Profiling Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans, a Gulf Coast Relief Fund Partner
Like so many parts of the Jazz City, the Seventh Ward was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005. In the spring of 2006, New Orleans restored some services (electricity, water, trash collection) to parts of this neighborhood, and residents—at least some of them—started to come back, to see what they could rebuild or restore or build anew.
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 Seventh Ward.
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 transform communities?'
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 Fund.