By Jessica Williams | | April 23, 2021

Herbert Jackson can easily recall the New Orleans East he left behind for the military 25 years ago.

He could always go to the Plaza when it was time for a new outfit, or sit down at Morrison’s Cafeteria or any number of other restaurants when he wanted a good meal. The area, he remembers, was a go-to for middle-class residents looking to escape the crowded inner city and its problems.

When Jackson moved back to his family’s old Seabrook neighborhood in the East a year ago, he soon realized: Those days are long gone.

“People used to travel to the East to get everything,” he said. “Now, you can’t even get a good steak plate.”

Jackson is one of many New Orleans East residents who lament that the area, once a hub of retail and entertainment destinations that bragged of being “a city within a city,” has become the stepchild of the city’s otherwise substantial recovery in the decade and a half since Hurricane Katrina.

In many ways, they are right. Since the storm, the population of New Orleans East — a collection of diverse suburban neighborhoods more than a single entity — has repopulated at about the same rate as the rest of the city. But unlike more bustling parts of town, its major commercial thoroughfares are dotted with vacant businesses and its once-popular mall was razed instead of being rebuilt. And the population that returned hasn’t re-occupied its large housing stock. A report from 2019 said that 19% of homes are vacant.

The city’s efforts to revive the area over the years have included subsidizing movie theaters and a large amusement park. Critics, and there are many, typically question why city leaders are trying to entice people to travel to the edge of a city that can’t seem to attract any other businesses.

Still, the reasons for underinvestment in the area are more complicated. The East has indeed struggled since Katrina, but its troubles predate the storm. The loss of population and underinvestment goes back much farther, to the 1980s oil bust and the White flight endemic to many U.S. inner-ring suburbs.

Boosters say the East is now positioned to get a shot in the arm once Six Flags is finally redeveloped, a prospect that brightened last month when a development group including former New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees submitted a bid for the site.

All nevertheless acknowledge more should have been done – yesterday. And for many residents the biggest complaint remains among the most mundane: Why hasn’t the city been able to attract stores, restaurants and other businesses to the East like they have in other areas of the city?

“Historically speaking, since Katrina, residents have been absolutely right to be really upset and frustrated at the lack of retail expansion in New Orleans East,” said Jeff Schwartz, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s economic development director.

In 2019, the city commissioned a report aimed at attracting developers to the East. The analysis showed a high unmet demand for clothing and accessories stores, sporting goods stores, book and music stores, general merchandise stores and restaurants.

“I’m tired of going to Slidell. I’m tired of going to Metairie just to get a decent meal,” said the Rev. Fred Luter, who lives in the Read Boulevard East neighborhood, not far from Bullard Avenue. “And every time I pass the Plaza, it just hurts my heart, man.”

Luter, who pastors the 5,000-member Franklin Avenue Baptist Church on Crowder Boulevar and Interstate 10, was referring to Lake Forest Plaza, the 130-store shopping mall built in 1974 at the intersection of Read Boulevard and Interstate 10 that at the time was the largest in Louisiana. With four anchor stores, cinemas and an ice-skating rink, the megamall lured in shoppers from around the region.

In New Orleans East, it was a capstone on two decades of economic growth first spurred in 1959 by a group of Dallas investors who sketched out bold plans for a 32,000-acre tract of swamp and farmland east of Paris Road and bounded by lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain.

The original plans included an industrial park, a beach and resort, garden apartments, homes, churches and shopping centers. Canals and lagoons would beautify its subdivisions, which when combined with apartment communities would eventually house upwards of 175,000 residents.

Within a few years, thousands of acres of land were developed east and west of the original tract, bringing much of what was promised — a suburban paradise within New Orleans’ city limits.

Building continued at a furious pace through the 1960s and early 1970s. The mall arrived after New Orleans East had become a haven for middle-class and well-to-do residents.

But over the next three decades, thousands of jobs evaporated with the oil bust and property values tanked. The last undeveloped tracts were left stagnant, and according to Tulane University geographer and historian Richard Campanella, “from that point on, New Orleans East, due to its footprint, has been stilled.”

As Black residents moved in during the 1980s and 1990s, White residents began flocking farther afield, heading to St. Tammany Parish and other areas with fewer black people, said Robert Dupont, a University of New Orleans associate professor and history department chair.

In 1980, White people made up 54% of the 77,047 residents of New Orleans East, while Black people made up the lion’s share of the rest, according to Census figures. A decade later, Black people had become the area’s clear majority, at 64%.

Census estimates from 2019 put the population at 86% Black and only 4% White, with the rest of the population belonging to another race.

By the early 2000s, residents of the East, still a choice neighborhood for the Black middle class, were complaining of a need for more coffee shops and restaurants. When Pat Swilling, a former Saints linebacker, ran for state representative in 2001, his biggest campaign promise was to secure an Applebee’s restaurant for the area. It went unfulfilled.

Many tenants had moved on from the flailing Plaza as newer malls popped up in Tammany, Jefferson Parish and other suburbs.

Hurricane Katrina two years later dealt the neighborhood its most vicious blow, submerging the area so thoroughly that there was no telling where the East ended and Lake Pontchartrain, the Industrial Canal and the Mississippi River began, one City Council member said after a flyover.

The area remained uninhabitable for many residents for months after the storm. Another punishing blow landed when the city’s school system laid off all of its teachers — many of whom resided in the East — at once.

Even after residents were allowed to come back, a pall of uncertainty hung over the East, thanks both to its location on the city’s vulnerable eastern flank and the mixed signals political and business leaders sent about its future viability. The structure of the Road Home program — which gave homeowners rebuilding grants based on the estimated pre-storm value of a home, not the cost of construction — also made it harder for struggling areas like the East to bounce back.

Dearth of retail

Today, the nine main neighborhoods in New Orleans East are home to more than 75,000 residents who earn $33,000 a year on average. That’s well below the city’s $41,000 median, according to census figures.

The landscape is dotted with a string of discount stores, pharmacies and low-budget strip malls. A Walmart is its biggest draw; a Big Lots, an IHOP, and a New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood are other mainstays. Developers say the type of retail Luter and other residents want is out of their reach because of shifts in the industry.

Retailers have begun to shun new brick-and-mortar stores, unless “they have to have the location, or it can’t miss,” said Louis Lauricella, the developer behind Elmwood Center and Slidell’s Midtown Square Shopping Center.

“The problem is, New Orleans East doesn’t qualify as either of those,” he said.

Campanella attributed some of the problem to the East’s sprawl, once a feature and now a bug. Other parts of New Orleans have seen a revival along commercial corridors, such as Claiborne Avenue’s Magnolia Marketplace and the slew of fast-casual restaurants near it, the Lafitte Greenway and bars, restaurants and shopping options that surround it, or Freret Street and its local shops and businesses.

Without a central hub, it’s harder to create a place retailers feel like they need to be.

“The lack of walkability, the necessity to get into your car for most of your basic needs… has an effect of making it more difficult for smaller investors and companies to set up here,” Campanella said. “The lots are bigger, and I think that tends to send certain entrepreneurs looking in other areas.”

Crime an issue

Other retailers have passed on the East after reviewing crime data from the New Orleans Police Department, Lauricella said. The area’s crime rate, or the perception of it, has also caused some regional grocers to think twice before opening stores there, according to a 2018 City Planning Commission study.

NOPD data compiled by the Metropolitan Crime Commission shows 25% of New Orleans’ homicides over the past five years have happened in the NOPD’s 7th District, which comprises the East, making it “the deadliest district in Orleans Parish,” the group wrote.  

The district also had comparatively high rates of shootings, armed robberies, vehicle burglaries, carjackings, and residential burglaries compared to others in the city, though the area is also the largest district, and has 20% of the city’s population, residents have pointed out. 

NOPD did not respond to a request for comment.

While public officials and residents agree that crime is a fact of life in parts of the area, some have recently pushed for more specificity in the way crimes are described. Media and police should single out the subdivision or neighborhood where an incident occurs, rather than describing it as “New Orleans East,” they say.

“You cannot indict all of eastern New Orleans when a crime takes place,” said Mtumishi St. Julien, a resident since 1986.

Changing perceptions

Schwartz, the city’s economic development czar, said crime “is frankly not the first or even the fifth thing that comes up” in his conversations with companies looking to expand.

Under Cantrell, the city has focused on using publicly owned sites as catalysts to spark private investment. That includes the Six Flags property, which attracted six bids for redevelopment this month, and Lincoln Beach, a site currently under study.

Ideally, Schwartz said, the Six Flags site could work as a transportation or a logistics hub that could bring more daytime employment opportunities to the East. That in turn would make it a more attractive location for restaurants, shopping options and other services.

“While the city, speaking historically, might not have been doing everything it could have at some of the sites that it controls directly… the city is now highly focused on New Orleans East in order to really rejuvenate the economy of New Orleans East and make it a place that everybody will be proud of,” he said.

Councilmember Cyndi Nguyen, a resident of New Orleans East since her family moved to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1979, said what the area really needs is an attitude shift. She said good things are on the horizon, citing a new PeeWee’s Crab Cakes location and the ongoing redevelopment of an old Holiday Inn high-rise off Chef Menteur Highway into residential apartments.

“When people interview me when something bad happens, I always try to focus on the positive thing,” she said. “But it takes everybody — it can’t just be me as a council member. We’ve been calling on residents to really help change the perception.”

Jackson, too, is hopeful, particularly as the East is one of the last fronts for redevelopment in the city after Katrina. But “people have to really start caring” about the area, he added.

“The East has a lot of potential. With more development, more police force, more things of that nature, I think it can be back to what it was,” he said. “It’s just going to take some time.”