Jackson Avenue Heats Up Near The Port Of New Orleans

05/19/2013 01:02 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2013

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the May 20, 2013 edition.)

New Orleans resident Barbara Risin has lived in the first block of Jackson Avenue near the levee-protected Mississippi River since the 1940s. Sitting outside of her wood frame home between Tchoupitoulas and Rousseau Streets last week, she said "this part of the city doesn't flood and I've always felt safe here." She had to leave in 2005 because of Hurricane Katrina but returned to her block as soon as Ralph Guerrera, her old neighbor and landlord, could fix up a place for her.

Housing demand has grown in neighborhoods spared by Katrina, and that's helped the stretch of Jackson next to the port. Brown Builders recently converted the American Paint Works at Jackson and Tchoupitoulas to the Josephine Loft Apartments. Linda Resor, property manager at the lofts, said the building--which dates to 1908--was gutted and the lumber was harvested for new floors. Last Friday, a ribbon cutting was held at the 36-unit site. Developer Wayne Brown, based in Bossier City, said the owners are applying for federal and state historic-preservation tax credits.

The first part of Jackson off Tchoupitoulas, next to the port, is the 400 block. Last fall, developer and contractor Gregg Morris at MTMA NOLA bought the former Shaare Tefilah Synagogue, built in 1857 and located at 709 Jackson. He repaired the roof, expects to start on the interior soon and plans to open thirteen residential lofts there by year-end. In the once two-story structure, men sat downstairs in the synagogue and women upstairs, Morris said. An owner before him converted the building, located between Chippewa and Annunciation, to three stories and attached a gargoyle to the outer, riverside wall to ward off vandals. Morris wants to restore the building as closely as possible to its original state but will keep the three floors. He'll rebuild a former, double staircase out front.

Wayne Brown, the developer of Josephine Lofts, last week said he's interested in converting the five-story, former River of Life Hospital at 609 Jackson between Chippewa and St. Thomas Streets, into residential units.

At Coleman Cab at 600 Jackson, owner Monroe Coleman said he heard the graffitied 609 building across from him might be demolished. Last week, the City's Dept. of Safety and Permits said that although a demolition request was filed for 609 Jackson last November, there was no follow through on it and no tear-down date has been set. Wayne Brown said that concrete edifice has already been completely gutted, is structurally sound and free of mold.

Groups of nature lovers are sometimes seen at 609 Jackson admiring two live oak trees that are several centuries old.

On this riverside stretch of Jackson, a post-Katrina malaise ended a few years ago as painting, plastering, clearing of lots and planting accelerated. Building owners and residents say the avenue's sturdy structures--some of which date to the 1840s--along with its history of not flooding, a housing revival in the Irish Channel and Lower Garden District, Magazine Street's bustle, and a mass of residents at River Garden--which supplanted the old St. Thomas Housing Development--have given Jackson by the river a boost. Walmart, which opened nearly a decade ago on Tchoupitoulas below Jackson under protest from neighborhood groups, has met local grocery and housewares needs. And among its pluses, Jackson Avenue is less than a mile from downtown jobs.

The city planted trees in the neutral ground on Jackson near the river recently, and with the help of federal funds redid sidewalk corners last year, making them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At the end of Jackson, between Rousseau and Tchoupitoulas, Angel Hurtado owns Cruise Ship Parking and Machu Picchu Tours. He's across the street from Josephine Lofts and is glad to see the American Paint Works building become residential, versus its former, somber use of storing metals. "We've got lots of metals warehouses near here on Tchoupitoulas," he said. Those buildings hold copper, zinc and other industrial metals, mainly for delivery against the London Metal Exchange in the U.K.

Hurtado said he's already benefited from the America Paint Works conversion. Four, double streetlights brighten his block at night now, and he said "I'm sure we got them because of Josephine Lofts." Hurtado has been there ten years, and said it used to be so dark that he installed a big light outside his property and still pays Entergy for the electricity.

Rebecca Lewis, church secretary at Jackson Avenue Evangelical Congregational Church, built in 1845 in the 700 block, said "young people with lots of energy are buying and fixing up houses on this street and Philip St. behind us." She's attended the church since she was a child in the 1940s, and said "this section of Jackson has had ups and downs but it's definitely on the upswing now." She was born at 609 Jackson in the former Sara Mayo Hospital, which closed in 1979.

Lewis said the church often rents its parking lot on Jackson out to movie crews during the week. "That helps us cover our expenses, and I've even met some movie stars," she said.

In other commercial activity, Marlon Horton, known as Buck, converted an old dry-cleaning establishment at 739 Jackson into Finger Lickin' Wings in 2010. But he closed it early this year after being denied a liquor license by the City Council. He said a bounce-music party he held outside his restaurant after it opened hurt his chances for a liquor license. But similar businesses have block parties, he noted, saying Parasol's Bar and Restaurant, which is a short walk away, has an annual St. Patty's Day blowout on Constance and Third Streets. Horton, who grew up in the former St. Thomas project, said he hopes to reopen Finger Lickin' Wings at the same spot, selling food only.

Horton's business is catty-corner to the ReNEW SciTech Academy at 820 Jackson but he said that didn't affect his liquor-license request.

What was the river side of Jackson like in the old days? Risin said "the 400 block used to be nice houses, with a streetcar running up and down the avenue." Buses replaced the streetcar in the late 1940s, when a ride cost 7 cents, she said. Today her block has only three houses, an empty lot across the street, Cruise Ship Parking next door and now Josephine Lofts down at the river end. "It's not as good as it was when I was a girl," she said. "But I wouldn't live anywhere else. Black, white, green, we've always gotten along here." Risin, who is African American, said immigrants from Europe were among those living on Jackson near the port in the early 1900s.

Last week, Risin was pleased that the empty lot across the street from her had been mowed. Rob Hohne of Truck & Barter Farms, a local operation, cleared the land with an associate this month and plans to start a commercial vegetable garden there. He's financing the project through New York-headquartered Kickstarter, which raises money on its website through crowd-based, as opposed to corporate or government, funding. Hohne plans to bring in fresh soil and will plant okra and tomatoes soon.

Risin, along with her landlord Ralph Guerrera--who grew up on the 400 block but now lives in Slidell in St. Tammany Parish, reminisced last week about sounds from their childhood. Trains rumbled along the river, vessels blew horns and the streetcar rattled past. "We didn't have television and not everyone had a radio but we had plenty to keep us entertained," Guerrera said. He was on Jackson Ave. last week to spray the building next to Risin's for termites.

Risin said she's always known exactly when trains cross Jackson on their trips along the river. She can almost set her watch by them.

Guerrera said "when we were kids, grocery stores and bars were on practically every corner here." His family shopped at Dorignac's, which grew from a small meat market on the uptown side of the 500 block of Jackson in the late 1940s to a bigger grocery across the street. In the early 1960s, Dorignac's, now an upscale food market, moved to Veteran's Blvd. in Metairie. Its last site on Jackson is now an empty lot.

Guerrera had a job at the American Paint Works as a teenager, and said the company supplied customers across the city and other states. He also said "when we were teenagers, the brewery at Tchoupitoulas and Jackson let us boys drink too much beer," and that's how he ended up working, instead of attending school.

Recently, Guerrera heard that a restaurant might open in the closed pedestrian overpass at Tchoupitoulas and Jackson. But he said "I don't put too much faith in that rumor." The multi-level,
windowed crosswalk was shut after the Gretna to Jackson Ave. ferry was rerouted to Canal St. in 2009.

As for truck traffic on Jackson, it isn't nearly as heavy as neighborhood groups predicted it would be after Walmart opened in 2004. But Jackson is one of the routes that cars take to Walmart, and trucks use it to reach the Port of New Orleans.

Hurtado said he hopes the city will get around to permanently fixing potholes at the end of Jackson. City workers temporarily patch holes on his block with gravel and tar. He gets rid of excess gravel by sweeping the street in front of his building.

Just below Jackson on the downtown side, River Garden--bounded by Constance, Rousseau, Felicity and Josephine Streets--opened in 2004, and has 700 mixed-income units in apartment buildings and homes, according to HRI Properties last week. River Garden replaced the 1941-era St. Thomas Housing Development, which had 1,500 units for low-income residents in over a hundred buildings.

In 1927, New Orleans narrowly missed being flooded by the swollen Mississippi River after the state saved the city by dynamiting a levee downstream at Caernarvon in St. Bernard Parish. Since then, levees along the river have been raised and fortified. end