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New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood was once a stronghold of rich cultural traditions and bustling local businesses. While the arts remain vibrant within this tight community, the area has suffered economically over the past decades.
Now, a new local initiative aims to restore economic vitality along one commercial corridor in the neighborhood.
Driving down LaSalle St., between Washington and Louisiana Avenues, it’s clear that the area is in a state of transition. On one side sits the Harmony Oaks housing development, the mixed income replacement for the former CJ Peete public housing complex. On the other side of the street are a handful of empty storefronts, among them the historic Dew Drop Inn.
On the corner of LaSalle and Toledano Streets, a half-dozen bright yellow pod-like structures sit on a grassy lot. At first glance, they look more like tollbooths, greenhouses, or maybe some kind of shipping container. But drive by on a Friday or Saturday afternoon, and their purpose is clear.
The Market on LaSalle is a project of Harmony Neighborhood Development — a community development organization in Central City — and the yellow pods are retail outlets for local vendors, such as the Lion King’s Den Café.
In efforts to boost small-scale commercial activity in the neighborhood, Harmony bought the property on the corner of Lasalle and Toledano Streets in 2010. They demolished the derelict building on the lot with plans to build a local shopping center, in partnership with students from Tulane University’s Urban Build project. But their plans changed.
“The students designed a commercial building,” says Harmony Neighborhood Development Executive Directory Una Anderson. “It was too much for us to build, frankly; it was a $1.2 million building, and it was beyond our capacity to build. So then they then took a step back and designed the pods.”
The idea of pop-up retail is nothing new. Nationwide, businesses test out their products in temporary storefront space to see if there’s enough demand to support it. Sometimes businesses set up shop seasonally and move on once the holiday rush is through.
What makes the Market on LaSalle unique is its focus on cultivating local businesses.
“With the market we actually go out and solicit vendors: folks that have been doing this forever — in their homes, out of their cars, on foot — but what we wanna do is we wanna pick out the vendors who are interested in starting a small business,” says Dannielle Smalls, manager of the Market on LaSalle. “So what the market offers is just a space, so that the vendors have the opportunity to utilize a storefront.”
Kissy Smith from the Lion King’s Den Café is grateful for this opportunity. She says before the Market on LaSalle her businesses never had this type of exposure.
“I actually was a limo driver,” Smith says. “But food is our passion. We were catering a lot of supper plates out, and we were doing it out the house. And we had been trying to get to the one on Freret Street for a long time, but the list is very long.”
Smalls, the market’s manager, grew up in Central City. She says situations like Smith’s are pretty typical in the area.
“What I’ve found is that we’ve never had anything to give a small business the boost that it needs,” Smalls says. “The residents of Central City who sell or cook — or if they have handmade goods — they just don’t get the opportunity to vend unless it’s at an event. And most of the time, the events are just too expensive, so a lot of these businesses are just pent up inside their homes.”
Harmony still plans to build a permanent commercial structure on the site. But the pods — and the businesses within them — won’t go forgotten.
“I see this really being the start for a lot of businesses,” says Smalls. “Eventually we’re going to build out a permanent space so those vendors who are ready to go into that storefront, they have made it, they’ve have done the work that it takes to stay in businesses. Then I see them going into one of those spaces.”
Anderson says that building out the space after identifying local vendors, while it may seem backwards, is what will ensure that the businesses on LaSalle stay community-based.
“As opposed to jumping into a more traditional development, where you build the building and then bring in the tenants, the idea here is to grow the tenants while you grow the building,” Anderson says.
And what will happen to the pods once a permanent retail space is built?
“The pods are on wheels, so the general idea is for the pods to leave this space and activate another area to give more businesses the opportunity to grow,” says Smalls.
The Market on LaSalle, at the corner of LaSalle and Toledano, is open Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m.–5 p.m.