They saw the body of water and were drawn to it,” she said, noting that some say that the Greek immigrants who chose it carried water in their veins from the old country.
Brother Martin High School also has roots in the city itself. The school has held classes in Gentilly since the 1950s, first as Cor Jesu High School, which then merged with St. Aloysius to form Brother Martin.
In 2005, floodwaters obliterated a key Brother Martin competitor, Holy Cross High School in the Lower Ninth Ward. Holy Cross ended up moving from the city to â€” where else? â€” a site in Gentilly, just off Paris Avenue.
That move has created an intra-Gentilly Catholic boys’ school rivalry, said a group of Brother Martin sprinters as they rested on a recent afternoon between 100-meter and 200-meter runs. Though Jesuit may be Brother Martin’s most direct rival, the sprinters were most confident of their ability out-run the team from Holy Cross, they said.
At one time, some boys were sent to Gentilly to better themselves, said Gentily native and trumpeter Leroy Jones, as he stood not far away on the elegant Milne Boys’ Home campus on Franklin Avenue.
The home was built in the 1930s as “a home for naughty boys,” Jones said, noting that the home was a successor to the Colored Waifs’ Home, where Louis Armstrong was confined as a child.
And despite its residential appeal, the Gentilly area has always had jazz, said Jones, who scatted the song “Milneburg Joys” as proof. The tune is named for a little resort town known for honky tonks that was located in what now is the lakefront edge of Gentilly, where Elysian Fields Avenue runs into Lake Pontchartrain.
Jones was part of a more recent chapter of Gentilly’s musical history, which started when he was 12 years old, growing up on St. Denis Street, near where Interstate 610 cuts across St. Bernard Avenue.
“It was a middle-class neighborhood, an up-and-coming suburb 10 minutes from downtown,” Jones recalled. There, his neighbor, jazzman Danny Barker, recruited children for a now-legendary group called the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Band, which held weekly rehearsals in Jones’ garage and led to the revival of traditional New Orleans jazz.
These young musicians honed their craft in a garage in Gentilly, formed bands like the Dirty Dozen and Hurricane brass bands. In the heart of the city, located only 10 minutes away, they’re now known as the kids who led the revival of New Orleans’ traditional jazz.