I think Algiers is the best kept secret in Orleans Parish,” confides Second City Court Judge Mary “KK” Norman. Her 30 years of living in Algiers certainly backs her opinion and her fellow “Algerines” agree.
Begun as an early location for plantations, by the 1800s, Algiers had developed a ship building industry with drydocks along the river. As Algiers in North Africa is separated from Europe by water, so our Algiers requires a river trip for a visit, but this did not hamper its growth. By 1846, it had acquired its name and was being governed by the Police Jury of the “Right Bank” of Orleans Parish. Only in 1870 did Algiers become part of the city of New Orleans as the Fifth Municipal District.
CHRONICLES OF RECENT HISTORY: Algiers, perhaps the best kept secret in Orleans Parish.The older residential area of Algiers near the Canal Street ferry landing is called Algiers Point, and its special small town feel – and its many 19th century homes – make it an attractive neighborhood. In fact, there is a lot about Algiers Point that has changed very little in recent decades.
Judge Norman presides over a vintage courtroom in the 1896 Algiers Courthouse, 225 Morgan Street, which is the third oldest continuously-functioning courthouse in the country, according to Tom Arnold, Assessor of the Fifth Municipal District, who also maintains an office there.
Judge Norman’s courtroom, she notes, “is absolutely just as it was built in 1896, down to the same benches, the same chairs.” Could the formality of the setting affect her trials? “I have a paper that I give out to people that lets them know what courtroom etiquette is required – I don’t know if it’s the courtroom or me, but we have no trouble with people behaving,” Judge Norman says.
The Friends of the Algiers Courthouse support group has worked for restoration of the building and the carriage house in the rear. The Friends group was especially helpful after Katrina, Judge Norman says. “We had 26 windows blown out in Katrina, we knew if we waited on FEMA we’d never get them fixed. The Friends paid to replace all the windows in the courthouse and get us up and running.”
Algiers suffered wind and rain damage in the storm but escaped massive flooding. The Courthouse was in business by October 3, and is still housing the East Bank Traffic Court. Judge Norman’s courtroom also brings in business: movie makers. “They kind of know in Hollywood now that if they need a real courtroom they can find one here.”
Show business, in the form of Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, has been a part of Algiers Point for decades. “My grandfather was building floats here in 1932,” says Barry Kern, president of Kern Studios at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, 233 Newton Street. The elder Blaine will celebrate his 60th year in the float building business next Mardi Gras.
During the aftermath of Katrina, Mardi Gras World housed National Guard distribution facilities and was home to 250 troops of the 82nd Airborne. Even parade vehicles came in handy. “There were police stations and fire stations all over the city that took our tractors with the big generators that we use for Mardi Gras,” Kern says.
Mardi Gras World was open to tourists by October 17, and “we knew that the eyes of the world would be on New Orleans. Our job is staging carnival,” Barry Kern says. “As soon as the storm was over, Blaine knew we needed something special for this Mardi Gras.” Bringing the Zulu warriors to the Zulu parade was the inspired result of those plans. Media attention was constant all during the fall and winter, and Denzel Washington and the “Déjà Vu” movie shooting followed. Plans for a film studio are still proceeding, if slowly, at the Kern’s riverfront location.
A familiar sight to generations of Algerines is the Algiers Point Library, 725 Pelican Avenue, built in 1907 with funds from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, whose money constructed community libraries across the country. Although Hurricane Betsy’s damage kept the building closed for 10 years, community support brought it back, and renamed it for local activist Cita Dennis Hubbell. After Katrina, the little library was quickly reopened. According to librarian Betty Lou Strother, the library is frequented “for computer usage and homework.” In addition, “we have a gentleman who teaches children chess on Saturday,” and a story hour for pre-schoolers on Monday at 10 a.m. (“We open just for them – our hours are really from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.”)
If you prefer music to books, you’ll enjoy the self-guided jazz walking tour of Algiers Point produced by Kevin Herridge, an Englishman who operates the House of the Rising Sun Bed and Breakfast, 335 Pelican Avenue, with his wife Wendy Portier Herridge, a native of Houma. Herridge began as a Cajun musician in London, followed his hobby to Louisiana, and “was playing triangle with Bruce Daigrepont at Tipitina’s when [he] met [his] wife.” Herridge notes that “I cancelled my flight home in the morning and that’s history as they say.” His walking tour can be downloaded from the Algiers Historical Society Web site (he is president) at www.algierspoint.org. Algiers jazz musicians include Henry “Red” Allen and clarinetist George Lewis, who once recalled in an interview that a good band could be heard across the river if the wind was right!
Musicians weren’t the only ones who filled Algiers’ streets: There were clothes pole sellers and vegetable vendors and the Lombard family who sold ice (former Clerk of Criminal Court for Orleans Parish, Edwin Lombard, is a relative). There was even a Lee family laundry, run by relatives of Sheriff Harry Lee of nearby Jefferson Parish. The busy life of their neighborhood is a fond memory of Algiers natives, Lynn Worley and her sister Winnie who now live in the home once occupied by Martin Behrman, the Algerine who served as Mayor of New Orleans in the early 20th century.
The house isn’t haunted, Ms. Worley said, but if it were, Martin Behrman would be a welcome guest: “He’d have a lot of political stories to tell us, and we love politics!” The Worley sisters’ father was a river pilot, but Algiers was better known for its railroads; “The Southern Pacific Railroad yard was right on Atlantic Avenue,” she says.
One thing that has not changed in Algiers is Russell Templet’s Barber Shop, 143 Delaronde Street. “When I started cutting hair, there were 17 barbers in the point,” he says. His current building has served a multitude of purposes: “We had people get married in the back. One time it was a dog grooming parlor.” After 52 years wielding the razor and scissors, Templet notes that today’s young men like “high, tight hair.”
“At one time they wore the pony tails, the long hair. Now the mothers are saying ‘try not to cut it too short.’” Styles in hair aside, the biggest change he sees for Algiers Point is “the Algiers Point Historic District.” Setting standards for building renovation and restoration “did nothing but help,” he explains.
Today, Templet sees the tempo of life changing: “When I first started cutting hair, people used to sit there and talk,” bemoans Templet. “Now the whole world’s in a hurry.”
It might take a good dose of Algiers Point tranquility to set things right!