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On the Mend at the Neutral Ground

There will be longer Carnival seasons than the one we’ve just finished, but it’s hard to imagine one being more intense. The New Orleans Saints made sure of that, injecting spontaneous post-game party eruptions and that incomparable Super Bowl victory parade to the shank of Mardi Gras.

But finally things have calmed down, and we can shift gears. Perhaps we’re still a bit hoarse and dehydrated, with depleted wallets and a chorus of “crunk” ringing in our heads, so some downtime now comes as a bit of a relief. It seems like the right time to find the way to the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse.

Tucked away Uptown, just behind Isidore Newman School, the Neutral Ground is a coffeehouse cut from a cloth much older and more rootsy than the modern Starbucks model. You won’t find telecommuters using this place as their mobile office; it doesn’t even open until 7 p.m. nightly. Instead, the Neutral Ground functions much more as an easygoing evening destination and music venue, and patrons here are more likely to turn up lugging guitar cases or harmonica boxes than laptops.

Outside, it looks like a nondescript portal cut into an old industrial building. Inside, it’s as warm, homey and mellow as the den of a well-traveled hippie who always has a kettle on the stove and a friend strumming a guitar in the living room. There’s an oaky aroma to the place, a mixture of fresh coffee and old furniture. Dowdy sofas, burly tables and mismatched chairs hug the bargeboard walls.

Neutral Ground is open to all ages, and it draws the gamut from kids knocking around on skateboards to ‘60s cultural refugees comparing notes in the corner. A crew of regulars holds down perches at the bar, sipping coffee, herbal tea or chocolate milk.

There’s no booze, no smoking, no video poker and no TV at the Neutral Ground, but there are plenty of the gentler pursuits. There’s a chess nook that always seems occupied, and shelves are stacked with board games and shopworn paperbacks, each with the words “Neutral Ground” penned on the inside cover like a library stamp. Even the food is heartwarmingly wholesome: bowls of Goldfish crackers, organic oatmeal cookies, popcorn, hummus and bagels.

But most of all there is the music. Touring folk acts and singer/songwriters make stops here; others are neighborhood favorites who turn up on a regular basis. The Neutral Ground has served as the creative outlet for people performing in public for the first time, and it’s launched musical careers along the way.

On most nights you’ll find three or four different acts, usually solo performers playing one-hour sets. The music ranges from deeply traditional to experimental. Sunday is open mic night, when all and sundry may play a few songs to the end-of-the-week crowd by signing up on a clipboard list.

The Neutral Ground traces its roots to 1974 and a Maple Street coffeehouse called the Penny Post, where games and live music were prime attractions. After it was closed by a fire in 1977, a group of regulars formed a co-op to reopen the Penny Post in a new location, which turned out to be the Neutral Ground’s current address on Danneel Street, a former barroom. By the early 1990s, financial problems closed its doors, but a core group of co-op members gave it another go, reopening it as the Neutral Ground in 1992.

According to the shop’s own history: “The Neutral Ground was the Penny Post incognito. Same rose, different name. It looked like the Penny Post, it sounded like The Penny Post, and even felt like the Penny Post.”

And it too fell victim to financial problems, like the Penny Post, and closed after a few years. Since then, however, New Orleans piano virtuoso Philip Melancon reopened the place and runs it today.

It remains the kind of place where plenty of people pay visits but not much money changes hands. Coffee and everything else served over the bar is cheap enough, and tips for performers are collected in a basket by the door.
Soon, the St. Patrick’s Day parades will fill the streets with people and beads and suds, and before too long it will festival season again, too. In the meantime, Neutral Ground makes a nice, easygoing retreat.

Neutral Ground Coffeehouse
5110 Danneel St., (504) 891-3381


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