Walking The Riverwalk: Untapped Potential in Morgan City


I could have driven the more prosaic way from New Orleans to Lafayette, but I decided instead to go the back way from the West Bank of New Orleans by way of Morgan City into New Iberia and then Lafayette. I reasoned that there would be better scenery, and I had always wanted to better explore Morgan City, an island city which is best known for being threatened by hurricanes. Morgan City proved to be interesting indeed. I stopped first at DJ’s Music, which proved to be a car stereo shop as well as a record store, and I bought a hip-hop mix CD there before heading on to downtown Morgan City, whose main street ran parallel to the Atchafalaya River and was called Front Street.
Front Street was lined with old and historic buildings, many of them painted bright pastel colors. Although the river view was blocked by a large seawall, the balconies of many of the buildings were high enough to have a view of the water, but on closer inspection, many of the buildings appeared to be empty. Aside from one fairly upscale restaurant called Cafe Jojo’s, there was no place to eat along the street, and few of the shops seemed to be open. One of the buildings had been a department store which looked as if it had been out of business for many years, yet all the clothes still hung on racks inside, as if it was just left after its last day of business. The two historic-looking buildings at the far southern end of Front Street proved to be part of a food-service company that specializes in providing food to the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. North Railroad Street around the corner had a handful of rather seedy-looking lounges. A walk around the downtown area revealed a few historic buildings and an old church, a shady park, and the classic City Hall with its decorative palm trees. But Front Street has a look of tired desolation and missed opportunities, a street that with the right planning and vision could become a tourist and entertainment attraction, a street of restaurants, night clubs, boutique hotels, condominiums and art galleries. I found Morgan City both beautiful but also a little depressing.

Beale Street Late Evening

Monday nights are Beale Street’s quietest nights, but during the summer, tourists still come to walk along it and check out the nightlife.

The Port of New Orleans Brass Band on @FrenchmenStreet

When I got back to Frenchmen Street from dinner, there was a brass band playing on the little empty park-like space at the corner of Chartres and Frenchmen Street. The band was called the Port of New Orleans Brass Band, and had drawn a good-sized crowd to the intersection, where people were dancing and having a good time. Unfortunately, a police siren sounded on the end of Frenchmen Street nearest the Quarter, and the musicians quit playing and ran for cover, as apparently it is illegal for them to play on Frenchmen Street, just as it now is illegal for them to play on Bourbon at Canal. It’s hard to imagine a dumber course of action than the one that Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has taken with regards to live music in New Orleans, which, after all, is much of the city’s drawing card as a tourist destination. But presumably the city is continuing the agenda of those who want a quieter, more affluent city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, so the city’s war on music (particularly brass bands) continues unabated.

Failed and Forgotten Dreams on Jackson’s Farish Street

Every Southern city had at least one “pleasure street” in its Black community, where there were night clubs, restaurants and large arenas for public gatherings. Memphis’ Beale Street was the most famous, perhaps, but Shreveport had Fannin Street, New Orleans had Dryades Street (now Oretha Haley Boulevard), and Jackson, Mississippi had Farish Street.
There has been some sort of talk about redeveloping Farish Street since 1983, so it was absolutely disheartening to see the sorry state of the street here in 2013. “Redevelopment” seems to have consisted of fencing off the first block of the street and placing gates at either end. The one new business on the street, F. Jones’ Corner, is a booming and going concern, but it was opened by private initiative a few years ago. Aside from a few new historic markers, the rest of the street is rapidly collapsing, and soon there will be nothing left to redevelop.
One large building on the right-hand side of the street as I faced north had a faint painted sign still visible near its roof which read “Palace Auditorium.” The man sitting on the bench in front of it explained to me that it had once been “Caesar’s Palace Auditorium”, but that when city officials had discovered that the owner Caesar was Black, they made him remove his name from it. The man with whom I was speaking told me that he was the proprietor of Dennis Brothers Shoe Service across the street, one of only three Black-owned businesses which remain in the historic district. “The redevelopment is just an effort to get us out of here so that the white folks can take over,” he said. “They need to tear it all down. They’ve waited too late.” Indeed many of the buildings show signs of roof damage, or in some cases, total roof collapse.
Walking with him over to a large concrete marker that read “Brown’s Circle”, I asked him about it. He said that there had been a residential area on the next street over, known as Young’s Alley, and that Brown’s Circle was a street leading to it, and that it also had a residential area.
Aside from some Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity members who were having a function at the Alamo Theater, and the handful of people inside Peaches’ Restaurant, Farish Street was largely devoid of people on a Saturday afternoon. Up the street at a club called the Krystal Palace, people were setting up for a outdoor crawfish festival and music performance, but that area was outside the historic district. And even there, the street was more abandoned than occupied.
As for what has gone wrong, nobody is in agreement. The developer blames the recession and the difficulty of getting financing from banks. The first club that was to have opened, a B. B. King’s location, found that the building they intended to occupy had no foundation, adding millions of dollars to the cost of renovations. For my part, I am beginning to question the wisdom of city-driven initiatives to create entertainment districts. They either seem to lead to fake, touristy travesties like 4th Street Live in Louisville or Beale Street in Memphis, or they lead to costly, abandoned failures like Shreveport’s John Elkington-designed Texas Street. (Elkington was briefly the lead developer on Farish Street). One wonders what would happen if cities restricted their involvement to zoning, tax breaks and longer operating hours for restaurants and bars, and left the rest to private enterprise. Memphis’ most booming redevelopments such as Cooper-Young, Overton Square, South Main Arts District and Broad Avenue Arts District have largely been accomplished by local and private initiative. The city did not feel the need to acquire the buildings, choose a developer, etc. Perhaps it is time for Jackson to put the buildings on Farish Street up for sale (historic designation prevents the risk of demolition) and allow private interests to redevelop the street. The city could use appearance guidelines and ordinances to tweak the direction of redevelopment without the inevitable boondoggle of direct control. But as the photos I took indicate, time is rapidly running out.

The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, Indianola

The B.B. King Museum in the famous bluesman’s hometown of Indianola, Mississippi states that its purpose is to promote the values of B. B. King, but it has also promoted an increase in tourism to what was a sleepy Delta town. The live music outdoors that motivated me to drive down from Memphis was sponsored by the museum, and the museum has now assumed control of the historic Club Ebony, located just to the southwest of the museum campus.