The last mainstay of live local music on North Rampart Street has closed its doors.
Donna’s Bar & Grill, which has been the home of brass bands for almost 20 years, is closed forever.
“We’re done. We turned in our license,” said Donna Poniatowski, for whom the club was named. “When we went to city hall to turn in the license—which is something you’re required to do—the lady who accepted it even told me, ‘You know, now there won’t be any live music on North Rampart Street.’” Donna’s right to present live music was grandfathered in when the city prohibited new Mayoralty licenses (that allow live music). The other establishment that was grandfathered in was the Funky Butt, which closed prior to Katrina.
Donna and her husband, Charlie Sims, opened Donna’s because of their love for local music. Charlie cooked for crowds of people who loved his red beans and rice and barbecue, and in recent years Charlie ran the club. Donna has been teaching for several years since Katrina, full-time, at schools in Florida, and commuted to and from New Orleans. She told OffBeat in June that while the club took its usual summer hiatus, she was returning home for good because she’d managed to get a teaching position at the University of New Orleans. “I was on my way to New Orleans to sign the contract, and that’s when the [teaching] cuts were made by our ‘wonderful’ governor,” she said. Charlie, who’s now 75, experienced some serious health problems earlier this year.
But according to Donna, the main reason they decided to shut down the club is because of the condition of the building. “The building is in horrible shape,” she said. “We rent the property and couldn’t see investing thousands of dollars into a building that wasn’t ours. With all the rain we’ve had this year, the roof leaks and the ceiling is about ready to fall in. We just couldn’t see putting money into a building we didn’t own. We’ve had so many problems over the years, and the landlord just wasn’t interested in keeping up the building. So while it was a hard decision to shut down Donna’s, we just decided it was not in our best interests, given Charlie’s health and the condition of the building, which is just getting worse. We just couldn’t find anyone who wanted to take over the business, either. I asked Charlie if he wanted to try to find a new location, but his health problems and the fact that I’m in Florida was too difficult, so we both decided that we’re done,” she said. “We’re going to relax and enjoy each other’s company!”
Interestingly, the Funky Butt, which is owned by the same landlord (Cahn Enterprise), closed for the same reason. Sammie and Shanekah Williams were operating the Funky Butt prior to Katrina, but decided to close the business because the building was “falling apart” and needed a totally new HVAC system, which the landlord would not replace. Just prior to Katrina, the Williamses were trying to relocate the Funky Butt to Frenchmen Street, but Katrina squashed that effort.
After Katrina, another operator attempted to reopen the Funky Butt as a music venue but was prevented from doing so because he could not get the proper licenses to allow live music. The same will now apply to any operator who’d want to reopen Donna’s as a music club. So it appears for now—unless the city steps up to the plate and revamps the zoning on North Rampart Street—that music on the historic street that runs next to Armstrong Park and Congo Square is a thing of the past.
From our standpoint, this appears to be a serious problem for the music scene in New Orleans and for the attempts to re-establish North Rampart as a street that permits and honors local traditional music. We’ve discussed this issue many times online and in the pages of OffBeat, and suggest that the property owners on North Rampart and in the historic areas of the city need to be held accountable for their neglect of their properties. It may not be unlawful to let the interior of an historic property fall into ruin—as long as the façade appears to be intact; it may not be unlawful to enter into a lease with a tenant who can’t afford to make structural repairs to a building that produces income and supports the city’s cultural health and economy. But both actions seem to us to be morally reprehensible and, in fact, ultimately damaging to New Orleans’ historic nature and to the city’s culture.
It’s still hard to believe that a city like New Orleans, known for its music, would not take proactive action to create music venues dedicated to indigenous music, such as jazz and brass bands. Are we a music city or aren’t we?