“The Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard Merchants and Business Association is a great example of how collaborative efforts between individuals, businesses and nonprofits can help a neighborhood previously plagued with disinvestment transform into a vibrant community for all,” said Patrice Frey, president and CEO of the National Main Street Center, Inc.
Over the past two decades, the corridor has evolved from empty and blighted structures to bustling activity. Since the late 1990s, 32 new businesses have opened, 176 jobs were added and more than $83 million in private and public funds has been invested in the district for rehabilitation, new construction, historic preservation and infrastructure improvements. Recently, a $1.9 million streetscape project was completed in the district after many years of advocacy from the community.
“It’s so great to see the fruits of everyone’s labor after so many years of hard work. The whole community rallied together to revive the boulevard. Five years ago, we would have never believed we would win the Great American Main Street Award,” said Linda Pompa, executive director, Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard Merchants & Business Association. “We are proud that the corridor is now a well-rounded community that enriches the life of its residents, providing easy access to education, business opportunities, art, recreation and entertainment.”
First Fridays events and the annual Central City Festival are just some ways the Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard Merchants and Business Association has helped attract people to the Main Street. Both events partner with local businesses and organizations to offer food, drinks, cultural and educational opportunities. The Central City Festival will be celebrating its 11th anniversary in November.
Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard was thriving as a commercial district in the 1800s. It was a place where Jewish and Italian merchants, African-American doctors and insurance companies, along with German bakers all set up shop. In the early 20th century, the boulevard was home to more than 200 businesses and was served by five streetcar lines.
The boulevard’s namesake Oretha Castle Haley played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement and organized a boycott of stores that would not hire African-American sales clerks, in spite of the fact that most of the shopping district’s customers were black.
Starting in the 1970s, the area went into decline, following the path of many inner-city neighborhoods that also saw disinvestment, concentration of poverty and lack of opportunity. Dozens of historic properties fell into disrepair and were demolished.
In the late 1990s, the arrival of two nonprofits on the boulevard—Ashé Cultural Arts Center, which provides arts and cultural programming highlighting the contribution of African descendants, and Café Reconcile, which trains at-risk youths to work in the food service industry—ushered in revitalization interests and support. Later, a partnership with the local developer Kathy Laborde helped the community to achieve mixed-use, mixed-income development and historic preservation while providing quality residential living space for senior citizens and allowing low-income community members to benefit from an improved neighborhood. The Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard Merchants & Business Association was established by businesses, non-profits, residents and neighborhood stakeholders such as churches in 1995 to advance all of these efforts.
“We've revitalized our commercial district to retain our historic past but also advanced it to serve current residents’ needs,” Pompa said. “It’s truly an honor to receive this recognition, especially since volunteers have poured thousands of hours into the efforts to improve this area and it's worked.”