“AIRBNB DID 9/11” reads a hand-painted sign that’s tacked to a shotgun house, one of a series lining this stretch of Marais Street, just north of St. Claude Avenue in the 9th Ward. It’s a bold claim, but in this apocalyptic time of rapid real estate speculation and dramatic displacement, the accusation, wacky as it is, still resonates.
Across the street from this row of cookie-cutter shotguns looms an imposing, cottage-style, former corner grocery store. Like a lot of New Orleans buildings, it has seen its fair share of commerce both formal and illicit throughout the ages. For the past decade, it has been home to the Mudlark Public Theatre, an oasis of true New Orleans freakdom. The venue, which has been around since 2009, hearkens back to a time in this city when a lot of performance spaces felt more like overgrown living rooms than the empty-black-box-with-a-bar model. Crossing the Mudlark’s threshold feels like entering another dimension. Paint peels perpetually from the walls and ceilings, as nests of art, memorabilia, and, of course, lots and lots of puppets—many of whom seem to stare back at you with inquisitive, haunting eyes—pop out from every corner, nook, and cranny.
The Mudlark has hosted almost every kind of live performance you could think of, from its signature puppet shows to plays, burlesque, drifter jazz, punk, metal, and hardcore. Hurray for the Riff Raff, Lonesome Leash, and Meschiya Lake all came of age on “our little baby stage,” as Mudlark owner, proprietrix, and Queen Puppeteer Pandora Gastelum describes it. More recently, Thou shot the video for their single “The Changeling Prince” within the Mudlark’s cavernous void during a sweltering July day.
A multi-purpose space open to raw and polished acts alike, the Mudlark also serves a critical role as one of the few venues in New Orleans capable of supporting all-ages shows. This is a much-needed service to the young and restless of the greater New Orleans area, who have always needed cultural spaces that aren’t defined by the default liquor business model (and its byzantine, puritanical regulations).
But unlike a lot of similar spaces that have come and gone in New Orleans—the First Unitarian Church on Jefferson and Claiborne, The Faubourg Marigny Community Center, the A.R.K., the Big Top, just to name a few—there is no line separating landlord and venue at the Mudlark, thanks to Gastelum.
Despite this advantage, the Mudlark has recently found itself under siege by economic terrorists looking to scoop up such prime territory. Just before Mardi Gras this year, the Mudlark was cited by the City for building code violations that carry extremely punitive fines if not addressed—violations that had somehow gone overlooked for years, until this most recent real estate bubble. The impetus for these citations seems suspect, as mass-produced fliers offering to buy the property have piled up in the Mudlark’s mailbox at the same time. Not to be deterred, Gastelum set up a GoFundMe campaign and assembled a team of volunteers—including a foreman—to start working on the violations.
On the day I visit, this crew is crawling all over the building, replacing and priming some of the siding. One of the painters is a touring musician playing the Mudlark later that night. Although Gastelum laments the “zombie green” of some salvaged paint being applied to the building’s rear, she seems focused and in high spirits otherwise. As the crew works, Gastelum and I perch on one of the Airbnb stoops across from the Mudlark, its surveillance camera keeping a watchful eye over our conversation. Over a symphony of circular saws and air compressors, creaking wood and jangling ladders, Gastelum practically sings her answers to my questions, her eyes hidden behind oversized, heart-shaped sunglasses, suggesting the stage never truly ends for her, and the line between puppet and human may be blurrier than we know.
When did you come to New Orleans? What’s your arrival story?
Pandora Gastelum: My first Mardi Gras I was seven, so that was 30 years ago. I’m 37 now, and I knew that this is where I wanted to belong. I was born in Texas and I had extended family here, and I would come for visits when I was a kid. I was just in love with it. I’ve been here since 2003. Then Katrina happened… and my parents passed and I had to come home, 2007. So basically, I’ve been a permanent permanent since 2007.
But your tenure here predates Katrina.
It does indeed. I moved here immediately after I graduated from university [NYU] and then after Katrina I moved to Asia to study puppetry. I lost my house—I did not have a theater at that point, but I did have a home and it was destroyed by Katrina, so I went away for a couple of years. And then when my parents passed, I moved here and I established this place, which is called the Mudlark, which is a Keynesian [Great Depression] era word for orphan. This is my little orphanage where I take in all of the sweet beautiful creatures that don’t have any other place to belong, basically.
How did you find it? Were you looking for a place like this?
Was. Was absolutely looking for it. This place was a crack house and a brothel when I found it. It was available through the current owner, who was a very exciting person.
Oh, in that she re-roofed the place after Katrina but she never had the water, power, or gas reconnected. So she was living inside off of a camping stove and there was a lot of activity going on in here, I guess, to kind of sustain whatever she was doing. But she was asking very little money for the building. She just wanted to get out of town quickly. And I basically just rode my bike around the neighborhood, looking for a place that was available. There was a tremendous amount of blight at that point and yeah, I just introduced myself to her and that’s how I got the Mudlark. She wanted cash on hand and I had it and boop! There it was. So it’s been the Mudlark ever since. I’ve concentrated my efforts on making the interior as beautiful and perfect as possible. Everything with regard to the inside of the space is up to code so that I can keep up a business license. It’s zoned “residential multipurpose.” Historically, the room that is the theater was a grocery store, a greengrocer’s; and then the grocer and his family lived in the living space where I now live. So, historically speaking, I’m not doing anything that is divergent from the initial intention of this place, which was made just post-Civil War, so we’re talking like 1860-whatever. And initially the room that is now the lobby was a carriageway. There’s been a lot of development around it. Over the years, the family that had the space added and added and added. There was always the grocery store on the corner, and this was a carriageway that led to what is now my back yard, and there was always a living space above. And then they closed all of this in and turned it into living space, apartments, etc. And that grumpy little sagging structure at the end of the building was added in the ‘80s and needs to be taken away.
Oh yeah, ‘80s New Orleans renovation is an abomination.
No good, no good at all. And the last generation of sons who were responsible for this place were actually arrested because they were crack dealers. So they were running a brothel and a crack house out of this place. And they went to prison, and then the building (for a period of time) became Section 8 housing. And they literally just walled the room that is now the theater in. They just walled it up, just shut it completely.
So it was just, like, a cavity?
Just a rotten tooth, yeah… I found some really exciting things in the walls when we were doing the demo and the renovation. She was a voodoo practitioner and also maybe a satanist on the side? [laughs] I mean seriously, there was a mummified cat and a sculpture of Baphomet that were connected to one another with a bundle of wax and a set of somebody’s car keys. I also found a gallon bucket of antique silver and two giant sacks—like freezer bags, like pound-size sacks—of crack hidden in the walls.
Somebody’s savings account or something.
It was somebody’s investment, yep. So all of that stuff went away. Family photographs, all kinds of things were hidden in the walls, just in little hidey holes, you know? Just a hole in the sheetrock that somebody poked something into.
Before this recent round of citations, what’s your relationship with the City been like? I guess you have all your permits and stuff like that?
Yeah, it’s residential multipurpose, as I said. It is both a business and a residence. What is taking place right now and why we have this urgency to rush-rush-rush to resurface the place, give her a makeover—we have to give the lady a makeover—is because there are multiple parties who are prospecting at this moment and have reported me to the City—reported me through 311, reported me through the City Hall email, saying that the building is on the point of collapse, that it’s a derelict property, that it’s blight, you know… None of that is true and I have to have an inspection annually, internally, in order to keep my business license. And that was never a complaint. They didn’t mind that the place looked a bit shabby. I am a single woman and I’m a crazy cat lady and I have deliberately kept the place looking a bit shabby so that it doesn’t seem appetizing to theft. And knock on wood, it’s never happened. And it always felt safer to me to keep the place a bit ugly, for lack of a better word. [laughs] Looks like a haunted house. Children in the neighborhood who get off the school bus literally call this place “the ghost house,” and I like that!
“This is my little orphanage where I take in all of the sweet beautiful creatures that don’t have any other place to belong”
So basically somebody wants you to sell this building, right?
Big time, yeah.
And I heard that you got a summons and an offer in the same day?
And it wasn’t just once, it happened three times! The letters started coming right before Mardi Gras and it was always accompanied by an offer… like just poked into the same mailbox at the same time. Three times. I mean, I knew that this was happening, that this was in the works. Mardi Gras is my busiest time of year because I’m a costumer, I’m a puppeteer, I make giant things for parades, etc. That’s my bread and butter, you know? And all of these notifications were coming when I was in the busiest time of my work schedule, basically. So I knew that this was happening and that I just had to get my situation in order to appease them. But every letter of notice, like every citation, was accompanied by an offer to buy the house, cash on hand.
Would those offers come with numbers? I’m just curious.
No numbers, uh-uh. No numbers and they actually came on a glossy double-sided piece of paper that actually looks like the citation… like, the citation letter is the background for the offer and then all of their contact info is on the surface of that. And I have no way to know because—and I’ve dug, and I have people helping me dig—when you report a violation to the City with regard to a building, you are not required to identify yourself in any way. So there isn’t any way to prove that these entities—there are two of them—are responsible for the citation itself… It’s a way of aggressing poor people, basically. It’s an intimidation technique, you know? And then Ash Wednesday morning, I woke up to the sound of hammering and ran outside. Who was nailing something to my building? And the last letter of citation was actually physically nailed to the house. I’m like, what are you, Martin Luther? And in the mailbox, poked in, was the same glossy, double-sided pamphlet that was offering to buy the property, cash on hand.
Have you dealt with the HDLC [Historic District Landmarks Commission] at all?
No, because I didn’t register it. It is a historic property, technically speaking. It’s old enough to be that, but I never registered with them because they were so awful. I had a really hard time trying to deal with them when I initially purchased the property, and they were making all kinds of demands with regard to the exterior of the building and I just didn’t want to mess with it. It raises the property value for a certain fact but your taxes just skyrocket. I did my best to look into it and I tried to appease them but they weren’t having it. For example, that corner door is not authentic; it’s not organic to the history of the building. The awning is organic in a way but it has been rebuilt, and then the pitch of the roof—all kinds of things. There were all kinds of issues that we had to negotiate with one another, and I just said forget it, you know? I have no intention of selling, so why? It’s not worth it.
I didn’t realize that you could opt in or out of their involvement.
Oh, you absolutely can, yeah. Well, at least over here. I mean, we’re in the 9th Ward. If you’re talking about the Marigny, the French Quarter—forget it. You are absolutely beholden to them for every little tiny detail. But over here in Povertylandia, on the lake side of the situation, they will happily overlook you.
What historically has been your relationship to the neighborhood, and how do you interact with your neighbors to be a public, cultural space but also a good neighbor?
I have a wonderful relationship with my neighbors. I babysit their children. We’re friends, you know? I mean, if they want a cup of water or to bum a cigarette or whatever, we’re friends! I’m very respectful; I cut everything off at 11 o’clock at the latest to make sure that, with regard to sound, that everybody is OK. Unfortunately, I know fewer and fewer of them as the years go on because of the Airbnb intrusion. [Referring to the house we’re in front of] I don’t know these people. I know the woman who owns it and she has a business partner that I’ve never met. If I try to call her, she lives in Hawaii. I can’t get ahold of her if there’s a problem; it’s very difficult to reach her. The place immediately behind the Mudlark—which is actually where it’s noisiest because that’s the back of the stage side—that couple became pregnant and moved to Poland, and now it’s just an Airbnb. I am very good friends with their housekeeper. We have a great relationship, but she’s just the housekeeper, she doesn’t live there… And then this pink house adjacent is owned by the same company. I don’t even remember her surname honestly; she never picks up the phone anyway. And then all the way down Marais leading to Franklin, there were beautiful Creole cottages that were there and a developer purchased that property and plowed them all down, and also—this was the thing that really hurt me the most—cut all of these old growth live oak and cypress trees, just leveled everything in order to create what’s essentially like modular housing. I know very few of my neighbors now, which is sad. It was not always the case, and I always felt safe living on this corner because people were really grateful for my presence. This place was a very dangerous and crime-filled place. It was attractive to criminal activity and my neighbors were really happy to have me move in and do something nice with it, and a lot of those people are gone now. A lot of people got priced out. This place [the building catty corner to the Mudlark] used to be Section 8 Housing, and the owner of that building sold it. Now it’s a high-priced rental property, and the grandmother who was raising her grandchildren in that double shotgun was priced out and now she had to move to the suburbs. That was over a year ago. This has just been an ongoing process that’s been happening. The face of the neighborhood is definitely shifting, and I’m going to do everything that I can to hold onto the Mudlark. I’m not letting it go. I literally invested in this place instead of having children. This is what I did instead of making a family.
I think one reason that it’s important to champion the Mudlark is because this is probably one of the only all-age spaces.
We are all-ages, yeah. We don’t have a proper liquor license. We do card everybody at the door. What we have in order to allow alcohol to be sold is, we have a gallery license, so you can have alcohol on the premises and you can sell it on a donation level. But we card everybody. We’re very strict about that, you know. We’re not trying to get minors loaded.
And so the other thing that makes it special is the fact that you actually own the building.
Yeah, well… I mean, this is my legacy, you know? This is a testament to my parents and what they left to me, and I spent 100% and then some of what my parents left me when they passed on this place, which is why it’s called the Mudlark. But yeah, when they passed and I came into my estate, I had to move back from southeast Asia and spent a good bit of time looking for the right place… This was my dream. It’s exactly what I needed. Everything that I needed and more.
“I’m going to do everything that I can to hold onto the Mudlark. I’m not letting it go. I literally invested in this place instead of having children. This is what I did instead of making a family.”
You got cited but you started a GoFundMe and it looks like you made it.
We did, yeah. We’re good. I mean, financially speaking we’re OK for the moment. Just, within the next two months, every single thing that they cited me for has to be addressed or they start fining me, basically. So, the GoFundMe reached the goal but I am not actually sure, because this all happened like a lightning bolt. I don’t know how much more funding needs to go into it so we’re keeping it open.
And I was curious, you have like eight people here working now. How are you coordinating this?
I have a foreman! His name is John Raney and he’s delightful. He is a very close family friend, that’s what I would say, but he’s my contractor, which is great. I have known him since I was 16-years-old, I think? So that’s a long time. He’s a family friend and he’s helping me out, just fix all the cavities and get it all squared up.
Sometimes, as an editor I feel like I have a pretty thankless task because I have to disappoint people and manage a lot of expectations that don’t always get met, which is nothing compared to someone who operates a venue and books shows—
Like, on the list of thankless tasks, that’s gotta be at the top! And you’re basically a booker and you own the venue. So I’m just curious how you manage that.
I don’t really sleep a lot! [laughs] Basically that’s how I manage that. I don’t really sleep very much but I receive all of the benefits of the beauty and the joy that flow through the space and that is very nourishing. I’m nourished by that. It’s what I want to do and also, I always have a kind of captive audience because this place has such a natural fan base that whenever I want to produce one of my weird little outsider art puppet shows, people attend! So that’s a treat.
The 7th Annual New Orleans Giant Puppet Festival will be from April 17 through 22, at the Mudlark Public Theatre and other venues to be announced. For more info on the Mudlark, visit facebook.com/mudlarkpublictheater. For more info on their GoFundMe campaign (full disclosure: ANTIGRAVITY has contributed to this campaign), visit gofundme.com/save-the-mudlark-theater.
Transcription by Michelle Pierce