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There has been much public outcry regarding the proposal to move City Hall from its present location to the Municipal Auditorium—a plan that many fear would destroy the area’s standing as the cultural center of the City,

We happen to agree. Moving the seat of City government to this location would hurt Congo Square, Louis Armstrong Park, and the Treme neighborhood in immeasurable and irreparable ways. 

On June 17, hundreds of  New Orleanians, including musicians, Mardi Gras Indian tribes, social aid and pleasure clubs as well as residents of Treme’ and other parts of the city took part in a protest against the proposal, marching from Armstrong Park to City Hall.

The day following the public outcry,  June 18, Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued this statement that, in part, read as follows: 

 “Finally, we are open to other options for the relocation of City Hall and for the renovation of Municipal Auditorium. This is what I mean by this being a process. But they have to be viable options – just saying ‘No’ or opposing what has been proposed simply isn’t good enough. A shoddy, unhealthy City Hall building has been a problematic issue for far too long, and so has the blighted property that is the Municipal Auditorium. We must be proactive, but we also must be collaborative. That is why I am open to creating a commission to publicly review all of the options – starting at the beginning of the year and which would make a recommendation to the administration. As we consider this and other options, I plan to meet with organizational leadership to further this dialogue.”

Thank you for listening, Mayor Cantrell. Thank you for being open to dialogue on this issue. 

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. Despite what others might think or say, we are not surprised that you issued a statement indicating your willingness to truly engage the community on the future of both City Hall and the Municipal Auditorium site. 

We read your statement. And we understand it to mean that while the Municipal Auditorium is NOT off the table, you are open to alternatives. You have indicated that you are willing to talk about this more. 

SO . . . LET’S TALK

We get it, Mayor. Something has to be done. The current City Hall is small. Like many buildings in a city where history is celebrated, it’s old. Many highly regarded, well-preserved structures across the city are old. Still, while you are hearing the chorus of people telling you we don’t want City Hall in Treme, you need more.  If not Treme, then where? Decisions must be made. 

We are looking to you to truly lead and to do what is right for the people of the community. Do not allow this issue to become a political game played by those who aren’t as concerned about the fate of Treme as they are about their own aspirations.

We believe that 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, considering and then 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. Both revitalizing the current City Hall or building a new one strike us as reasonable ones. We understand that a 2019 report puts a renovation of the current City Hall complex at about $165 million. That same report estimates a brand new building would cost about $171.3 million. 

Both of those price tags seem pretty steep. But they are not astronomically far from the estimated $100 million to $150 million it would cost to turn Municipal Auditorium into a new City Hall. Frankly, we are talking nine figures no matter what option is ultimately chosen, so what’s a few more tens of millions to do what is really right?

Of course, what makes the Municipal Auditorium so appealing, at least from a fiscal stand point, is that there is already some $38 million in federal dollars earmarked for its renovation, which would cover anywhere from 25 percent to 38 percent of the cost of a City Hall conversion, depending on where the final number lands. As things go, we suspect that the final price tag for converting the Municipal Auditorium into City Hall would likely be at the higher end of that estimated cost—$150 million. That means that even in exploring the Municipal Auditorium idea, the City would have to come up with another $112 million to complete the conversion. 

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 against them. 

So whether it’s $112 million or $165 million or $171 million, the money would have to come from somewhere. It will have to be paid for. And at the end of the day, a public building means public funding. No matter what, we are talking about new money the City has to find or generate in some way, right?

One of the reasons listed on the City web page to explain why moving City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium is a good idea was the $38 million in federal funds that can only be spent on the Municipal Auditorium. But let’s say we take Municipal Hall and the $38 million attached to it out of the equation. 

As far as we are concerned, that is only a good reason to leverage the $38 million to focus on renovating the auditorium. And that can and should be done without any plans to move City Hall there. In other words, the fact there is $38 million earmarked to refurbish the Municipal Auditorium, to us, is a separate and distinct conversation. 

You are right, don’t let those funds go to waste. In fact, several good ideas have emerged about how that $38 million could actually be used to enhance the cultural focus of the area—a museum, a live music venue and others among them.

Actively engage with the cultural community–those entities and organizations with historical ties to this area–to come up with ways to leverage that $38 million in federal funding to make the Municipal Auditorium the centerpiece of a cultural hub that showcases Congo Square and Armstrong Park as the jewels they are in ways that attract locals and visitors alike to bask in the richness and depth of the history and culture of Treme.

And let us be clear about this. We’re not talking about some watered-down, multi-cultural, “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” version of a vision for the future of the auditorium and the surrounding area. We are talking about one that fully embraces, respects and honors the impact that enslaved Africans, free people of color and their descendants have had on the development of New Orleans’ unique culture. 

Now, what to do about City Hall? 

Though it didn’t make a recommendation, the aforementioned report, commissioned by the City and released in 2019 by Pace Group LLC, Woodward Design+Build, and Gensler, leaned toward the building of a new, 12-story, 445,000-square-foot City Hall. That is an interesting and appealing proposal, we suspect, especially for developers looking to score big. 

Of course, one upside to starting fresh is that a new building would mean brand new infrastructure unencumbered by the limitations of an existing structure. While new construction might seem like the quicker option, we say renovating the existing City Hall is also a viable idea and the one we, here at The New Orleans Tribune, support

For 64 years, 1300 Perdido has served as City Hall. It is centrally located, the epicenter of governance and commerce in New Orleans. There would be no new property to acquire. Moreover, $165 million is enough money to re-imagine a modern facility that addresses the current deficiencies. When we consider that the 168-year-old Gallier Hall is still serving as a site for official City receptions and other events, we find it very difficult to imagine that a building, more than 100 years newer, cannot be refurbished to continue to serve as City Hall. Would a renovation of the existing City Hall be momentarily disruptive. Yep, but change is always disruptive. We understand that it must be paid for. But so would moving City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium. We know that $165 million is a lot of money. So is $112 million. We say the $165 million price tag to renovate City Hall is absolutely worth it, especially if it leaves the cultural center of New Orleans intact. 

We are not urban planners. Nor are we political pollsters. But we suspect that if your administration comes to the people of New Orleans with a plan–one that brings the seat of city government into this millennium without destroying the cultural center of New Orleans, the people might surprise you. In 2019, your administration brought a $500 million bond proposal to the people of New Orleans to address a myriad of city infrastructure projects. It was thoughtful and detailed. And it was approved. A $200 million bond to raise the funds needed to renovate City Hall is an idea worth entertaining. 

A Painful Past

There are specific reasons we believe moving City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium and near Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square in Treme are bad ideas. 

We have seen the examples of ways you think City Hall would improve the area. And 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.

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 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 comfort.

In other words, Mayor Cantrell, give us, especially the people of Treme, 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 imposing reason that it makes no sense at all—the people do not want it. 

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 against them. 

It has been one thing after the other, 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 reemerged as 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, which now incorporates Congo Square.

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 OFFICALLY known as Congo Square. 

That, Madam Mayor, is what we mean we 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) for some other use and for their personal gain.