The Revitalization of Oretha Castle Haley
Traveling down Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard gives visitors and locals alike the first glimpse of the underside of a great American city. Away from the high-rises and parking meters, the glitz and the glamor. OC Haley and other streets like it are the places where the locals and semi-locals fan out into the populace, where the masses cease to be and we once again become individuals.
"Two years ago I was walking from a meeting down the boulevard, back to my car, talking to my wife on the phone, and I just started laughing,” Glen Armantrout explains with a sly smile. "She asked what I was laughing at and I said, 'Honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever see a white guy walking in Central City at 9 o’clock at night.'"
Armantrout is pretty upfront about these things; he has to be. As chief executive officer of Café Reconcile, he deals with hundreds of the city’s disadvantaged youth and young adults. He explains, "We have 15,000 to 20,000 disconnected youth on the streets every day. They’re disconnected from education and employment.”
Armantrout, with the help of his rapidly growing life skills certification program, has set out to challenge this reality by graduating students 120 at a time, both certified and qualified for jobs in the ever-needy hotel, restaurant and tourism industry. “You’ll find that a lot of people work in the industry as a way to get to their true passion. We tell each of our staff and students: 'This is your business. People should be coming back for you, not for our fried catfish or white beans and shrimp. No, they should be thinking, I want to see Jamal or Steve.’”
Armantrout is a very impressionable guy, likable even. With his grand personality, you can see how he fits into the burgeoning OC Haley scene full of artists, educators and social entrepreneurs. But what about a scene full of pimps and drugs? “When we planted our seed here, there was nothing but prostitution and dealers,” Armantrout says proudly. "It was very much a leap of faith for us, but it was our plan: to go into the worst area of New Orleans at that time and plant a seed, nurture it and watch it grow.”
Café Reconcile opened its doors in 1997. During the infamous “murder capital” era of New Orleans in the 1990s, it served as a beacon of hope and transformation in the lives of many of the city’s youth. And it still does today in it's recently updated facility.
"There was a graduate who came through the program once and asked me, 'Do you know why we call it the hood? It’s because we don’t have neighbors.' I’d never looked at it like that but it’s an interesting analogy. Within the last two years we’ve worked hard to transform our community by being a good neighbor. We connect with people in the community and ask them, 'Hey, what do you need that we can do?’"
Community is what David Bottner, executive director of the New Orleans Mission just down the street from Café Reconcile, hopes is the solution to a chronic problem. "Unfortunately, when people think of a homeless person, they think of a person living under that bridge. That’s the lie.” The bridge Bottner speaks of is the I-10 corridor. Each day, the New Orleans Mission, which is just a few hundred feet from that corridor, feeds, clothes and houses up to 600 people. Yet Bottner and city officials have not been able to successfully eradicate the Occupy-style encampments under the bridge. These encampments include tents, sofas and even television sets in use by homeless men and women in full view of passing cars and pedestrians.
With the revitalization of OC Haley bringing increased tourism and traffic to the area, the homeless issue on Oretha Castle Haley— with the CBD just as liable with its Dryades section on the other side—seems to be the pink elephant under the bridge, if you will.
But Bottner doesn’t think so. "The reality is, The Mission served 2500 unique homeless people last year,” he explains proudly. "On any given night there’s probably up to 100 people under the bridge. So the question is: where are the other 2000 or so people? We work to quickly transition many of them back into a stable environment. If we can make a real effort, I believe those people under the bridge can be served.”
The Mission offers services through a variety of programs. Claire Proctor, assistant to the director, explains: "We have three programs. You can come to The Mission and stay for up to 21 days. If you’re unemployed and you don’t have a history of drug and alcohol abuse, you can qualify for our four-month work program and then there’s our discipleship program. It has all of the class work and things needed to stop challenges and change lives.”
In the spirit of revitalization, The Mission is not looking to be left behind and as the boulevard changes; it is very interested in changing itself as well. “Our goal is to add a day room," Bottner explains. "And take The Mission as it looks in its current state and have it look as it did in its original state, which was a furniture store. It would look beautiful as an entry point because we are the first place you see when you turn onto Oretha Castle Haley.” Other improvements include moving the point of entry from the front to the rear so there'll be no lines and, with the community’s and hopefully the city’s help, providing a safe environment that’s off the street. "We’re looking to make room for more people we may have missed,” Bottner says thoughtfully. "Those who may not want to participate in our faith-based programs but still want to get off the street.”
Façade RENEW, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority's (NORA’s) commercial business development grant program, is the lifeblood of OC Haley’s revitalization. Melissa Lee, senior adviser for commercial revitalization, explains: "The program in this current pilot phase will make a total of $1 million in one-time matching grants available to commercial property and business owners to upgrade and preserve the historic integrity of their buildings."
It would seem that the growth on OC Haley is just the beginning. Façade RENEW is also targeting areas on Bayou Road and St. Claude Avenue. "We’ve also invested in the Healing Center and Broad Refresh with Whole Foods,” Jasmine Haralson, director of external affairs, adds. "Those are other projects we're proud of, and there are many more to come."
On NORA moving to OC Haley, Haralson says it made sense. “We were looking to get out of the CBD. We’re in the process of building communities so we felt we should establish ourselves in one that represented more than just a business context. Without being too far a jump, OC Haley felt like the right place." When asked if the locale has resulted in any advantages over the Central Business District, she replies with a quick laugh: “Parking.”
Armantrout, in his usual way, is a little more poignant. "If you look at all the business and organizations that are now lining the streets of OC Haley, it’s such a mix of culture, education, food, learning and music. It’s all about what we do here in New Orleans,” he says with a big smile, as he looks out of his office window onto the boulevard. "You have kids and older folks, mixing cultures and religions. It’s such a blend in one location; it’s almost becoming the new New Orleans.”
More than anything, Bottner would like people to support The Mission and its expansion efforts. "If we can change our facade, get our day room open and get those people under that bridge off the streets—if that can help save even one convention or draw in a new business—the money we’d make the city is well beyond the $3 million we need, and we’re already halfway there.” For Bottner, it’s about numbers. "The question is: is fixing The Mission not what’s best for the community? Even if you have no compassion for helping people change their lives, the economic impact alone is attractive."
As for old perceptions, Armantrout gets the last word. "I think people are watching us from a distance. They’re waiting for the time when they’re comfortable to come in. If they can push their perceptions of the past aside, drive here and take a look, they’ll see that there’s so much here and so much more coming. Come eat, learn, see a movie, have fun—all the things you always do. It’s here; come do it here."