The Evolution of Oak Street

By Jacob Freedman

Oak Street has returned to its position as the backbone of the Carrollton neighborhood in New Orleans. The Main Streets Project and the Oak Street community worked to drastically change the street after the 1970s, contrasting decades of decline. Now, Oak Street is peppered with shops, restaurants, and bars. The streets around Oak are generally affluent and residents are involved in their community. Some residents argue that Oak St. is being gentrified and whitewashed, while others see the changes in a positive light, as a revitalization. Oak Street’s evolution is far from over; what comes next for this neighborhood on the rise?

Hank Staples is the owner of The Maple Leaf, a legendary music club that has attracted artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Mariah Carey to its “grungy” space. Hank has lived above The Maple Leaf Bar since 1985 and has experienced the transformation of Oak Street.

Hank recalls a time when he first came to the area, “It was rundown, seedy, and dangerous. There were two types of people past Cambronne Street, predators and prey. People didn’t even report robberies.”

He has been influential in creating community events that have brought change to Oak Street, such as Po-Boy Fest, Hanksgiving, and Midsummer Mardi Gras. Hank served as co-president of the Carrollton-Riverbend Neighborhood Association (CRNA) with Ralph Driscoll until this year. Together, they gave the Oak Street community a voice to pursue a better neighborhood.

The neighborhood started to turn around when Hank leased out a property to Jacques Leonardi, the restaurateur behind Jacque-Imo’s. Hank said, “Jacques is the person who brought people back to Oak Street and The Maple Leaf became much stronger because of the popularity of Jacques-Imo’s.” Hank remembered that in Jacques’ first year-and-a-half, he hardly kept the doors open. Then the restaurant got a decent review, not even a rave review. “It talked about what a wacky, crazy place it was, and when that review came out his business certainly doubled and might have tripled. A year after that review, Jacques-Imo’s was a really strong business and there was no question he was gonna make it. One by one, more businesses started to pop up on the street.” Hank said that change past Cambronne Street came after the streets were repaired post-Katrina. These repairs and developments have been ongoing for decades.

Grace Jinnah, an art student at Loyola, has lived on Oak Street for six years. She doesn’t have Hank’s Oak Street seniority, but she had valuable insight on the recent history and future of Oak Street. Even in the last six years, she has experienced great change on Oak Street. Grace said, “(I)n the last year or two a bunch of businesses have cropped up on the street.” Indeed, InXile (a video game developer), La Casita Taqueria, Lionheart Prints, Simone’s Market, DTB Social House, and a new condo development have all come to Oak Street since January 2016.

Similarly, the property value has increased greatly since her family bought the home. “The surrounding neighborhoods are getting nicer and nicer too. The radius around Oak Street is improving,” Grace said. In 2000, the median household income in the 70118 area was $28,006. The most recent estimates put the median household income at $41,110, a drastic change, according to the US Census info.

Grace was generally in favor of development on Oak Street, “Simone’s is very good for me, because I can walk not even a block and get what I want, like pickles. It’s a market and I’m kind of surprised about it actually. I didn’t think a lot of people here could necessarily afford the stuff in there. I’m glad these places are popping up. I think it’ll draw a good crowd in.”

The condominiums, on the other hand, strike her as a bit more sinister.

The Oak Street condos come as part of a citywide surge in condo developments. Grace said, “I feel like this happens to a lot of small towns that are beautiful the way they are. They get these developers who want to commercialize the whole space because of its beauty and then it changes completely and loses what was initially so special about the place. That’s really tragic.”

Condos are a long-standing indicator of gentrification and socio-economic change in neighborhoods. These condos are not cheap. They range from $395,000 to $645,000 for two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments. Many of these condominiums have already been sold. Grace “thinks that Oak Street could handle more people but is afraid of the neighborhood losing its nature.”

The worry about the condos displays a shift in narrative since Hank’s time. It says something positive about Oak Street’s progression that it is a worry for residents if Oak Street loses its “feel.” Grace said that Oak Street is “family oriented and has a small-town feel without it being overwhelming. It’s two different worlds compared to the city. You get the romantic feeling of the city without the sauce.” By “sauce,” she means, “the alcoholism, tourism, crime, and grime” of the French Quarter and other parts of New Orleans. This echoed Hank’s sentiment when he said, “the real estate boom happened in the last several years, Oak Street was attractive because it had an old, small-town feel but was clean and somewhat safe.” This view of Oak Street as relatively safe and “sauce-free” contrasts the recent history of the area and indicates the strides taken in improving the neighborhood.

Ralph and Audrey Driscoll have lived on Oak Street for 21 years. They live above an antiques and restoration shop that they own and operate together. Ralph credits the Carrollton-Riverbend Neighborhood Association with turning the neighborhood around. “When Hank and I took over as co-presidents, we decided to include everyone with a vested interest from Carrollton to the river. Whether you own a business, own a property, or you’re renting, you’re part of the organization” Ralph said. The CRNA gave the people of the Carrollton neighborhood a voice to engage with the government and bring positive change to Oak Street.

Ralph and Audrey also agreed that the owner-occupied character of the Carrollton neighborhood played a key role in its success. “We’re not like a strip mall. The doors close at 9 o’clock and we’re sitting on the benches, all the neighbors are walking their dogs. It’s a community.” Audrey said that it “anchors the neighborhood,” that the business owners live on or near the street so they have a doubly vested interest in the success of Oak Street.

Similarly, people who live on Oak Street want to live on Oak Street. Audrey says this applies more generally to New Orleans too. “It makes a total difference. People going somewhere like Atlanta, you go there because your company says so. The quality of life here [in New Orleans], that’s why they come. New Orleans has a tremendous vibe.” Audrey and Ralph love Oak Street, and they are highly invested in its success.

They have endeavoured to create a positive paradigm around themselves on Oak Street. “When real estate agents would come around and ask me how’s the neighborhood? I’d say, ‘Oh man this neighborhood is really booming.’ It was dangerous! ‘Man this neighborhood is really booming.’ and the fools believed me,” Ralph said. They would buy buildings and renovate them, causing others to do the same. Ralph called this a self-fulfilling prophecy. The CRNA didn’t just wait around for the street to get better, they worked to make Oak Street into what it is today.

Somewhat surprisingly, Ralph and Audrey were very supportive of the new condos at 8616 Oak. “The people moving into New Orleans right now are all young, educated, professional people, so that changes your tax structure, it changes your culture. They want the grocery store like Simone’s down there. They want the upscale, they want the wine bar,” Ralph said. “New Orleans is getting to be called a boutique city, it’s too expensive to live in,” Audrey said.

Audrey and Ralph said that when George Fowler built the condos down the street, it cemented which way the neighborhood was going. “The only constant is change. The alternative to growth is decay. The opposite of regeneration is obliteration,” Ralph said.

“If you don’t have gentrification, it’s only gonna go downhill,” Ralph said. The condos were erected where there was once a rough, industrial space. Ralph and Audrey said that it was a landscaping company with big piles of dirt that would often block off the sidewalk and the street. It has been replaced with a fairly attractive building made to emulate the existing style of the neighborhood with a luxury twist. From the Driscoll’s perspective, now there are 21 upscale condos with residents looking to enjoy life in the neighborhood: walking the street, spending money at shops like theirs, and enriching Oak Street.

The enrichment of Oak Street may displace many poorer residents. Displacement is a crucial reason “gentrification” has become a negative buzzword in recent years. However, the Driscoll’s find an upside to this as well. Many of these poorer residents are being displaced out of dangerous places they shouldn’t be living in anyway. Ralph said, “(T)hey can’t afford the rent anymore, not because of greedy developers, but because of slum landlords who couldn’t afford to fix the houses after Katrina.”

“Yes, displacement sounds bad, but these people are being pushed out of homes they shouldn’t be living in because they’re not kept up and they’re not safe,” Audrey said.

Grace and the Driscolls were attracted to Oak Street by the familial atmosphere and affordable real estate. Perhaps, as Grace fears, condo developments might alter the neighborhood for the worst. With expensive organic food markets like Simone’s and new condominium developments, Oak Street might price out the very people that made the street successful. If the real estate is less affordable, family interest in the neighborhood may be replaced by more condo developers and the demographic might shift. Perhaps, the Driscolls are right, and if it wasn’t for this gentrification, there would be decay. Oak Street has moved staunchly in the right direction, away from “seedy, rundown, and dangerous.” Time will only tell where this revitalization will go.

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