Sometimes, it almost feels as though there are two versions of New Orleans: The one we relegate to legend, and the one we actually live in. By “legend,” I mean we’re a fun party city where music lives in the air and great food comes to everyone’s stomachs. By “actually,” I mean the fact that poorer neighborhoods lack proper grocery stores and residents are being pushed out by short-term renters. The documentary film/essay Rat Film suggested, when it comes to Baltimore anyway, that economic and neighborhood controls were performed city-wide over decades, with an edge on racial bias. When it comes to New Orleans, I dare not presume this. Still, one can’t deny the deafening statistics presented when it comes to support for certain local stores. By “certain,” I mean home-grown and/or black-owned.
It’s a rigged and ever-evolving market we work and spend under, where we can speak the truth with our wallets.
To counter this tug towards out of town franchises and chains and in the direction of the community, the Facebook page and group “Where Black NOLA Eats” created by Jalence Isles has become quite a resource for those of us wanting to invest back into the community. And, in an interesting development, a member has crafted a google map to assist everyone in navigating to these businesses.
Westley Bayas III is a local consultant and concerned citizen who took the initiative to create this map. I asked him a series of questions on his intentions, his work within the city, and his outlook for raising awareness to consumers of all creeds. It’s a step for sure, and one hopes we all get stepping to these storefronts asap:
Bill Arceneaux: How did you come to do the google map configuration of black-owned restaurants in New Orleans, and why?
Westley Bayas III: I was on the new Where Black NOLA Eats FB page during the Hurricane Barry shut-in and saw a commenter asking if text lists created previously by Nia Davis and Bianca Estrella could be converted into a map. This was something I always thought was needed, but never got around to doing – and thanks to Barry, I had plenty of time to do it. After a couple of hours, I had the first version of the map ready to go.
BA: What are the current struggles facing the African-American business owner in this city and region?
WB: As was stated in Big Easy Magazine, African-American business owners represent 40% of the small businesses in New Orleans but they only get 2% of the total receipts. Much of this comes from a lack of publicity and knowledge about Black-owned businesses in the city. This is especially true of Black-owned restaurants/bars/lounges, who don’t always end up on the popular lists but serve great food with personable service.
BA: Do you feel that the Cantrell Administration has been doing enough to boost awareness and provide solutions, or is this mostly an issue for consumers to answer?
WB: I know the Cantrell Administration is only 14 months into their term, and they’ve been dealing with a lot of big issues. I believe that future endeavors by the Administration along with the Lt. Governor to promote the cultural economy of New Orleans can use this map to promote local, Black-owned small businesses as a way to emphasize how African-Americans influence the food scene in the city.
BA: It’s difficult to run a business, but how hard is it for local African-Americans to start one, from building leases to licenses and regulatory procedure? What loopholes if any exist that seem tailor-made for just for holding back the community?
WB: The foundational issue is access to capital and credit to launch a business and sustain itself in the first few months. A number of Black business owners have to work a full-time job to fund their passion project part-time until they catch a break. On top of that, the process of formally setting up a business can be intimidating which lead some businesses to operate informally while hoping they don’t get caught. Finally, New Orleans as a whole is a very subjective city – meaning that so many things depend on the right relationship or pulling the right lever. If you don’t have those relationships, it can be challenging to get things done.
BA: You work as a consultant. What kind of positive impact is involved?
WB: I’m an independent political consultant with a focus on helping to elect new leaders that come from the New American Majority of people of color, women, LGBTQ persons and young people. Helping communities finally get leadership that reflects their values only helps to build involvement and buy into government actions and policy.
BA: What has the feedback been for the interactive google map you created, from consumers to business owners? What is the next step for you with this project?
WB: In 5 days of the map going live, we’ve gotten 3,000+ views – which tells me the community wanted and needed this resource. Black restaurant/bar/lounge owners are in the Where Black NOLA Eats group mentioning their business so they can be added. I’ve sent this out to a couple of travel groups I’m in, and they have fallen in love with the map.
The next steps start with continuing to add businesses across the Greater New Orleans area. I’ll start adding catering companies soon and will look for a way to add food trucks as well. Jalence Isles, the founder of the Where Black NOLA Eats group, and other members are scheduling community foodie days at different restaurants to try out the food and bring business in. If we can show that this map has increased the revenue that the listed business are getting, that will be the ultimate win for me and the group at large.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Follow him on Twitter: @billreviews