Back in July 2008 the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church in Central City was gutted by fire. On Thursday (Aug. 24), the New Orleans City Council voted to approve a federally-funded renovation that will convert the shell of the former church into a facility called The Greater Works Family Life Center. The community center will provide early childhood and adult educational opportunities and space for neighborhood gatherings.
Buddy Bolden’s home on First Street in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood on Friday, August 24, 2018. (Photo by Brett Duke, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
That would seem to be an uncomplicated example of progress. Yet champions of New Orleans’ musical history believe the church has a more pressing responsibility.
Across South Liberty Street from the site of the future community center stands a trio of small houses, including a boarded-up double shotgun house at 2309 First St. — once home to the trumpeter considered the pioneer of jazz, Buddy Bolden. The church owns the property, which could be considered ground-zero for an all-American artistic movement.
Several devoted music lovers spoke at Thursday’s council meeting, pleading with municipal leaders to insist that the church renovate the long-unused Bolden house as part of the community center project.
Photographer and historian John McCusker argued that the church has neglected the Bolden home since acquiring it after Hurricane Katrina and has rejected offers from outsiders to purchase the property. He told the council that to not compel the church to preserve the property at this juncture is a “death sentence” for the irreplaceable landmark. Hundreds of jazz lovers from around the world make pilgrimages to the humble frame house each year, McCusker said.
But even before the string of musical history devotees spoke on Thursday, District B Councilman Jay H. Banks pointed out that the Bolden house is outside the boundary of the project the council was asked to consider. He argued that the City Council simply had no power to force the church to take any such action. “We do not have the legal authority,” Banks said.
As Banks called for a vote on the community center, he sought to make it clear he hopes the Bolden house will eventually be preserved. “I am going to ask that we do approve this,” he said of the community center, “but I need to be very clear that the idea of preserving our heritage and culture is something central to me.”
Banks said that he has been assured by St. Stephen pastor Debra B. Morton that the Bolden home will eventually be renovated. Banks went on to suggest that the preservationists collaborate with the church to find the money for the project.
During public comments ahead of the vote, Stacey Bridewell told members the preservation of New Orleans’ architecture is, in part, what draws newcomers to the city. “I came here for this,” she said. Bridewell went on to say that she knows she’s “an outsider,” but she believes the culture of her adopted home is “very special.”
“We are rapidly losing these physical markers of our history,” she added.
Banks, once king of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, responded by acknowledging the preservationists’ commitment, but he also emphasized that newcomers were not alone in their devotion to the city.
“I hear you in terms of your passion and commitment to the culture,” Banks said, “but before many of you got here, I was already there.”
In the aftermath of Thursday’s meeting, Banks was stung with social media criticism for not leaning more heavily on the church to take action on the Bolden property. McCusker aired his views on Twitter.
Jay @cmjayhbanks: New Orleans City Councilman is the man who drove one of the last nails in the coffin of saving Buddy Bolden’s home in New Orleans. He ignored the case put before him and belittled the people who took hours out of thier day speak before the council. pic.twitter.com/w5Jse2Nf2M
— NOAntiquePhonographs (@NOLAPhonographs) August 24, 2018
Banks tweeted his response:
Mr. McCusker, I thank you for your time & passion about the Bolden home. Your concerns were heard & I not only suggested it but I agreed to be present at & facilitate the meeting. I came & spoke to you about the importance of preserving our history, a history Im proud of. https://t.co/ZEWQo4U9lO
At least two plans are afoot to save Bolden’s home. Erin Holmes, the Advocacy Coordinator for the Preservation Resource Center announced during the City Council meeting that the PRC was in discussions with the church on “a short-term plan to stabilize the house.”
Also, Todd James from Mathes Brierre Architects, the firm overseeing the design of the Greater Works Family Life Center project, said that long before Thursday’s City Council meeting, he and musician PJ Morton, the son of the founders of the church, had begun discussing the preservation of the Bolden home and the identical sister shotgun house beside it. They envision a sort of music production workshop for professional and aspiring musicians. A timetable for the renovation has not been established, he said.
After this story was published, Councilman Banks issued a written statement that encapsulated his view of the matter. In it, he referred to the fact that Louis Armstrong’s home had been demolished before being recognized as a cultural keepsake. Banks’ statement read in part: “Unfortunately, irrevocable mistakes have been made in the past, and we have forever lost some of our treasured history, but I am committed to doing all that I can do to make sure that doesn’t happen again. The history of New Orleans’ musical culture must be preserved so that not only visitors can come from around the world, but children can come from around the corner and learn about the magic that makes New Orleans the most wonderful place on the planet.”
Note: This story was updated to include the PRC’s interest in the preservation of the Bolden house and Councilman Banks’ written statement.