Petition Opposing City Hall Takeover of Municipal Auditorium Nears 3,000 Signatures
The New Orleans Municipal Auditorium Preservation Committee is asking for a public hearing on the unpopular City Hall move.
Photo by Dylan’s World, CC BY-NC 2.0
A petition opposing Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s $100 million-plus plan to move City Hall from its current location to Municipal Auditorium has reached nearly 3,000 signatures in only a few days.
The petition was created on Change.org by the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium Preservation Committee as a way for residents across New Orleans to demand a public hearing on the move.
“The ground on which the Municipal Auditorium sits is a part of Congo Square,” the petition reads. “It is one of the most significant pieces of real estate in the cultural legacy of New Orleans and, by extension, the world. The land and its structures should be expressly dedicated to honoring the contributions and sacrifices of our ancestors and to sustaining and developing that legacy for current and future generations.”
Congo Square has roots going back beyond the founding of New Orleans, to the many indigenous peoples that would gather at Bulbancha - the “place of many tongues” - a trading port along the river for the Chitimacha, Choctaw, Ishak, Tunica, Natchez, and other nations. After the area was colonized by the French, Congo Square became a place for enslaved people to congregate on their Sunday “day of rest.” They would sing, dance, and conduct religious ceremonies. Later, under Spanish rule, enslaved people were allowed to set up markets in the area.
In 1817, the Mayor of New Orleans issued an ordinance restricting the congregation of enslaved people in the city to Congo Square specifically. As a result, the area could at times be crowded with as many as 600 slaves and free people of color. The sound of the music and dancing that would take place would echo throughout the French Quarter, and Congo Square quickly became the musical center of New Orleans.
“Every strand of American music comes directly from Congo Square,” said Wynton Marsalis - and he was undoubtedly correct.
The Municipal Auditorium was designed in the 1920s by Favrot and Livaudais and was completed in the 1930s. The 75,000 square-foot auditorium originally accommodated up to 10,000 seats, and a 35,000-square-foot exhibition space was later added. By the 1970s, the auditorium had become a favorite venue for Mardi Gras krewes to host their Carnival balls. Musical greats such as Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, and Rod Stewart performed there.
As with so many places within the city, Hurricane Katrina changed the building’s fate. After taking on five feet of water during the flood, the building was sealed and left to wait for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for repairs. FEMA’s initial offer of a paltry $7 million was swiftly rejected by the City, which estimated the building needed around $34 million for restoration.
The city has since secured $40 million in FEMA funds to renovate the building - it is that money that is the main driver of Mayor Cantrell’s plan. In spite of strong opposition from nearby residents during a presentation announcing the proposal in January, city officials have continued to push ahead and may begin to seek bids on the renovations and reconstruction as early as this summer.
For many, the plan seems unrealistic. Opponents of the plan say that an Italian Renaissance-style public auditorium seems ill-suited to government office spaces. The nearby French Quarter and Treme neighborhoods would be adversely affected by the influx of cars and delivery trucks necessitated by the operation of City Hall. And there are other sites that could easily be better suited. In a letter to The Advocate, design professional Karen M.H. Kersting noted that the city-owned Naval Support Facility would make an easier renovation, as the buildings are already designed as office spaces, and the site already contains surface parking, a parking garage, outdoor facilities, and riverfront views.
The New Orleans Municipal Auditorium Preservation Committee sees a different future for the Municipal Auditorium. In the petition, which has over 2,621 signatures as of this writing, the group states the plan for renovating the site must maintain a focus on the area’s history, including as:
1) a site of cultural celebrations and gatherings for the indigenous populations who were its stewards before the arrival of Europeans and Africans;
2) a site of repression, state-sanctioned executions, but also a space of respite from enslavement on Sundays when the area was known as Place Congo or Congo Square and evolved into the acknowledged birthplace of jazz, other forms of popular music, and distinctively new forms of American social dance;
3) a marker for the displacement and destruction of the predominately Black communities that were forcibly removed from the area to make way for the construction of the Municipal Auditorium in the 1920s and later, from the 1950s-1970s, the entire 32-acre site that is known today as Louis Armstrong Park.
You can view and sign the petition here.