The Lower Garden District now has a caffeine gateway: French Truck Coffee, a small European-style spot with a counter and seven tall stools in the front. It stands at the foot of Magazine Street not far from the Pontchartrain Expressway and its clientele is about 60 percent neighbors and 40 percent tourists, some staying in the neighborhoods, others coming from the French Quarter to shop in Magazine’s eclectic mix of shops.

Behind the tony but tiny coffeeshop, which manager Karla Franks describes as “a showroom for our coffee” is French Truck’s roasting headquarters, where several roasters create signature blends, using a cement mixer to blend its signature chicory coffee. In some ways, the combination sums up the neighborhood, where decades of hard work stand behind its current shiny, renovated face.

Thirty-five years ago, John Harkins seemed doomed to fail when he rented a space in a building a few blocks from French Truck to open his first flower-shop, called Harkins, the Florist.

“People wouldn’t stop their cars on Lower Magazine then,” Harkins recalled. In 1984, he moved shortly afterward to his current spot: the iconic yellow, green and red building that stands in the elbow of Magazine Street as it makes its 45-degree turn after it passes through the nine streets named for ancient Greek muses: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Thalia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Euterpe, Polymnia and Urania.

From his iconic shop, Harkins has sold bouquets to a wide range of loyal customers: from men who had been crowned Comus or Rex to Barefoot Irene, a character who lived in the nearby St. Thomas public-housing development, which was demolished about 15 years ago. He’s now selling freshly cut alstroemerias to the children and grandchildren of his original customers.

In some ways, Harkins, now 64, wonders if the pendulum has swung too far. “It’s become a little too chichi,” he said. “I liked it a little more shabby.”

Burritos and bohemians
Mary Len Costa, who pre-dates Harkins in the Lower Garden District by about six years, said that the Coliseum Square fountain has long been an indicator of how the neighborhoods is doing.

Today, for instance, the fountain is a regular gathering spot carefully maintained by neighbors, who skim trash out of it and treat the water with pool chemicals to keep algae away. But in the early days, as Costa and other labored to renovate historic homes that had been chopped into tiny apartments, the gorgeous fountain became a symbol of the neighborhood’s revitalization. “This was the visual,” she said.

Costa is especially loyal to longtime retailers like Harkins, who helped to build what Magazine Street into what it is today. She also considers Juan’s Flying Burritos among the pioneers of lower Magazine.

When Juan’s arrived in 1997, it became “the center of the artists’ community,” said owner Jay Morris, 48, who started at the restaurant as a dishwasher. But the neighborhood still looked seedy. Corner stores dotted the block. Burglar bars covered most windows.

Within the past decade, all the bars have been removed, as neighborhood renovations have accelerated. Several years ago, neighbors were worried that the Lower Garden would become too exclusive, to the point where longtime artists would be forced out.

But that didn’t happen. “It got to a point and just kinda stayed there,” said Morris, who sees the neighborhood’s breadth everyday at his tables. Or, as he describes it: “a guy with a blue Mohawk sitting next to four guys having a power lunch.”

The sings of Simon
Around the corner on Jackson Avenue, Simon Hardevelt, 65, creates handpainted only-in-New Orleans signs in a paint-spattered studio behind his wife’s antique shop. The wooden signs, which range from “Laissez le bon temps roller” to “Don’t open the rice pot” to a two-sided “Open” and “Closed” signs to personalized signs he paints for customers who want to celebrate a marriage or mark a child’s birth.

The building used to be a Popeye’s restaurant that he says was robbed 28 times during the days when the St. Thomas area was at its most violent and the rest of the neighborhood wasn’t much better. Now, he and his wife leave their courtyard gate open during the day so that customers can walk in and browse.

“Jackson is now beautiful,” said Hardevelt, whose business relies upon a core of repeat customers, locals who make repeat purchases and escort their out-of-town visitors to his shop to buy souvenirs. “Other than that, I don’t see too many tourists,” he said.

On a sunny corner of Magazine, Gustavo Foranda, 37, opened A-Musing Bikes in 2011 as a bike-rental place. His shop’s name is an homage to the nearby streets named for muses, with an A thrown in the front to make it easier to find in phone listings.

The shop also create custom bicycles, according to customer demand. One of the biggest sellers at his shop is what he calls “the Mardi Gras bike,” which is purple, green and gold. It’s a bike that wouldn’t move if he were based in another city. “I don’t think that they would sell elsewhere,” he said.

Soon after Foranda opened, he added repairs and bicycle sales because neighbors said they couldn’t find them anywhere close. “There was a big void here,” he said. But not anymore.