Beacon of the New Orleans community and new Executive Director of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes will lead us in our first stop of our immersive experience on adaptive reuse. We’ll stroll the historic Claiborne Avenue, once bustling economic center for Black business owners to understand its several decade demise, and how dedicated New Orleanians are working to empower and redevelop the neighborhood. 

AL: Asali, I know that you’re beloved by the New Orleans community, bringing a neighborhood- centric approach to redevelopment, but tell me a little more about who you are. Are you from New Orleans originally?

ADE: My mother moved my brother and I here from San Diego when I was two. New Orleans is the only home I’ve ever known.

AL: Can you tell me about the work you do in New Orleans?

ADE: Basically I do community development work. I work with neighborhoods on how to achieve better outcomes. I started this with the Claiborne Corridor because it’s the area of the city with the worst outcomes: social, economic, health, great disparities including a 25 year difference in life expectancy. 

AL: I was shocked when I saw that on the film [about the Claiborne Corridor Cultural Innovation District].

ADE: For me, this is a very personal fight because I’m the mother of five children who’s decided to raise them around the corner from where I grew up. Those are my children’s and grandchildren’s outcomes, and the outcomes of a host of amazingly talented and hardworking people who are facing systemic racism. They’re not able to achieve the best that life has to offer, yet they are the ones feeding the industry that the city needs to make billions of dollars. 

AL: Right.

ADE: How do we change that? That’s the work I have been fortunate and really honored to be able to do. It’s a passion and concern of many, but very few have an opportunity to work on that as their daily work.

There’s a great responsibility to try to make community plans come to life: push community projects through bureaucratic processes that are intended to make community processes die.

To secure a joint use agreement for the space under the bridge that was pretty much abandoned, blighted, dirty, it took us two years. It has since been cleaned out somewhat because of our efforts. But, if it had been solely in the hands of community members and didn’t have someone like me in government to make it happen, it would never happen. There are so many hoops to jump through--it’s impossible if you’re working and raising children.

I started with  the Mayor’s Office in 2014 and continued with the New Orleans Business Alliance. Now I’m the Executive Director at Ashé Cultural Arts Center, supporting African cultural arts. We also provide affordable housing for artists and performance spaces. Art used to happen in the streets, organically in neighborhoods. Displacement, changing neighborhoods, and city policy really debilitated the organic nature of art. We need to hold the space for the kind of work that makes the city run. 

AL: You’ve talked about  this being very personal to you as a mother and a member of the community. Were there other things in your life or your background that drew you to doing this kind of work?

ADE: Somebody asked me when I started doing community work. I think I always have. It was kind of how we were raised--giving back. 

I worked for Jazz Fest, coming out of the education sector and going into event production it allowed a certain kind of freedom–work hard for a few months, then off for a month but I still made a full salary and was able to take the skills I was learning to do events for the neighborhood. I realized that even though most of the people on stage were people of color, particularly those practicing the indigenous arts of New Orleans, they were not the kind of people who had salaried jobs like I did. They weren’t the techs, stage managers, lighting crews, or arts administrators. 

AL: What is a snapshot Claiborne Corridor in its heyday?

ADE: There’s always community lore, right? We have families that were here during the founding if not before.

When the elders talk about Claiborne  Avenue it’s one of those inspiring things that make you think of the Harlem Renaissance period. Businesses upon businesses, goods and professional services for anything the community would need were all owned by people of color. It was where celebrations happened, where you took your first date, where you went to your first picture show. You remember seeing Fats Domino.

It was lined with these majestic oak trees. People thought at the time they were the biggest in the city. We found in our research that actually it’s the longest span of live oak trees in North America. 

AL: Wow.

ADE: It was a place of grandeur. So when the interstate came in, first of all, they removed all the trees. Secondly, they closed 326 Black-owned businesses without any relocation or compensation, though the City of New Orleans received relocation and compensation funding from the federal government. The decline and disinvestment was inevitable.

AL: It’s emotional just to hear about it. I’m sure it will be very evocative for people to be there who don’t know much about this--being physically there.

ADE: Absolutely. 

AL: Chicago has a similar history in certain neighborhoods that were thriving Black communities that have been so disinvested in. The challenge now is figuring out how we breathe new life into cities.

ADE: Without displacing people! 

AL: What I’m seeing is that some of the more promising examples–and probably the only ones that will really work at the end of the day–are slow and a bit messy and the resources aren’t always there to move at the pace that people would like. But they’re much more organically driven by and for the people who live in the neighborhood. 

ADE: Yes, we all have to join in and we have to partner. People who live there are the experts and know what will work best in their neighborhood. We have to talk about how this was systemic, nationally. The last Secretary of Transportation under President Obama, Fox, did a report on the federal interstate system and how it was used by the government to disintegrate Black commercial districts. So that was the first preference for where they put interstates: Black commercial districts, then Black neighborhoods, then poor immigrant neighborhoods. It was actually the written plan! It did what it was intended to do. So now we have to make new intentions if we’re going to have new outcomes. 

Government has to put protections in place and make policies. Otherwise, the market will always overwhelm communities.

If the wealthy and politically-savvy people of San Francisco couldn’t successfully protect itself from the uber-wealthy people of Silicon Valley, then there’s nothing that anyone else can do without policy.

And the private sector has to understand the advantages that they’ve gained over generations because of it, and find partners in communities that they can create something new together with.

AL: Absolutely.

ADE: That’s my theory of change (laughs).

AL: I’m so excited to hear more about this in person when we’re with you. I think there’s a real need to focus on what’s locally relevant and what’s locally really controlled. Overcoming all of the years of systemic racism, disinvestment, demoralization--there’s no trust in the powers that be amongst the people. But you can’t make change without people feeling like they’re included in change that it will benefit them.

ADE: Right, and how do you create those partnerships? There’s distrust on both sides. The private sector assumes--and possibly rightfully so from past experience--that community doesn’t really understand business or the pace of business. So we build capacity. We started a community development finance class, partnering with the University of New Orleans. It’s a 30-week certificate course that residents, business owners, property owners can take to develop their own projects. 

AL: In an ideal world, what would Claiborne Avenue look like in ten years?

ADE: Wow, that’s great. In ten years, the full 25 block project will be fully built out. It will be bustling and thriving as an international destination for local culture, providing authentic experiences and exchanges. That’s what it was always meant to be. That's the energy of the street. If you are here on Sunday, go to the second line on Claiborne. It’s alive with possibilities.

We’ll have begun bigger projects beyond what’s happening under the bridge. There’s no vacant, blighted properties on Claiborne. All of that is filled in, with homeowners and indigenous business owners who not only have created pathways to intergenerational prosperity, but also experience better health outcomes. They’re living longer, healthier lives. 

AL: Wonderful. This is the visit on the immersion experience that is most in line with my area of human-centered design. Everything you’re expressing fits squarely in my interest in revitalizing neighborhoods and getting real about sustainable adaptation. From where we are to where we need to go, we must start with thinking about the people. 

ADE: Well thank you for providing the opportunity. I appreciate you opening up this conversation to an audience that would normally not hear this kind of thing. Being able to have this conversation with people in an authentic way with people who are doing the work is where the difference starts to be had. 

The fact that a person who is doing human-centered design is coordinating this kind of experience, is amazing to me. 

AL: My theory and what I’ve experienced, is that when you make things really tangible and real for people and they can share an experience together it opens up new potential.It’s hard to really get there in a straight conference format. You can drive things home when people feel things more viscerally through lived experience.

ADE: This is going to be wonderful. I’m very excited.