“A Partial History of Square 356, lots 12 and 13” – Courtney Egan enlisted historian Anita Yesho to uncover the history of 3718 St. Claude Ave., New Orleans, Louisiana, with the intention of exploring not only the past but also the roots of the current racial and economic changes taking place in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans.
The Antenna Gallery’s parent organization Press Street grew into its current location in 2012. The building, a historic two-story residence, had likely been unoccupied since Katrina, based on information found in city records. A Press Street supporter who is a developer, active in the neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina, renovated the building in collaboration with the organization in 2012 and provided the organization with a dedicated multi-year lease.
The Bywater neighborhood, in which Press Street’s Antenna Gallery is located, is currently undergoing a racial and economic shift, initiated and spurred by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and post-storm property speculation. The shifting demographics of the neighborhood post-2005 have been researched and documented by geographer Richard Campanella. This pre-storm majority African American neighborhood became majority white after Hurricane Katrina, with fewer children and elders returning, and more wealthy young white people buying properties. Leading this trend were local artists returning and establishing collective art spaces in the Bywater, encouraged by momentarily cheap property and the instigation of a New Orleans-based international art biennial spearheaded by New York-based curator Dan Cameron, which focused on the Lower 9th Ward and the Upper 9th Ward Bywater neighborhood. Housing costs there have risen sharply since 2009.
Historically, this shift is one of many that occurred in the neighborhood over decades. At the turn of the 20th century, the neighborhood was on the outskirts of New Orleans, where the Catholic Church was the primary landowner, and orphans, immigrants, and free people of color were the residents. The land that Press Street currently occupies, also owned by the Catholic Church, was part of a church-run boys orphanage, before being parceled and sold as plots. Some of the first residents of the 3718 St. Claude building were German immigrants who lived on the property for two generations and worked as butchers, and whose German and Italian neighbors were doctors, sugar mill workers, grocers and saloon keepers.
In the mid-1950’s the property was sold to a white doctor who practiced there for 20 years, and sold the building to developers, who then rented the space out to other doctors and residents, mostly but not all non-white, throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, although the residence section was vacant for several years in the 1980s. This was a period of radical change, which began with the signing of the Civil Rights Act into law and civil rights activism in the neighborhood in the 1960s.
In 1960, Ruby Bridges was the first African American student to integrate Orleans Parish Public Schools, at William Frantz Elementary, located ten blocks away from Press Street’s Antenna. This, and other civil rights actions also taking place in the neighborhood and in New Orleans, instigated the flight of white people out of the neighborhood in the 1960s, making way for an influx of African American tenants and homeowners.
To gather information, Yesho and Egan researched using the following resources: the New Orleans Office of Conveyances, census records from 1880 – 1940, city directories through 1970-2005, one former resident (a son of Dr. Trahan who grew up there) and the son of a former resident from the 1980s (although that resident is not listed in any printed record.) Many former residents are unaccounted. Census data is not available past 1940, so records from renters in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, when the building was owned by developers, are from city directories, where other information like age, race and gender is not recorded.
Documenting and acknowledging the shifting nature of Press Street’s 9th Ward Bywater neighborhood is an important facet of developing and maturing the organization’s mission. The print ephemera which covered the table in the Memory Project’s New Orleans installation, and a narrative timeline of the property, will be made available to Press Street for reference.
Courtney Egan creates projection-based sculptural installations that weave traditional still-life themes with shards of technology. She was an artist-in-residence at the Sante Fe Art Institute and at Louisiana Artworks in New Orleans. She is a founding member of the New Orleans based visual arts collective Press Street’s Antenna. She holds an M.F.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art. Her interest in media literacy and filmmaking as a tool for critical thinking has lead her through elementary, secondary and university classrooms since 1991, and she is currently a Media Arts faculty member at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). Her work is in several private collections as well as the Weisman Art Foundation, and she is represented by Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans.
Anita Yesho is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher who moved to New Orleans, Louisiana from southwestern Pennsylvania in 1990. She has a degree in journalism from Penn State University and is currently working on master’s degree in history at the University of New Orleans.