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Promotin’ the General Welfare

Coffeehouses Come Home to Roost in Treme

I spent the better portion of my first thirteen years walking the streets near 1620 Dumaine Street, not far from North Claiborne Avenue.  My family’s funeral home was located smack-dab in the middle of the block, next door to Mr. Daryl’s Barbershop, just up from Congress Hats, right across from the infamous Tucky’s Dome, where a cast of characters – and I mean, characters! – convened nightly. Down the street, toward Joseph A. Craig School, was Mr. Claude’s Grocery, where we’d get sweets and snacks and my grandfather’s “lunch-tongue and liver-cheese” sandwiches.  It was a very user-friendly neighborhood.


As opportunities expanded for the Black citizens of New Orleans, folks seemed to forget about everyday Treme, and by the early 90’s, most of these local businesses – once the only places Black families could patronize – were shuttered, leaving our funeral home as the lone beacon of a by-gone era. Then, our building burned down.


Treme never lost its place of prominence in the New Orleans’ Black community: one only need visit “under the bridge” at Mardi Gras time to know that spirit prevails. But day-to-day transactions were very much a thing of the past, save for a few local holdouts and holdovers.


Then Katrina blew into town and changes followed, like a TV show which fascinated a nation and brought all sorts of folks down to help us save a wonderful slice of American history. But along the way, a funny thing happened. Welcome, gentrification!


There has been some controversy surrounding the repopulation of Treme with new folks and new faces. My father, Big Nardy, and his cousin, Lou, still work in the neighborhood – they never left – and many folks find their way back home, so to speak, when it’s time to bury a loved one or get buried themselves. Some of the new folks, too, have come to make use of the services at Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home, having earned a reputation for putting on some of the livelier send-offs and second lines since Hurricane Katrina.


Signs of new life, as evidenced by the bevy of structures being re-purposed for new ventures, have been popping up throughout the neighborhood. Two favorite spots of mine are Treme Coffeehouse and Fatma’s Cozy Corner.


The former being the more tenured of the two, Treme Coffeehouse is an open, airy room located on the corner of St. Philip St. and North Villere. Its spare, squared space hosts a calm vibe that harkens back to old times where folks gather and gab. Hardly pretentious, Treme Coffeehouse’s patio is good for sunning, smoking, or shooting the breeze at a slightly more elevated volume.  


Of course, the staff knows my Dad, famous for his friendliness, and if you’re selling good coffee and good food, you are a good friend of Big Nardy’s.


Just around the corner from Treme Coffeeshouse is Fatma’s Cozy Corner. Run by Fatma Aydin, a native of Turkey who has called New Orleans home since the 1980’s, Fatma’s is located on the corner of North Robertson and Ursulines. The location is famous in local lore, having been Ruth’s then Joe’s Cozy Corner. During Joe’s long tenure, the establishment was frequented by musicians, working folks and local denizens. It also earned a bit of a “reputation”, if you will, and sadly, was shut down after Joe himself was sent to prison.


Fatma has breathed a new sense of vitality and charm into the space, a slender, narrower room compared to that at Treme Coffeehouse, but it too is airy and lets in lots of light. The secret to Fatma’s success anywhere she’s opened an eatery is the personal touch to her presentation and her offerings and the generally good vibe charm. As the driving force behind a handful of excellent, local restaurants, including Mona Lisa on Royal Street, Café Istanbul on Frenchmen St. (now a club venue in the New Orleans Healing Center) and Fatoush (formerly located also in the New Orleans Healing Center), Fatma and the family make conversation as good as the pastries they produce in-house. They have moved, unassumingly, into the neighborhood, and already, it feels like they’ve been there for years.  


And, of course, my father has made his way there, too. It seems he has a taste for a particular turkey sandwich “the way they prepare it” and, of course, as always, the coffee!


Coffeehouse culture is more than just appreciating good coffee: it’s about a feel, a sense of belonging without having to belong, if you prefer otherwise, and nowadays, the wi-fi. Ironically, the sense of connectedness, the virtual community, makes perfect sense in today’s coffeehouse culture, and has been a welcome wrinkle for quite some time. Coffeehouses were some of the early adopters of free, ubiquitous wi-fi, pushing bigger coffee conglomerates to include this aspect as an essential part of their business model.


That this part of Treme is home to two, locally-owned-and-operated shops also melds with the prevailing spirit of this once-thriving neighborhood. This was home to lots of locally-owned, homegrown shops and stops along the way for many folks, back in the day and into the early 80’s. Maybe it makes more sense to me because of my love for coffeeshops and this neighborhood – seeing it coming back to life, albeit in a new incarnation. The changes have made some uncomfortable, but perhaps for all those so concerned with its well-being, coming back to the neighborhood should become a priority.


Before Katrina knocked the wind out of Treme, Wayne Baquet brought his family’s name and reputation for good food and a welcoming vibe when he opened Lil Dizzy’s. Thanks to his vision, folks began returning then and continue to find their way to North Robertson and Esplanade – for some to a new place along the path; for others, a way back to their roots. As we observe the latest transformation taking place, staying abreast and staying involved becomes even more important.


Big Nardy and Lou never left, never wanted to leave, and came back to serve their community whether folks cared or not, and so far, we know new folks and old are helping remake and reshape what Treme is and was and well could be. As the cliché goes, only time will tell. For now, it’s good to see the sun shinin’ on those stoops and porches once again.


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The text above is a column and expresses only the opinion of the author, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender’s Editorial Board.

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