(Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center [photo by: Infrogmation via Wiki Media Commons])
University of New Orleans drama graduate, Rene Broussard, founded the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center in 1986, as an experimental theatre group. It was first located in the Kant Gallery on Girod Street, then at the Movie Pictures in Mid-City. The Arts Center moved back to the CBD on O’Keefe Street and then to Magazine Street before it settled on its current site, Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, formerly known as Dryades Street.
Throughout the years, the Zeitgeist has become a New Orleans’s exhibitor of the alternative arts in the forms of film, performance, visual, and literary art. Events have occurred year-round at the Zeitgeist for the past decades. Receiving no public funding, the center is strictly run upon assistance from volunteers and artists, along with donations from its visitors, sponsors, and monetary collections from its various events.
The Zeitgeist proudly boasts the slogan “Something for and against everyone!” as its motto for the type of alternative culture it exhibits. The Zeitgeist openly advertises its controversial media across the neighborhood, inviting people from all points of view and walks of life to come and observe. Despite the large church community in the area, the Zeitgeist peacefully coexists with its religious counterparts, respecting the differing opinions of all that surround it through their counter-programming (1).
The Architecture of the Zeitgeist
The architecture of the Zeitgeist is reflective of the neighborhood along Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Its open warehouse space–bisected by slender columns–creates space for a gallery, theater space (complete with seating setup and projection screen), and café. This expansive, multipurpose space comprises the main portion of the arts center. The Zeitgeist is innovatively pursuing a “bike-in” movie space in its rear garden courtyard, complete with areas for spreading out to enjoy films and putting up a snack stand. The brick exterior façade, along with the exposed brick and peeling plaster, mirror the somewhat vintage and bricolage affect that can be found throughout Oretha Castle Haley. Its connection to the surrounding buildings helps it to seamlessly blend in with the block, yet it has a unique character with its ornamented façade.
Dryades Street, Oretha Castle Haley, and the Civil Rights Movement
The Zeitgeist itself is important to Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, but the actual site of the street has been a significant one in both the past and present. During the civil rights movement, what was then Dryades Street was a center for activity and protests because of its segregated buildings. Two activists named Avery Alexander and Oretha Castle Haley fueled the fire of protesting along the street. They organized a sit-in protest in a governmental building cafeteria to fight the fact that people of color where not allowed to eat in the same room as whites.
They boycotted the meat market, where the quality of meat sold to people of color was sub-par, not to mention unhealthy. Because of their efforts, especially Ms. Haley’s, Dryades Street became one of the first streets in the area to desegregate.
This caused white flight from the area and unfortunately gave the neighborhood an unsafe reputation. Oretha Castle Haley gained recognition from her activism and went on to become the first woman to direct Charity Hospital. Eventually, Dryades Street was officially renamed Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in her honor (2).
Revitalization of Dryades Street/Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard
Today, the street is currently undergoing a slow but undeniable rennovation, fueled in part by the presence of the Zeitgeist. Many non-profit organizations and arts centers are building in the neighborhood, impacting the cultural climate of this street. Many say it renews the streets cultural significance and other argue about gentrification.
Events of the past, such as the NOLA Food Truck Roundup (every Tuesday night on Oretha Castle Haley) and Art Market (hosted by the Zeitgeist every second Saturday of the month), bring locals and tourists together on this street in the name of food, music, and fun (3). This is one of many factors that hints at Central City’s revitalization as a vibrant African-American working-class neighborhood and a center for multi-cultural celebration through markets and events open to everyone, regardless of their background. This neighborhood, once defined by a few areas of crime and a run-down commercial corridor, has now replaced that notion with a deeply seated sense of community, social activity, and growth.
In Their Own Words
Rene Broussard, Director of the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, said, “I show things that I know are going to lose money, but I think it’s important to show them. My mission is to provide a venue for films that wouldn’t come to New Orleans otherwise. [Before Katrina] we were doing programming that was dealing with human rights, social justice, and foreign independent films. [After Katrina] you had a complete shift in the population of the city and immediately after Katrina you had tens of thousands of young people coming from all over the world either through Americorp or Common Ground or with religious groups or just on their own, coming to help with the rebuilding of the city. And a lot of them have decided to stay here.
Those people that were coming in from all around the world were usually coming from places that had venues like Zeitgeist that would show foreign independent films, art houses. And so we have this huge group of people coming to town looking for the type of programming that Zeitgeist was already doing. And the whole city has become much more engaged since Katrina.”
- (Personal interview with Rene Broussard, Owner of the Zeitgeist, 1 Oct 2012)
- (“Main Street: OC Haley Merchants & Business Association. History of OCHMBA.” http://ochaleyblvd.org/?page_id=84. Retrieved 17 October 2012).
- (“The Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center.” zeitgeistinc.net. Retrieved 17 October 2012)
*This interview has been edited and updated. The original version can be found here.