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This information is pre-Katrina.
Although the information on this page is out-of-date, we are continuing to make it available, as it provides insight about this neighborhood pre-Katrina.

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Central City Neighborhood Snapshot

Census 2000 Data Tables: People & Household CharacteristicsHousing & Housing Costs, Income & Poverty, Transportation, Employment, Educational Attainment, Immigration & Language, Disabilities, Neighborhood Characteristics

For 170 years, Central City has been home to the many immigrant and working class populations of New Orleans’ history – German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and now African American residents. According to Census 2000 (the most recent available data) there were 8,147 households in Central City. However, recent demolitions of C.J. Peete and Guste Low-Rise housing developments in Central City suggest that this number may now be smaller.

When was Central City first developed?

From the 1830s to the 1950s Central City was known as "back of town."

Central City began to be developed in the 1830s. At that time, it was a large, mosquito-infested, swampy area, 3-10 feet below sea level.


St. John Baptist Church
© 1998 LA Images. From

  St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church on Dryades Street.

At the same time, the residential area on higher ground now known as the Garden District was developed.

By the late 1800s, the area had undergone several waves of speculative development and by that time 95% of the structures were rental-housing units.

Churches are the largest buildings in Central City, inspired by the fervent religious background of its immigrant residents. St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, in the 1100 block of Dryades Street, was designed by Architect Albert Diettel and constructed by Irish contractor Thomas Mulligan. The church opened in 1872 and is one of the finest examples of brick architecture in New Orleans. Its 125 ft. high baroque tower is still a landmark in the neighborhood.

Central City is a neighborhood of “shotgun” houses

The houses in Central City were built specifically to be rental property. Designed by contractors not architects, most of Central City’s 2800 shotgun houses are one-story, frame construction, raised 2-4 feet above grade on brick piers (but still below sea level), and set very close together with porches and stoops right up against the sidewalk or street.

Who was C.J. Peete?

CJ Peete was a graduate of Xavier University who managed the Magnolia Development from 1952 to 1978.

To learn more, visit this biography co-sponsored by Xavier & Tulane universities.

C.J. Peete and Guste Housing Developments

C.J. Peete was constructed in 1941 and 1955, with 1403 units at its largest capacity. In 1998, after years of neglect, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) began demolishing these buildings with the ultimate plan of revitalization.

The Guste Homes development was constructed in 1964 and consisted of a high-rise and 6 low-rise buildings. The high-rise was substantially modernized in 2002. The low-rise buildings failed HANO's economic viability test and are scheduled to be demolished in 2004.

Further information about the plan and the status of these developments can be found at the HANO web site.

History of Dryades St. & Oretha Castle Haley Blvd

Who was Oretha Castle Haley?

Oretha Castle was a student at Southern University in New Orleans when she became active in civil rights by participating in the Dryades Street Boycott in 1960. She was a founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in New Orleans. She later helped found, Voices of the New Orleans Movement, a group dedicated to commemorating the history of the civil rights movement in New Orleans.

Where does the name "Dryades" come from?

In mythology "dryades" were wood nymphs – fragile little girls who were said to perish when their trees were cut down.

Historically, the New Orleans City Council urged citizens in Central City to plant trees to detract from the barrenness of the area, and to provide homes for the "dryades" (Chase, 1949).

Central City's commercial corridor, Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (originally named Dryades Street) operated as a racially mixed thriving business district that began in the 1830s. Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, which begins where Dryades ends at Jackson Ave, has long been a commercial street. At its height in the 1940s and 1950s, there were more than 200 commercial establishments in business.

During the 1960s, the corridor was recognized as one of the few areas in New Orleans where African Americans could shop without fear of harassment. Shopping here was so plentiful that people of all races and ethnicities came from all over the city to frequent these stores. Businesses along Dryades Street/Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. declined after the 1960s for many reasons including the integration of the other commercial areas around New Orleans prompted by the Civil Rights movement and white flight to the suburbs.

Free Southern Theater

Gilbert Moses, Doris Derby and John O'Neal founded Free Southern Theater (FST) at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. According to Mr. O'Neal, the theater's purpose was "to support and encourage exploited and oppressed people in the Black Belt South who worked to improve quality of life for themselves and others in similar conditions." The group used the arts to inspire and support social struggle and fight against racism and exploitation.

Mr. Moses, then artistic director, and Mr. O'Neal, director, moved FST to New Orleans in 1965. They intentionally located offices and delivered programs in neighborhoods where services were short in supply and income was low.

The company grew and at one point was in three locations, working closely with community organizations and churches to present its dramatic performances that featured both national and local actors. In 1969, the various operations were consolidated and the company moved into a building on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, then Dryades Street.

FST impacted the greater New Orleans communities, particularly African American, for the next eleven years. For example, BlkArtSouth, a writer's workshop to develop young writers and "create a cultural base for them in the city," produced NKOMBO, a quarterly journal of poetry, prose, fiction and drama selections by workshop members.

FST also presented Nation Time, a regular program that aired on PBS from 1972 to 1976. Some well-known personalities who contributed to the development and support of FST included Arthur Ashe, Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond, Bill Cosby, Ossie Davis, Tom Dent, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Brock Peters.

The legacy of FST continues in Junebug Productions, Inc., founded by John O'Neal. O'Neal has been Junebug's artistic director since its beginning in 1980. The mission is much the same as that of FST, he says, but the difference is that Junebug is working to build a movement to improve the quality of life for the exploited and oppressed, while FST was a part of and a contributor to the black power movement. Junebug is still going strong today. Based in the Central Business District, it is most known as a national touring company.

The Legacy of the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans

Records of the Free Southern Theater, 1963-1978 from the Amistad Research Center

Hub of healthcare for and by African Americans

Many vitally important African American healthcare and insurance institutions were located in Central City.

The Keystone Insurance Company, located on Dryades Street (around 1942), was one of several black owned insurance companies. On its board of directors was Dr. Andrew J. Young Sr., father of Andrew J. Young Jr. who became mayor of Atlanta and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. According to Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972:

“Growing out of neighborhood-based benevolent societies that furnished health care, sickness pensions, and funeral benefits, the insurance companies became the most important black-owned businesses in Louisiana. At a time when there were only 1,600 Negro-owned businesses in the entire state, when Louisiana had only two or three black lawyers, and when the census identified only 656 blacks in New Orleans as professionals or semiprofessionals, the significance of the insurance industry as a source of race leadership can scarcely be overstated."


Image courtesy New Orleans Public Library ( Permission for reuse required.


A patient winces as she receives a shot, circa 1941, probably at Flint-Goodridge Hospital. (From the W.P.A. Photograph Collection that documents the Negro Statewide Public Health Project.)


The Flint-Goodridge Hospital at Louisiana and Freret was operated by Dillard University from 1911-1983. Until at least the 1950s, African American doctors were allowed to practice only at Flint-Goodridge Hospital and were barred from membership in the Orleans Parish Medical Society. New Orleans’ first three African American mayors were born at this hospital.

Bucksell's Pharmacy and the dental parlor of Reginald E. Watkins (around 1920) both operated out of a building at the corner of Magnolia and Erato.

To learn more about the greater context, visit the New Orleans Public Library exhibit African Americans in New Orleans: Making a living.

Photos of Flint-Goodrich circa 1922.

What are some community resources?

The Ashé Cultural Arts Center is a hub of revitalizing activity on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. According to their web site, the Center “is an effort to combine the intentions of community development, economic development with the awesome creative forces of community, culture and art to revive and reclaim a historically significant corridor of New Orleans' Central City community.”

Learn more about Ashé Cultural Arts Center (

The Dryades Street YMCA was founded in 1905 as the Colored Young Men's Christian Association. The founders were many of the business, civic and educational leaders in the Black community at that time. For decades the Dryades Y has offered services to the Central City community including recreation, after school programs, child care and alternative school programs. The building, erected in 1908, through the volunteer labor of many craftsmen, was destroyed by fire in 2000. The Dryades Y continues to operate its programs through alternate locations in Central City while they work to rebuild.

Learn more about Dryades Street YMCA (

Who are some of Central City’s famous residents?


Photograph from Frank Driggs Collection

  Buddy Bolden is the cornettist in this picture with his band.

As one of the oldest working class neighborhoods in New Orleans, Central City fostered much grass roots culture and boasts many Jazz greats including King Oliver, Kid Ory, Papa Celestin, Pops Foster, the Dodds and Shields brothers, Tom Zimmerman and Buddy Bolden. Buddy Bolden (1877-1931), in fact, is often credited with inventing jazz. Unfortunately, his work was never recorded.

Biographies of Buddy Bolden

Bio of Buddy Bolden from PBS Ken Burns' jazz documentary

Bio from Red Hot Jazz with suggested readings

In modern-day music, Terius Grey, known to the world as Juvenile, is one of the most famous products of the Magnolia housing development. His success includes the four-times platinum-certified national debut, 400 Degreez (1998). Juvenile was father to famous hip-hop slang such as "Ha"and "Back that thang up," as well as introducing the world to a formula of New Orleans bounce mixed with mainstream rap, solidified by his authentic tales of life in the Magnolia.

More about Juvenile can be found at:

Bio at HipOnline

Cash Money Record artists

The neighborhood today also has many social aid and pleasure clubs, and hosts many second lines (jazz parades). Additionally, Central City/Magnolia is home to several Mardi Gras Indian tribes.

Read about some of the resident Mardi Gras Indian tribes

The Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians Video at WWOZ

Street-fighting Mardi Gras Style article at San Francisco State University

Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians

Additional sources

Chase, John. Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children. New Orleans: Robert L. Crager & Co., 1949.

Adam Fairclough. Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972 (Athens,Georgia , 1995), 18-19

New Orleans City Planning Commission’s 1999 Land Use Plan

Telephone interview with John O'Neal

E-mail interview with Kalamu ya Salaam

Census 2000 Data Tables: People & Household CharacteristicsHousing & Housing Costs, Income & Poverty, Transportation, Employment, Educational Attainment, Immigration & Language, Disabilities, Neighborhood Characteristics

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Last modified: June 23, 2004