What It's Like to Open a Bar in a Changing Neighborhood

Exterior of a graffiti-covered bar

Six years ago, I bought a bar with a bullet hole in the window.

It was in a part of town where a lot of people who look like me — a white male of considerable privilege — were afraid to go. A lot has changed since then. Now, houses in the same neighborhood are selling for over half a million dollars, and my bar has been a pivotal part of that transition. While this has been great for me, I can’t pretend that’s been the case for everyone. Does this new neighborhood still have room for the people who were here before me? As the neighborhood around the bar continues to change, can I look out for my own economic interests without selling out my beliefs?

The story of my bar and its neighborhood, Mid City

The building now occupied by my bar, Twelve Mile Limit, was built as a pumping station in 1910, exactly a century before I bought it in 2010. While the city of New Orleans is almost three hundred years old, most of its area could not be built on until the twentieth century, when developments in pumping technology allowed land that had been swamp to be drained and made solid. As the ground was drained, the land became compacted and sank. As a result, most of the city as it now stands is below sea level. Pumping technology improved, and soon fewer, larger, more centralized pumps became the norm, and the buildings that housed the smaller local pumping stations transitioned to other uses. Mine became a bar.

I’m not sure exactly what year the transition from pump station to bar occurred, but it was quick. I’ve heard that the bar was a hangout for “ballplayers” in the '20s; indeed, Pelican Stadium, which was just a couple of blocks from the bar, was the home of the minor league New Orleans Pelicans from its construction in 1915 until its demolition in 1957. It was also home field to two Negro League teams, the New Orleans Black Pelicans and the New Orleans Creoles. Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron played there, according to a plaque on Carrollton Avenue.

Perhaps most impressively, Pelican Stadium was the spring training home for the New York Yankees from 1922-1924, the years immediately after they acquired Babe Ruth. Ruth was a notorious drinker, once saying, “If you drink and smoke and eat and screw as much as me? Well, kiddos, someday you’ll be just as good at sports!” It being the ballplayer hangout spot in the Twenties, it isn’t much of a stretch to think that Babe Ruth probably got schnockered at my bar regularly for the better part of three Aprils. While unconfirmed and long before my tenure, I now claim The Great Bambino our reigning Most Famous Guest. (Take that, Hannibal Buress!)

The lifespan of Pelican Stadium roughly aligns with a period of growth for Mid City, New Orleans as a whole, and urban areas nationwide. America was in the home stretch of a century of urbanization brought about by the Industrial Revolution. The wave of urban growth crested, though, and began to roll back around the middle of the twentieth century, when the civil rights movement led to the integration of public schools. This precipitated a period of white flight to the suburbs, which created an informal system of geographic segregation to replace the old, legally mandated system. People of means left the cities, property values fell, tax revenue shrank, public services suffered, and more people fled to the suburbs. It was a vicious cycle that lasted, in many cities, through the end of the twentieth century and continues today. The new minor league ballpark is out by the airport. The bar did fine. Alcohol sells just as well in hard times as it does in times of plenty.

Of those who couldn’t afford to leave, or didn’t want to, a disproportionate number were people of color, and the result was a phenomenon that scholars and musicians alike have colloquially referred to as the “Chocolate City”: poor, neglected urban centers nation-wide with disproportionately high black populations surrounded by affluent, mostly white “vanilla” suburbs. (DC, where I grew up in one of several affluent white areas of a mostly black city, is a prime example.) Over the last couple of decades, though, once property values dropped low enough, people of means have started moving back into cities, “saving” them from decades of neglect and decline. Residents of neighborhoods who stuck it out through the tough times are being displaced by young, upwardly mobile, mostly white people — people who look like me. The process by which lower class residents are displaced by more affluent newcomers is gentrification, or as those adversely affected sometimes ominously call it, The Plan.

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, New Orleans had already long been suffering from the slow motion disaster of economic neglect and urban decline. Then levees that were supposed to protect the city failed, pumping stations were abandoned, and all of the neighborhoods that are below sea level (by this point some 80% of the city, geographically) flooded. Marlin’s, the bar that would become Twelve Mile Limit, took on about six feet of water. It was all but destroyed.

The good parts

The legacy of Hurricane Katrina will be debated for centuries. It was one of the greatest debacles in U.S. history, a preventable tragedy of biblical proportions that took thousands of lives and severely disrupted millions more. People who once may have lacked the means to leave the city now lacked the means to return, and as the city continues to recover, it looks less and less like the city it used to be.

At the same time, though, Katrina laid bare many of the problems that had gone unheeded for generations: crumbling public schools, dangerously insufficient infrastructure, the lack of preparedness at all levels, and hundreds of other examples of long-term institutional neglect that are hardly unique to New Orleans. The rush of federal assistance and charitable contributions that poured into the city has allowed it to modernize in ways that never would have been possible without the storm. New Orleans after Katrina no longer has lead in its drinking water or public schools with dirt floors. The city has tangibly improved in a number of important, measurable ways.

It’s worth noting that, while Katrina created opportunities for some, most of those opportunities disproportionately benefitted people of privilege — people like me. If it weren’t for Katrina, I (and thousands of other eager do-gooders like me) probably would have never moved to New Orleans to do full-time volunteer work. If I hadn’t done that, I never would have fallen in love with the city, or started bartending full time, or met and married my lovely wife (a New Orleans native), or opened my own bar.

Before and after exteriors of a renovated bar On the left, the entrance to the bar when it was Marlin's. On the right, Twelve Mile Limit.

It’s hard to overstate the degree of top-down disrepair that bar had fallen into when I found it. The roof was laughably poor — in one back room it was practically non-existent, and leaves filled a tub left over from an aborted attempt to install a staff bathroom. The walls bowed dramatically, so several pipes that were fixed in the terrazzo floors stuck out at odd places. A shed out back was occupied by two tenants, older black men, although it was clearly not fit for habitation.

Like many properties in New Orleans, the bar had been underinsured at the time of the storm. The sellers, Amy and Marlin Flynt, were an older middle class white couple who had moved from New Orleans to one of its whiter suburbs in the 80s. They had cobbled the place back together as best they could, doing what they had to in order to reopen. The location still had a liquor license, but the Flynts were too old to run it themselves and the bar was in too much disrepair to attract reputable tenants.

In the years after the Flynts reopened and rented Marlin’s and before they sold it to me, its tenants drew a regular crowd of dangerously violent criminals. The bullet-hole in the front window was a tangible reminder of almost routine shootings. It was beyond a nuisance bar — it was a straight-up murder bar. Neighbors of all races banded together to try and put it out of business. They succeeded in imposing tight restrictions on Marlin’s, dictating near impossible standards for noise, security and cleanup measures. The Flynts were forced to sell.

I was looking to buy. I come from considerable privilege, a white male of affluence with enough leftover in his underused college fund to hermit-crab a ramshackle bar. We renovated the main room and opened as Twelve Mile Limit in October 2010, and we’ve tried to do right by the neighbors along the way. The first thing I did was to take the bars off of the windows, to the great confusion of the Flynts. If you treat all of your neighbors like criminals, though, they will behave accordingly.

I made sure that one of the men who had lived in the shed out back, Mr. Jeffrey, got plenty of work both during the renovations and after we opened. He was a painter, demolition man, janitor, bouncer, dishwasher and barback. More importantly to me, he was a cultural liaison, a guide through what could occasionally feel like an intimidatingly deep cultural divide when dealing with neighbors. Sadly, Mr. Jeffrey battled a chronic lung condition (worsened, I assume, by having lived in a dilapidated, recently flooded shed) that forced him to retire from Twelve Mile Limit after about a year. He has since died. He was woven into the fabric of the bar, though, since before it was even open and will remain so as long as it belongs to me. I’m certain that our relationship with Mr. Jeffrey informed how the other neighbors feel about me.

I try to side with long-term neighbors in the event that a dispute arises between them and guests at the bar. They are, perhaps, the only group that outranks our customers in terms of deference. Once our next door neighbor, a young black man, approached two guests in front of the bar, both middle-aged white men dressed like bankers, and asked if they could move their car so his handicapped grandmother could park in front of her house. The men reacted as if they had been threatened and were verbally hostile in reply. All parties seemed surprised when I sided with the neighbor, but he was in the right, and even if that hadn’t been so obvious I needed him on my side more than I needed those assholes’ money.

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but it really feels like Mid City, or at least the little corner of it that I occupy, is handling gentrification better than many parts of New Orleans, and better than many other cities. There isn’t the open hostility. I’ve never heard of one of our guests being the victim of violent crime going to or from the bar. When I bought Marlin’s, there were a dozen blighted houses and almost as many empty lots within a block of the bar. Now, only one lot and two boarded houses remain, and a year ago my wife and I bought one of those new houses. Three years before she wouldn’t consider living in a house across the street from the one we now own. It almost feels like a fairy-tale ending.

Muralist painting the exterior of a bar The bar has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years—and so has Mid City, its surrounding neighborhood.

But good for whom?

Almost.

Who really benefits from the economic “progress” that has made this neighborhood an attractive investment to people who look like me? As someone who now owns multiple properties in the neighborhood, I’m sure few benefit more than I do. All of my good neighboring can feel wholly disingenuous, considering how much I stand to gain.

The neighbors like me and want me to succeed, especially those who have been around long enough to remember how bad the last bar was. They ran those kids out of town, and they could do the same to me if I don’t play nice. The old neighbors never enforced the cumbersome agreement they forced on Marlin’s once I took over, even though it legally remained in effect for some time. I want to keep these neighbors as long as possible. The fewer residents that are left from the before times, the less I’ll be able to rely on the comparison to the previous bar owners to look good, and the more time passes, the more we run the risk of becoming considered a nuisance bar to this new class of neighbor.

Beyond that, I have an even more selfish reason to keep as many of the old residents in the neighborhood as I can. For some of the bar’s Uptown and suburban visitors, part of the appeal of visiting the bar is that it is tucked away in a part of town that they still think of as a little seedy, a little dangerous. But the more people who look like me move here, the more likely it becomes that we lose our edgy, subversive appeal. Then, through that lens, my desire to fight gentrification and be a good neighbor starts to look less like genuine altruism and more like me exploiting a neighborhood for financial gain. That feels like a brand of poverty tourism that I’m not happy to be selling.

As much as I may claim to be against it, I am a powerful force for gentrification. I am The Plan in action. I bought a bar in a mostly black neighborhood and filled it with things that I like. Turns out, people who like the things I like tend to look more or less like me, and now they’re comfortable enough in the neighborhood to start buying in. One of the sad realities of being a white person against gentrification is that there’s no way for me to live in a racially mixed neighborhood without making it more appealing to other white people, which, over time, will make the neighborhood less mixed. To live where I want, and to operate a bar there, is to be a part of that place’s destruction.

A couple of years ago, Marlin Flynt was in the bar to collect a mortgage payment during a relatively busy happy hour. I have mixed feelings about Marlin. On one hand, he’s never lied to me, he’s usually jolly and charismatic, and I wouldn’t be here if he and Amy hadn’t given me a shot. On the other hand, he was often drunk, had a short fuse, always carried a revolver, and couldn’t go five minutes without saying something casually, blatantly racist. He surveyed the bar he once called his own and said, “Cole I'm impressed. I'm not a racist — I've helped out some black people — but I always tried to keep them out of the bar. Never could. But you! You're a natural!" Somehow, in my attempt to do everything differently, by using the Flynts as a reverse barometer for all of my decisions regarding bar ownership, I had succeeded in realizing his perverse dream of a racially pure utopia. It made me want to burn it all down.

Two drunk neighbors inadvertently help me write the end of this essay

Tonight, while sitting at my bar and working on this essay, I was approached by two neighbors, both regulars. The first was Desmond, an older black man who has been coming to Twelve Mile Limit for years. He visits almost every night to say hello, shoot some pool, and generally brighten our days. He started coming here with his daughter, Crystal, one of our first regulars, when she was a delivery driver for Domino’s. She has since moved to Houston and back for culinary school and now works in the catering kitchen of an upscale hotel.

Desmond snuck up on me tonight wearing his usual bucket hat and the Twelve Mile Limit hoodie that Crystal bought him for Christmas last year. We chatted briefly about her — he’s rightly very proud — and then joked about my success. “You’re gonna turn that hundred thou into a mil,” he suggested, which was a surprisingly accurate assessment of both my startup costs and my current buyout price.

“I’m trying.”

“Let me know when you do!”

“You’ll be the first.”

The second neighbor visit, about a half hour after my chat with Desmond, was from Mike, a handsome young doctor who lives with his wife, Julie, also a doctor, and their toddler in the house caddy-corner from the bar. Mike is Asian, Julie white. She bought the house less than a year after Twelve Mile Limit opened. It had been on the market for some time. Mike started dating Julie shortly thereafter and thought she was crazy for living alone where she did. Twelve Mile Limit, though, by creating foot traffic at night, had always made them feel safer, Mike told me tonight.

He wanted to thank me for that, and for letting their baby play on the pool table when business was slow, and for making his favorite drink. Mike was drunk and in a mood to reminisce, in part because he just found out that they’re moving to San Francisco and have to sell the house. It’s going on the market for twice what Julie paid for it five years ago. Mike wanted to thank me for that, too.