If you've lived in New Orleans for a while or even spent enough time as a
visitor, you quickly find out how important culture is to this city. New Orleans
is correctly known as a cultural melting pot, a percolating gumbo where
descendants of slaves, Latino/Latinas, native Americans, French-Canadian
descendants of Acadia, East Indians, and many other groups, can come together
and build community. That sense of community and culture undergirds all of the
city, and Hurricane Katrina wiped that, along with so much more, away a year
ago. So while some efforts center on rebuilding the city's damaged housing
stock, one of the projects the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief
Fund is focusing on is a program to restore the cultural pulse of the city's
This work goes forward with the support of Neighborhood Housing Services,
which seeks not only to aid new home owners but to improve their quality of life
and promote commercial redevelopment in the city. The Seventh Ward NHS program
is led by Troi Bechet, a woman with experience in restoring homes and bringing
life to under-served communities. This grass roots pilot program, developed by
the residents themselves, brings together a diverse group of New Orleaneans who
are collaborating on ways to help people not only survive, but thrive. Through a
tree planting program, Second Line parades through the neighborhood, a home
designated for use as a community center where gatherings will occur and suppers
can be held, and a summer camp program for children returning to the city, these
homeowners are rising up to restore their part of the city.
Among those working on the project are real estate developer Larry Poirrier,
artist Willie Birch, baker Edward Adam Buckner, and educator Carrie Burks.
Willie Birch—who lives in one of a handful of homes that have been reoccupied in
the neighborhood—said, "We will transform this community through cultural
activities like the planting of trees along the sidewalks of these streets. Ed
(Buckner) came up with the idea of planting trees, an African symbol of memory
and hope for the future." Indeed, some of those trees have already been planted
along the street on which we're standing, a bit of grace and beauty brought back
to a ravaged neighborhood.
Buckner continued, "We wanted to have a Second Line [parade] coming out of the
[nearby] St. Bernard housing projects because we have a lot of social clubs in
this area, but no one will parade here because of crime. The only way to attack
that is to bring the parades into this neighborhood. I promised some elderly
neighbors who can't walk to the parade that I will bring the parade to their
door. I am working for what I have been taught, to give back to the community.
This parade will be a community celebration day, and along with The Porch
[another nearby neighborhood cultural restoration project also being funded by
the Gulf Coast Relief Fund], we're joining with Neighborhood Housing Services,
the New Orleans Arts Council, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic—all of these groups partnering so that we have a
great day in the community.This shows that our community is back, up, and we are
going to redevelop and change the landscape here. It's exciting to get the
costumes and the dress wear and planning going, but the greatest thing is to
involve the community."
Carrie Burks said, "We're also going to organize a block party to go with the
parade. We have to raise money for food and entertainment, and it's a big
job...our neighborhood is not just about bringing people to meetings; it's about
participating and taking part. We are rebuilding our culture. The city hasn't
taken care of that, but this city feeds off the culture. So we will do it. All
of us are volunteers; we don't get paid for this."
This is about frills, this is about life: in New Orleans, if you don't have a
place to gather with the community, if you don't have a cultural pulse on which
you can rely, you are, quite literally, not going to survive. So the work these
organizers are doing asks, ‘how can people coming from different social and
political backgrounds combine art and real estate restoration as a means to
Larry Poirrier responded, "This is about cleaning up houses, bringing
families back in the neighborhood. We're trying to work with organizations like
Habitat for Humanity, to help people with finances through Neighborhood Housing
Services, to find affordable housing for people to live in and to make the area
livable. Right now, a house rental is $2500/month, a 1-bedroom house rental is
$1500/month...and we're trying to keep people here. This was a mixed rental/home
owning neighborhood...and most people want to own their own homes. That's why
the survival and restoration of the Ninth Ward is [also] so important. People
have lived in this city for multiple generations. People know nowhere else...and
right now, there is a lot of price gouging going on out there."
Birch said, "I grew up here, and black people have that sense of faith. I was
in the civil rights movement. I have seen struggle and change, and I know what
that takes. I don't see why we can't do some of these things, because this is
possible. I came back here and decided to stay in the Seventh Ward, and the
world needs to know what is possible."
Project Director Troi Bechet added, "There are so many possibilities. In
addition to working for NHS, I am also an artist...and culture does empower and
transform lives. This city is so about culture; it's our soul. So starting here
in the Seventh Ward and in other communities, we can see how having activities
like these can transform the space."
Poirrier added, "One of the people on our board is a Mardi Gras
Chief. Jelly Roll
Morton lived in this
neighborhood. We have historic houses here that relate directly to the jazz
movement." NHS' Shawna Sassoon
added, "Here, culture becomes a political issue...The fee on having a second
line parade has been raised, for instance, which is a way to kill culture in
this city." Buckner responded, "And the parade says we are here . That
is some of the beauty of the South and what we do... We belong
, and people will support and protect us."
We asked these community organizers what they need to make their project
work. "We need money," said Carrie Burks, "but some of it, we don't want.
Because it doesn't serve where we want to go. We need people who can support how
we see this place: not outsiders analyzing and deciding what is best. New
Orleans has to be restructured and reconstituted by those who are here...and we
need respect to allow that to happen. And if funders have the means to do that
and get out of our way, that is fine."
Larry Poirrier added, "We are trying to get families back here... these
properties are sitting here vacant and nothing is moving. We need to get the
city moving on this. We want business back in here...the nearest grocery is
closed, and we need to be able to buy simple things..."
Willie Birch reflected, "People have to think outside the box. If you are
going to do this [work of restoration and renewal] you can't think in a
traditional manner. Something else has to be done...artists know how to do
that." The organizers nodded and smiled, and began talking about the summer camp
program that they envision will help the children of the Seventh Ward enjoy
activities and companionship as their families return over the summer to an
uncertain future in New Orleans.
This is the work of the Gulf Coast Relief Fund, funded by
donations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We are proud to count
Neighborhood Housing Services as a partner in the effort to restore the Gulf
Coast and to allow people of that region to return to their homes and lead
dignified, decent lives.
The UUA's Deborah Weiner visited the Gulf Coast in May. This profile is
one of three focusing on partners funded through the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations.
Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Thursday, August 2, 2012.
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