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After 40 Years Helping Launch New Orleans Musicians, the Neutral Ground Coffee House Is Closing

The community-centered space is planning a farewell benefit, vows to reopen

Neutral Ground Coffee House.
Neutral Ground Coffee House

The Neutral Ground Coffee House, a longtime New Orleans gathering place that’s known for music and community, will close on April 23, the 40-year-old cafe announced this month.

Offbeat first reported last week that after months of uncertainty — the coffee house’s 5110 Daneel Street building went up for sale in January 2023 — Neutral Ground has officially lost its lease after the space sold to new owners. The coffee house, as it prefers to be called instead of a coffee shop, has until the end of the month to vacate the space, though co-owners James Naylor and Caroline “Phant” Williams are actively searching for a new location. This time, they say, it’s important for them to own their building to prevent future displacement.

To aid in the process of buying a new location, Neutral Ground has organized a fundraiser and planned an all-day concert on the Mississippi River batture this Saturday, April 22, from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. called Neutral Ground Fest. Appropriately, the festival is booked with a lineup of musicians whose careers the coffee house has helped launch over the past 40 years. Sunday, April 23, will be its last day and last open mic night on Daneel Street. From there, Naylor and Williams have made plans to keep the weekly open mic night, Neutral Ground’s calling card, going at a nearby event venue called NOLA Spaces.

Several things about Neutral Ground that make it unique: There’s no wi-fi (owners say they tried it at one point but felt it didn’t add anything to the space); its hours are 7 p.m. to midnight Thursday through Sunday; and the music, poetry readings, plays, table games, and more are the focus, not necessarily the coffee. Because it’s an all-ages, nighttime hangout that doesn’t serve alcohol, it’s been a special place for teens and people who are sober.

It was also one of New Orleans’s first worker-owned restaurant cooperatives, a growing trend nationwide. According to the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, it was originally founded as the Penny Post by a nurse “known only as Greta” on Maple Street in 1976. After a fire a year later Greta opted not to reopen, encouraging a band of regulars to reopen it as a co-op. They did just that at 5110 Daneel Street, where it became a dual space — one for music and open mic nights, the other for plays and poetry readings. When the Penny Post closed in 1992, a new group of regulars reopened it as the Neutral Ground Coffee House, a nod to what New Orleans calls the strip of land dividing its streets (and what other cities call medians).

In 2000, it was bought by local pianist, singer, and songwriter Phil Melancon, who also implemented various co-op structures over the years, according to the Times-Picayune. In March 2020, longtime regulars and performers Naylor and Williams bought it, using the bed of Naylor’s ’79 Chevy pickup as an outdoor stage during the pandemic. In an announcement about the closure and Neutral Ground’s future, Naylor and Williams said they think they have found a new home, though “There are numerous issues standing in the way (zoning, neighborhood, permits) that are surmountable, but time engaging.”

In true poetic fashion, Williams and Naylor closed the announcement by saying, “It is but a phoenix; killing itself, to return as witness. Spirit, fire, water. A living state, it dies, and yet rises again. Her ashes new create another heir.”