In less than a year, an aquamarine rectangle along a stately 7th Ward road will be transformed.
The structure, a former grocery-turned-nightclub, will gain refurbished doors and windows. Its concrete block and stucco exterior will be carefully preserved and refreshed. And New Orleans’ “only true reggae club,” as proprietor Alvin Reece calls it, will gain an outdoor terrace for patrons’ pleasure.
For Club Caribbean and six other establishments along Bayou Road slated for revamping, the improvements are a way to attract customers impressed by restored architecture and freshly painted façades.
For the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority — the agency writing the checks for most of the work — it is one piece of a much larger project: a plan to breathe life into four of the city’s commercial corridors and preserve the history they embody.
Dual missions notwithstanding, all involved eagerly await the finale. “I think it’s going to bring a positive change to the area,” Reece said. “That’s going to be a plus, man, because it’s well needed.”
Besides the area around Bayou Road, one of the city’s oldest thoroughfares, NORA’s Façade Renew program targets three other corridors: a stretch of Old Gentilly Road; parts of St. Claude and Poland avenues; and parts of Oretha Castle Haley and Martin Luther King boulevards and South Rampart Street.
The program provides a three-to-one match for improvements to businesses’ front exteriors, with a cap set at $37,500 per property. It is supporting 29 projects at a cost of $946,433, with funding coming from federal grants.
It acts as “the missing teeth” to the city agency’s larger Commercial Gap Financing Program, which has loaned cash to larger and more traditional redevelopment projects citywide, said Melissa Lee, the pilot program’s point woman. The money in this case is grants, not loans, and it often goes to mom-and-pop shops otherwise unable to afford to spruce up their premises.
“We are working with commercial corridors where, if not for our intervention, the level of recovery investment dollars would not be realized,” Lee said.
Historic preservation is key, as in the case of Club Caribbean, which is housed in one of the oldest buildings on the street. Also undergoing renovation is the commercial and residential property at 2507-11 Bayou Road, which was built between 1905 and 1908 with hollow concrete block, a material not widely used until decades later.
Crews are restoring the former H.G. Hill and Piggly-Wiggly grocery store, which in 1929 sold “milk-fed, western, dressed” chickens for 32 cents a pound, a Times-Picayune advertisement shows. Today, it’s home to a Caribbean restaurant and day care center.
Digging through a building’s past helps inform decisions on its future appearance, said Beth Jacob, a NORA design and research consultant.
For Beverly McKenna and Eric Burt, though, of greater interest is the red brick road’s history as a link between the Mississippi River and Bayou St. John.
McKenna, The New Orleans Tribune’s publisher and a major Bayou Road property owner, said she was drawn to the area because it served as an artery for Native Americans before Europeans arrived in the area and built a city. By the 1800s, the area also had become a beacon for free people of color, she said.
Burt, who grew up in the area, left but returned, saying it was never far from his heart.
But in the years leading up to Katrina, Bayou Road fell into neglect, both said.
Businesses left after the proliferation of crime and drugs kept customers away and hurt bottom lines. “You couldn’t get a taxicab to drop you off in this neighborhood,” Burt said.
Burt and other community leaders spent years working with police to drive out drug dealers. McKenna later bought the 2507-11 complex where Burt lived, the nearby Club Caribbean and other buildings.
As part of a plan to block what she describes as the gentrification of Bayou Road and surrounding neighborhoods, McKenna has purposefully rented to minority-owned businesses, including Beauty on de Bayou and Look at Me Now Hair Studio, two hair salons; the Coco Hut, a Caribbean-inspired restaurant known for its chile-infused jerk chicken; and the Love Center Day Care and Learning Academy, which McKenna said helped fill a citywide need for child-care centers after Katrina.
She’s also rented space to the New Orleans Institute for the Imagination, a nonprofit that focuses on arts education. Burt is a board member and instructor there.
Working with NORA has been helpful, McKenna said. Without its aid, “my changes probably would have come about, but more slowly,” she said.
Last week, workers on scaffolding were finishing a pink paint job — in keeping with McKenna’s Caribbean theme for the street — on the building the institute shares with Look at Me Now.
Beauty on de Bayou, also adorned in pink and white, was about 95 percent complete. As of Thursday, the salon needed only a sign at its entrance, proprietor Dwana Makeba said.
Next door, at the Coco Hut and Love Center, aluminum siding was being removed and wood siding repaired and repainted, among other things.
Under NORA regulations, all the projects must be completed within a year of their approval. That means McKenna’s four properties should be wrapped up by the second quarter of 2016, Lee said.
Reece, at the as-yet-untouched Club Caribbean, is ready. As he paced the space Thursday, he spoke of adorning it with flags representing countries from which his patrons hail.
The bold aquamarine exterior might not survive the renovations, he said. But, he added, “We are trying to keep it some Caribbean colors. … Ms. McKenna and I are going to talk that over.”
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.