The St. Roch Market is my go-to if I’m meeting friends for dinner and drinks. It’s about 15 minutes max from any neighborhood, there’s a parking lot and there’s something for everyone. (I usually stick to the Eva’s salad bowl and ginger lemonade from Fritai, though.) Before the St. Roch Market reopened, I’d take friends to Castnet in the East for most of the same reasons. But as I was reminded on a date recently, some people have negative feelings about the East. I’d often be dressed and ready to head to Castnet to meet a friend, only to get the old Marcia Brady “something suddenly came up” okie doke.
I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t feel strange to be on St. Claude Avenue, seeing so many new residents, outsiders, tourists, bikes and non-stray dogs. Going to the Schwegmann’s there with my mom when I was younger, well-meaning friends of the family would see us waiting for the bus and practically beg us to accept a ride. “You really shouldn’t be out here this late,” they’d say.
When I was writing my Public Transit Tuesdays column for –Gambit in 2011-2012, in which I’d ride the bus (I had neither a car nor a license and had to catch the bus everywhere anyway) and walk around neighborhoods documenting my observations, I noticed small, continuous changes near St. Claude Avenue. They made me upset at the time. I’d greet people and no one would respond; I felt uncomfortable and unwelcome in a neighborhood that I thought was “ours.” There were several out-of-state license plates and new businesses that weren’t like the old ones.
A neighborhood that—if we had a pre-Katrina time machine—outsiders would call “sketch” is now getting hipper by the minute. Oddly enough, I’ve learned to embrace and welcome it. Some parts, at least.
Anjanielle Henry, a Spanish teacher from New Orleans who was born and raised in the 9th Ward, wishes there were grocery stores nearby, like there was pre-Katrina. “We only have a Save-a-Lot. We can go to Wal-Mart on Chef [Menteur Highway] or in the [St. Bernard] Parish,” Henry says. “I just leave my neighborhood to go to Rouses near UNO [about a 20-minute drive; this is still] one of the food deserts until the Robert’s opens up, and hopefully that will help us out.”
Like many natives, Henry is concerned the Robert Fresh Market on the corner of St. Claude and Elysian Fields Avenue, predicted to open sometime next year, will be overpriced and lacking in the items she and her neighbors used to find at Schwegmann’s and Winn-Dixie. Henry says, “I don’t think it will be affordable, honestly, because right now they know their market. A lot of the people who’ve moved here and established residence, they can afford to pay a little more.” Still, Henry is looking forward to the store opening. “I think it will offer a lot of choices, so I’m excited about it,” she says.
The reason Henry doesn’t like Save-a-Lot is the same reason most people don’t: You have to buy bags, there aren’t many familiar brands, the fresh food doesn’t always seem fresh and the ambiance is the pits. The co-op grocery inside the Healing Center, also doesn’t entice her:
“I’ve been to the co-op,” she says. “It’s overpriced and caters to a certain demographic. To me it’s not worth it and I’m not particularly enthused with the food there. I’d rather wait and go to another store.”
On a more positive note, Henry enjoys dining at The Joint, Pizza Delicious, Arabella Casa di Pasta and other nearby restaurants, and is glad Jack Dempsey’s and some of the old corner store hot counters are still around. But she misses the old businesses. “A yoga studio popped up. [But] where’re the hairdressers? Where’s the barbershop? Where’s the doctor’s office? Where’s the pharmacy? Those are the things I’m missing,” she says.
David LaViscount, a French teacher who was born and raised in Harlem and has lived between New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the Northshore since 2003, has seen the same thing happen: new residents, more tourists, shiny new restaurants and shops. Although he’ll try a new restaurant, he finds his friends and family prefer going to the old places.
“I think a lot of those types of restaurants are mostly frequented by outsiders, people who are not originally from the neighborhood and grew up there. [For example,] Hispanic and black people who have been in Harlem for generations might not go to those restaurants,” LaViscount says. “People in my family might not go to those places. Like these new cafés in Spanish Harlem, my mom, my dad, my grandmother, my brother won’t go in there. They don’t purposefully not go for any political reason like they’re trying to take a stand; it’s just they aren’t used to it.”
LaViscount draws parallels between his hometown and the current landscape downriver in New Orleans—there are the corner stores selling bananas, apples and oranges, but it’s still not the same as having nearby access to an entire grocery full of affordable, fresh and healthy food. But is this (still) enough to describe both places as food deserts? Maybe, and maybe not. LaViscount points out, however, that this demographically-influenced lack of affordable healthy food is a national phenomenon.
Soon the Winn-Dixie in Gentilly Woods will shutter, leaving Desire-area residents with only a Wal-Mart where I once found a glob of spit on the floor of the produce section and vowed to never return. There, a Wingstop recently opened, along with Pontilly Coffee and a soon-to-open second location of We Dat’s Chicken and Shrimp. Like I could see years ago around St. Claude—Gentilly, Gentilly Woods and Pontchartrain Park are now also changing. The residents are getting younger, commercial property is changing hands and there are panhandlers at Press Street and Chef Menteur Highway. However, since the new businesses fit in with the local demographic and since most of the residential property is still affordable, it looks like—this time—it’s mostly changes that are easy to welcome.