Neutral Ground owners left “heart broken,” start GoFundMe page to find new location for coffee shop


Torrie Shuff

Neutral Ground Coffee House on Daneel Street is in danger of being bought out. The New Orleans staple has been around since the late 1970s.

Macie Batson, Editor in Chief

Caroline Williams, known by most as Phant, broke down in tears last Thursday when she was greeted at the door by someone who mistook her for the realtor of the building where her beloved coffeeshop Neutral Ground is housed.

Williams said they weren’t told when they had to go or how long they could stay, but they’ve already begun preparing for Neutral Ground to be in “exile” until they can land elsewhere, after hearing news the building was being sold. 

Neutral Ground Coffeehouse is a “community space, part gallery, half stage,” usually referred to as a safe “third” place for artists to use as a testing ground to “hone their craft,” and for the community of all ages to relax and have some coffee, according to the coffee shop’s website.

Co-owners, or “caretakers,” of the quirky uptown café where many artists often make their debut, Williams and James Naylor, said they were devastated when they discovered the building that houses their coffeeshop was being sold.

“I had a walkthrough of my own space, that I rent, with no knowledge or consent on my part,” Williams said. 

The two previously purchased Neutral Ground in 2020 from previous caretakers, but have been associated with and managing the cafe for over 20 years. However, Naylor and Williams do not own the property on which the coffee shop has been located since the late 70s. 

The building has been owned by property manager Jonathan Wallick since 1997, who the couple regarded as a great landlord who hasn’t raised their rent in 20 years.

“Otherwise, we would have been long gone,” Williams said. “We don’t make enough money.” 

According to Williams and Naylor, Isidore Newman School, which is just a block away from the coffee shop, has had its eye on purchasing the building for years, and because the school has been purchasing other buildings surrounding this area, they said they expect their building to be the next.

Due to the high cost of the building, Naylor and Williams said that purchasing it would be “out of reach,” and agreed that they would have to find somewhere else to run their business.

“I think a lot of the community is still hoping that we could buy this building because there’s so much nostalgia here,” Williams said. “A lot of the community is in denial that we’re going to move.” 

Loyola popular commercial music senior and singer/songwriter Gabe Parsons shares the nostalgia, as his first-ever New Orleans gig took place at Neutral Ground, and he has since played 11 additional shows there during his undergraduate years.

The charm of Neutral Ground, apart from the luxury of being able to sit, according to Parsons, is that anyone can perform and feel comfortable and safe enough to do so. 

“It’s just a very, like, odd place, but in a good way,” Parsons said. “I think that places like that need to exist in the world, especially in New Orleans, which is kind of an odd city.”

Some of Parsons’ favorite memories of playing come from Neutral Ground, he said. He got his start in New Orleans from Loyola’s monthly “Singer/Songwriter Thursdays” at Neutral Ground, as have many other upcoming Loyola artists. He said it is a good way to test and perform your songs to the public. 

“As an artist, you perform because you want people to listen to what you’re trying to say, so I feel like the Neutral Ground has always been a really great space to showcase your work, especially when it’s new,” Parsons said. 

Pablo Amat, a Loyola sophomore in popular and commercial music and a regular performer at “Singer/Songwriter Thursdays,” agreed that the cafe allows comfort for shy performers to start in a small space with a small audience.

In his seven performances at Neutral Ground, Amat said that he has learned many things from playing there.

“I definitely think Neutral Ground has benefited Loyola. It’s a great exercise to play a set just you and your instrument. It’s a challenge,” Amat said. “It’s taught me that playing acoustic versions of your songs isn’t as easy as one would think.”

In terms of upcoming Loyola events at Neutral Ground, Naylor said that he and Phant intend to host them unless they are informed otherwise, but that the factors include when someone purchases the building.

Williams said that even if they were able to get a loan for what the property manager was asking for the building, they would have to be making double the money they’re making now.

 “Everyone else in this building would have to have double their rent, and that’s just not realistic,” Williams said. 

Nonetheless, the couple said they still felt “heartbroken” learning that the coffeehouse will no longer remain in its current location.

“We felt horrible. I’ve been having horrible dreams that things are just crashing in front of me that I can’t control. We’re heartbroken,” Naylor said. “This has been, you know, so much of our lives, so much of so many people’s lives.”

Parsons said that while he feels sad that the Neutral Ground is facing closure, a new location could benefit the business. 

“I love the Neutral Ground, but you know, it’s kind of in a quiet neighborhood,” Parsons said. “There are no other shops really around it. It’s very standalone.”

Parsons added that it might be better for the coffee house to be located closer to where students often hang out, potentially around Freret or Maple street.

When they relocate, Naylor said the goal is to stay in the Uptown neighborhood so they can be close to Loyola and Tulane’s campuses, but everything is “still on the table.” He added that although the cafe might remain “homeless” for a time, they are going to do everything they can to keep the business going. 

“Neutral Ground isn’t a place, it’s a community,” Williams said. 

Naylor and Williams started a GoFundMe page this week to raise money for a down payment on a new potential building that will keep rent low. 

Phant and I are looking at buying a building for the coffeehouse to live for another 40+ years but we need your help,” the GoFundMe page read. “We have a few places in mind, one particularly that has an apartment that would offset our rent and keep the Neutral Ground inexpensive and open for all to enjoy.”

Given the belief that Neutral Ground is a community rather than a physical location, Parsons expressed his confidence that the community would follow them wherever they went.

“Is the idea stronger than the location… I think the idea is stronger than the location,” Parsons said. 


Abigail Schmidt contribute to this story. 

Editor’s note: The following story has been edited for clarity.