Mayor Cantrell: Listen to the People and Abandon this Plan to Relocate City Hall to Tremé

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Teedy, let’s talk.

While we can appreciate your desire to bring the seat of City government into the 21st century, we join a growing chorus of individuals, entities, and organizations that are imploring you to reconsider this attempt to move City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium.

We really do not care to see the City waste time, money and other resources on an idea that we think is off beam and one that would send New Orleans in the wrong direction.

We urge you to reconsider this idea and to listen to the hearts of those especially concerned about how this plan will deleteriously impact both the Tremé neighborhood and Congo Square – two places that are integral parts of the history and culture woven to create the fabric of Black New Orleans.

Girl, come on. They are saying this is what happens when you elect someone who is not from New Orleans. Folks suggest that you don’t truly understand New Orleans culture because you were not born here.  We know that’s not true. From personal experience, right here at The New Orleans Tribune, there are some among us who know that it is entirely possible to love, embrace and genuinely respect this City, its culture, and people without having been born at Charity Hospital. We know that you, like us, love New Orleans. But please do not miss the opportunity to show that you “get it”.

In our opinion, you have placed more positive focus and given more attention to the city’s culture bearers through your creation of the Office of Cultural Economy and the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund than perhaps any mayor in recent or even distant history. But Mayor, you cannot do that with one hand, and then with the other ignore or even possibly destroy the very center and source of that culture. We understand that you might not believe that is what this plan will do. But that is exactly the impact that moving City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium would have.

We have seen the examples of ways you think City Hall would improve that area. But we respectfully beg to differ.

According to a City website page devoted to discussing the plans, the following are outlined as explanations for why City Hall should be in what is now the Municipal Auditorium. The site says, City Hall at the proposed location:

  • “Would present an opportunity to bring a historic and welcoming space back to the public.”
  • “Could reinforce Louis Armstrong Park as the cultural hub of New Orleans and revitalize the historic Tremé neighborhood.”
  • “Would provide an opportunity for our community to memorialize the troubling moments in history at Congo Square as part of a future vision for Louis Armstrong Park.”

Here’s is the problem with that line of thinking: Neither Congo Square nor Louis Armstrong Park needs City Hall to be all of those things or to do any of that. They are already public spaces located in the historic cultural hub of the city. Congo Square, by itself, has a history so thick and rich that if not for all of the other past encroachments and intrusions on this sacred space (including the very construction of the Municipal Auditorium), it could radiate enough cultural “light” to illuminate the entire city. The park and Congo Square are cultural hubs and they require no assistance from a relocation of City Hall to be so. More to the point, neither of these locations would benefit from the hustle and bustle of official city business distracting from their true purpose. They will get relegated to the shadows of City Hall. They will become part of a path that residents, business owners, and contractors pass through to get their permits or pay their taxes. Or worse, in the hum of day-to-day business, they will cease to have any impact at all. This would destroy a cultural epicenter, not enhance it.

The Municipal Auditorium

In fact, if we can be real for just one second, we believe that when it comes to this section of the city and its historical and cultural significance, the marginalized communities that have historically made their home there—Black people, both free and bound, and their descendants—have already suffered greatly and continue to suffer even now.

While we believe that your effort to detail the proposal and make promises to protect Congo Square flow from a genuine place of goodwill and reverence for the past, you must understand that the fight against this plan is not a knee-jerk reaction. It is a measured response derived from a painful history. It comes from the not-so-long-ago period of time wrought with marginalization, relegation, and devaluation causing deep wounds and gashes that have yet to heal. In fact, they continue to fester, gnaw and chafe because they have been heaped on top of each other with no reprieve—no salve to heal or comfort.

In other words Mayor Cantrell, Teedy, if you will, give us a break.

Stop now, and instead of thinking of all of the reasons moving City Hall to Tremé makes sense to you, think of the one really overriding reason that it makes no sense at all—the people who are from here do not want it. So let’s defer to them on this.

A Painful Past

If there is a part of the city whose residents and business owners know intimately what it is to be disrespected and disregarded by imminent forces, it’s Tremé, one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in America and home of Congo Square where enslaved Africans were allowed to gather, dance, play music and trade goods in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was this activity that kept the African traditions that are now infused into the city’s authentic culture alive. It was here that the seeds of jazz music were sewn. Yet, the rich and significant history of Tremé and Congo Square never stopped the onslaught heaped on them.

It has been one thing after another, dating back to 1817 when gatherings of enslaved Africans were restricted to one area in the back of town across from Rampart Street and the French Quarter that came to be known as Congo Square. By the middle of the 19th Century, these gatherings ended as harsher rules governing the movements of both free and enslaved Blacks took hold. But by the late 19th Century, Congo Square and Tremé became a musical venue of Black orchestras.

In 1893, in an effort by City officials to stop the gatherings of Black concertgoers and musicians at Congo Square, the space was officially named Beauregard Square in honor of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and the fallacy of the Lost Cause.

Then in 1930, the Municipal Auditorium was built, displacing Tremé residents. The 7,853-seat multi-purpose venue was ostensibly built as a replacement for the French Opera House, which operated from 1859 until it burned down in 1919. However, the French Opera House was never located in Tremé, but was in the French Quarter.

In the 1960s, a substantial portion of Tremé was razed as a part of a controversial urban renewal project. And after 10 years of debate over the land, the City turned it into Louis Armstrong Park and included Congo Square in its footprint.

By the way, it was not until 2011—barely a decade ago—that Congo Square was even officially named Congo Square. The City Council approved an ordinance after a push led by local author and historian Freddi Evans and others to change the name from Beauregard Square. In other words, It took more than 200 years for this sacred place—La Place Congo, this gathering spot where the ancestors went to hold on to and celebrate their heritage and traditions—to be OFFICIALLY known as Congo Square.

That, Madam Mayor, is what we mean when say that the protest to this plan comes from a not-so-long-ago period wrought with marginalization, relegation and devaluation. This is why City Hall cannot be moved to this location.

Add to that the further destruction of the Tremé community over the years as demonstrated by the building of the 1-10 overpass. It’s no secret that an overpass connecting the east and west banks of Orleans Parish was supposed to be built along Elysian Fields through the mostly White French Quarter. While the French Quarter residents, with money and clout, successfully thwarted those efforts were able to successfully stave off the attempt, the cries of the Black residents and business owners along Claiborne Avenue between Tulane and Esplanade fell on deaf hears. And when all was said and done, it was only the thriving Claiborne Corridor—the lively Black business district that was destroyed by the I-10 overpass, the concrete monster that leveled Black businesses, residences and the beautiful oak trees.

Oddly enough, now there is talk of taking it down. To be sure, talk of possibly removing the elevated 1-10 along Claiborne to achieve economic and social revitalization of the area strikes some as odd, if not disingenuous, considering the elevated expressway was erected decades ago despite the protest of mostly Black residents and business owners who foretold that the plan would signal destruction of their communities. Many believe that the construction of the Claiborne overpass is at least partly to blame for decline of the Tremé neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the Claiborne corridor was once a thriving area before planners decided that tearing down houses, majestic oak trees and largely African-American businesses, particularly along the stretch of Claiborne that lines Tremé, to make way for the elevated, inner-city expressway was a better idea than building it along the river in the French Quarter—the original proposed location of the high rise that faced opposition from French Quarter business owners and residents who were more monied and politically connected than those who stood against building the elevated interstate along Claiborne.

And Tremé residents and business owners are right to question now whether their community is once again being eyed for these plans because they just don’t have the power or the money of wealthy developers who would rather build condos and retail stores in the old Charity Hospital or those who are now, we suspect, eyeing the prime real estate in the center of the CBD (also known as the current location of City Hall and the adjacent Duncan Plaza) for some other use and for their personal gain. Big developers, we see you.

If There is $38 Million to Refurbish Municipal Auditorium,
It Should Be Used to Refurbish Municipal Auditorium

One of the reasons listed on the City webpage to explain why moving City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium is a good idea included the $38 million in federal funds that can only be spent on the Municipal Auditorium.

Come again?

As far as we can surmise, that is only a good reason to leverage the $38 million to renovate the auditorium. And that can and should be done without any plans to move City Hall there. In fact, several good ideas have emerged about how that $38 million could actually be used to enhance the cultural focus on the area—a museum, a live music venue and others among them.

Is This Really What’s Best?

We believe you, like us, want what is best for New Orleans; in fact, you have shown us that by the way you and your administration handled the recent pandemic. You have shown it in your fight to get the City its fair share of tax dollars derived from the hospitality/tourism industry and in many other ways. We say show it again by listening to, understanding and responding to the passionate arguments against this proposal. Tremé and Congo Square have taken plenty of hits in the city’s history. It is battered and bruised. And the people of this community are not saying hit us less often or hit us a little softer. They are saying stop hitting us. They don’t need you to promise to protect Tremé or Congo Square. They need you to actually protect it by not moving City Hall there.

There are other options. There have to be. Revitalizing the current City Hall strikes us as a very good one.

We’re no urban planners over here to be sure. But we know a bad idea when we hear one. To proceed with this plan without taking in to account the destruction and devastation that has already been heaped on this community is tone deaf and shortsighted. We predict it will be the death nail to the center of New Orleans’ culture and we are asking you to listen closely and reconsider moving forward.