Neighborhood bar believes ‘gentrification’ is trying to shut it down
12th June 2014 · 0 Comments
By Michael Patrick Welch
The Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward has in the last several years become coveted high-ground real estate. As a result, the traditionally Black area has drawn a diverse array of new neighbors. And with such diversity comes often drastically different ideals, opinions, and methods of handling conflict within the community.
One center of Holy Cross’ growing pains has been Mercedes Place Bar, owned for roughly 25 years by 74-year-old Mercedes Gibson. At first located in Central City on Baronne and Clio, Gibson later moved Mercedes Place to 5200 Burgundy in the Lower Nine, nearer to her home of 30 years.
Mercedes Gibson rebuilt what Katrina destroyed. Today her daughter Deborah Wilson—raised in the Lower Nine but now living in Woodmere—describes her mother’s bar as a respite for senior citizens, a mellow place she says opens early and closes around 9 p.m. each night.
Mercedes Place has, however, especially recently, been directly blamed for feeding into the area’s famously abundant drugs and crime. Wilson, speaking for her elderly mother, claims her family has never heard any direct complaints about the bar; complaints went directly to the city via parties that choose to remain anonymous.
“New neighbors have come in with their own game plan, and things they want to change,” claims Wilson, who says she knows everyone around the bar, except a few of the new renters and other sudden neighbors. “The neighborhood could use some changes but… why you gonna target an original neighborhood business that came back after Katrina”
In truth though, the story is more complex.
On Nov 29, 2011, a shooting occurred at Mercedes Place. Then in March of 2012, drug dealers reportedly ran into Mercedes Place to escape police and ditch contraband. Another aggravated battery report was filed against the bar on April 7, 2012.
The March dustup ensnared Gibson and company, who ended up in front of the city’s Alcohol and Tobacco Control in 2013. At the end of that trial the city handed down a consent decree, mandating that Mercedes Place must abide by eleven new rules if Gibson wished to keep her alcohol license: She was ordered to join—and pay dues—to the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, and to also pay 25 percent of the cost to hire an Association-approved security detail to patrol up to three blocks around Mercedes Place every Thursday through Sunday and during special events. Gibson was also ordered to close her bar no later than 11p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends, to purchase metal detectors, which she would pass over every customer, and to paint the exterior of her bar.
On May 20, 2014, Gibson told the ABO board she never hired security because she didn’t have the money and that, though she attended as many Holy Cross Neighborhood Association meetings as she could given her age, she was unable to pay dues. The guy she hired to paint her place got halfway through before he was killed.
Gibson found herself telling all of this to the ABO after supposedly having broken the consent decree in a much more dramatic way: In March of 2014, the bar’s license came under emergency suspension after the FBI caught Mercedes Gibson’s grandson and undocumented bar manager, Gregory “Fat Greg” Gibson, trying to unload 40-grams of heroin on the property around Mercedes Place, and storing two pounds of expensive marijuana in a back shed.
An administrative hearing in Baton Rouge determined that Mercedes Gibson was not to blame for her grandson’s wrongdoing or the neighborhood’s overall drug problem. Then the ABO held its own local trial.
“The only people I saw there in the City Council chambers against the bar was the city,” says Lawrence Martin, head of the Council of Black Elders—a group loudly advocating and serving as a defacto PR service for the bar.
“Usually anyone who has a beef shows up to speak, but everyone in the chambers was for Mercedes bar.” Video of the trial confirms this: (http://nolacitycouncil.com/video/video_legislative.aspid=59).
In the end, the ABO also determined that since drugs had never been found on Mercedes Gibson’s property, and that a 74-year-old woman could not control the environment around her premises, they would not suspend her alcohol license. The board, however, left Mercedes Gibson with a stern warning that she must find the money to fulfill the consent decree, or else face consequences.
Since the May 20 hearing, Mercedes Place has hired private security for the bar.
Wilson and Martin both expressed frustration at the bar having to cater to the whims of a neighborhood association that they both believed to have popped up recently, just since Katrina. Current HCNA President, Sarah DeBacher, however, claims the Association was founded in the early 1980s.
Either way: “We are not trying to shut down that bar,” says DeBacher who was promoted from Vice President in 2012. “I would not dispute that the association [has] a lot of new members, and that some of the membership shift has happened in the last three years. But there have been multiple shootings at that bar, and other crime.” Though the former President of Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, William P. Waiters, did indeed contact the city in 2012 regarding nuisance activity at Mercedes Place, DeBacher says no one in the association has complained to the city on her watch.
Debacher also claims the city dragged the association’s name into the trial without asking her input. She says she’s displeased at how the consent decree mandated Gibson to join and report to the HCNA, and that she has neither the time, resources or inclination to police Mercedes’ Place.
Kim Ford, the Association’s VP and a member since Katrina, lives near the bar with her husband Mark Ford, whose family has called the Lower Nine home for four generations. “So we are not newcomers to the Lower 9th Ward,” states Ford, who claims that she more recently visited the bar and announced, “The neighborhood association wants no part of getting between the city, the ABO and Mercedes Bar. We are about uniting the community, period.”
Martin and the Black Council of Elders claim there are more nefarious reasons why new neighbors want to close Mercedes Place: To Martin, Gibson and Wilson, this all looks like a land grab, and an encroachment by new neighbors onto the previous long-held culture of Holy Cross. “She’s been made several [very low] offers by out-of-town investors,” claims Martin. According to Martin, after Mercedes rejected said offers, Perez Developers was awarded a controversial height exception to construct the Holy Cross neighborhood’s first ever six-story high-rise at the Holy Cross High School, just a few blocks from Mercedes Place.
As for the Association getting in bed with developers who are after Mercedes Gibson’s valuable land, DeBacher sighs, “We spent months and months trying to fight Perez [against their high-rise], and now we’re being told that we are in cahoots.”
This article originally published in the June 9, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.