Since 2005 the city has struggled with the highest national rate of property blight. This problem has attracted thousands of young entrepreneurs with innovative ideas. Green spaces have sprung up across the city and art spaces have been formed. Installations such as Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” have transformed blighted properties from eyesores to centers for community engagement.
It’s an interesting question to ponder: What would you do with a blighted property?
Last year, we — Rebecca Crenshaw and Sean Vissar — pondered that exact question. We began talking about forming a space where artists could be creatively productive. Drawing upon our backgrounds in rebuilding houses and work with non-profits, we teamed up with Matthew Sheard, who had similar ideas and experience, to start a non-profit cultural center. After discussion about what the space should entail, a house was purchased and 1239 Congress was born.
The programs and events that we’ve started at 1239 Congress have sprouted up organically. From conversations with artists and community members. And that’s how we plan to move forward. So if you have ideas or need a space, please reach out to us.
Here’s what we’ve done so far.
In September, as we were renovating the house, which had been heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina, Rebecca connected with friends at Skin Horse Theatre Company. Skin Horse had just begun work on an original play, Sarah. They wanted a venue that was a residential home, but where they could have free reign to modify it to suit their needs. It was a perfect fit with what 1239 Congress was trying to create and with its stage in the renovation process. Skin Horse opened the play for Fringe Fest last year and ran it for five weekends, selling out in advance for every show.
After Sarah wrapped in December, 1239 Congress decided to curate an art show, which is on display at the house now. It includes six New Orleans photographers, with series that cover every surface of the house. The soft opening on February 3 drew more than 100 people. The grand opening the following week was an equal success. The photography exhibit is open from 4-7 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday through March.
In December, a touring band, Thomas Kivi and Sarah Pray contacted Rebecca about finding a venue while in New Orleans. That led to the first music show on February 17. Andrew Duhon, a local singer/songwriter, opened the night. Thomas Kivi and Sarah Pray followed, and the night ended with The Tintypes, a New Orleans bluegrass band. Having an all-acoustic show in a renovated house created a personal connection between the audience and musicians. Many more shows will follow.
1239 Congress is an ideal space for young artists with limited resources, to rehearse, perform and have instant feedback from a live audience. We are also giving back with a music exchange program, in which any musician who wants to use the space can. The only payment required is to give music lessons to community youth in return.
We will be contributing regularly to NOLAVie. Sharing the lessons and laughter from our nonprofit adventure. We will also reach out to the many other cultural centers, new and old, around New Orleans and let you know of the exciting things that we find.
The creators of 1239 Congress write bimonthly for NolaVie, covering happenings and people in their neighborhood.