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Housing heats up on Jackson Avenue by the river

20th May 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

New Orleans resident Barbara Risin has lived near the Mississippi in the first block of Jackson Ave. since the 1940s. Sitting outside of her wood frame home between Tchoupitoulas and Rousseau Streets last week, she said “this part of the city doesn’t flood and I’ve always felt safe here.” After Katrina, she moved back to her block as soon as Ralph Guerrera, her old neighbor and landlord, could fix up a house for her.

Demand for housing has grown in neighborhoods spared by Katrina, and that’s helped the stretch of Jackson next to the Port of New Orleans. This year, Brown Builders in Bossier City converted the American Paint Works at the corner of Jackson and Tchoupitoulas to the Josephine Loft Apartments. Linda Resor, property manager at the lofts, said the building, which dates to 1908, was gutted and the lumber was harvested for the new floors. Last Friday, a ribbon-cutting was held at the 36-unit site. The owners hope to get federal and state historic-preservation tax credits for the project, developer Wayne Brown said.

The first part of Jackson is the 400 block. Last fall, developer and contractor Greg Morris bought a synagogue, built in 1867 and located at 709 Jackson, between Chippewa and Annunciation. He repaired the roof, expects to start on the interior soon and hopes to open 13 residential lofts there by year-end. The structure was once two stories, and long ago men sat downstairs in the synagogue, with women upstairs, Morris said. An owner before him converted the building to three stories and attached a gargoyle to the outer, riverside wall to ward off vandals. Morris said he wants to restore the building as closely as possible to its original state and will rebuild a former, double staircase out front.

Wayne Brown, the developer of Josephine Lofts, last week said he’s interested in converting the five-story, former River of Life Hospital at 609 Jackson between Chippewa and St. Thomas Streets, into residential units. Monroe Coleman, owner of Coleman Cab at 600 Jackson, said he heard the graffiti-ed 609 building across from him might be demolished. Last week, the City’s Dept. of Safety and Permits said, though a demolition request was filed for 609 last November, there was no follow through on it and no tear-down date is set. Wayne Brown said that concrete building has already been completely gutted, is structurally sound and free of mold.

Meanwhile, groups of nature lovers are sometimes seen in front of 609 Jackson admiring two live oak trees there that are several centuries old.

On the riverside stretch of Jack­son, gloom in the first few years after Katrina disappeared as painting, plastering, lot clearing and planting accelerated. Building owners and residents say the avenue’s sturdy structures—some of which date to the 1860s—along with its history of not flooding, a housing revival in the Irish Chanel and Lower Garden District, Magazine Street’s bustle, and a mass of residents at River Garden—which supplanted the old St. Thomas Housing Development—have given Jackson by the river a boost. Walmart, which opened nearly a decade ago on Tchoupitoulas below Jackson under protest from neighborhood groups, has met local grocery and housewares needs.

Among its pluses, Jackson Ave. is less than a mile from downtown jobs. The city planted trees in the neutral ground on Jackson near the river recently, and with the help of Federal Emergency Management Agency funds redid curbs on several corners last year, making them ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act, accessible.

At the end of Jackson, between Rousseau and Tchoupitoulas, Angel Hurtado owns Cruise Ship Parking and Machu Picchu Tours. He’s across the street from Josephine Lofts and is glad to see the American Paint Works building become residential, versus its former, somber use storing metals. “We’ve got lots of metals warehouses near here on Tchoupitoulas,” he said. Those buildings hold copper, zinc and other industrial metals, mainly for delivery against the London Metal Exchange in the U.K.

Hurtado said he’s already benefited from the America Paint Works conversion. Four, double streetlights brighten his block at night now, and he said “I’m sure we got them because of Josephine Lofts.” Hurtado has been there ten years, and said it used to be so dark that he installed a big light outside his property and still pays Entergy for the electricity.

Rebecca Lewis, church secretary at Jackson Avenue Evangelical Congregation church, built in 1845 in the 700 block, said “young people with lots of energy are buying and fixing up houses on this street and Philip St. behind us.” She’s attended that church since she was a child in the 1940s, and said “this section of Jackson has had ups and downs but it’s definitely on the upswing now.” She was born at 609 Jackson in the former Sara Mayo Hospital, which closed in 1979.

Lewis said the church often rents its parking lot on Jackson out to movie crews during the week. “That helps us cover our expenses, and I’ve even met some movie stars,” she said.

In other commercial activity, Marlon Horton, known as Buck, bought an old dry-cleaning business at 739 Jackson and opened Finger Lickin’ Wings in 2010. But he closed it early this year after being denied a liquor license by the City Council. He said a bounce-music party he held outside his restaurant after it opened hurt his chances for a liquor license. But similar businesses have block parties, he noted, saying Parasol’s Bar and Restaurant, which is a short walk away, has an annual St. Patty’s Day blowout on Constance and Third Streets. Horton, who grew up in the former St. Thomas project, said he hopes to reopen Finger Lickin’ Wings at the same spot, selling food only.

Horton’s business is catty-corner to the ReNEW SciTech Academy at 820 Jackson but he said that didn’t affect his liquor-license request.

What was the riverside of Jackson Avenue like back in the old days? Risin said “the 400 block used to be nice houses, with a streetcar running up and down the avenue.” Buses replaced the streetcar in the late 1940s, when a ride cost 7 cents, she said. Today her block has only three houses, an empty lot across the street, Cruise Ship Parking next door and now Josephine Lofts down at the river end. “It’s not as good as it was when I was a girl but I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she said. “Black, white, green, we’ve always gotten along here.” Immigrants from Europe were among those living near the port.

Risin is happy that the lot across the street from her house has been mowed. Rob Hohne of Truck & Barter Farms, a local operation, cleared the land with an associate and plans to start a commercial vegetable garden there. He’s financing the okra-and-tomato garden through New York-headquartered Kickstarter, which raises money from crowd-based, as opposed to corporate or government, funding on its website. Hohne plans to bring in fresh soil.

Last week Risin, along with her landlord Ralph Guerrera, who grew up on the 400 block but now lives in Slidell, reminisced about sounds from their childhood. Trains rumbled along the river, vessels blew horns and the streetcar rattled past. “We didn’t have television and not everyone had a radio but we had plenty to keep us entertained,” Guerrera said. He was on Jackson Ave. last week to spray the building next to Risin’s for termites.

Risin said she’s always known exactly when trains cross Jackson on their trips along the river. She can almost set her watch by them.

Guerrera said “when we were kids, grocery stores and bars were on practically every corner here.” His family shopped at Dorignac’s, which swelled from a small meat market on the uptown side of the 500 block in the late 1940s to a bigger grocery across the street. In the early 1960s, Dorignac’s, now an upscale food market that’s still known for its meat, moved to Veteran’s Blvd. in Metairie.

Guerrera had a job at the American Paint Works as a teenager, and said it supplied the city, along with customers in other states. He also said “when we were teenagers, the brewery at Tchoupitoulas and Jackson let us boys drink too much beer,” and that’s how he ended up working at the paint company, instead of attending school.

Recently, Guerrera heard that a restaurant might open on the closed pedestrian overpass at Tchoupitoulas and Jackson. But he said “I don’t put too much faith in that rumor.” The multi-level, windowed crosswalk was shut after the Gretna to Jackson Ave. ferry was rerouted to Canal St. in 2009.

As for truck traffic on Jackson, it isn’t nearly as heavy as neighborhood groups feared before Walmart opened. But Jackson is one of the routes cars take to Walmart, and trucks use it to reach the Port of New Orleans.

Hurtado said he hopes the city will get around to permanently fixing potholes at the end of Jackson. City workers temporarily patch holes on his block with gravel and tar. He sweeps the street in front of his building to get rid of excess gravel.

Just below Jackson on the downtown side, River Garden, bounded by Constance, St. Thomas, Felicity and Josephine Streets, opened in 2004, and has 700 mixed-income units in homes and apartment buildings, according to HRI Properties last week. River Garden replaced the 1941-era St. Thomas Housing Development, which had 1,500 units for low-income residents in more than 100 buildings.

In 1927, New Orleans along the swollen Mississippi River narrowly missed being flooded after the state decided to dynamite the levee downstream at Caernarvon in St. Bernard Parish. Since then, the city’s levees have been raised and fortified.

This article originally published in the May 20, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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