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Mercedes Gibson arrived in New Orleans in 1969 with, as she puts it, “ten dollars, ten children and a tank of gas.” The Franklin, Louisiana native’s eyes light up as she recounts the story while we sit at Mercedes Place, the working-class barroom she has owned and operated in the Lower 9th Ward’s Holy Cross neighborhood for thirty-two years.

The neighborhood, named for the all-boys Catholic high school a few blocks away that has been left to molder since Hurricane Katrina, is starting to see signs of bloom. A flower shop has opened a few blocks away, a glimmer of hope in a section of the city too often underserved. And while good intentions abound, the crumbling Brad Pitt-funded Make it Right Houses nearby are an example of where they can go wrong. But Mercedes Place has always been a slice of heaven in the community, a place to meet friends new and old, to duck into for a cold beer when the second line passes, and to grab a bowl of red beans and rice on a Monday. Here, Mercedes Gibson has made a living slinging suds and set-ups for over three decades. And now, early in the morning before the bar opens, her granddaughter, Lichelle Gibson, is serving a different kind of brew – coffee.

“I realized from the beginning that coffee was such an intricate beverage,” says the younger Gibson “And it brought so many people together – people love this drink. At the turn of the pandemic in 2020, when everything started to happen, that’s when it clicked and I said, ‘Oh, you know what, I think I can do this. My grandmother owns a barroom down in the Lower Ninth Ward.’”

From Thursday through Saturday, before the bar opens at noon, Lichelle operates 2NP, a café that serves coffee, tea, fresh juices, fruit bowls, breakfast tacos and daily specials like shrimp and grits. The name has a special significance to Gibson, who spent three days trapped on her rooftop before being rescued in the days after Katrina and seeing the neighborhood she was born and raised in decimated.

“The name of this business is 2NP – ‘To Invest Purpose,’” says Gibson. “The reason I chose that name is because this is home for me. I was born and raised in the Ninth Ward. I’ve been here 38 years. I learned everything right here in this bar from watching my grandma. And I felt that, after Katrina, that this was the forgotten-about neighborhood of the Ninth Ward.”

Coffee has deep roots in New Orleans; Lichelle Gisbon is counting on that. When the wind blows just right, usually early in the morning, you can smell freshly roasted coffee wafting over the city from the roasting plants along the Industrial Canal and the Mississippi River. More coffee – in green bean form – passes through the Port of New Orleans than anywhere else in the United States on its way to roasting plants near and far. The area’s chicory coffee, strong and irresistibly bitter, was born out of hardship, like much of New Orleans culture, as the Union blockades of the Civil War made it necessary to stretch our valuable commodity. Although the city is most strongly associated with cocktails, a case for coffee being our signature drink could easily be made. And as the demographics of the city change, and tastes along with it, coffee is a unifier.

Coffee has deep roots in New Orleans; Lichelle Gisbon is counting on that.

We were turned onto 2NP by Brandi Charlot, owner of the nearby flower shop, who is another born-and-raised resident of the Lower 9th Ward who has reinvested in the neighborhood. Charlot called excitedly and told us we had to go over and see Lichelle Gibson “right now.” So we did.

The small corner bar looks like a Caribbean café from the outside, with its white stucco walls and green trim. Two small sandwich boards, one made of reclaimed glass windows, announces the presence of 2NP. But, overhead, the well-worn sign assures you that you are still inside Mercedes Place. On the long wall of the building that faces Lizardi Street, a woman sits at a table and enjoys an unseasonably cool (for New Orleans standards) summer day.

Inside, the barroom turned coffee shop is dark, lit with a combination of natural light and some string lighting. It gives the space a quirky, ad-hoc feel that seems to pair perfectly with the mix of clientele, some longtime neighborhood stalwarts and some newer arrivals. Behind the bar, Lichelle Gibson, along with her partner, Chad, is busy making drinks and chatting with everyone who walks in the door. It is less of a coffee shop and more of a community center. Ms. Mary, who is a resident of the neighborhood and a dedicated patron, is sitting a few seats down enjoying a quiet moment before Gibson eagerly interjects “I do a fresh fruit oatmeal bowl that Ms. Mary – also a pillar of the community – really loves.”

This seems to be an invitation for conversation. Ms. Mary White smiles sheepishly. Like Ms. Mercedes, she too moved to New Orleans – not from Franklin, but from neighboring New Iberia, Louisiana. She lived most of her life uptown, until fate intervened.

“I moved into the neighborhood three years ago and I didn’t know anything about the Ninth Ward,” says White over her fruit bowl. “I grew up uptown New Orleans. So coming to the Ninth Ward was like coming to Florida. Little did I know, Miss Mercedes came from Franklin, where I came from New Iberia, which is 30 miles away. 20. So [just] miles away. I knew her family. She knew my family. And we’ve just become a family. And you can’t find that anywhere anymore.”

Chad Whitman, Lichelle Gibson’s business parter, echoes these feelings.

“Ms. Mercedes accepted me immediately,” Whitman says. “In a way that even some of my own family hasn’t.”

Gibson and Whitman met working at Hey Café on the Lafitte Greenway, where Gibson still works a few days a week, honing her craft.

“Me and my partner here Chad, man, Chad,” Gibson gushes, “Well, what can I say about you? Oh, my goodness. Such a good friend. Such a good friend.”

And friendship is a hallmark of both 2NP and Mercedes place. A small sign above the bar reads “Enter as strangers, leave as friends.” But it could also read, “Enter as friends, leave as family.”

As we sit at the bar, Gibson greets a man at the door with a bowl of freshly made shrimp and grits and a water. There was no money exchanged, only good will. Hospitality runs in the family.

“Everyone within the Ninth Ward community knows about my grandmother,” says Gibson. “My grandmother has taken in strangers that have lived in her home with her, people come from all over to come see to come sit to come talk to my grandmother.”

And they also come to see her for her red beans and rice, which Gibson says she has served “as long as I can remember.” When we ask who made the red beans, Gibson demurs.

“Oh see that’s a family secret, red beans,” said Gibson, “But I can guarantee you this: every family member – every grandchild of Mercedes – knows how to make those red beans. Guarantee. Guarantee. Guarantee.”

With the red beans out of play, our attention turned to the shrimp and grits. The aroma was mesmerizing, with the buttery grits and rich brown sauce floating just above the aroma of coffee. Gibson placed a generous bowl in front of us to try while explaining her cooking philosophy.

“I believe if you’re gonna cook, you shouldn’t play with food,” said Gibson. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t play.”

And from the first taste it was apparent that Gibson wasn’t playing. The rich, but not overly thick shellfish stock melted into the silky grits and the tender shrimp – it was like eating at your grandmother’s house – overwhelmingly comforting and satisfying. It paired perfectly with Gibson’s “Powerhouse Tea” that she started making during the pandemic to boost the immune system, with ginger, honey, raw sugar, vanilla and orange juice as the dominant notes.

Ms. Mercedes entered the barroom just before noon, coming back with a few items from the store. A doorway connects her house to the bar. Like many old-time proprietors, she lives on site. This bar is her life, and in it, she allows her granddaughter to create something new, but at the same time, familiar.

“That’s what I told Chad from the beginning; I want to serve this community,” says Gibson. “I want to know who they are. I want to go old school and pass out flyers. Let’s walk around. Let’s go meet these people. We doing it one cup at a time. And it’s gonna take us some time. But we here for the long haul. Mercedes is still standing and she’s still here.”

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James CullenJames Cullen

Published on August 18, 2022

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