The Vacant Lot

Ashes to Oranges

Coors Underground (or is it Chords Underground? ....Cords?) was an old Frenchmen Street venue that was destroyed in a violent explosion in the mid-70s. It’s exceedingly hard to find any information about the place online, and not many people we’ve talked to seem to know about it. Those who do remember disagree on how to spell it, which likely contributes to the difficulty of tracking it down. Curiously, its main legacy seems to be the void it left behind: a charred vacant lot.

The lot may not have looked like much, but this non-space took on a life of its own, growing slowly and organically into an unconventional hub for neighborhood creatives, a beloved local institution owned by no one and shared by all.

Alan Langhoff--owner of the famed former venue the Dream Palace--is one person who does remember the original venue, Cords/Chords/Coors. He described it as a “disco-type thing for kids to wear their slick stuff and go get f*cked up.” He recalls being outside, working on the Dream Palace building across the street in preparation for its 1976 grand opening, and watching hopeful young people waiting in long lines to get into C’s, only to be turned away for not meeting the dress code. Langhoff always assured the dejected would-be drinkers they’d be more than welcome in his club when it opened, whatever their attire. 

But by the time he opened the Dream Palace, the competition had (literally) gone up in flames.

Jazz guitarist Sid Snow remembers that day, and recalls how the owner claimed it was a gas fire. “But come to find out, the place was all electric! … Well, he went to jail.” 

An anonymous source, eyes flashing angrily, described how the reckless explosion nearly killed a man living in a house nearby, someone they’d known and liked. A sobering perspective on an old insurance scam, and an inauspicious outlook for the property.

But flash forward to the turn of the millennium, and the ashy ruins had become fertile ground for creative collaborations and art from the fringes. It was a wacky, shared neighborhood performance space, featuring fire-eaters, brass bands, circus performers, and all manner of “grungy people that just had a little charm to them.” Local artist Conan sold his drawings, the nitrous balloon man made his rounds, there was even a nighttime book fair. All in all, in the words of one enthusiastic, it was “lawless, and wild, and fucking awesome.” 

As Frenchmen’s fame as a music corridor grew (due as least in part to HBO’s Treme, season one of which was released in 2010) audience demographics began shifting towards tourists spending vacation dollars. Use of space on the street changed accordingly.

When a franchise moved into the Vacant Lot in 2014, it broke the hearts of many, including bassist “Magic” Wanda Joseph. She remembers vividly when they began construction:

“You remember when there used to be that lot right there… with the fire-eaters? Girl, look: when I came there and found them cutting down that palm tree right there, I was pissed. 

“Then, they cut that orange tree. There was an orange tree right there! I say, ‘Why are you all cutting?’ 

[She pauses.]

“He say, ‘Baby.’ 

[... And even hearing it secondhand, you want to stagger a little under the weight of the word.]

“I stood there—I was so mad, I was like, ‘Motherf*****!

“I was waiting on that orange tree to grow, too. Because I had just noticed it was an orange tree, all them years. They came and they tore it down.”

It’s hard not to understand the orange tree as a metaphor--for rebirth, for a community’s tenaciousness, for everything that can grow against all odds from the ashes--so it’s hard not to understand the encroachment of corporate capitalism as a violently unwelcome sort of post-script. But maybe it’s just the natural cycle of things. When one spot’s time is up, the great hope is that the spirit moves elsewhere, and that orange trees (real and metaphorical) will continue to push their way up from unlikely soils.



601 Frenchmen Street