Opponents of City Hall Move to Armstrong Park Will Air Grievances Tonight

Photo by Danae Columbus

Rally & March Set for Thursday, June 17

Several hundred people who oppose the proposed relocation of City Hall to Armstrong Park are expected to crowd the Broadmoor Community Church tonight. The meeting, “Rethink The Relocation of City Hall,” will start at 6 p.m. at 2021 S Dupre Street and continue until 8 p.m.  

“Citizens across New Orleans are enraged. They are demanding to learn more about this issue. If the City continues to refuse to meet with the community we will spread the message ourselves far and wide,” said organizer Ausettua Amor Amenkum, co-chair of the New Orleans Cultural Preservation Committee and Save Our Soul Coalition. We encourage everyone to attend this meeting to hear why this project is not good for the City of New Orleans.”

A coalition of more than 20 organizations has come together against the project. For the first time unlikely allies from Treme, the French Quarter and city-wide cultural organizations are all speaking with one voice. This growing coalition is becoming a power that Mayor Cantrell eventually won’t be able to ignore.   

Tonight’s meeting is being sponsored by Justice & Beyond, the Greater Treme Consortium, Congo Square Preservation Society, Claiborne Avenue Alliance, Old & Nu Style Fellas, Treme Sidewalk Steppers, Save Our Soul Coalition and the New Orleans Cultural Preservation Committee.

Other participating organizations include the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation (New York); French Quarter Citizens; Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents & Associates; New Orleans Musicians Assistance Fund; James B Borders & Associates; Louisiana Landmarks Society; Kumbuka African Drum & Dance Collective; New Orleans Black Mardi Gras Indian CoOp; Tchou Tchouma Tchoupitoulas Nation; Timbuktu Warriors; Washitaw Nation; Unity4NOLA Culture; Friends of Armstrong Park and Historic Faubourg Treme Association.

Many New Orleanians understand the basics about this struggle: that the land around Armstrong Park was first used by Native Americans for their rituals and then by enslaved people of African descent beginning in the early 1700’s; that by the late 1920’s the white business community was salivating for access to the land surrounding Congo Square; that Mayor Arthur O’Keefe first had the idea to construct a new auditorium; that Mayor Chep Morrison considered it progressive when he hired architect Charles Favrot to build the modernist structure; that the Municipal Auditorium was the first building in what was initially conceived as a civic center complex; that Morrison had also determined much of the old Treme neighborhood could be torn down for new development; that the Mahalia Jackson Theatre was the next new building but additional funding was never secured to complete the complex; that Mayor Moon Landrieu envisioned a park honoring Louis Armstrong which opened in 1980 during Mayor Dutch Morial’s first term; that Mayor Ray Nagin wanted to renovate the historic jazz complex buildings in the park; that FEMA allocated $38 million to renovate the Municipal Auditorium after Hurricane Katrina which Mayor Mitch Landrieu did not spend; and that Mayor Cantrell is trying to re-allocate those funds to jump start the effort to start the retrofit of a new City Hall into the historic structure before FEMA funding expires in 2023.   

 “The voices of Treme residents must be heard before any restoration, renovation or rehabilitation to the Municipal Auditorium occurs. This move will adversely impact the quality of life in the neighborhood – parking, site lines and accessibility to the park,’ said Treme resident Cheryl Austin, Greater Treme Consortium.

“The Municipal Auditorium is the place where all New Orleanians celebrated their cultural traditions, academic and social milestones, and social and musical gatherings,” said Sabrina Mays, co-chair of the New Orleans Cultural Preservation Committee.  

 “Moving City Hall to Treme/Louis Armstrong Park has awakened the pain of our ancestors and threatened the future of our culture,” said Ernest Johnson, Ubuntu village.

“My New Orleans, your New Orleans; New Orleans has a rich culture that is in dire need of defense. Rethink the relocation of City Hall,” said Sue Press, Old & Nu Style Fellas.

“The Morris F.X. Jeff Auditorium sits on acres of sacred ancestral space of our enslaved ancestors. This ground represents of soul of our city and to permit such a desecration with the establishment of such a government building as City Hall is to commit a sacrilege. Armstrong Park, Congo Square and the Municipal Auditorium are the epicenter of all the traditions New Orleans has given to the world including modern dance, African rhythms, black masking Indians, brass bands and spiritual practices. They are the sanctuaries of freedom. The commerce and business transactions of City Hall do not promote the same freedom,” said Luther Gray, Congo Square Preservation Society. 

Mayor Cantrell recently announced her intentions to eliminate previously announced components of the overall plan such as a parking garage. While the revised project would only take place within the auditorium itself, long-time Treme residents like Amy Stelly are still are not satisfied. “The plan has no merit. Furthermore we do not believe that the mayor has scaled back her plans because the RFQ does not reflect any amendments to the original document,” said Stelly, Claiborne Avenue Alliance.

French Quarter activist Glade Bilby II, president of French Quarter Citizens, is taking the long view. “At French Quarter Citizens, our main concern is with quality of life issues in and around the Quarter. There are a number of things that concern us with the proposed plans. Chief among them is the destruction of the centuries old historic neighborhoods of Treme and the French Quarter that has already had improvements foisted upon them in the name of progress,” he explained. Bilby said it was unnecessary to put a tremendous burden on the fragile neighborhood of densely packed homes by massing new structures to accommodate the thousands of people and employees that use a city hall on a daily basis.

He was also looking beyond the current fight to the area’s future. “In an effort the advance the cause of sustainable tourism for the French Quarter, an African American centric museum in this historic location would serve to unite the community, provide a much needed cultural hub for artists of all types and serve to entice tourists to visit the adjacent beautiful Armstrong Park. A museum in the renovated auditorium could be used as a teaching facility, a performance venue and possibly even be a part of the Civil Rights Trail. This was the dream of my dear friend the late Bill Fagaly, longtime curator of New Orleans Museum of Art’s African collection.

Many feel that this vision could be achieved with in the funds provided by FEMA without the need for our economically strapped city to go into more debt. Just think of the corporate sponsors this type of facility would attract. It would be a win for all concerned: the people of the surrounding neighborhoods, visitors to the French quarter, the mayor and the entire city of New Orleans for having the vision,” Bilby concluded.

So far, Mayor Cantrell has refused to schedule a public meeting for constituents to ask questions about the project. District C Councilmember Kristin Palmer held a small closed gathering Tuesday night with Treme residents. According to those who attended, only one participant voiced support for the move. All others opposed it. Palmer allegedly committed to scheduling a large public meeting but has not done so yet. 

Several others councilmembers voiced their support yesterday for a more transparent public process. “Any change of this magnitude must involve a public process to five space for the community to be heard. City Hall is to serve the people of New Orleans so I’d like to see an open and transparent process to hear from the public of what they want and need,” said Council President Helena Moreno.  The plan to place City Hall in the Auditorium is designed to further weaken African communities in New Orleans and continue the racial inequities that have existed in New Orleans since 1718,” Gray continued.

“We have been consistent about the need for early and often public engagement in land use matters.  That should be the case here. It is important for the near neighbors who have deep concerns to have their voices hear,” said District A Councilmember Joe Giarrusso.

City Council-At-Large candidate J.P. Morrell said that he is concerned about any move of City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium. “This is a sacred space of tremendous cultural and historical significance. Congo Square was one of the only permitted gathering spots of enslaved people, a place where African traditions and music were kept alive and a seminal location for the evolution of jazz. And over time, this is an area that has been the victim of haphazard development since Katrina. Any effort to use this site that is not community driven will lead to heartbreak and disaster.”

Mayor Cantrell, State Rep. Royce Duplessis as well as Councilmembers Jay Banks, Kristin Palmer, Jared Brossett, Cyndi Nguyen and Donna Glapion did not respond to requests for comment.

Citizens can show their support for a more transparent process by signing the Demand Public Hearing petition at change.org. Almost 10,000 concerned citizens have already signed the petition including New Orleans Congressman Troy Carter.  

In a statement issued yesterday evening Carter said: “The historic Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium in Treme has long been a cultural jewel for our city, as well as an essential part of our arts, entertainment, and recreational infrastructure. 

Congo Square, the birthplace of Jazz, is sacred ground; a place where spiritual and cultural traditions have been preserved for centuries. Armstrong Park was dedicated as a place of arts, entertainment, and recreation to honor one of New Orleans’ most illustrious native sons, Louis Armstrong.

A decision to relocate the seat of city government for only the second time in New Orleans’ three-century history is consequential on every level and demands general transparency as well as equitable and respectful engagement with stakeholders.

As someone who has always been a voice for the people, it is important that I listen, and hear, the concerns of stakeholders most directly affected by the proposal. We need to be respectful of our culture bearers, community leaders, elders, neighbors and families who have long used this historic area to express themselves freely, create memories and keep long-standing traditions.”

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