Can the French Market be “saved”? (Part 2)

It was reported recently that our energetic and active mayor has decided to do something about the French Market. As a 20-year activist in food systems with a 40-year family residency in the French Quarter, I was certainly excited to hear that, although I think the setting has already been improved a great deal in recent years.The main reason this seems opportune is 1) the  limited availability of any public spaces in the city to try small, discrete pilots that center around cultural connections and entrepreneurial zeal means that this might be a unique moment, and 2) also because the current FM Director has been quietly impressive.

Part 2 (Part 1 here) of my four part post:

then Katrina happened:

By September of 2005 while still in exile, we (meaning the parent org of the Crescent City Farmers Market, then known as ECOnomics Institute) created an online bulletin board and chat room for our vendors and for customers of the Crescent City Farmers Market to keep in touch and to tell us when and where they wanted the markets reopened.

Once we knew that we could come back and reopen farmers markets in New Orleans ( because enough producers had product, enough consumers wanted fresh food, and we had places to live) we began to discuss where to put them. Because the “sliver by the river” area of town had not flooded, we knew it would be one of those areas. This was not to ignore the flooded areas, but since any and all space for construction drop off or house demo had to come first,  a pop up market was simply in the way in those early days.  The Girod Street market location had some damage, so that was out. That left the French Market and Uptown Square as the two locations under consideration, but we quickly realized that the French Market was barely functioning.

Even so,  we were still trying to help them by meeting with its director in those early days. I remember that we had dinner with him in early October, discussing how to use the French Market to help rebuild the city. We suggested that they allow Red Cross to use it as a station, and to have city departments set up there. Unfortunately, none of that happened for various reasons, probably most due to the inertia of the complicated system that the French Market was and is managed under.  It is important to point out that the public-private partnership it operates under is hard enough, and then one must take in its multiple roles:

  • the largest manager of city-owned historic property which stretches from Jackson Square (and includes the upper Pontalba building) down to Esplanade (and that was before the Crescent Park opened);
  • the retail manager of all of the storefronts included in those properties;
  • the manager of the parking lots bordering the river and those on Elysian Fields;
  • the operator and manager of the 2 open sheds at the end of the French Market, including its hundreds of itinerant, permanent vendors;
  • one of the primary event creators and managers in the lower river section of the Quarter.

The reason I bring up the post Katrina era (and the earlier revival era that I wrote about in  Part 1) is because the future of this venerable place has a lot of baggage to carry with it, and also has some hard truths of the surrounding area that cannot be denied before we can discuss what to do. And the city is almost a completely different one that what existed on August 28, 2005. I’d like to see that history really analyzed, much more than I have done here, and make that analysis public.

For example, for any of us here at the time and now, it is clear that the post Katrina era gave the French Quarter some new life. Residents who still had property moved back in while they redid their own houses, others grabbed every rental available (which because there was no damage did not see its prices tripled as many other areas have done which was great cuz rents for larger, redone apartments there were already on the highest end of the spectrum), and -AND- the great luck of still having a walkable, vibrant area with public space, groceries, and cheery nightlife on the inner edge of the grey, sad, often toxic other 80% of our city was a comfort to all. So it became boom town for a little while and today, it still has an increase in renters and homeowners from the low population numbers it had a few decades previously.  The Homer Plessy Community School is livening up the corner of St. Philip and Royal,  a number of creative and unique shops are doing well (altho commercial space is at a premium), and a whole lot of activism and street life is still happening here. Interestingly though, still many locals repeat the old story about the French Quarter being “over” as a neighborhood when it is far from that.

That is another issue.

But in any case, the French Market didn’t capitalize on that boom. And unfortunately, lost great anchors such as Horst Pfeiffer’s Bella Luna who grew tired of waiting for his building’s roof to be repaired.

It simply didn’t have the structure or even the mandate to do capitalize. Instead, it remained an gentle afterthought in a booming Quarter, Marigny, Bywater which were (are) full of millennials terrified of being seen as participants in any setting that lacked an ironic twist or didn’t include a new take on an old place.

The French Market did however, add some very interesting counter restaurants in the sheds who continue to animate that very difficult space. And it also moved community radio station WWOZ into the Red Store building.  And the Dutch Alley Artists Co-op continues to attract local artists willing to operate the storefront as a collective. How do those additions change it is the question. Do they?  Are they as important to this French Market as Cafe du Monde and the Creole Tomato Festival were to earlier users?

And how does the new New Orleans (shudder) and the new life in the Quarter affect what is or should happen at the French Market?

 

 

 

-Part 3 will focus on the flea market on the end of the French Market, which must be dealt with, even though its history and its activity is not all as horrible as some residents make it out to be. As a place to show off the diversity of the entrepreneurial community new and venerable, it wears that well. The question is if newly arrived residents are still able to access the French Quarter?  The shift in population for immigrant communities moving away from the city center and to the suburbs and even rural areas seems to make the idea of a French Market business a little less ideal for those communities. The answer may be found in some sort of a organized incubator for those business at the French Market or even assistance in product development that may even cater to residents as well as visitors…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Angels eat gumbo

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The Chase family is heartbroken to share the news that our Mother, Grandmother and Great Grandmother, Leah Chase, passed away surrounded by her family on June 1, 2019. Leah Chase, lovingly referred to as the Queen of CreoleCuisine, was the executive chef and co-owner of the historic and legendary Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. She was a major supporter of cultural and visual arts and an unwavering advocate for civil liberties and full inclusion of all. She was a proud entrepreneur, a believer in the Spirit of New Orleans and the good will of all people, and an extraordinary woman of faith.
Mrs. Chase was a strong and selfless matriarch. Her daily joy was not simply cooking, but preparing meals to bring people together. One of her most prized contributions was advocating for the Civil Rights Movement through feeding those on the front lines of the struggle for human dignity. She saw her role and that of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant to serve as a vehicle for social change during a difficult time in our country’s history. Throughout her tenure, Leah treasured all of her customers and was honored to have the privilege to meet and serve them.
While we mourn her loss, we celebrate her remarkable life, and cherish the life lessons she taught us. The Family will continue her legacy of “Work, Pray, and Do for Others.”

Grateful To You,
The Chase Family

In lieu of flowers please make donations to the Edgar L.“Dooky” Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation – P.O. Box 791313 New Orleans, LA 70179

 

Peter Boutte

As the pillars fall

And history fades away 

Angels eat gumbo

Megan Braden-Perry

Sad day, though we know Heaven is the best place ever. Rest well, Mama Leah. 💕

A true raconteur, freedom fighter, black Creole queen, and truly the grande dame of Creole cuisine. 

 

Jessica Harris, an author and expert on food of the African diaspora, in a 2012 interview:

“She is of a generation of African-American women who set their faces against the wind without looking back.

 

Jarvis DeBerry

Mayor LaToya Cantrell

Leah Chase served presidents and celebrities, she served generations of locals and visitors, and she served her community. She was a culture-bearer in the truest sense. We are poorer for her loss, and richer for having known and having loved her. She will be badly missed.

 

Ian McNulty’s lovely obituary

 

Poppy Tooker celebrates her friend on her show Louisiana Eats.

 

Dames de Perlage tribute to Chef Leah

 

 

INVISIBLE CHEFS: Where are New Orleans’ black chefs?

A panel conversation on why in New Orleans, where African-Americans are fundamental to the cuisine, there are relatively few prominent black chefs.

WHERE & WHEN:

New Orleans Jazz Market
(1436 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.) Wednesday, May 3, from 5:45 to 8:30 p.m.

Moderators:
Brett Anderson (NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune) Zella Palmer (Dillard University)

Panelist and Organizer:
Tunde Wey (cook/writer)

Panelists:
Vance Vaucresson (owner Vaucresson Sausage Company) Jordan Ruiz (chef/owner The Munch Factory) Ericka Lassair (owner/operator Diva Dawg food truck)
Adolfo Garcia (restaurateur)

Todd A. Price
Dining Writer
The Times-Picayune

The People’s Grocer-Review

It is my opinion that New Orleanians are either fascinated by the Schwegmann Brothers Giant Super Markets saga, recounting their own connections to the stores at the drop of a hat or if they have no shopping history there, are completely bored by the attachment that others have to it.

My family is in the latter camp and so never has been heard wailing over its loss and never spent any time preserving any of Schwegmann’s famous printed shopping bags or any of the political buttons within my late grandmother’s massive collection of New Orleans menus, World’s Fair, Superdome souvenir items and Carnival clutter.

My own experience with the chain was also slight- In the 1980s, I did regularly go to the Schwegmann’s out on Airline, but more as a visitor to a strange land than as a shopper. I went with my pal Roger who sold fancy kitchenware to department stores and high-end shops, where I would help him set up displays and tag along as he talked to the buyers. Since he was constantly assessing retail and observing cultural connections in his beloved adopted city, Schwegmann’s appealed to him as something uniquely New Orleans and yet with industry-leading ideas like the bank and the pharmacy within its massive footprint. He loved the food counter and the bar. I learned to appreciate retail analysis in those days while at the Airline and the West Bank stores, listening to Roger explain why John was brilliant in his design and product choices. He would have loved meeting Mr. Schwegmann. He would have loved this book too.

Yet, the list of who will enjoy this book is not just those with a personal fascination for the deep local culture that begat this chain, or those with Roger’s and my obsession for retail histories. Really, anyone who wants to learn more about 19th century German immigration to the area, or the layout of corner stores before supermarkets, or of pricing strategies in the pharmaceutical or dairy industries, or of how early 20th century “fair trade” laws stymied discount pricing, or of the history of the Bywater area of New Orleans, or of the political arena of the latter part of 20th century Louisiana, or of later generations of family businesses who can quickly and shockingly kill the goose that lays the golden egg, will also find this book a keeper.

It is important to note that this is a biography of John Schwegmann and not only a history of the supermarkets that he founded and made into a chain of 18 beloved stores. Because of that, the family’s history is front and center especially in the beginning of the book and may delve more deeply than those without local connections care to know but I suggest readers stick with it even if the family history is not the reason for reading this book. That history offers important detail in the shaping of this supermarket innovator, likely responsible for making him into the type of businessman and later politician who relied on his own intuition, his deep allegiance to his city and a small group of loyalists for advice or support. It also shows how deeply the grocery business runs in the Schwegmann family, and yet how often family turmoil existed among struggling immigrant families even back in those days, too often remembered as perfectly halcyon. That honesty of the family interviewed and the author to note the Schwegmann family life squarely and honestly, is to all of their credit.
This bio also offers many anecdotes from those who were there to show how John was a force of mostly good in the high-stakes world of grocery and drug sales, fighting for principles that most corporate leaders would not spend time or money to fix, all shaped by the place and people of his city. His home life may be viewed at times as calculated in terms of his handling of wives and mistresses but author Capello rightly doesn’t linger too long on modern interpretations of John’s morals and reminds us that the businessman maintained warm relationships with the mothers of his children even after the marriages ended.

The book spends more time on Schwegmann’s world travels and later political life, which was not as impressive as his business career. That career in Baton Rouge was derailed by his opposition to Hale Boggs and almost everyone else, leading to his constant no votes and also not helped by some of his political stunts like having a goat milked while testifying against the milk commission. Those responsible for the building of the Superdome were also targets of his wrath, forecasting many other fights a generation later by communities around the U.S. questioning the logic of taxpayer-sponsored sports arenas.

The research behind the book is impressive, especially when so many other writers of New Orleans history use cliches and oft-told stories that may or may not be true rather than doing the work to find primary and accurate details. Capello’s background in writing technical papers lends itself to a detailed analysis of the retail industry and of the trends in pricing, product development and store design that Schwegmann pioneered. The timeline of the collapse of the chain is shared in unsentimental fashion and should allow New Orleanians to finally understand exactly how son John F. allowed the collapse to happen in such a short amount of time.
The author’s obvious unlimited approval of the free market system as defined by Schwegmann and others rings loud and clear throughout this book even if a few might quibble with some of the broader denunciations of the old public market system (which supported the port, small family businesses and farms by offering regulated food sales in every part of the city for 250 years) or, of his portrayal of John having an entirely altruistic nature in fighting for some of the price discounting that benefited his stores so clearly in a city that had no other supermarket chain to compete with his for decades.
I’d love to see Capello add to his research on this family and this sector with later papers on the superstore sector’s (meaning post Schwegmanns) complete lifespan in New Orleans and others across the U.S. with more attention paid to how the makers of things were ultimately priced out of their small production work because of this discount pricing strategy. It would also be interesting to see the author detail how the concept built and consolidated multi-generational family fortunes for discounters like this one and the Arkansas-based Waltons among others, and what those families have done with their newfound power. The destruction of Main Street might also be examined in terms of the formation of the superstore era, an era that now seems to be slowing with the latest retail category killer- the internet – and the Millennial generation’s expectations of impersonal speed and 24 hour convenience of online shopping over local retail culture and family shopping trips.
Still, there is no doubt those low prices and huge new stores meant that the mostly poor residents of this old city in those days felt attended to if they were lucky enough to have a Schwegmann (Brothers) Giant Super Market within distance of home. And with an air-conditioned bar with the cheapest liquor in town to drown their sorrows at for good measure.
I expect that this book will be used in university courses on retail and marketing, as well as in any history course devoted to the people who made New Orleans great. John Schwegmann’s story, as written in The People’s Grocer, certainly deserves that.

The People’s Grocer can be ordered here.

Tropical Peops

I’ve known Earl and Pam since around the time that they began at the World’s Fair. My mother and her second husband (and then my brother when he moved here) were daily attendees of the Deja Vu when they owned it and we all spent time at the Decatur Gator in the 1980s too. I still pop in to catch some local musicians at the little TI on Bourbon every once in a while, and the Grapevine is quite a good place to get a glass of wine and to experience (read smell and taste) the bacon happy hour.

I also know folks who live very close to the flagship bar at Orleans and Bourbon who told me that TI is a very good neighbor to have which is a huge compliment in the Quarter from any resident.

Pam and Earl are a classic example of one type of entrepreneur that the French Quarter attracts. It is not the millennial hipster we get here but the savvy seasoned business person who can handle the chaos and the demands of operating in the Quarter. (I wrote about that a little in a post I did comparing the Quarter to the Cincinnati neighborhood of Over-The-Rhine. )

As for their real claim to fame, I recently remarked to friends that the Grenade has clearly outpaced the Hurricane as the favorite drink for tourists, based on the number of them that I see in the hands of sweaty, drunken visitors. Maybe it’s time for a craft artist to create a sculpture out of the glasses- maybe a life-sized gator to mark its prominence?

Pam is constantly roaming the Quarter and always up for a chat so keep an eye out for her and say hello.

RIP Paul Prudhomme

I met him in the mid 1980s while I was working in the kitchen at the Royal Sonesta. He was gracious to our entire staff and even made our evil sous chef behave. What he did for New Orleans, for Louisiana and for talented chefs who want to create their own place and use their own ideas is incalculable; I remember well the daily excitement and long lines at KPauls for so many years. The love pouring out from the restaurant community around town shows the deep respect the entire community had for him and I’m sure that admiration is multiplied around the state.

Oral history

Source: Paul Prudhomme, the internationally-known superstar Louisiana chef and restaurateur, has died after a brief illness.