Festival celebrates Freret’s post-Katrina revival

Not so long ago, the Freret Street bus would barrel through that dreary Uptown neighborhood near Tulane and Loyola universities with little reason to stop.

E verything has changed for Freret Street during the past decade, and the area is now a colorful, commercial corridor accented by trendy bars, restaurants, clubs and stores, a thriving monthly arts market and the annual Freret Street Festival, to be held from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. Saturday, April 5.

In 2007, the first festival drew 2,000 people, but this year’s event will most likely bring 25,000 to the neighborhood, predicted Greg Ensslen, one of the festival’s organizers.

The free, one-day event, which stretches eight blocks from Napoleon Street to Jefferson Avenue, will be the largest yet, featuring more than 200 arts and crafts vendors and 28 musical acts on five stages, kids activities and more than 50 food vendors, including Dat Dogs, Boucherie, Saltwater Grill, Saucy’s, Woody’s Fish tacos, La Delyo’s Creole Catering, Crepes a la Cart, Cane River Meat Pies and La Parisienne French pastries.

Organizers made an extra effort this year to book female bands, such as Charmaine Neville, Gal Holiday and the Margie Perez Band, and to lure radio station WWOZ-FM to the street for a live music broadcast.

Freret Street was named for former New Orleans Mayor William Freret and was a busy shopping district into the 1930s. By the early 1970s, however, many businesses had shut down. Despite the decline, Neighborhood Housing Services continued to support commercial reinvestment and homeowner programs through the decades.

When new homeowners Greg Ensslen and Michelle Ingram met in 2006 at an NHS visioning workshop, they decided to jump-start community projects on their own. Ensslen and neighborhood association president Andrew Amacker spearheaded a zoning change to allow restaurants and music clubs to operate along the main route.

“We couldn’t have an art gallery without a conditional use permit,” he said.

Initially, the impetus was simply to have a few restaurants and stores in walking distance of their homes. An architect and historic real estate developer, Ensslen had a financial investment in the neighborhood, and Ingram owns Zeus’ Place, a pet day care, boarding and grooming business on Freret Street.

In the beginning, the festival was intended to help the merchants, and businesses now enthusiastically support it.

Private funding comes from vendors and sponsors, including Abita, Ochsner Baptist, Murphy Insurance, Bev Inc., Zeus’ Place, The New Freret, The Other Bar and Uptown Audio.

“Years ago, there weren’t businesses to support it,” Ensslen said. Now, there are new local restaurant sponsors including the Publiq House, Dat Dog, Midway Pizza, Pure Cake and The Burger Company.

Ingram’s business shelters rescued dogs and cats, using the events to find pets new homes. In 2012, 412 dogs, puppies, cats and kittens were adopted through Zeus’ Place, Ingram said.

The Freret Street Festival will host an adoption area at Freret and Cadiz Streets, bringing together “slightly used” 50 animals collected from Southern Animal Foundation, Dag’s House, Jefferson SPCA and other local shelters.

The kids’ play area, sponsored by the Junior League, which maintains a thrift store on Freret, includes a fire truck, Giant Maze, crafts and photo booth.

“This event is different because we hang out with our neighbors and the festival supports the businesses,” Ingram said.

Free parking is available in lots on Napoleon Avenue at South Robertson Street and at the corner of Magnolia and Cadiz streets.

Bicyclists will be accommodated with a complimentary bike valet provided by Bike Easy at the corner of Freret and Gena Streets.

For more information, visit www.freretstreetfestival.com.