By Libby Tisler
Since my first time Ubering to The Neutral Ground Coffee House a year ago and every time since then, the car I am in has driven past it. Without fail. Tucked between a strip of houses on Danneel Street, the Neutral Ground is easy to pass by, or to never even notice at all. It is the type of place that needs to be found. In a city where music is often easily accessible, flashy and noticeable, this is quite a change.
If you find the Neutral Ground (or it finds you), you will walk past a group of regulars and volunteers seated at a table beneath the exterior stained glass window and into a shotgun-house coffee shop. If you closed your eyes, though, you would know you’ve arrived by sensing the light New Orleans dusty smell blended with brewing tea. The walls are crowded with a myriad of knick knacks from varying decades, some unseen sign or artwork appearing with every new glance around. The decor is seen through a light haze, as if the room itself was cast entirely in a sepia toned filter. Ava Drennan, a freshman at Loyola, walked into this coffeeshop, past this local group at the table, in the beginning of her year and now sits among them in what she likes to call her “uptown secret little living room.”
This secret little living room, unlike the majority music performance spaces, is a not for profit venue. Yet, they host up to 4 acts of live music every night of the week. The stage, or rather the front landing of the wooden paneled room, has hosted an eclectic mix of musicians: mostly singer-songwriters sharing stories with only their five inch thick guitar separating them from listeners seated on the purple hand painted sofa that lounges before the stage. Some are local musicians living within five minutes from the coffeehouse, others may be folks passing through, looking for a new place to share their stories.
These musicians play for free (maybe some tips on a good night – I once made three dollars performing here) and everyone that works there, like Drennan, are volunteers and work for tips only. She forgoes a wage in exchange for “the people here” she says “and how accepting everyone is. We talk about important things in our lives and are really like a family here.” Drennan can be found here most nights, along with several other regulars who can be expected to arrive not long after opening at 7:30 p.m., being welcomed by their newfound community with a kind “hello.”
Drennan, works mainly behind the counter, her backdrop a chalkboard displaying the coffees, teas and assorted snacks to be served to the scattered listeners in the room. While Monday nights may be her shift, she is accompanied by several other volunteers who choose to join her, drifting between their outdoor, streetside territory and the locally preferred back side of the high top counter. On groggy Monday nights like these, the volunteers outnumber the patrons and will soon serve as the “rotating cast of characters” for the duration of the week. The Neutral Ground extends beyond the music and serves as a community who gathers together in the little living room to share stories, ideas, and time.
This cast of characters is responsible keeping the doors of the Neutral Ground open as a home for musicians and listeners alike. Where many aspects of the music industry are driven by cash flow, individuals and their personalities are often swept aside or forgotton for the sake of an extra dollar. Whether seated at the hand painted purple couch listening to the artists, curled up and tucked away in the back nooks, or working behind the counter, for no cost at all (or three dollars for a mug of tea), the Neutral Ground brings community and realism back to music.
“The Neutral Ground” Drennan says “it’s just a great place for all sorts of people and all the misfits of the world. We are all kind of misfits in some way and we can hang out here. Everyone has a story to tell.”