Tulane Avenue business owners seek to turn around beleaguered thoroughfare

There is a wall in Justin Pitard’s Tulane Avenue po-boy shop that offers a glimpse of the past and a hope for the future.

A handful of black-and-white photos show the avenue when it was the gateway to the city, a bustling thoroughfare with a wide, grassy neutral ground and businesses and homes that stretched from South Carrollton Avenue to South Claiborne Avenue.

It is a scene in stark contrast to Tulane Avenue today, with its vacant lots, blight, crime and code-enforcement problems.

Those are not insurmountable issues, say some business owners, but they said they need the city to address them now in order to rejuvenate the avenue once known as “The Miracle Mile.”

Pitard, who opened Avery’s Po-Boys a little more than a year ago, said he opened his business in the area because of the work on the new Veterans Affairs hospital and University Medical Center.

But, he added, there is an “outrageous” amount of prostitution that goes on at Tulane Avenue’s motels and even more drug dealing.

New Orleans Police Department crime maps show there have been dozens of assaults and gun crimes and one murder on Tulane Avenue since Jan. 1, with several other killings just a few blocks away. Police have previously made prostitution busts at some motels on the avenue.

Beyond the hospital construction, there has been other private development along Tulane Avenue and a $10 million streetscape project to reduce the number of lanes from six to four. Widening the neutral ground is planned. Josef Wright, executive vice president of the Greater Mid-City Business Association, said his organization is calling on the city to step up its code-enforcement efforts in an effort to begin a turnaround on Tulane once those projects are done.

“We have a chance to permanently solve the problems on Tulane Avenue,” he said. “Code enforcement is an aim.”

District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said Tulane Avenue is one of her concerns and agreed that stronger enforcement is needed.

She is working with Councilwomen Kristin Gisleson Palmer and Stacy Head to strengthen code enforcement laws while raising standards for commercial properties.

In the meantime, she said, her office has begun to notify some problem businesses and property owners of illegal practices they might support.

Sometimes, she said, business owners might not realize they are breaking the law and change their behaviors; other times it’s a matter of ignoring the law as a way to make a quick buck.

“We’re letting them know we know their culture, and it’s unacceptable,” Cantrell said.

This is not the first time there’s been an effort to polish Tulane Avenue’s appearance.

Sixty-two years ago when the city tried to revitalize the corridor, officials dubbed Tulane “The Miracle Mile,” ripped out the neutral ground, eliminated the streetcar, made it a six-lane road and prohibited left turns in all but a few spots.

The pending streetscape project will reverse much of that work on an avenue that still bears many scars from Hurricane Katrina.

“That’ll be the new face of Tulane Avenue,” Cantrell said. “It needs it.”

Stephen and Pauline Patterson are taking a gamble on Tulane Avenue as part of those who are trying to change its face.

The owners of Finn McCool’s, the popular Irish Pub on Banks Street, have plans to open Treo, an art gallery with a movie theater and cocktail “laboratory” in the 3800 block of Tulane.

While they said they realize it will not be easy to change Tulane Avenue, they said they are up to the challenge.

“We can’t wait until the hospital is done,” Stephen Patterson said. “We need to start now.”