by Samantha Werner
New Orleans is known for its sensational entertainment, food, and nightlife, but what wonders lie outside of the city itself, beyond the tourist destinations? One of these notable locales is a small Metairie neighborhood that has been around for decades, one that most tourists never see, even though it was once considered to be the French Quarter of Metairie. This small community was never able to expand past being a local neighborhood hangout because it never gained the worldwide prominence that made the French Quarter flourish.
The neighborhood, which eventually came to be known as Fat City, thrived in the 1970s and 1980s. Over time, however, the atmosphere has undergone many drastic changes, which created a struggle to maintain the importance and popularity of the community, while also leaving many people to wonder if Fat City is worth saving, or if it should just remain a memory of the past. Many people want to revitalize Fat City because, as Councilwoman Cynthia Lee Sheng said, “There’s no other neighborhood like it in Metairie.”
In the early 1970s, Roy Anselmo and Joe Peters were going down Bonnabel Blvd. when they passed a snowball stand that’s sign read “Fat City Snowballs”. They decided that “Fat City” would be a great name for the 100-acre neighborhood located in the heart of Metairie, between Veterans Blvd. and West Esplanade and Severn Avenue and Division Street. Fat City became such a prominent title for the area that in the late 1970s, elected representatives made it the official name, and thus Fat City was born. Because Fat City became an outstanding destination for locals, 18th Street—the only main street travelling in the East-West direction through the area—was soon renamed Fat City Boulevard.
When Fat City first started in the late 1960s, it looked nothing similar to how it does today, which is due to the expansions and changes that have been made in recent decades. Dan Ellis, a historian and author originally from New Orleans, lived near Fat City during its creation and its prime. He recalled, “At the beginning, oh I don’t remember exactly what year, but probably around the late 1960s, the area was actually just shell roads, a couple of apartment complexes, two bars and two restaurants.”
Since Fat City essentially began from nothing, there were many aspects of it that led to problems as the neighborhood attempted to expand. “Well, I think Fat City was never really planned, properly,” Councilwoman Sheng explains, “We didn’t do those kinds of things you’d see with planning in terms of enough parking, the streets weren’t wide enough.” The parking issue that was created due to a lack of planning in the 1960s is still one of the major complications that Fat City faces today.
Over a period of about ten years, there were many new nightclubs, bars, and restaurants that opened, allowing a dominant nightlife for the younger crowds of Metairie without them having to travel downtown. Because Fat City became a popular destination for many locals to spend their nights out with friends, more businesses opened, allowing the neighborhood to expand.
“It grew up. It grew fat,” Ellis said in regards to the growth of Fat City. Although there was a lot of development, most Fat City businesses during its heyday focused on entertainment rather than food quality, with Drago’s Seafood Restaurant being the main exception. Many tourists know that Drago’s is one of the prime destinations they must go to while they are in the city because of the renowned charbroiled oysters, but few may know that the Downtown location is not the original. Rather, the first location has been around Fat City since the beginning, and it is one of the few original surviving businesses that remain in Fat City today.
Tommy Cvitanovich, the second-generation restaurant manager of Drago’s, encourages the revitalization of Fat City so that the businesses within it can be preserved. One way that this can be accomplished is by spreading the success from Lakeside Mall, one of the more successful and progressive malls of the southeastern United States, since it is located right across from Fat City. Lakeside Mall makes a good neighbor for Fat City: “One of two things is going to happen. The good of Lakeside is going to take over the bad of Fat City, or the bad of Fat City is going to take over Lakeside. And so far it’s getting to the point that the good of Lakeside is creeping into the Fat City area,” Cvitanovich said.
As Fat City grew fatter and gained popularity, there needed to be a way to satisfy the influx of a younger, single crowd, so more apartment complexes opened in and around Fat City. In regards to the apartments, Cvitanovich explained, “When they were new it was a much better class, higher income type person that was living there, typical suburban type living. Well over the years, the properties have deteriorated…A lot of them haven’t been taken care of at all, so now you have low income housing.”
Although the apartment complexes were not the only undesirable aspect of Fat City, they did not assist in making the community stronger. Ellis explained a few of the other factors that contributed to the downfall of Fat City: “They started having t-shirt shops open up. Riffraff started coming in, and the better places started closing down.” Many of the original nightclubs and bars closed down due to over competition, and many sleazy places began opening in response. Additionally, with the dense living in the apartments, drugs and crime became more prevalent, which furthered the demise of the once important Fat City. In response to the declining clientele and patrons of Fat City, the Jefferson Parish Government disenfranchised it and reverted the name Fat City Boulevard back to 18th Street.
Back in the 70s and 80s, when Fat City was still considered the French Quarter of Metairie, it was a lot safer for people to walk around and enjoy the neighborhood; however, in recent years people no longer want to spend time in Fat City due to the crime and dilapidated buildings, even though there are some great places in the neighborhood. Because it has been decades since the prime days of Fat City, many people have wondered if it is a cause worth saving. In response to this question, Ellis said, “Well, my feeling is that Fat City is something in the past. It’s good for nostalgia. It was fun. It was great when it was there, but it’s going to be gone, gone, gone. I don’t see a revival.” As he explained, it isn’t likely that Fat City can achieve the same atmosphere and level of status that it had during the disco era, but there are many business owners, councilmembers, and locals, who want to revitalize Fat City into a new type of community.
Councilwoman Sheng was a major contributor in the revitalization efforts taking place in Fat City in recent years. One of the major pieces of legislature that passed in 2010 was to rezone Fat City to make it less of a nightclub scene, which in effect would lessen drunken behavior and thus reduce the need for increased law enforcement in the area. The Metairie Business Development District Project Manager Warren Surcouf said, “They ended up closing down as many of the bars as possible, making it to where you couldn’t sell alcohol past a certain time… so that sort of shut down all all-night bars.” By closing down bars early, there has been less drunken behavior and nuisance problems, which has helped neutralize the area and restore hope and energy to the improvement of Fat City.
In addition to the problem of the bars and nightlife, the other major problem in regards to Fat City is the parking situation. Councilwoman Sheng estimated that Fat City is currently lacking from three to six thousand parking spaces. Most people in Metairie get around by driving, so not having spots available for people to park makes it difficult for people to venture into the neighborhood and go into businesses. Councilwoman Sheng said, “When you go to Magazine Street you can park in the neighborhood. You get your way to Magazine Street by walking, and then you’re walking up and down Magazine Street. It’s easy to do. With the lack of parking in Fat City, that is one of our biggest challenges.” The goal is to make Fat City more family and pedestrian friendly, but this cannot be accomplished until there are places for people to park so that they can walk around the neighborhood, like people do on Magazine Street.
Although some progress has been made with expanding parking and eliminating drunken behavior by reducing the number of bars, there is still a lot to be done before Fat City can again become a place people want to visit. One thing that still needs to be accomplished is that business owners need to restore their properties. “People aren’t really willing to redevelop their own land, but they also don’t want to sell their land, and so that is going to be what holds us up in Fat City in terms of the development,” Councilwoman Sheng said. She explained that people do not want to sell their properties because they want to stay around when Fat City restores its popularity, but they also do not want to contribute to the restoration by redeveloping their land, which complicates and damages its rate of development and overall success.
If the revitalization efforts can be accomplished, it will not be a recreation of the old Fat City, but rather something new and more refined. However, this revamping of the city will take time, because Fat City has had decades to fall apart and lose its weight in the community. In regards to the growth of Fat City in recent years, Councilwoman Sheng also said, “Of all of the Jefferson Parish Neighborhoods, it’s the one that has changed for the positive in the shortest amount of time.”
Change cannot happen over night, but there are many steps that need to be taken in order to make Fat City fat again through the rebuilding and rejuvenation of the neighborhood. Some contributions that have been made to the restoration of Fat City consist of the widening of sidewalks, the placing of new trash receptacles, the planting of one hundred trees, and the installation of ten murals on buildings within Fat City. These recreational enhancements are an important step in making the neighborhood a nicer and cleaner place to which people will want to go.
Councilwoman Sheng explained, “I think it’s going to be very successful for us again; I don’t think it’s going to be a repeat of what we had in the past in terms of a nightlife. I think that the surrounding area is very suburban and family-oriented.” It appears that the efforts to revitalize Fat City have been successful thus far, so it is likely that the neighborhood will continue to grow and advance as more people realize its sensation. Although Fat City will never gain quite the prominence it had during its heyday as the French Quarter of Metairie, it is becoming a new suburban highlight that will retain its reputation as the heart of Metairie.