A Transplant’s Guide to Bringing up Gentrification at Happy Hour

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Published  January 2016

antigravity_vol14_issue1_Page_14_Image_0001It’s four o’clock on a Wednesday at Sidney’s Saloon, and happy hour is in full swing. Like most afternoons, a loyal band of regulars has gathered to drink and unwind. They range from recent arrivals to old timers like sweet Miss Lula, the Seventh Ward native whose warmth and good cooking makes her a borderline celebrity at Sidney’s, and the dapper Rooster the Bluesman. The Bluesman has been coming to Sidney’s since “rent for the place was only $200 a month,” and attended both the opening of the bar decades earlier and the funeral of original owner Bernell Washington. Almost everyone seated at the bar lives in the neighborhood, and the conversation tends to include just about everyone in the room. Between them there is the gin joint camaraderie which proliferates in the city’s dive bars and local watering holes, and newcomers are quickly brought into the fold, as I discovered as soon as I sat down.

Situated near the corner of Rampart and St. Bernard, Sidney’s has long been a Seventh Ward mainstay. According to Fernell Washington, grandson of Bernell Washington, the bar was always meant to be a meeting place for the community: “My grandfather was the people’s person. That’s why he started the bar.” As a thriving community hub for more than half a century, the bar has stood as a source of stability amidst the neighborhood’s shifting fortunes. For social aid and pleasure clubs like the Dumaine Street Gang, Original Big 7, and Money Wasters, Sidney’s has long been a crucial stop on their second line routes. After Katrina, it was one of the first bars on St. Bernard to open, as Gary Thomas, who was born and raised in the Seventh Ward, remembers: “I got back into Sidney’s before I got back into my house.”

Initially bought and renovated after the storm by Kermit Ruffins, Sidney’s has now passed into the hands of Robert Clark and Tara Weberg, who earned their stripes at Molly’s at the Market before setting up shop on St. Bernard. The once plain interior now features mounted deer heads and yellowed Victorian portraits set in vintage frames, and after sundown candlelight flickers in the windows. For months after it opened under the new ownership, I would pass by on my bike, harboring suspicions. Since moving to the city, I have loved going to the Black bars on that strip of St. Bernard, and with Seventh Ward rents on the rise— and talk of gentrification on everyone’s lips—it was hard not to see Sidney’s hip new clientele as a sign of invasion. One night when I was up the street at the Other Place, a man came up to my friend and me (the only other white person in the bar) and asked over the booming music if we weren’t looking for Sidney’s Saloon. “Why, because we’re white?” I asked, and he smiled sheepishly. “I like the crowd better here,” I said, and he laughed and bought us drinks to prove us right.

Of course, what I said wasn’t entirely true at the time, because I hadn’t yet stepped foot in the new Sidney’s. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting when I finally walked into the bar— certainly something far more insidious than what I found. The happy hour dynamic reminded me of everything which first impressed me about New Orleans bars when I moved here in 2011. The drinks are only $2.50 a pop, red beans and rice abound, and the atmosphere is more like a living room than a cocktail bar. I watched Northern Louisiana native Ben Brock leave his beer at the bar to help Miss Lula carry her groceries home. Brock, a regular who has lived in the Seventh Ward for the past two years, has watched the bar serve as an important multiracial meeting ground where newcomers are folded into the life of the community: “It was met with some suspicion when it opened, but they really embraced the neighborhood, and the neighborhood is embracing them back. I’ll sit here and talk with old timers and hear their stories. It’s clear that we care. I think there’s room for all of us to educate ourselves on the traditions and get involved.” Nor is he the only one quick to come to the bar’s defense. It seems that the city’s longtime residents who drink there have reached a strong consensus—whatever changes may be coming to the neighborhood, Sidney’s is one of the good guys. As Micah McKee, a New Orleans native whose band Little Maker held their CD release party at Sidney’s this past October, puts it, “The prices are virtually the same as they’ve ever been, the bar is locally owned and run, and they’ve opened their doors to social justice organizations such as the Innocence Project, sending a message that not only is everyone welcome, but everyone is invited.”

Looking for a way to fight gentrification often feels like tilting at windmills. The villains are elusive, and the playing field is full of landmines. In my experience, a conversation on the subject more often than not resembles nuclear-style mutually assured destruction than a political discussion—people immediately turn defensive, and accusations fly across the room. Simply bringing it up can feel like a punishment. For me, however, living in the Ninth Ward on the lake side of St. Claude, where I watch my neighbors get stopped by police officers and families lose their homes to rising rents, the issue feels too urgent to avoid. I bring it up at parties, at bars, over coffee, but the conversation rarely goes anywhere. “Who are you to talk about gentrification?” I am frequently asked. “Aren’t you a white woman living in a Black neighborhood? Doesn’t your very presence change real estate values? How are you not a part of the problem?” I try to explain what it means to me to become part of the fabric of the community, to tie your fate to your neighbors, and how it may not be enough, but it’s a start.

antigravity_vol14_issue1_Page_15_Image_0001These conversations play like a newsreel in my mind as I talk to Robert Clark about his bar. I am asking him about real estate values on St. Bernard, and the language of aesthetics, referencing without much subtlety the decor which clearly announces itself as a white bar. Isn’t it true that Sidney’s makes St. Bernard look “up-and-coming ” to prospective developers? When he responds, I recognize the weariness in his voice. “I know the bar changes people’s notions of what the neighborhood is like, and what that means for real estate. Then again, by keeping prices as low as they are, I’m hardly making a profit. I don’t own the building, I have a lease. A rise in real estate costs will affect me too. I understand the idea of visual impact and visual language, but I’m not Black. I don’t know how to create a bar which looks racially neutral. I’m just trying to provide a place in the community where everyone is welcome.” He tells me that he is worn out from constantly defending himself, as he tries to both run a business and look out for the neighborhood where he lives and works. “It’s emotionally exhausting to be told constantly that I’m gentrifying the neighborhood when I pour everything I have into making everyone feel included. I’m from the backwoods of North Louisiana, and have seen my fair share of racism, but ever since I could think for myself I’ve been trying to address it and do the right thing.”

One reason Sidney’s has provoked such a fierce reaction is that it is caught up in the tangled dynamics of the long and politically charged history of real estate in the Seventh Ward. Up until the end of the 1960s, the Seventh Ward was one of the most prosperous Black business districts in the country. The section of St. Bernard between Rampart and Claiborne boasted a variety of Black-owned businesses, and it served as both a social and financial hub for the community. During the Civil Rights movement, Seventh Ward intellectuals, lawyers, and community organizers made the neighborhood a center for activism. In 1968, however, the oak-lined Claiborne Avenue was torn up to make way for the new stretch of interstate, irreparably gouging the Claiborne Business District. Property values on both sides of the interstate plummeted. Many of the most prosperous Seventh Ward residents relocated, employment opportunities disappeared, and the community found itself saddled with unprecedented unemployment and rising crime.

While the community suffered from declining property values, the low overhead meant that businesses like neighborhood bars could still survive. Sidney’s was only one of a number of Black-owned bars on St. Bernard, many of which are still on the Avenue. For the moment, longstanding Black-owned businesses like the Circle Foods Store and more recent additions can coexist. However, if rents and property taxes get too high for businesses to keep costs low, and residents get priced out, then the current balance between the old and new will be disrupted, in favor of those businesses whose tastes match those of the new clientele. According to Daniel Grey, a photographer and member of the artists’ collective that now operates the United Bakery Gallery a few blocks from Sidney’s, having deep family ties to the Seventh Ward is more of an exception than the rule on St. Bernard: “My father used to tell me how St. Bernard was where his family and friends would shop, party, and make groceries. It was an important part of everyday New Orleanian life. We are a culture built heavily on community, or at least we were. Now it seems like a local is rarer than an albino alligator, especially in the once historically black Treme. I love the idea of progressing, but not at the loss of identity.”

Unfortunately, the fragile ecosystem on the Avenue will soon be in the crosshairs of real estate developers. As everyone attempting to navigate a vehicle around downtown New Orleans is quickly made aware, the construction for the Rampart/St. Claude streetcar is well underway, and that means the tourists will be expanding their territory, as the city states explicitly on the RTA website: “The expansion of our streetcar network is not just good for our riders. It’s also good for the city of New Orleans. Streetcar lines bring significant economic development to the neighborhoods they pass through… New streetcar lines tend to bring increased pedestrian traffic to neighborhoods, new retail shops and other businesses, and new housing units.” And the streetcar is only the beginning. In 2013, Mayor Landrieu and Governor Jindal worked together to secure a deal with Viking River Cruises, an international company which, according to the press release issued in February 2014, has chosen New Orleans as its “homeport for the company’s first North American river cruise itineraries.” There will then be literally boatloads of new tourists eager, as always, to spend money on an idea of New Orleans which in no way corresponds with reality.

antigravity_vol14_issue1_Page_15_Image_0002In Robert Clark’s view, the best way to protect the Seventh Ward from the onslaught is to hold on to the culture and stay involved in neighborhood politics, which at Sidney ’s they try to do actively. He says the first week they were open they featured Guitar Lightnin’ Lee and other New Orleans musicians, and they welcome social aid and pleasure clubs during second lines. He also makes sure to keep a close eye on real estate interests in the neighborhood. “I spent hours the other day researching ‘for sale’ signs, and traced a whole network of properties back to a developer who bought a ton of real estate in the Treme,” he tells me, and wonders why I have fixated on Sidney’s while outside the public eye these wealthy developers buy, sell, and determine the fate of the city amongst themselves. I think he has a point, but then the public discourse has always revolved around outward symbols of political malaise. If nothing else, Sidney ’s and its customers represent the complexity of the gentrification question in New Orleans. At the same time as manifesting a fierce commitment to community values, the bar takes up space on contested ground. How, then, do we reconcile those realities, without either demonizing business owners who hold themselves to a higher ethical standard than many of their counterparts, or disregarding those in vulnerable neighborhoods who are forced further into the margins each year? There is no easy answer to those questions.

Provided we can lay down our arms in favor of a wider view, the best way to find one may be to head to a bar like Sidney’s. I learned this for myself when I asked the happy hour crowd whether or not the younger generation of Black Seventh Ward residents could relate to the bar’s new style and clientele, which had tempers flaring in no time. Thanks to the generosity of Rooster the Bluesman and the bartender, I was slightly tipsier than I had intended to be when the conversation got heated, and I soon found myself vociferously admonished by the bartender for bringing up a topic which was inappropriate for happy hour, with Miss Lula firmly in agreement. “If not at happy hour, then when?” I wanted to know, but from there on out questions were only met with further escalation. Above the din, a call came from a peace-loving regular for a round of shots, but fortunately I thought better of it and went outside. I was followed by a few others, among them Ben Brock, who brought me some crawfish pasta from the ever-present Sidney’s crockpot as consolation. They assured me that those questions were, in fact, welcome, and that they themselves talked about the same things. While I had no intention of disrupting the happy hour camaraderie, I did wonder, if oldtimers and newcomers—white and Black alike—had managed to come together and drink, why should it be so hard to talk about our collective fate? What good is common ground unless we use it to establish shared values and community strategies for development on our own terms? In New Orleans, culture is often political, and in a city which likes to mix its business with pleasure, bars like Sidney’s have the opportunity to be at the forefront of a vital conversation.

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