NEW ORLEANS — Victor Dawkins’ routine has varied little in 40-plus years of owning The Other Place, a brick two-story that is one of the last black-owned bars on St. Bernard Avenue.
But outside, much has changed. Four of the six nearby bars — all of which were once owned and operated by black people and served black customers — now have white owners and cater to a primarily white crowd.
Close to the French Quarter, this stretch of the avenue has long been a hub for residents of the 7th Ward and the Treme, two historically black neighborhoods.
I was born and raised in New Orleans. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, I began documenting what remained after the floods.
Two years ago, I turned my camera to the disappearing black bars and lounges on St. Bernard Avenue, as their ownership began to change. The trend is not limited to this avenue, though. Central City, a neighborhood in Uptown New Orleans that was once a bevy of black spaces, is experiencing a similar shift.
Tradition is paramount — and I fear what will become of my city if these traditions are lost.
Throughout Africa and the African diaspora, black bars tend to serve as more than hangouts, be they the shebeens of South Africa or the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta. They can be safe spaces, cultural institutions, even cultural catalysts.
Some black-owned New Orleans bars are live music venues. Others serve as the official or unofficial headquarters for social aid and pleasure clubs — black organizations whose members have for generations banded together to cover members’ burial costs, support charities and put on the city’s famous second-line parades.
Some Mardi Gras Indians — black Carnival groups famous for their intricate suits of feathers and beadwork — use black-owned bars for practice sessions in the months before Carnival. For other tribes, black-owned bars may be the place on Mardi Gras morning to put their suits together before going out into the streets, or a stop during the day or on St. Joseph’s Night for respite from their processions around their neighborhoods.
The walls of many black-owned bars are filled with photos of patrons through the years — bold and intimate statements that simply declare, “I was here.”
But as these bars shutter, culture is displaced, and in New Orleans, that has come with a rising fear that venerable traditions could be subject to new restrictions.
It has happened elsewhere: In 2007, the African drumming in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, New York, a tradition since 1969, led to a protracted dispute with the “new” Harlemites living nearby. And more recently, in 2015, a 65-year-old black church in West Oakland, California, faced noise violation citations because some newer residents complained that the choir was too loud.
Like several bar owners, Dawkins doesn’t recall the exact year he opened, but he knows it was more than 40 years ago. He rattled off just a few of the names of black-owned bars that were once on the avenue: Good Timers. Cherone’s. Miss Yvonne’s.
“At night, all you saw was black people,” said Dawkins, who is in his late 60s.
Black spaces and halls, predecessors to black-owned bars, were established as a result of segregation, and many were owned by benevolent societies, social clubs or fraternal organizations.
One of the oldest black venues on record was Economy Hall, built in 1857. Early jazz music percolated, dances lasted until 4 a.m., and brass-band funerals were held at the hall. These places became integral to social, civic, and political structures within the city’s black community.
Kermit Ruffins, a jazz trumpeter, vocalist and co-founder of the Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band, acquired the lease to the Mother-in-Law Lounge in 2011, but he was not able to reopen the place until 2014. Ruffins, 55, traces his love of bars to his childhood, when his mother worked at several in the Lower 9th Ward, and to his time playing music in many of them.
The Mother-in-Law Lounge was originally opened in 1994 by Ernie K-Doe, a rhythm and blues singer, and was named for a song he recorded that topped the charts in 1961.
Ruffins didn’t anticipate the ownership transformation on St. Bernard Avenue. “We wish that black owners were still there,” he said. But he added, “There’s no time to be negative about it, just because we didn’t do what we were supposed to do to keep it alive.”
Just off St. Bernard Avenue, a number of black-owned places, like Bullet’s Sports Bar and Bertha’s Place Bar and Restaurant, continue to thrive. Elsewhere across the city, there are other strongholds.
But for some owners, the lure of rising property values throughout the city and along St. Bernard Avenue makes the decision to sell easier.
“Someone offered them a great price, and they took it,” said Dawkins. “I’ve been doing the same stuff for 30 years, serving drinks to the same people. If someone offers me a great price, I’m going to take it, too.”