You ask for a “dozen a ershters” and the waiter, a guy with silver rings hanging from his nose and half (only half) of his head shaved, looks at you quizzically and asks, “Oysters?”
Next door, your buddy is sitting on a bar stool and lights up a Lucky Strike and says, “Gimme a Dixie.” The young woman behind the bar, who’s a recent transplant from New Haven, Connecticut, stares back at him blankly and says, “Sorry, no smoking in here,” and without taking a breath she adds, “Only Stella Artois, Amstel Light and Sam Adams Amber. Draft … no bottles.” Better for the environment, you know.
These scenarios are a tipoff to the sea change around the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Magazine Street, a bedrock neighborhood in Uptown New Orleans.
Neighborhoods translate into memories: Like when the guys walked home down Magazine from football practice and could never figure out why somebody would advertise their business as the “Laughing Funeral Home.” “Who the hell laughs at a funeral?” Danny Fournier asked.
Years later, Roger Tiffany realized it was the “Laughlin Funeral Home,” owned by none other than “Old man Joe Laughlin.”
Or why one sign announcing that you had reached “Lawrence Square,” while the other sign a few feet away read, “Laurence Square.” “Was they bruddas?” one of the gang asked.
Or how about looking for Schwab’s Bakery, the one writer John Kennedy Toole pegged as “The Germans.” That’s where Toole’s protagonist, Ignatius Reilly, went to buy jelly donuts for his mother, sucked the jelly out of each one on the way home and threw the “empties” back into the bag. “Confederacy of Dunces” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. There’s an empty lot where Schwabs once stood.
Dr. John and his longtime drummer, Freddie Staehle, both grew up a few blocks from Napoleon and Magazine. Staehle attended Sophie B. Wright Junior High School on Napoleon Avenue and remembers the old saying, “You go in Wright and you come out wrong” in view of all the alums, in those pre-charter school days, who became something less than sterling citizens once they left the classroom.
“Mac (Rebennack) came up to me on a flight home from somewhere,” Staehle recalls. “He said he had a rhythm in his head and he needed some of my poetry. The only poetry I ever knew was what we used to say in junior high: “You go in Wright and you come out wrong.” Well, two nights later he calls me in and says, ‘Freddie, man, listen up to what I did with your poetry: ‘I was in the right place … but it was the wrong time …’”
St. Henry’s or St. Stephen’s?
“Great neighborhood,” says Willie Patin, a retired police officer. “Spent a lot of my life on Napoleon and Magazine.”
“I joined the force when I was 20,” Patin says. “I was in the 2nd (District police station at Napoleon and Magazine) between 1965 and ’68. Then I went into robbery division.
“But what a neighborhood! Close, tight-knit neighborhood of families … everybody knew everybody else. You either went to St. Henry’s School or St. Stephen’s, depending on what side of Magazine you lived.”
Patin is on a roll, talking about the streetcar that ran on Magazine until 1948. Then it was replaced by an electric bus, then a diesel.
It was a diverse neighborhood, and most of those who came up there went on to successful lives, Patin says.
“That’s because we all had parents,” he says. “We had a mother and father and the father would work one or two jobs and the mother would stay home and take care of everything.”
Patin moved to Metairie 42 years ago. “But I remember Napoleon and Magazine like it was yesterday.”
A neighborhood anchor
There’s a lot of talk about 2008, when then-Archbishop Alfred Hughes closed down St. Henry’s Church around the corner on Gen. Pershing Street.
“Like many neighborhoods, so many people moved away,” says Alden Hagardorn, a lifelong resident of the Napoleon and Magazine neighborhood and the man who formed the Friends of St. Henry, which eventually was successful in having St. Henry’s Church reopened. “They underestimated what this neighborhood meant to people.
“I remember when I was a kid,” Hagardorn says, “there was McNulty’s Pharmacy, Maxwell Cleaners, Weaver’s Grocery, Ortolano’s … Even today when I ride down Magazine those places come back to my mind. Winsberg’s clothing store and Friedman’s where we used to get our school uniforms. … I can’t forget those things.”
Neither can Msgr. Henry Engelbrecht. He was pastor of St. Henry’s for 20 years and now serves as chaplain at Ocshner-Baptist Hospital on Napoleon Avenue. His own childhood church — Our Lady of Lourdes on Napoleon Avenue — was recently sold by the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
“You’ve got all that building going on right there on Napoleon and Magazine and those fences right at Mardi Gras time. But it will all be for the better. Lots of gentrification going on. Lots of money coming in and buying up older properties.”
‘Ain’t dere no more’
What comes to mind mostly about the neighborhood of Napoleon Avenue and Magazine Street is the Benny Grunch ditty, “Ain’t dere no more!”:
Hibernia Bank, where blue collar workers ran on Friday afternoon to cash their checks on the way to the bookies down the street? That’s now Mignon Faget, replete with painted doors and Mignon’s flags.
Vonderhaar’s Grocery? It’s now La Petit Grocery, an upscale eatery.
The Winn-Dixie? It’s been long bought up by St. George’s School.
Monsignor Englebrecht’s St. Henry’s rectory? Two of the former St. Henry’s school buildings now house Ecole Bilingue de la Nouvelle-Orléans. The rectory is about to make it a trio.
Then there’s Waxin’ the City, No Fleas Market, For Your Eyes Only, the ubiquitous nail joints and Rivista, which boasts, “Amore baked here.”
It’s one cleverly named boutique after another, where sloppy roast beefs, cold beers and clothing stores once reigned.
But then again, some things never change.
The clock hanging over the counter reads “Model Cleaners … Phone CH 4025” in the old-fashioned telephone code.
“My wife Agnes and I have been here all our lives,” says Donald Sachitana, whose family once owned Model Cleaners. Eleven years ago, Donald and Agnes leased the business to Jae and Frances Kim, who proudly announce that they offer, the “finest in dry cleaning/organic cleaning.”
“We still own the building,” Donald says. “We live right upstairs, right over the cleaners. Agnes and I both love this neighborhood. Always have. It’s part of us. Others may move out, and so many, many have, but not us. I’m going to stay here until my very last day.”
Donald and Agnes walk hand in hand down General Pershing to St. Henry’s and their ritual of praying the rosary every Saturday morning. They never miss, Agnes says.
Because even among the upscale diners and the disappearing dive bars, some things never change.