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Culture Watch: At the Healing Center, not an aspirin in sight, not a doctor on call

So what in the world is the New Orleans Healing Center? No, it’s not a walk-in clinic, although one could be forgiven for thinking that given the name.

The New Orleans Healing Center is, in fact, a restored, 55,000-square-foot former furniture store in the 2300 block of St. Claude Avenue, across the street from the iconic, still-in-ruins St. Roch Market. It occupies a $12-million repurposed building designed by its creators to house selected community-based businesses, programs, services and activities. More than just a building, it is, they say, a “pioneering social/civic concept that provides both the framework and guidance for individuals and communities to help each other and themselves.”

And it’s due to open in early May.

So who are these creators and why are they doing this? The project is being launched by a group of artists, architects, physicians, engineers, writers, neighborhood leaders and academics, co-chaired by Pres Kabacoff, better known for his commercial development projects (think American Can Apartments; new Aloysius building on Esplanade Avenue) and his life partner, Maine native Sally Glassman, who came to New Orleans in the late ‘70s, fell in love with the city and never left.

“It all started off with a salon we put together after the storm to figure out how we could help the city,” says Kabacoff. “We started out thinking we would do a book about what’s iconic in the city and what would be worth saving. Instead, that turned into a series of 15 different videos. But more important, along the way it made us ask ourselves what needs to happen in order to revitalize a whole neighborhood?”

For Glassman, an artist and practicing Vodou priestess, one answer is to offer services that help people at all socio-economic levels put the pieces of their lives back into a healthy state, both physically and spiritually as well as economically and culturally.

“It’s become very important to me to help people who are ready to heal to do so,” she says.

Finding an appropriate physical location for such services turned out to be easy. Since Glassman and Kabacoff live in the Bywater area, something on nearby St. Claude Avenue, with its many abandoned buildings in a neighborhood they feel is ripe for restoration, was a choice that made itself .

For Kabacoff, the real challenge was not finding a location, but creating a business model that would be sustainable and could qualify for the federal and state tax incentives such a serious and costly renovation absolutely had to have.

“You have to be a for-profit business to get the tax credits and whatever you do has to be run like a business,” he explains. To that end, all the businesses that will be located in the building have signed leases; so far, that includes a yoga studio and a restaurant and juice bar, as well as the ASI Federal Credit Union and a food coop grocery store, More tenants are expected.

“Sally’s vision of healing would not have been what I would have thought of,” Kabacoff admits. His traditional approach to real estate projects has been to focus solely on financing, construction, leasing and getting them up and running. “Her vision is more about a street university and affordable healing arts, that sort of thing. I have to say, I think she was right. If we had done a cutesy Uptown Square kind of development in this neighborhood, it probably wouldn’t have worked, since the concept here is to serve different economic and racial markets, bringing together the lake side and the river side of St. Claude.”

Glassman’s admittedly alternative lifestyle and spiritual beliefs have meant that the couple’s project has met with skepticism from some people and organizations.

“Oh, yes, we’ve been through a lot of ridiculing about this project over the past five years,” Glassman says good-naturedly. “But in spite of the naysayers, the healing has already begun. It has been wonderful to see the hundreds of volunteers who are helping us.”

For a Vodou priestess/artist who says she always has found discussions about money distasteful, the financial side of the Center has been a steep learning experience for Glassman.

“A revelation for me is that artists are actually working with Pres on this project,” she says. “I say that because I have had to really engage myself with the whole idea of making money. I’ve always thought that dealing with money would taint my immortal soul. I’m still uncomfortable. But I’ve wrapped my mind about the fact that you can’t generate or sustain healing if you can’t keep it going. And you can’t keep it going by just looking for handouts.”

Developer/entrepreneur Kabacoff, ever the realist, knowing the for-profit Healing Center, while in business to make money, may, in fact, struggle to do so, has ensured that the project’s financing has some dollars built in to help it through the early lean periods: He, Glassman and the Healing Center Board have created a non-profit organization to raise funds.

“The concern was that many might not be able to afford the services of the healing center,” Kabacoff says. “So we started a non-profit to help those who can’t afford a massage or yoga class or other services.”

Want to check out the project yourself? The Healing Center, 2372 St. Claude Ave., is holding a BBQ on Sunday, April 17, from 2 to 6 p.m., which is free and open to the public. Online, you can visit the Center’s Facebook page here.


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