Plum Street: A Cool Glimmer of Hope

By Edwin Wang

In an era marked by unprecedented challenge due to the Covid-19 pandemic, no institution or organization has been spared. There has been an abundance of narratives detailing the pain derived from the virus’ disruption; behemoths like Amazon and Google have reported unprecedented upsets to their logistics networks, while businesses large and small have crowded waiting lines in hopes of receiving aid from Congress’ new Payroll Protection Program.

Perhaps no city is more familiar with persevering through unforeseen obstacles than New Orleans. In a city that has borne the consequences of seemingly endless natural disasters from Betsy to Andrew to Katrina to Isaac, time and again New Orleans has been forced to concede crippling acts of God with a generic naming system and seasonal recurrence. Furthermore, hurricanes do not conclude the list of external, unavoidable challenges that New Orleans has historically had thrust on its plate. Along with being deprived of federal recovery aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was submerged into further depths of despair as the Great Financial Crisis roiled national and local economies three years later.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, business was booming in New Orleans. As the global economy healed from the financial crisis’ unprecedented destruction, New Orleans was a major beneficiary of the recovery. Everything from prospering construction projects to a budding technology sector aided New Orleans’ gradual healing; as a flourishing restaurant and entertainment scene gave rise to a renowned tourism industry, the boon of the last decade led economists to dub the period as the “New Orleans Renaissance.”

But this March, New Orleans’ tenured streak of perseverance and resilience was presented yet another black swan. As Covid-19 cases skyrocketed globally and began severely disrupting the United States in the waning days of winter, a city defined by intimate bonds and personable relationships was forced to embrace the economically crippling, mandated lockdowns that sought to contain the pandemic’s spread.

No one is more cognizant of this chaos than Donna and Claude Black, the co-owners of Plum Street Snoballs in Uptown New Orleans. In the 42 years that the Black family have owned their iconic Sno-ball stand, Donna recalls, “it’s never been like this, never had a worry. I have never closed except for hurricanes. We were at the peak and now we’re at the slope.” 

Sno-balls, a delicacy unique to Louisiana and perfected in New Orleans, are a signature summer treat that provides a frosty respite from the sweltering heat. As Donna muscles a twenty-five-pound brick of ice into her signature blending machine, she dispels a preconceived myth about the secret behind her world class snowballs: “it’s not so much about the ice, it’s the machine you’re using. But then you can have a machine and if you don’t know what to do with it, you can’t make good ice. So that’s one of the secrets in my back pocket.”

While Donna’s special talent for crafting Sno-balls has garnered Plum Street a loyal base of local patrons, she estimates that roughly a quarter of her clientele hails from out of state- a crippling blow considering numerous summer entertainment events, of which Sno-balls are a staple for, were cancelled. When recounting the health of Plum Street’s business this year, Donna sighs, “no Jazz Fest, no French Quarter Fest, no weddings, no receptions, no birthday parties- and that’s a big part of it!”

The disappearance of tourists and students due to the pandemic has noticeably detracted from Plum Street’s typically milling summer crowds. The impact of catering events on Plum Street’s operations stretches far beyond commercial venues like concerts and family gatherings; Donna laments the cancelation of university affiliated events, anxiously recounting, “When you hear there’s no more catering for Tulane football games, it’s like oh no!”

Unfortunately, New Orleans is not a city characterized by deep political ties to Washington D.C. like financial services hub New York City or American technology capital Silicon Valley. Notably, while many large corporations and small businesses in these powerhouses secured access to the Payroll Protection Program that preserved many livelihoods, the vast majority of New Orleanians were left to fend for themselves.

Nevertheless, the Black’s approach to the ongoing pandemic underscores the ingrained zeal and resilience in the New Orleans community. History indicates New Orleans perseveres through challenges, reinforcing their faith without letting up on the accelerator even in the face of unprecedented complications. As Donna optimistically concludes about Plum Street’s future outlook, “scary, very uncertain. I never know what tomorrow’s going to bring, so you hustle today, and you hope for tomorrow. You take the good with the bad and just go.”

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