Trinity Zion Band at Broad Street Bazaar (photo by: Bart Everson)
Zion City is a collection of small shotguns, churches, empty lots and industrial buildings that occupy a 4 block by 6 block area. This assemblage of residences and businesses are bound by major roads on three sides and a drainage canal on the fourth. While water lines, mold and ominous “X’s” still mar some buildings, many of the residents–including, the 2nd generation local mechanic on S. Gayoso, Byron (last name withheld)–insist that Zion City has improved after Katrina and looks to the future with hope.
Zion City, often conflated with Gert Town, another Mid City neighborhood, has struggled to define itself as its own community. Many of these efforts centered around the church, which to this day is an intrinsic element of the Zion City Revitalization Movement.
Gospel music has been the main element that has brought Zion City to the periphery of acknowledgement. Music serves to define Zion City as a separate entity, empowering the residents and having far reaching effects. The birth of this influential musical engagement can be traced back to the churches and the emphasis on spirituality and community over religion and exclusivity.
To locals and informed citizens alike, Zion City and Gert Town are synonymous. In his column on New Orleans Trivia, New Orleans native and living historian refers to the neighborhood as “Gerttown/Zion City” (1). Several maps dividing the city along neighborhood lines, including the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center’s set of maps plotting population loss and vacant houses, do not distinguish between Zion City and Gert Town (2).
Zion City was originally a part of Gerttown until the mid to late 1930’s when there was a big push for self-identity. It was in 1935 that the neighborhood pushed for independence by naming itself after a burgeoning musical group (3). Until then, Zion City was Gert Town, a “Negro section” of Broadmoor and Mid-City. As of today, the city of New Orleans does not recognize Zion City as an independent neighborhood. Zion City and Gert Town are often used interchangeably, but Gert Town has a musical history which contrasts with that of Zion City.
Gert Town was originally part of the McCarty Plantation, which was sold to the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company in the mid 1830’s. The company used their land to extend the New Basin Canal, which later was filled in and turned into the Pontchartrain Expressway. The remaining land was purchased by the Millaudon family, and divided into parcels. Alfred Gehrke, the man for which the town is named, opened Gehrke’s Grocers on Carrollton and Colapissa in 1893 and continued to buy up parcels of land in the area. The neighborhood was unofficially known as Gehrke’s Town and was eventually shortened to Gerttown (4).
Gerttown is the geographic center of New Orleans. Streetcar lines along Carrollton and Washington Avenues served the neighborhood and contributed to its steady growth as a residential and industrial community until the 1920’s. Xavier University was constructed in 1927. The Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad tracks ran where Earhart exists today. These railways were part of a national system owned by Illinois Central Railroad, and they were part of the line that the company chose to abandon in the mid 1930’s. Gerttown was not only an important industrial site in the city, but due to or maybe in spite of that face, it became a center for the development of jazz and other music.
Gert Town began to establish its autonomy in 1902 when Charles Wirth of the Standard Brewing Co. purchased a square parcel of land from the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad Company for $3,000 cash (5). A wooden fence was erected and a dance hall pavilion was sited on the grounds; Lincoln Park was born. This space became a popular place for the Blacks in the community. A skating rink opened 4 years later, followed by balloon ascensions and parachute jumps. Cutting contests and informal battle of the bands to win over audiences became popular between Lincoln Park and the adjacent Johnson Park.
Buddy Bolden and his ragged uptown band competed with John Robichaux and his downtown orchestra. Johnson Park fell into decline and around the time Bolden’s health began to fade. Once Bolden’s coronet was quiet, Lincoln Park lost its musical qualities and became a park used for baseball games and picnics.
The story of Lincoln and Johnson Parks is a prime example of how secular music helped to define Gert Town and the decline of the neighborhood in the mid 1930’s, coinciding with the lack of music and abandonment of railways. Several notable musicians to emerged from Gert Town, includung Allen Toussaint and Merry Clayton.
Residents of Zion City began to distinguish themselves from Gert Town in the mid 1930’s. Their independence can be closely tied to the musical influences of the churches. While Gert Town became known for secular musicians, Zion City harbored performers who started in the church and then gradually worked themselves to national acclaim.
Zion City’s name comes from a gospel group that formed in the 1930’s. Benjamin Maxon and a group of Zion City teenagers formed the Zion City Harmonizers in 1939. The gospel group emerged during gospel’s golden era following the success of the Southern Harps, a nationally acclaimed gospel group headed by Alberta French Johnson, Maxon’s aunt.
The Southern Harps were based out of St. Thomas Baptist Church in the adjacent Central City neighborhood. Although the musical group became popular here and abroad, performing at the first annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, most of their services occur within churches in a 100 mile radius of the city (6).
Although the Zion Harmonizers group has changed leadership and members several times, they have maintained a roster of “church men.” (7). The term ‘Zion City’ can link its beginning with that of the Zion Harmonizers and remains proud of its homegrown spiritual singers, yet the group does not return the favor.
The New Zion City Preservation Association displays the history of the Zion Harmonizers on their home page. Each visitor to the Zion City website is first presented with the success of the Zion Harmonizers (8). The Zion Harmonizers have performances scheduled in locales from churches on Delachaise in New Orleans to the House of Blues on Decatur to the Auditório Ibirapuera in São Paulo, Brazil; yet, none of these performances occur in Zion City. Like the city of New Orleans, the Zion Harmonizers have forgotten the small neighborhood of Zion City.
Zion City is a small neighborhood and has struggled for recognition in the minds of locals and government officials. Since the 1940’s residents have been using music as a way to engage with the local community and exert a presence in the Greater New Orleans Area. Although it is only 4 blocks by 6 blocks, Zion City is home to at least 6 churches in various states of operation. Baptist churches in Zion City have played an important role in the lives of aspiring performers and the community and continue to do so today.
Linda Hopkins started her musical career singing at St. Mark’s Baptist Church over which her father, Reverend Fred Matthews, presided. Hopkins sang her way through and out of the church. At the age of 11 she persuaded Mahlia Jackson, then 25, to perform at her church fundraiser. Jackson, surprised at the age of Hopkins, dubbed her “the kid,” a nickname that stuck. Jackson arranged for Hopkins to join the Southern Harps, where she sang for 11 years until she was seduced by the Blues. Hopkins had a rich musical career as a blues and gospel singer and actress. In 2005 she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (9).
There have been others who have followed a similar path including Tony “Tiger” Owens, who performed at the 2009 Ponderosa Stomp exhibit. Owens earned himself the nickname of “Lost Soul King of New Orleans” and “underground hero” and maintains a following in Europe and Japan (10). It seems that Zion City has a history of influential performers, who eventually leave the neighborhood.
In the past, the residents used music in the churches to further their political goals, but they relied more on the local voices rather than the extraordinary. In the 1940’s the Beulah Baptist and St. Mark Baptist churches held a tribute to Zion City covered by the Louisiana Weekly (11). In this way, the ordinary church goer sings for the community, and the standout serves the individual. One has to question whether the loss of a local musical voice has contributed to the loss of identity.
In the fall of 1940, the Louisiana Weekly covered a tribute to Zion City. Events were held at the Greater St. Mark Baptist Church and to a lesser extent Beulah Baptist. The Louisiana Weekly highlighted some of the more influential people of the neighborhood, including business woman, Carrie Henderson, “popular songbird” Aquilla White, Reverend L. Braxton, pastor of the Home Mission Baptist Church and vice chairman of the Columbus Playground, Rebecca Spellman Bennett, as well as the everyday characters that make up the neighborhood. The articles celebrates the people and their endeavors. As it states, “The Negroes of Zion City have hit a new high in race pride, and many types of Negro businesses are blooming; they are being supported with pride” (12).
Zion City has struggled, and continues to do so. The residents have continually used music as a way to express the needs of the city to the greater New Orleans community; many of these times the pleas fall on deaf ears. The churches in this small neighborhood provide a musical space that transcends religious divisions and supports the proactive individual, such as Cynthia Harris, leader of the New Zion Preservation Association, and residents like Gerard Rouchon who cycles around the neighborhood picking up trash saying ‘hello’ to everyone he passes, striving for change.
This article was originally published on MediaNola on December 9, 2012.