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Keith Weldon Medley

Dryades Street/Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard:Remembrance and Reclamation

Dryades Street/Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard:Remembrance and Reclamation
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Published by New Orleans Tribune
April 2001
Dryades Street/Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard Remembrance and Reclamation

By Keith Weldon Medley

“In Greek mythology, the dryads are female spirits of nature who preside over the groves and forests. Each one is born with a certain tree over which she watches….The lives of the dryads are connected with that of the trees; should the tree perish, then she dies with it. If this is caused by a mortal, the gods will punish him for that deed. The dryads themselves will also punish any thoughtless mortal who would somehow injure the trees.” The Encyclopedia Mythica

Located in the Central City historic district of New Orleans, Dryades Street has always been one of the Crescent City’s most intriguing thoroughfares. Instead of the trees that once marked this area’s landscape, historic structures and precious memories are now in need of protection by the mythical ‘dryads’. Now named Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in honor of one of the city’s premier Civil Rights workers, this old street has witnessed the bustling panorama of the New Orleans experience – the lively and the melancholy, prosperity and economic hard times. Bold entrepreneurs of different religions, races, and classes found their fortunes along Dryades Street. During the Great Depression, adults came to the YMCA for job training during the week and also inspirational speeches on Sundays. For nearly a century, the same YMCA served as an outlet for youthful energy as boys learned the values of teamwork and respect for authority through athletics, field trips, and instructional classes. From the 1940’s through the 1960’s, Civil Rights and labor leaders walked the Dryades Street area with picket signs in hand asking for justice and opportunity, and risking jail for doing so. On the Dryades Street of the 1960’s, the Free Southern Theater gave cultural expression to the Black student movement through plays, poetry, and dance. Actors, poets, and dancers honed their crafts here. Today, this strip of uptown New Orleans is striving to reclaim its vitality as a beacon for art, community, culture, and opportunity.

Dryades Street runs through the heart of the Central City historic district. Created from the Delroy-Sarpy plantation in 1806, this neighborhood reflects the architecture, culture, and history of uptown New Orleans. Bounded roughly by the Pontchartrain Expressway, St. Charles Avenue, Louisiana Avenue, and South Claiborne, the State of Louisiana proclaimed Central City an historic architectural district in 1976 for the diversity of its structures. Many of New Orleans first jazz musicians lived in Central City including Buddy Bolden (2311 First St.), Kid Ory (2135 Jackson Avenue), and Jelly Roll Morton (2621 Fourth St.–demolished). Jordan Noble – the famous Black drummer boy of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans – once lived at the corner of Dryades and Clio.

The Dryades Street Market

Dryades Street has long been noted as a center of commerce. An 1849 grand opening for the Dryades Street Market set the spirited tone for a street that would become a bustling shopping, business, and residential area for Central City:

"The new market in the Second Ward, at the corner of Dryades and Melpomene streets…has been recently opened by one of our more enterprising citizens…Two long tables of the market house strained beneath the weight of roast turkeys, ducks, chickens, beef, etc. [with] champagne, claret, etc. to wash the aforementioned articles down. The attendance was large and… ample justice was done to the banquet. Toasts were drunk to the success of the spirited proprietor of the market, the Second Ward, and almost everything else in general and particular. The spirits of the crowd rose in proportion as the wine went down, and everybody felt particularly kind to everybody else. The feasting continued for about an hour when the eatables and drinkables began to grow scarce in the market. The erection of the present market in the Second Ward will ..prove highly advantageous to our uptown population”.

Daily Picayune – 1849

African-American Businesses

African-American businesses thrived on Dryades Street at the turn of the twentieth century. Allen T. Woods documented their vitality through his publication called The Woods Directory. Published in 1913, 1914, and 1915, The Woods Directory billed itself as “A Classified Colored Business, Professional, and Trade Directory.” A stroll down Dryades Street in the era of Allen T. Woods painted a vibrant picture of commerce, initiative, and ambition.

One could buy a fashionable wool suit for $15.00 from Porter’s Tailoring Company at 1010 Dryades Street with matching shoes at Dejoie’s Hub Shoe Store at 1224 Dryades. Dine at Dorsey Franklin’s restaurant at 400 Dryades on “choice Creole dishes” at “the neatest and best equipped restaurant in the city for the benefit of colored ladies and gentlemen.” On hot summer days, neighborhood youngsters scurried to Dejoie’s Cut-Rate pharmacy at 1832 Dryades which beckoned with its ceiling fan and refreshing ice cream parlor that featured pure fruit sundaes, soda water, and assorted candies. At 1012 Dryades, Victor Dubois’s Great Southern Hotel and Restaurant offered “first class rooms and baths” and “All modern conveniences”.

J. A. Otis ran his Be Quick Cleaning, Pressing, and Repairing Place at 2117 Dryades as one of 62 Black-operated cleaning and pressing establishments in New Orleans. One man, S. E. Davis of 432 Dryades, billed himself as a “Cabinet Maker and Mechanical Genius”. At 2850 Dryades, John D. Smith managed The Dryades Pocket Billiard Hall which billed itself as the “FINEST COLORED BILLIARD HALL IN TOWN” where “strict decorum was maintained at all times.” The Woods Directory also showcased the large Black owned insurance companies that settled on Dryades Street. The Unity Industrial Life Insurance and Sick Benefit Association at 2017 Dryades Street was the “Oldest Colored Insurance Company in the State” and employed over 125 people.

The early 1900’s also served as a testament to the can-do spirit of African-American women along Dryades Street. Laura Brown specialized in wedding cakes and fruit cakes at 2823 Dryades. Mrs. M. J. Spotts’ operated her Crescent Hairdressing College at 2013 Dryades Street as “the largest and most thoroughly equipped Hairdressing College in the country, owned and managed by colored people.” Mrs. Katie Robinson and William Morris were the joint proprietors of the Orleans Ice Cream Works at 2217 Dryades Streets where they manufactured “Ice Cream, Ices, Charlotte Russe and Biscuit for all Occasions.”

Black and White, Jew and Gentile

“Newly arrived East Europeans in the Dryades Street area were operating smaller family businesses, such as Levitan’s and Kaufman’s furniture stores, Lavigne’s Hardware Store, ‘Big Hearted’ Sam Cohen’s Men’s Clothing Store (where the customer received a free fountain pen with every new suit purchased), Weiner’s Cinderella Shoe Store, Perlman’s Bakery, and the Kansas Delicatessen, whose Kosher pickles became legendary.”

Irwin Lachoff

A Historical InNtroduction

Jews of New Orleans -

An Archival Guide

By the 1930’s Dryades Street was an entertainment and shopping alternative to Canal Street. Residents attest that merchants on the strip did not harbor the hostile racial attitudes of some of the Canal Street businesses that forbade Blacks from trying on clothes, and other indignities. Additionally, while Canal Street merchants were virtually all-White, Dryades Street merchants were diverse. Jews, Blacks, Italians, and others operated side-by-side. Many of the Jews who operated on Dryades Street came from Russia and opened supermarkets, furniture stores, and clothing stores for the growing population of Central City. According to Irwin Lachoff, an archivist at Xavier University, Dryades Street represented a haven of opportunity for Eastern European Jewish immigrants. He recently gathered remembrances of Jewish proprietors and residents as they reflected on their Dryades Street presence and experiences. Maurice Handleman (Handleman’s Furniture Store) recalled the 1920’s and 1930’s when he estimated that Jews were about 25 percent of the neighborhood. The street was so busy back on Saturday nights, he recalled, one had to move off the sidewalk and into the street to get somewhere in a hurry. Then, streetcars moved on tracks down the center of the street. Jackie Gothard (wife of Judge Sol Gothard) remembered there being no closing hours - shopkeepers would stay open as long as there were customers, sometimes till nine or ten o’clock at night.

By 1938, Dryades Street showcased a wide range of businesses. The Dryades Street Market continued to flourish with meat, fish, and fruit stalls at 1500 Dryades. The Isis Motion Picture Theater stood across the street while the JoAnn Shop and the Maxine Shop offered women’s clothing. The 1600 block hosted a McCrory’s and F. W. Woolworth five and dime along with a radio repair shop, shoe stores, a barber and beauty shop, and a second-hand furniture store. Kaufman’s department store anchored the 1700 block of Dryades in the building that now houses the Ashe Cultural Center. Central City resident Barbara Lacen, chairperson of the Central City Partnership and Director of the Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard Merchant Association, still treasures a picture of herself in the communion dress she remembers getting from Kaufmann’s.

Black business who survived the Depression continued to contribute to the verve of the boulevard. In 1938, the Good Citizens Life Insurance Building stood in the 1800 block, the Louisiana Industrial Life Insurance in the 2100 block, and the Douglass Life Insurance Co. building in the 2200 block. Many physicians and dentists housed their offices in these buildings including Rivers Frederick, Ernest Cherrie, Epharim T. DeVore, Thaddeus Taylor, and others.

YMCA

One of the bedrock institutions of Dryades Street is the YMCA. Founded in 1905, the YMCA has long been a source of education, employment, recreation, and inspiration to generations of New Orleanians. Located at 2220 Dryades Street, the ‘Y’ provided an anchor during the trying days of segregation, the Great Depression, two world wars, and the Civil Rights movements of the Sixties and beyond. In the early 1900’s, residents used the YMCA’s employment bureau to expand their opportunities. Professor F. P. Ricard instructed boys and men three times a week in fundamentals and skills needed for gainful employment. In 1925, civic leader W. H. Mitchell positively impacted those aspiring toward fields in business when he organized the YMCA’s School of Commerce. By 1942, the ‘Y’ ’s Commerce School offered instruction to over 220 students from 39 schools in five states at the YMCA building on Dryades Street.

The YMCA provided gymnasium classes on Tuesday and Friday and inspirational speeches on Sunday afternoon. In 1935, the Louisiana Weekly showcased the Y’s magnetism for the youth of the city who journeyed there for indoor baseball games, Ping-pong, and tennis competitions. By 1938, the YMCA housed seven distinct clubs for boys. The Louisiana Weekly reported a Thanksgiving eve event in 1938:

“Inter-club games in basketball, paddle tennis and ping-pong, and a checker tournament took up much of the early evening, with selections by the Gibbs Singers, an amateur contest and a sound motion picture as added features.

A large number of adults witnessed the fun, among them were James Devine of the Works Progress Administration, Emmett Stanley of the Universal Life Insurance Company, and Rev. A. L. Davis, Jr., of the New Zion Baptist Church. The evening closed with a weenie roast on the Y playground…A total enrollment of five hundred boys is expected before Christmas.”

The YMCA focused on character development for boys and young men. The ‘Y’ Midget Club of 1942 included 41 boys who got together for hikes, sight-seeing tours, games, and other activities. Led by Mr. Moses Walker, a 1942 photograph of the Midget Club contained the images of a youthful Andrew Young, Jr. Tom Dent, and others. In the fifties, the YMCA’s popular day camps run by Mr. Grady and Mr. Winn attracted boys from all over the city for baseball, educational tours, and Friday bus rides to Lincoln Beach on Lake Pontchartrain. When the building burned down in the Year 2000, ‘Y’ president Doug Evans organized a coalition of individuals and businesses and launched a drive to reconstruct this invaluable institution.

Dryades Street Branch Library

Even today, eighty-five years after its construction, the YMCA New Dryades Street Branch Library at the end of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard makes quite the architectural statement. Since its opening in 1915, the Dryades Street Branch Library has provided a singular storehouse of knowledge for people of color during the years of segregation. From 1915 to 1946, it was the only public library in the city that fully availed itself to Blacks. Children and adults walked up the stairs of the red bricked building with stone detail, and through the large French doors flanked by arched windows, into a two-story structure that offered quiet reading, story-telling, and other activities. The founder of February’s Black History Week Carter G. Woodson visited here in 1939 as did the multi-talented singer and dramatist Paul Robeson in 1942. Students from Xavier and Dillard studied at this library with neighborhood people enhancing their skills and expanding their horizons. In addition to quenching the thirst for learning of Central City’s uptown African-American population, the library’s meeting rooms served a broader purpose for many of the city’s Black civic groups. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People met there, as did the Negro History and Study Club, the Colored Young Men’s Business Association, and the YMCA. It was closed in 1946 when other libraries expanded their services to African-Americans. The building received a Historic Landmarks Commission designation in 1983. Acquired by the Dryades Street YMCA, the library was rededicated in 1994 to return the building to its “original use as a central community resource.”

Civil Rights

“I met my friend Wisdom unexpectedly on the street the other day. Before we could exchange greetings, …Wisdom commented about the vegetable dealer up Dryades Street who opened during the watermelon season with a nice separate but equal place with a side entrance for the Negro watermelon eaters in the back of the establishment…Wisdom feels that race members ought to demand jobs in these establishments. Not as porters and maids but as clerks, cashiers, and managers…”

Ernest J. Wright

“I Daresay” column in Louisiana Weekly

November, 1945

“We have successfully obtained jobs for Negroes on Dryades Street, in the Claiborne Shopping, the Florida-Desire Area, the Continental Liquor Company, and truck drivers for Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company and bus drivers for the New Orleans Public Service.”

Reverend Avery Alexander

Consumer’s League of Greater New Orleans

December, 1961

The Central City area has a long Civil Rights background. In the 1940’s, labor leaders Ernest Wright and Zachary Ramsey II formed the Central City-based People’s Defense League to register Black voters and organize workers. The People’s Defense League’s first president, the now deceased Zachary Ramsey II once stated, “During that time, when you were talking about voter registration and marching on the registrar’s office, there was no city, state, or federal protection. We marched on raw guts.” In 1945, from its offices at 1010 Dryades, the New Orleans Urban League sought high school and college youth for part-time jobs in various businesses around town. In the 1950’s, Dr. Martin Luther King brought his Civil Rights crusade to Reverend A. L. Davis’ New Zion Baptist Church at 2319 Third Street. In the early 1960’s, Reverend Avery Alexander and a group called the Consumer’s League made significant inroads in obtaining employment for African-Americans in the stores along Dryades Street. The Majestic Funeral Home at 1833 Dryades offered space for civil rights workers in their organizing efforts. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had a ‘freedom house’ on Jackson Avenue right near Dryades. Oretha Castle Haley, the street’s new namesake, was introduced to Dryades Street as she sought a way to lend her talents to the Civil Rights movement. According to a 1985 article in Vibrations:

“She [Oretha Castle Haley] remembers reading about the picketing on Dryades Street with the Consumer’s League headed by Rev. Avery Alexander. She went to Good Citizens Drug Store[located on Dryades Street], which was the headquarters for the Consumers Leagues efforts. She told the group there, ‘I have read about what you are doing in the paper and I want to picket or do anything else you want me to do. That launched me into my community endeavors.’”

Art, Culture, Recreation

Art, culture, and recreation have been mainstays of Dryades Street. In the early 1900’s, C. O. Williams operated an art gallery at 1052 Dryades. In the 1910’s, photographer George R. Floyd captured Central City’s smiles and first communions as eternal moments at his photography studio at 2125 Dryades Street. Another popular Central City photographer, Villard J. Paddio, housed his photography studio at 2113 Dryades while Belmont Haydel arranged floral bouquets at 2215 Dryades. Famous Jazz musician Joseph “Kid” Oliver once blew his horn from his residence at 2712 Dryades. In 1963, Laray’s Bowling Alley opened. That venue offered bowling, pool, and other amusements for families and children at 1712 Dryades. In 1969, a self-help neighborhood group called Thugs United occupied a location in the 1200 block of Dryades as did Harding’s Afro-American Book Store and the Free Southern Theater Workshop and Theater. The Free Southern gave cultural expression to the turbulent sixties and hosted plays, poetry, and the FST Writing Workshop that evolved into BLKARTSOUTH. These ventures mixed in with costume shops, Royal Ceramic Art Gallery, Brad’s Barber Shop, and Ann’s Variety Store.

Churches On The Boulevard

Dryades has a strong legacy of providing Central City with places of worship. St. John The Baptist Roman Catholic Church has been at 1115 Dryades Street since 1851. In 1938, the Israelite Baptist Church stood at 2025 Dryades. In the 1950’s, the Gloryland Mount Gillion Baptist Church moved into the building formerly occupied by the Isis Motion Picture Theater at 1515 Dryades Street. In 1981, the Living Witness Church arrived. Today, Reverend Richard Osbey’s Little Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church now praises at 1240 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in the building that once housed the Free Southern Theater. The Greater New Orleans Gospel Temple is at 1723-29 across from the Ashe Cultural Arts Center. In the 1500 block is the Castle Rock Community Center in the former Canal Commercial Trust and Savings Bank.

Remembrance and Reclamation

Dryades Street fell on hard times in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The same demographic and market forces that depressed other shopping areas across the country also visited Dryades Street. Many residents left the area and supporting businesses followed. But in the 1990’s, a coordinated efforts by lending institutions, non-profit organizations, Mayor Marc Morial’s housing and neighborhood revitalization offices, and private individuals contributed to a present day renewal effort. The Parkway Partners program has assisted in developing community gardens. The Ashe Cultural Center arose in a former supermarket named Venus Gardens that now houses ASHE’s 6800 square-foot performance and auditorium space. Above Ashe’ are loft apartments. A mural overlooking ASHE’s parking lot depicts the cultural aspects of Central City that many hope will now contribute to the thoroughfare’s revitalization. It should be noted that the developer of the ASHE’ Cultural Arts building, Kathy Laborde, has shown faith in the boulevard by opening her office of Kalliope, Inc., in the 1700 block of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Additionally, business people have stepped forward to form the Oretha Castle Haley Merchant Association to co-ordinate economic development. Carol Bebelle and Douglas Redd, Directors of the ASHE Cultural Center, envision this boulevard’s future as a “cultural tourism corridor.” Michael Kelly’s Tulane architecture students used Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard as a case study. With neighborhood input, they recommended a series of improvements including restoring balconies, widening the pedestrian mall, trees along the boulevard, outdoor cafés, a farmer’s market, restaurants, and other venues that celebrate the street’s civil rights, music, and cultural history.

Recently, residents came to ASHE’ to record their reminiscences. They spoke poignantly of the street’s churches, Civil Rights movements, personalities, bowling alley, department stores, and the sense of community along this boulevard that shaped their lives. They recalled story times at the library and school at McDonogh 38 - now named Myrtle Banks Elementary School. “Everything we needed, we had in our own community”, one participant stated. “We didn’t have to go outside our community. We had our own banks, movie shows, and drug stores”. Another resident stated, “We want others to understand how instrumental this street was in changing the course of our lives”

Other once abandoned buildings are also showing signs of life. Next door to ASHE is the 9000 square foot building shared by Barrister’s Art Ga1lery and Zeitgeist Theater. Tastes of Free Southern Theater returned when Chakula Cha Jua’s Theater Company re-staged FST’s 1960’s production of “We Are The Suns” at Ashe’. Sandra Berry and Joshua Walker have relocated their popular Neighborhood Gallery building to the 1400 block of the boulevard. The Kid’s Café draws a regular lunchtime and Saturday clientele.

In addition to restoring buildings, many of the current caretakers of the boulevard’s old structures also work to restore hopes and souls of those who have been beset by hard times. The New Orleans Mission moved into the old Dryades Street Market’s location in the early 1990’s offering nourishment to the poor and homeless. The Living Witness Church ministers to substance abusers. Living Witness has also created a hospitality function which they deploy to greet guests at Kid’s Café, other churches, and ASHE Cultural Arts Center. Carol Bebelle attributed the boulevard’s ongoing attempts at renaissance to the active participation and contributions of local and national foundations including the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Riley Foundation, the Vincent Memorial Legacy, and the Jazz and Heritage Foundation. In addition to Mayor Marc Morial’s initiatives, Councilman Oliver Thompson and State Senator Diana Bajoie have also expended interest and time in smoothing the wheels of government to allow Dryades Street to begin a return to its former vibrancy. Additional aid has come from businesses such as Brown’s Velvet, Kalliope Inc., Albertson’s, and Harrah’s and organizations such as the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network. Along with those efforts, Carol Bebelle embraces the churches, former residents, and the cultural arts community who work toward the boulevard’s renaissance through their “presence and willingness to brave the elements of decline, as well as contributing to the re-emergence of the boulevard.”

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