During a recent tour, developers showed off progress at the site of Central City's forthcoming grocery store.
Over the last few years, Central City’s Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard has seen some big changes. Once a nearly-abandoned commercial stretch, the street has become home to the offices of several non-profits, a movie theater, new restaurants and homes. Among the most recent developments, Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra are currently building out the New Orleans Jazz Market in the former Gator’s department store, and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum is set to open their new location on the stretch in the fall. But along with restaurants, music, movies and museums, a neighborhood also needs a place to make groceries. The team behind Jack and Jake’s grocery store are looking to give Central City such a place in the former Myrtle Banks School building
Founded in 2009 by local ecologist John Burns, Jack and Jake’s bills itself as the first regional food hub for fresh, sustainable and local food pulled from a network of over 200 local farms and fisheries. Burns and his crew aim to provide healthy options to combat childhood obesity, heart disease and diabetes in communities across New Orleans. By sourcing from an average 65 mile radius around the city, there’s no doubt that it’s local. Already established as a wholesaler to local restaurants, Jack and Jake’s has partnered with New York based community developer, Alembic, to build a neighborhood grocery.
The pair turned its attention to the Central City neighborhood. Considered a “food desert” by civic standards, the community has no major source for fresh food or major grocery store. Most of its residents either shop at corner stores or WalMart. They found the perfect location for their grocery store in the burned out shell of the former Myrtle Banks Elementary School.
Designed by locally renowned architect E.A. Christy and opened in 1910, the school was originally named McDonogh 38. It replaced two smaller 18th century schools on the same site. In 1955, the school was renamed to honor the early civil rights activist Myrtle R. Banks. But by 2002, the 3 story building was in serious disrepair and combined with low enrollment, the Orleans Parish School Board closed the school permanently. The vacant building survived Katrina and remained in solid shape until a 2008 fire destroyed most of its roof and third story. Slated for demolition, Alembic bought the building from the school board in 2011 fo $660,000.
Faced with with a building both completely destroyed and still bound by historic preservation laws, the developers had it in for the long haul.
“The fire worked to our advantage in a way," said Alembic director Jonathan Leit. "It allowed us to create and open up a totally new space.”
The building was gutted to 4 standing walls, with classroom and hall windows preserved for future use. An entirely new roof was built. Since then, builders have created a sleek and modernized space while preserving the historic fixtures and details of the 100 year old school.
Don’t call the new Jack and Jake’s a grocery store — the organization prefers “community market.”
“The layout [of the store] isn’t like a typical grocery store with produce along the walls and dry goods in the center aisles. We’re focusing on various departments such as the bakery and butcher by creating a specific space for each one”, says Leit, “Besides not many stores have a produce section a block long.”
The two-floor store covers over 23,000 sq. feet., and features a variety of goods for sale. With a strong focus on fresh food, Jack and Jake’s will offer heirloom produce and heritage meats and cheeses. They’ll also offer healthy pre-cooked options, po boys, and other quick to go items.
“Because Jack and Jake’s is a wholesaler unto themselves, we can offer cheaper prices on fresher produce," Leit said.
Alembic has also installed a teaching kitchen and cook book library to be used by the community. The third floor holds 11,000 square feet of office space to be used by local non-profits. The developer hopes to hold visual art and performance exhibits in the upstairs space.
Slated to open this fall, the retailer recently received a boost with a $1 million loan from the New Orleans Fresh Food Retailer Initiative. When opened, the store will create around 30 full time, permanent jobs. Both Jack and Jake’s and Alembic hope the market will become a healthy anchor in a rapidly changing neighborhood.
“We are trying to avoid the negative impact of gentrification by focussing fully on the community," Leit said.
NoDef recently took a tour of the space with Leit. Check out some of the progress below (Photos by Liz Davas):