Sacred Ground

What converting the Municipal Auditorium into City Hall could mean for Congo Square and Treme
A grayscale illustration of the Municipal Auditorium rendered by The Charles L Franck Studio Collection at the Historic New Orleans Collection. It shows the long, light building, and the sky around it is shaded dark gray.

New Orleans’ last three mayors have all tried to get themselves out of City Hall. The modernist building, a symbol of the city’s progressive ambitions when it opened in 1957, is cramped, moldy, and falling apart. In 2019 the City spent $1.5 million on maintenance, which wasn’t enough to prevent Civil District Court, part of the same complex, from shutting down when all of its elevators broke at the same time. Meanwhile, FEMA has offered the City $38 million to renovate the Municipal Auditorium a mile down the road, which is still damaged from Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures nearly 16 years ago. So it’s easy to see the logic behind Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s plan to convert the auditorium into the new seat of local government.

At an online meeting about the project in January, though, Luther Gray was wary. The auditorium sits on land that, for roughly a century, was part of Congo Square, which Gray—a drummer, educator, and co-founder of the Congo Square Preservation Societycalls “the epicenter of African American music and culture in the United States.” As far back as 1718, enslaved people gathered there on Sundays, creating a marketplace and practicing sacred traditions of music and dance, a retention of African culture unlike any other in Anglo-America. Gray says the mayor is making plans for hallowed ground.

At the January meeting, Vincent Smith, the City’s director of capital projects, acknowledged that the administration had heard concerns about the sanctity of the square, and ripple effects from the development. The square and the auditorium are both within Louis Armstrong Park, a 32-acre complex that was developed around them in the 1970s, and putting an office building on the grounds could detract from its ostensible purpose, honoring New Orleans’ musical heritage. Beyond the park gates is Treme, by some measures the oldest Black neighborhood in the country, and a wellspring of New Orleans’ signature cultural traditions. City policy has already contributed to large-scale displacement of Treme residents, and a new, $175 million development in Armstrong Park could push out those who’ve managed to stay.

Smith said the community will have a chance to influence the project, but only after the City hires a designer this summer and starts the first phase of work. They’re plowing ahead with construction now, he explained, because the $38 million from FEMA expires in 2023. If it’s not put to use by then the City forfeits it, sinking the whole plan. So, while the City spends that money, Smith said, the administration will work with the community to find “design solutions” to issues with the square and the park. City Hall’s move to the auditorium, though, wasn’t up for discussion.

As Smith spoke, the chat window filled with questions and comments reflecting various stages of grief: “Is this really a done deal?” (Answer: “Yes”). “Treme never has gotten respect, why start now!” (Unanswered).

One poster asked, “Is it appropriate for this site to be used for a government building?” Smith responded in terms of architecture, saying that designers could retrofit the auditorium to suit its new use. But there was a larger question about whether City Hall could move in without defiling Congo Square, a space renowned as a site of resistance to government authority. The Sunday rituals there fought the dehumanization of slavery and proved foundational to the creation of jazz, which responded to the repression of Jim Crow. (Jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden blew his cornet in the square to attract crowds to Globe Hall on the corner.) As Gray listened to Smith, he thought about the City’s abuses of Treme since the mid-1960s, when it forced hundreds of residents and businesses to vacate the area around the auditorium, bulldozing eight square blocks.

“We recognize that there’s a lot of pain and anxiety associated with that history,” Smith said. “And we want to turn that bad history into a celebration. We feel like bringing the auditorium back into commerce as a city hall would truly make it a public space people can use and enjoy.”

The posters in the chat were unswayed, but they weren’t the only audience. Representatives from FEMA were also listening as part of the agency’s review process for historic properties. The meeting met their requirement for public outreach, keeping the City on track to get the $38 million.

A black and white photo of a poster advertising a tribute concert to Professor Longhair at the Municipal Auditorium. It lists who will be performing, and there are some big names like Irma Thomas, Radiators, and Allan Toussaint. Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Poster advertising a tribute concert to Professor Longhair at the Municipal Auditorium (Between 1979 and 1980), The Historic New Orleans Collection, acc. no. 1981.108.2

When the architect Charles Favrot built the Municipal Auditorium, he envisioned it as the first piece of a formation of government buildings around Congo Square. He aligned it with the “axis” of Orleans Street, so someone standing outside its main entrance looks straight at St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square, the city’s historical seat of government. This civic center design was meant to be “imposing,” to manifest the power of the State. For Cheryl Austin, Executive Director of the nonprofit Greater Treme Consortium, City Hall moving into the auditorium now would strike a similar chord, less a “celebration,” as Smith would have it, than a threat.

For decades, Austin has contended with the harm done by the City’s heavy-handed interventions in Treme and its disregard for Congo Square’s legacy, even when it claimed to support Black cultural traditions. Much of the damage has been tied to its interest in the neighborhood’s real estate, as Austin learned when her neighbors’ houses started being demolished in the 1960s. Mayor Chep Morrison had targeted the area for “slum clearance” years earlier, part of his agenda to modernize the core of the city in the “interest of private business.” (He did the same to the Black neighborhood around Perdido Street, where he implemented Favrot’s civic center concept, building the current City Hall complex on the site of Louis Armstrong’s childhood home.) Just how the City would use the land in Treme didn’t matter as much to Morrison as buying it while it was cheap. The fate of its residents—80% of whom were Black and low-income—concerned him even less.

Austin’s family lived across the street from the site, and “ate the dust from the demolition of those houses in our red beans and rice.” She started walking past the rubble on her way to junior high, and by the time she graduated high school in 1972 her friends and neighbors were gone. The project’s federal funding required the City to rehouse whoever it displaced, but it failed to communicate that to residents and most left without receiving any assistance. Regardless, Morrison’s successor, Victor Schiro, proceeded with plans to build a “cultural center” on the site, focused on opera and classical music, and modeled on the Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan. Concertgoers could drive in on the new expressway above nearby North Claiborne Avenue, the construction of which devastated a corridor of Black-owned businesses in the late ’60s.

The buildings the City bulldozed included Treme institutions like the Caldonia Inn, where the pianist Henry Roeland Byrd got the nickname Professor Longhair (the corner of St. Claude and Dumaine, where he sang about seeing the Zulu King on “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” disappeared, too). The irony was not lost on Jim Hayes, a leader of the Treme Community Improvement Association (TCIA), who noted that “the City, in efforts to build a cultural center, has seen fit to destroy and uproot our own culture.” Treme residents protested with a mock jazz funeral for the Caldonia, with future brass band icon “Uncle” Lionel Batiste embodying the departed club in a velvet-lined casket. His family home, a base for second lines and other parades, was razed as well.

As construction began on the Theater for the Performing Arts in 1971 (it was renamed for Mahalia Jackson decades later), the TCIA organized opposition to the development and eventually won a concession: the City agreed to build the Treme Community Center on a corner of the cleared land. But it also put up an imposing iron fence around the perimeter of the site, cutting it off from the neighborhood. Treme residents accused the City of segregating the new facility, and the project’s designers didn’t deny it. “We’re not trying to expand on the constituency of the cultural center,” they said, referring to the overwhelmingly white patrons of classical music.

Meanwhile, the City failed to secure funding for the rest of the center, and by 1972 much of the site had been vacant for years. When Austin walked by she saw piles of dirt and debris where her neighborhood used to be. A committee appointed by Mayor Moon Landrieu called it a “disaster area.” His administration decided to turn the land into a park honoring Louis Armstrong, who had died recently. Curiously for a monument to African American culture, they based it on a Danish model, Tivoli Gardens, installing artificial lagoons, berms, and bridges. Construction lasted seven years.

When Armstrong Park opened in 1980 the City hoped it would be only the first phase of the facility’s development. The fence would allow a private company to charge admission to attractions it ran inside, taking the cost of maintaining the park off of the City’s balance sheet. Proposals for the contract incorporated elements of local culture but catered to tourists, with concepts including an ice-skating rink and a 200-foot-high revolving observation wheel.

Treme residents organized again and helped sink the plans, one after another. For culture bearers like Austin, who helped sew fans and sashes for social aid and pleasure clubs, it came down to control: If their traditions would be commodified, they should decide how to present them, and they should own the businesses that reaped the profits. That arrangement wasn’t on offer, though, and the second phase of the park’s development never happened.

The complex was underfunded and underused in 1989, when Luther Gray and others revived the ritual of Sunday drumming in Congo Square. “Out there, we saw hypodermic needles, feces, broken bottles,” he recalls. Gray’s group reached out to the City’s Department of Parks and Parkways, which asked it to “adopt” the park to keep it clean. They did, and formed the organization now called the Congo Square Preservation Society, getting the square on the National Register of Historic Places and erecting a historical marker. If the City wouldn’t honor the site, they would.

A black and white photo of a funeral procession for Keelian Boyd Sr., Big Chief Dump of the Young Maasai Hunters. There’s a sleek car exiting the arches of Armstrong Park, and everyone surrounding the car is looking behind it and holding their phones and cameras up to take pictures. Photo by James Cullen.

Funeral procession of Keelian Boyd Sr., Big Chief Dump of the Young Maasai Hunters, on April 10 (Photo by James Cullen).

The legacy of the City’s past exploits in Treme wasn’t a consideration for the Cantrell administration when it started working to move City Hall there. Smith, the director of capital projects, said the City was focused only on retrofitting the auditorium until early feedback about its implications for Congo Square and the surrounding area showed them that “we needed to expand our vision.” They responded by proposing a master planning process to develop the park as the “cultural hub” of New Orleans, “with City Hall as one small part of the bigger plan.”

It may have been meant as an offering to the community, but for many organizers, the unilateral decision to move City Hall to Congo Square’s edge was an insult. And unfunded plans for the park didn’t offer much hope—it’s been discussed in meetings and rendered in hypothetical maps by every administration for the last 50 years. “It’s not hard to come up with plans for what you can do with that site,” Austin said. “The issue is residents, small businesses, culture bearers being left out the conversation to begin with.”

The City tried a different tack in 2015, when Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, with the Network for Economic Opportunity, helped initiate a community-oriented plan for rehabbing the “jazz complex,” a cluster of historic buildings in the park. It lost its legs politically in Mitch Landrieu’s administration, but, methodologically, it’s instructive. Where Smith is inviting the public to meet with a designer on their second phase of work, Ecclesiastes had dozens of stakeholders help define the nature of the designer’s job and set criteria for hiring them. It was the kind of deliberate engagement that would likely be impossible to start now without risking FEMA’s deadline for the $38 million.

Assessing the situation today as CEO of Ashé Cultural Arts Center, Ecclesiastes says she wants to see the Municipal Auditorium redeveloped. She argues, though, that the City hasn’t established that turning the auditorium into City Hall “would be the best thing for the community.” “I could be convinced of that,” she said, “but I don’t feel like anybody’s trying to convince me.”

She’s not alone. Austin thought the mayor might come to Treme to make her case and listen to concerns, but that kind of public dialogue hasn’t happened. There have been only two online information sessions on the subject. The first, in April 2020, was led by project manager Vann Joines, who’d sought input from Ecclesiastes and Gray, and spoke thoughtfully about the park’s history. The administration’s contact with the organizers ended there, though, and they learned after the fact that Joines had returned to the private sector. (Joines declined to comment and the mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on its outreach.)

The City’s handling of the situation galvanized Austin and Gray to join Sabrina C. Mays, Ausettua AmorAmenkum, and others in the New Orleans Culture Preservation Committee. They issued a petition calling for a stop to the project and a public hearing on the future of the auditorium. So far, no hearing has been announced.

The seeds of the current controversy were sown with the construction of the Municipal Auditorium in the late 1920s, when the City’s support for business interests and disregard for Black cultural heritage nearly wiped Congo Square off the map. The episode, largely forgotten today, began when Mayor Arthur O’Keefe appointed a commission of New Orleans’ business leaders to determine where to build the auditorium. In 1928 they brought their plan to the Commission-Council (forerunner of the City Council) for approval, touting a site that was City-owned, centrally located, and could be developed with minimal demolition costs: Congo Square (it was named Beauregard Square at the time, after the Confederate general). The mayor attended the hearing, hoping to close the deal but ran into tenacious opposition. According to the Times-Picayune, “At several points the speakers and the audience became so excited that Mayor O’Keefe and policemen shouting for order were entirely unheard.”

The objection wasn’t to sealing off a sacred space from future generations. Far from it: the group trying to preserve the square included avowed white supremacists. In the early 20th century Treme was fairly diverse, and the square was a park with a playground and swimming pool for white people only—Black people gathering there were subject to arrest. A coalition of white women led by Alice Cosu of the Fifth Ward Civic League stood up to the mayor and the Auditorium Commission on behalf of the children of their working-class neighborhood, who stood to lose their only greenspace. Their view of the square’s old Sunday gatherings was reflected in a New Orleans Item newspaper report before the hearing, which imagined “chanteys of negro slaves fresh from the jungles of Africa, sweating big bucks with tin rattles on their ankles.” It went on:

The hoodoo that naturally would be supposed to haunt this site because of its ancient consecration will not affect the plans of the city in the least. The hoodoo is legendary and mystic. The city is matter-of-fact and progressive.

In the same pages, the business community placed an ad arguing that building the auditorium on the square “will help preserve its historical traditions.” White New Orleanians had gone there to be entertained by circuses, bull fights, and fireworks displays, among other things. They even attended the gatherings of enslaved people as spectators, taking in their exotic music and dancing. An auditorium would enhance the grounds as a destination for white amusement.

Cosu’s case against building on the square hinged not on race, but class. She alleged that the businessmen promoting the site, while speaking high-mindedly about “improving” the neighborhood, were “not motivated by progress but by the almighty dollar.” On this issue she had a point. Commercial activity downtown lagged behind the Central Business District above Canal Street, and men like real estate developer J. Henry Blache were leaning on the City to attract money to the area. The newspaper ad supporting construction on Congo Square was sponsored by “Public Spirited Citizens and Firms Who Are Interested in the Development of the Downtown Section of New Orleans.” They claimed the auditorium would raise “property values from 50%-100%,” adding millions to the City’s tax assessments.

The hearing got heated when Cosu objected to wealthy merchants like Blache “stealing the square” from the children of working families. Blache responded in high dudgeon, “daring” Cosu to accuse him directly of profiteering from the project. He said he merely had “a small interest” in a corporation that owned property on Rampart Street, acquired “long before” any discussion about the auditorium site. He was lying. Blache had bought additional real estate bordering the square after lobbying the Auditorium Commission to build on it, and pledged to deliver $200,000 for the project from other property owners in the area.

The Commission-Council didn’t know about Blache’s chicanery, but Cosu’s show of force kept them from approving construction on Congo Square. The opposition, combined with the threat of a legal challenge to the change of usage of the park, compelled Mayor O’Keefe to retool. Keeping the new venue roughly where the Auditorium Commission wanted it, the City expropriated the two half-blocks along the rear of the square. The property owners, including Blache, got bought out at market value; their tenants were displaced.

The Municipal Auditorium opened there in 1930, a state-of-the-art facility customized for the city’s elite, including a makeup room with a passageway to the stage so Carnival royalty could make grand entrances. Together, the auditorium and the square gave the City a foothold in Treme, which Mayor Morrison would later use to pursue his “slum clearance.”

In the mid-1900s, as white flight made Treme increasingly Black, the auditorium remained an outpost of the New Orleans establishment in the neighborhood. Civil rights activists pushed for access to the space, winning seats in the auditorium’s balcony for a performance by the Black opera singer Marian Anderson in 1940. The facility was desegregated first in 1953 by a coalition of social aid and pleasure clubs, which duped its management into allowing a mixed-race event. In 1961 activists sued to allow Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak at the auditorium, but lost—the City was allowed to withhold a permit, citing threats of violence. A few weeks later the venue welcomed the local White Citizens’ Council, a notorious white supremacist organization.

Cheryl Austin and her family maintained their connection to Congo Square during this period despite the auditorium’s intrusion. She recalled, “As a kid, in the summertime, my mom used to march us out there and we lay on the grass out there under the stars, or run around until we were tired, then she would bring us right back home.”

When the auditorium desegregated for good in the 1970s, Black New Orleanians reestablished the site’s ties to the square, and to the surrounding community. Black Masking Indians from the area gathered there on St. Joseph’s Night. Austin saw her hero, James Brown, in concert there, and had her high school graduation in the building. Gray performed in the auditorium’s Coker Room for Kwanzaa celebrations and lectures. In 1994 its official name became the Morris F.X. Jeff Auditorium, in honor of the City official who pioneered recreational programs for Black children during segregation. A cross-section of the city used the facility until Hurricane Katrina, when the roof was damaged and the basement flooded. The gates to Armstrong Park were locked shut for most of the next four years.

A black and white photo of Jerome Smith speaking at a community meeting. He is a Black man, and he’s wearing a hat, a long-sleeved polka-dotted shirt, jeans, and black shoes. He has a mask pulled down around his neck, and he’s pointing a cane to something out of frame. There are people sitting facing him, listening. There’s a table next to him, and he’s holding a microphone. Photo by Avery Leigh White.

Jerome Smith speaks at a May 18th community meeting at Joseph A. Craig School (Photo by Avery Leigh White).

Several organizers in Treme and the New Orleans Culture Preservation Committee suspect that the money to be made from downtown real estate is once again behind plans for the auditorium and Armstrong Park. Because the administration intends to lease or sell the current City Hall complex to help pay for the new one, the project will open up a prime spot between the Superdome and the French Quarter for private development. Unlike previous plans, the proceeds from this deal would go to City coffers; but even so, the administration will be tens of millions short for retrofitting the auditorium. “It’s not ideal,” they said in January, but they’re “confident” that they can tap more federal programs to fill the gap.

In addition to unanswered questions about financing, the mayor also has yet to account for her proposed overhaul of City government itself. In late 2019 a study found the auditorium too small to accommodate all City Hall employees, but in January the administration announced those working remotely due to the pandemic would continue doing so permanently, and certain departments would not make the move to the new facility. While the auditorium might now be the right size, the City hasn’t explained how it would conduct its business under the new structure.

While the City’s plans have the air of a thought experiment, the stakes for Treme are concrete. Ecclesiastes, who led the City’s last planning process for the “jazz complex,” sees an acute risk of displacement for vulnerable residents if the development moves forward. City policy since Hurricane Katrina has already contributed to a dizzying rate of gentrification in the area: The demolition of the Iberville and Lafitte public housing developments reduced the affordable housing stock, and lax regulation of short-term rentals like Airbnb depleted it even further. In the period before the flood Treme was 92% African American; in 2019 that figure had plummeted to 56%. Rising property values and taxes in the coming years could mean the oldest Black neighborhood in America will no longer be majority-Black.

As for the City’s design for a “cultural hub,” Gray has an idea for attracting audiences: “Why don’t we just put Treme back in the park?” That would satisfy Austin: “Put the houses back that were over there, put the small businesses back. That’s where the culture was,” she said. Ecclesiastes thinks an Armstrong Park master plan that brought back families and businesses that’d previously been forced out of the area could be a “transformational” model for equitable development. But for now the organizers are focused on keeping City Hall out of the auditorium.

In response to the Committee’s petition, the mayor’s office released a statement saying it is “committed to protecting Congo Square.” But for Gray, Austin, and others, City government is what the square needs to be protected from. The administration hasn’t responded to the petition’s charge that its plans would be a “desecration” of “sacred ground,” and it hasn’t stopped working toward the move. In the coming weeks it expects to hire a project manager whose job will include inviting stakeholders to participate “in some elements of the design and programming,” and building “excitement and a sense of co-ownership” among them.

Of course, the sense of co-ownership of the land shared by the Committee members and organizers in Treme is already bone-deep. It’s their “birthright,” Austin said. At a May 18th community meeting at Craig School across the street from Armstrong Park, the mood was resolute. The crowd hushed when legendary civil rights leader Jerome Smith took the floor. While Austin’s Greater Treme Consortium evolved from the TCIA, the TCIA’s work followed in the footsteps of Smith, now 83. He said the City was reaching beyond the park, to the “spirit” of Treme, and he would not “surrender to the indignities” of its plans.

The organizers have met with the city councilmember for the site, Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who they hope will oppose the project before the administration hires a designer this summer. In a statement, Palmer recognized that historically “large scale public investment has often come at the expense of Treme residents, and we have to walk into the conversation fully aware of that,” and “there needs to be a deeper and more robust community engagement with Treme before anything moves forward.” To see that it happens, the Committee members are doing outreach of their own, sharing the details of the mayor’s plan with residents. Along the way they’re gathering signatures for their petition and coordinating a march to City Hall in mid-June. As troubled as the history of the Municipal Auditorium and Armstrong Park has been, it has also seen some victories of organizing against long odds—a tradition of resistance rooted in Congo Square itself.

Top Image: Municipal Auditorium, Architectural Rendering, The Charles L. Franck Studio Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, acc. no. 1979.89.7459