I received some welcome news yesterday: the Funky Butt is reopening.
But not on North Rampart Street.
Long a staple of North Rampart, the Funky Butt at Congo Square — named after the club where Buddy “King” Bolden played — was operated by the quirky and music-loving Richard Rochester.
Rochester, seeking more adventures, reportedly moved to Indonesia and sold the business (not the building) to trombonist Sam “Big Sam” Williams and his wife, Shaneka Peterson, who knew a good thing when they saw it.
But the building that was formerly the site of the swanky restaurant was in serious disrepair. The air conditioning system went kaput, and Williams and Peterson could not afford to fix it. So they looked for another location. This was just prior to Hurricane Katrina. I remember it distinctly because the space on the first floor of my office building had been for lease for years, and Sam and Shanekah wanted to move the club to Frenchmen Street.
Then the hurricane hit; Shanekah had family problems and health issues, and Sam was one of the acts to really hit the road post-flood.
Not long after we reopened the office on Frenchmen Street in October 2005, I tried to get in touch with Sam and Shanekah about reopening the Butt, but it was clear they didn’t have the resources, physical or financial, to do so. Then stepped up Pat Ritter, a friend of mine who also attended the University of New Orleans’ Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism School. Ritter tried to reopen the music club but was rebuffed by then District C Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson’s staff, who told him she would not support the plan. In a Times-Picayune story, Ritter said, “I was stunned. Had I been opening in a different location that never had music, I might have anticipated that reaction. Here, it never dawned on me.” Clarkson said, “I’m sure [Ritter] has a wonderful plan. I’m not sure that resurgence of Rampart is contingent on nightclubs and lounges. Residential has tremendous potential.”
Donna’s Bar & Grill was the other beloved music venue on North Rampart, which closed when owners Donna Poniatowski and her husband Charlie Sims retired to Florida. When a new operator tried to reopen the venue, a zoning variance was granted and then rescinded.
And there you have it.
Music may never again be heard on North Rampart Street, unless it’s from the occasional festival that takes place in Armstrong Park.
Shanekah Peterson, who has since split from Sam Williams, called me to say the Funky Butt would reopen at the end of December, but not on North Rampart. It’s being relocated to Freret Street, which has a designation of a cultural district, making it easier to obtain permits for live music. Freret Street is blooming and growing with both a daytime and nighttime economy and foot traffic, despite the fact it was severely flooded and damaged by Katrina. The fact that the street, a commercial corridor (like North Rampart Street used to be), is coming alive again with restaurants, theaters, and music venues (another one is due to open soon) is a testament to the success of neighbors and businesses working with each other to revitalize the city.
North Rampart Street’s development has been pathetic—despite the fact that it was not severely damaged by the hurricane. But that’s because it’s in a stranglehold of stunted development, controlled by a small group of residents who don’t want a commercial street. They only want residential properties, or galleries, or restaurants (none of which has taken off).
Isn’t it time that they — and city officials — rethink what’s really needed on North Rampart Street?