Early Years on Dryades Street
Central City and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (once known as the Dryades Street commercial district) are cultural icons in New Orleans. The area was originally laid out by French architect and engineer Barthelemy Lafon in 1809. Spreading out from the culturally diverse Dryades Market (established in 1849 as part of the City's public market system) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish and Italian merchants, African-American doctors and insurance companies, dairymen (Brown’s Dairy) and German bakers (Leidenheimer’s) set up shop, taking advantage of the entrepreneurial and vending opportunities available to anyone with the ideas and the energy to become a success. The article below from 1923 shows a bustling street densely populated with businesses served by five streetcar lines.
In the Jim Crow era, Black musicians barred from playing or staying in local venues flocked to the neighborhood now known as Central City. It was home to cultural figures from Buddy Bolden to Professor Longhair, and the storied Dew Drop Inn. The Page Hotel, once located at 1038 Dryades St. (torn down for the Ponchartrain expressway) was owned by Allen Page--promoter of Negro League Baseball in New Orleans and owner of the Black Pelicans professional baseball team in the 1930's. The hotel served as a box office for the Negro League, and also housed and fed visiting players barred from white hotels.
Central City also gave birth to the modern Civil Rights movement in New Orleans and to the influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference formed in New Orleans by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during meetings at New Zion Baptist Church. The commercial corridor was renamed in the late 1980's posthumously for Mrs. Oretha Castle Haley, a civil rights pioneer who as a young college student joined the 1960 boycott of stores on Dryades Street that wouldn't hire black sales clerks or cashiers, in spite of the fact that the majority of customers in the shopping district were black. Mrs. Haley became the president of the New Orleans chapter of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and dedicated her life to social justice issues until her untimely death.
In the late 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s the Dryades Street area followed the path of many inner city commercial neighborhoods across the country—disinvestment, concentration of poverty and lack of opportunity. Dozens of historic properties fell into disrepair and were demolished. A few businesses hung on through the 1980's, and Living Witness Church established itself to help stabilize and clean up the corridor, but it wasn't until the late 1990's with the arrival of investor-anchors Cafe Reconcile and Ashe' Cultural Arts Center that a long-term, collaborative effort began to bring visitors and commerce back to the commercial district. It was at that point that the current merchants and property owners' association (OCHBMBA) was founded to advocate for neighborhood stakeholders, including businesses, non-profits, residents and culture-bearers committed to the community.