Neutral Ground Coffee House: Singer-songwriter hub of New Orleans

Emma Allen, Arcade Editor

Neutral Ground Coffee House (Emma Allen)

I got to Neutral Ground Coffee House around 7:30 on a Sunday night. A young man in a beanie and a gray sweatshirt sits at the microphone. He takes requests from the crowd of about 20 people, aged 20-60, playing his guitar. He eventually starts singing “Sexy Sadie.” 

Neutral Ground is as much a visual experience as it is an auditory one. Art, colors and vintage posters litter the walls. Mismatched chairs line the bar, couches form a sitting area in front of the microphone and wooden tables line the side of the shop. Two people play chess in the back corner. 

Behind the bar is Nick, who’s been working at Neutral Ground for two to three years, but he’s been coming for 17. Nick pauses between each question to make coffee for patrons — an older man with a beard and a flannel, a 20-something with a man bun — but he eventually answers: “I was in high school and couldn’t go to a bar so I came here. My friends would come here.”

He tells me there are two owners, James and Phant, but Neutral Ground is “very much a community thing.” A young woman orders a coffee beside me. Her name is Nivi, I learn, and she’s a performer. Nivi, @nivicanela, is a singer and started coming about a month ago. It was the first open mic she came to since moving to New Orleans. I ask her why she chose Neutral Ground. “I just felt really welcome. I really like how open people are to collaborate so I started coming as of two weeks ago more regularly,” she said. 

Nivi points Mike out to me. Mike wears a cowboy hat and a ponytail and sits at the front, watching the young man at the microphone croon with his guitar. Nick, the bartender, explains that Mike is a long time volunteer and patron of the arts. I make my way to Mike, who is more than happy to talk to me about this place.

Neutral Ground Coffee House (Emma Allen)

Mike moved to New Orleans in 2004. He says Neutral Ground was one of the first coffee houses he found, and he fell in love overnight. Mike is also an artist. He points out the art on the wall that’s his, but he’s also an all-original Americana singer-songwriter with a band, Mike True and the Phantom Band.

I ask Mike about the purpose of Neutral Ground. “It’s been about all the arts. Visual arts, poetry readings, singer-songwriters, open mics hosted for years. They give people an opportunity to fill roles in the community as far as performing and perpetuating the arts, especially the music.”

A man at the table beside Mike jumped in — Johnny, another long-time patron. Johnny has been coming to Neutral Ground for 20 years and he said “a lot of local entertainers would come in here and promote their things before trying them on the outside.”

When Johnny learns that I go to Tulane, he tells me two girls from Tulane used to come to Neutral Ground to perform about 20 years ago. “Music majors. They were like angels. I’m sure they went on to be famous. They used to pack this place with students,” Johnny said, with an obvious admiration for the past. 

That much is evident. Looking around the room, the respect and enthusiasm from everyone just to listen to music and support new artists is powerful. Jordan, @pondergeetarmc, one of those artists, just does this as a hobby. He’s only been here for four weeks, but he appreciates the open stage and good coffee.

I find Caleb, @blackberry_blossom, at the bar after his set. He comes to Neutral Ground “because they have an open stage. There’s not a lot of them in New Orleans. I’m honestly surprised that for a musical city of this size there’s so few stages … there’s not a lot of events like this for being the musical city that it is.”

Neutral Ground Coffee House (Emma Allen)

When I press Caleb on this point, he explains that he’s from Athens, Ohio, a small town with not a lot to do, but “there were like six open stages like this every week and in New Orleans there’s like three, but maybe I just don’t know about them.” Caleb isn’t a full-time musician, but he explains why places like Neutral Ground are so important for performers, even amateur ones. “I have to play music. If I go more than a couple days without music, I feel like I’m screwing up,” Caleb said.

The sentiment is reiterated by Sebastian, who likens Neutral Ground to “the singer-songwriter central for the city.” Open stages are priceless for performers, but Neutral Ground has faced financial concerns since its inception. 

In 1974, a woman named Greta opened the Penny Post on Maple Street. After the original building burned down, the Penny Post moved to its current location on Danneel Street as a co-op. Sadly, it couldn’t keep up with financial strain and closed in 1992. Two months later, a group of loyal patrons reopened the Penny Post — now known as Neutral Ground — although money issues continued and caused the house to close its doors again in 2000. Philip Melancon, an active member since the shop’s Penny Post days, rallied and bought the coffee house, reopening the business within two days. Neutral Ground’s current owners, James and Phant, swooped in as the COVID-19 pandemic hit and have been running the place since.

Mike explains that James and Phant run Neutral Ground because they are passionate about the arts, not because it makes any money. “They’re putting their own money into this thing, not making any money at all … they have to put a tremendous amount of overhead and then they have to come up with the food and drinks themselves and again the baristas are all tips-oriented. It’s a struggle … it’s just however many people we can get in the door to buy coffee to cover the overhead.” The coffee house serves the community, but it needs help to continue operating. 

Neutral Ground Coffee House (Emma Allen)

A woman in a fur coat and platform combat boots belted an a capella song right before I left. Everyone in the room watched, mesmerized by the atmosphere as much as the music. 

Neutral Ground Coffee House is open Friday-Sunday from 7 p.m. to 12 a.m. Open mic nights for singer-songwriters are every Sunday.

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