At urban farm and art collective Breathing Waters, raised vegetable beds brim with greens, heirloom cucumbers, and herbs. Bees hum a top note while local bands rehearse in the workshop. Owner Jacob (who declines to state his last name) sells produce to farmers markets and restaurants including 1,000 Figs and Paladar 511. In his spare time, he hosts crawfish boils and fishes in nearby marshes.
Though his Arabi farm is a 10-minute bike ride from downtown New Orleans, it feels light years away.
“[Arabi] is a tight-knit coastal community with a rich culture, traditions, good restaurants, and things like that,” said the 30-year-old Arabi native, who bought a two-bedroom home there. “There are trees, open spaces, wetlands, and fishing within five minutes, and it’s affordable compared to living in the city.”
Arabi is consistently ranked on fastest-growing suburbs lists, including one by Realtor.com that analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The historically working-class neighborhood lies just east of the lower 9th Ward. It too was inundated with floodwaters following Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures.
“The same set of circumstances occurred [in Arabi]—a vast selection of lots became available, which allowed that neighborhood to be rebuilt from scratch,” said Rachel Gniady, a real estate investor and developer.
“People continued to move downriver, and Arabi is next in line,” Gniady said.
High taxes, home prices, and crime also pushed lower-income residents out of Orleans Parish and into St. Bernard Parish, but in many respects, the area has become a destination in its own right. For homebuyers attracted to Bywater’s bohemian spirit and riverfront proximity, Arabi is an appealing (nearby) option. The neighborhood has become a hotspot for middle-class families, single female homebuyers, and artists like Jacob.
“It’s a great opportunity for young people and families who are priced out of the New Orleans market that maybe need to move up in (house) size,” said Brett Rector, a realtor who recently sold his Bywater home and bought a new construction in Arabi. “My neighbors are a young couple with a boy and a baby on the way. They couldn’t find a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a nice yard and off-street parking in Orleans Parish for under $300,000.”
Rector’s new home, a neo-Acadian cottage by LaGraize Builders, has a big yard for his two dogs to explore. It boasts more square footage and lower utilities than his previous charming but upkeep-heavy Victorian side hall. Flood insurance is around $300 a year, if it’s required at all. Most of the area is part of flood zone X, which designates a moderate flood risk.
“My savings from utilities pays my mortgage three or four months out of the year, and the insurance was only $1,800 a year,” Rector said.
In Arabi, the average price per square foot ranges from $152 to the low $170s, Gniady said. In New Orleans, the average price is $179 per square foot, according to reporting by the New Orleans Advocate.
“St. Bernard Parish broke ground on the Mississippi Levee Trail, which will span the entire length of the inhabited part and should be done in a year or so,” said Dan Favre, executive director of Bike Easy. “You can use it to get to Arabi or the 9th Ward.”
By branding Arabi as an extension of the Marigny/Bywater/Holy Cross neighborhoods, developers hope to attract cash-strapped urbanites and veer away from Arabi’s old, Yatty reputation as “the redheaded stepsister to Chalmette,” Gniady said. The plan seems to be working.
“People coming (to Arabi) out of New Orleans are not lifelong residents,” Gniady said. “They’re almost seeing it as a hip, trendy neighborhood coming online.”
“The people moving in are younger … and didn’t grow up in St. Bernard,” Jacob said. “They bring a different view of the community—they give it a fresh start.”
They’ve also brought welcome diversity to the suburb.
“Pre-Katrina, St. Bernard was predominately white, and it has evolved to include a lot of Hispanic and African-American people (as well as a) Middle Eastern community,” Jacob said.
There’s also a more diverse mix of businesses. Last month, Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center announced its move from Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard to the Old Arabi Cultural Arts District. There, it joins Bywater expats Studio Inferno and Valiant Theatre. The two-block, $2.4 million art district also counts Vella Vetro Art Glass among its tenants. A slew of grassroots art collectives like Jacob’s completes the hive of creative activity.
“There are a lot of people down here who are sharing art studio space and doing the same thing (as Breathing Waters),” Jacob said. “(Arabi) is nice, quiet, and you don’t have to worry as much about crime or people messing with your stuff.
“You’re only a few miles from downtown—you just have to get over your fear of crossing the St. Claude bridge.”