When most people plan a trip to New Orleans, they don’t immediately think to visit the Lower Ninth Ward. The area has been slow to rebuild, especially when it comes to tourist-friendly businesses. But that is quickly changing, in part thanks to one lesbian small business owner.
“It’s funny that the Lower Ninth Ward is not thought of as a traditional tourist destination, because there has been steady tourism to this neighborhood, for better or worse, for 10 years now,” says Carla Williams, owner of Material Life, a new Afro-centric gift shop located at 6038 St. Claude Ave. “Bus tours, bike tours, walking tours, self-guided tours — they’re all happening here. It’s really one of the loveliest neighborhoods in the city with its easy access to the river on one side and the Bayou Bienvenue wetlands on the other. It has a quality unlike any other and is only four miles from downtown.”
It was for this very reason that Williams chose to open a boutique in the area. And, she says, because she wanted to help bring commerce to a part of the city that has struggled to attract new businesses.
“I consciously chose to put my resources here,” Williams says. “I was tired of hearing about the slow redevelopment of this neighborhood, and I thought, well, if no one puts their money there, it’s never going to redevelop.”
“Moreover, the merchandise in my store reflects black cultural identities,” she adds, “and I wanted my neighbors to see themselves represented within.”
Material Life specializes in fine and decorative arts by black artists and designers, as well as artists who focus on black subjects. Walking into the store feels a bit like stepping into a carefully curated museum gift shop, with a colorful wonderland of unique products ranging for $5 to $500. Between books, wall art, clothing, accessories, toys, knick knacks, stationery, photographs, and home goods, a person could easily spend an hour browsing though all the curiosities on the shelves, tables and walls.
Many of the artists whose work Williams features are LGBT.
“I think it’s important to highlight LGBT makers because all of our lives need to be celebrated by everyone,” Williams says. “Not acknowledging our daily lives and the art we make is akin to being closeted, and that’s not happening in my store.”
She continues, “Black and gay artists are more important to me because both have been maligned and underrepresented for so long. Material Life is not exclusive, though — I’ll represent any work that works with the primary aesthetic of the shop. That’s where I rely on my expertise and my eye. I know what I like, and I know my merchandise.”
Also noteworthy is the building in which the store is located. “This building was the first of a series of Craftsman firehouses built throughout the city; this one in 1924,” Williams explains. “It operated continually as a firehouse until 2005. It sat dormant and in ruins for nearly 10 years until a developer bought and restored it in 2015.”
“It’s so amazing how central this building was in the neighborhood, how it connects to so many memories of growing up in the Lower Ninth,” she adds. “I can’t tell you how many people have shared their memories of spending time at the firehouse. It’s wonderful.”
One of the things Williams is particularly proud of is the response her store has received from the people, both tourists and locals alike, who stop in.
“So many people have commented on how the shop feels: its calm, warm, and welcoming atmosphere,” she explains. “And that’s really what it’s like — I add things constantly, move things around. It’s important to keep to space itself alive.”
Material Life is open Thursday-Saturday from 12 p.m. until 6 p.m. or by appointment.
House of Dance and Feathers — A cultural museum celebrating Mardi Gras Indians, social aid and pleasure clubs, and Skull and Bone gangs located at 1317 Tupelo St.
Cafe Dauphine — Traditional New Orleans cuisine in a century-old building located at 5229 Dauphine St.
Bayou Bienvenue — A peaceful bayou with a picnic platform that runs along the border between Orleans Parish and St. Bernard Parish.
Tekrema Center for Art and Culture — An African and African Diaspora arts and cultural center that regularly hosts dance performances, poetry readings and other special events located at 5640 Burgundy St.
Gypsy Soul Sisters — A funky art market featuring work by local artists and artisans located at 7124 St. Claude Ave in Arabi.