I can’t quite put into words what it feels like to photograph a historic building, a community cornerstone, through its renovation. To stand in any old spot and try to remember what the space looked like a month, six months, a year ago. Like anything in life, once you’ve got it good, it becomes difficult to realize just how hard the bad times were. Perfectly stuccoed walls now sit where once gaping holes let in the wind and rain. Cement floors have replaced piles of mud, and produce bins proclaim “4/$1 bell peppers” where construction machinery used to lift workers to weld ceiling beams. I only remember the full extent of the decay when looking at the photographs I’ve taken of the store during the last year.
The Circle Food Store of New Orleans had its “grand re-opening” on January 17. Eight and a half years ago, Hurricane Katrina flooded the store and surrounding neighborhood. The store has been closed ever since. Two Fridays ago, Seventh-Ward neighbors, a fleet of journalists, and the man himself, owner Dwayne Boudreaux, reclaimed the corner as the crowd chanted “We want to shop! We want to shop!”
A series of diptychs follows, a collection of before and afters, during and afters, and someplace in between. Each pair of images depicts the same space at different points in the rebuilding process.
This first pair depicts the view down St. Bernard Avenue. I took the first image soon after construction began. The second, taken by Bryant Hawkins, shows the same view during the Grand Re-Opening festivities. (Taken on March 28, 2013, and Jan. 17, 2014.)
These overviews were taken from opposite ends of the building, but both show the main shopping area of the store. December 6 was the first time I’d visited the Circle, and I felt like I was in a cave. The main room dripped with rainwater: a cavernous, dark, damp space. Stepping into the smaller rooms with only a flashlight to guide the way seemed adventurous, even other-worldly. The first image here was taken from the mezzanine, which was demolished due to coding issues. The second was shot from the opposite end of the room atop the “prescriptions” sign that’s shown in some of the photographs that follow. (Taken on Jan. 11, 2013, and Dec. 6, 2013.)
The archway pictured used to lead upstairs to the dentist’s office. The upstairs portion above this area had to be completely rebuilt. See the sky up there? (Taken on Jan. 11, 2013, and May 10, 2013.)
The painted sign was original to the building, and was preserved for the re-opening. To give you an idea of how dark the store was before construction began, all the images taken on Jan. 11, 2013, like the top one here, were thirty-second exposures. Be sure to take a moment to explore the dark spaces in the top photo. (Taken on Jan. 11, 2013, and Dec. 6, 2013.)
During the last days of construction, and after the contractor’s fence was removed from the build site, the front doors of the store were covered with paper to hide the interior from curious eyes. Here, Randy and Melvin prop the front doors open for the first time on the morning of the re-opening. (Taken on Sept. 13, 2013, and Jan. 17, 2014.)
Those gaping holes full of mud lead to what is now the deli and hot food bar, on the other side of the frozen food section. (Taken on May 10, 2013, and Jan. 17, 2014.)
The deli and hot food bar. (Taken on May 10, 2013, and January 17, 2014.)
A couple more views of the fishing tackle sign. The sign was repainted for the re-opening. (Taken on June 5, 2013, and Jan. 17, 2014.)
Views of what is now the store’s produce section. People know the Circle for its bell peppers–I’ve been told that on certain holidays, the staff couldn’t even get bins of the peppers to the front of the store before they’d be empty. They were ready for the first day’s crowds, as you can see. Find out what these bins looked like at the end of opening day on my Instagram here. (Taken on June 12, 2013, and Jan. 17, 2014.)
Although they were taken from opposing angles, these photographs show the same wall of the main room. (Taken on June 12, 2013, and Jan. 17, 2014.)
Local artist Nat Williams painted the piece that hangs in the back of the store. At left, the painting waits in Nat’s barber shop to be hung. (Taken on Dec. 14, 2013, and Jan. 17, 2014.)
Overviews of the store. The second, taken on opening day, was taken from under the Prescriptions sign in the first image. (Taken on May 10, 2013, and Jan. 17. 2014.)
The transformation the Circle Food Store has undergone in the last year astounds me. Not just because of the physical changes in the building, but also because now I can go grocery shopping in what used to be that cavernous, empty space. The 7th Ward has their grocery store back, and the neighborhood’s excitement is palpable. I’ve been conducting interviews with residents, so there’s much more to come from the time I’ve spent documenting the re-opening of the Circle Food Store.
Here’s one last picture: the first was taken on Jan. 11, 2013, of Andy Stephens and I on the first day that Andy brought me to the Circle. The second was taken on Jan. 27, 2014.