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A Comeback Story in New Orleans

The Hollygrove neighborhood rises from Katrina’s destruction, better than ever

When Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans five years ago, it left devastated neighborhoods in her wake. Many have still not recovered. But for residents of Hollygrove, a working-class African American community on the western edge of the city, destruction has proved to be an incentive to make their home turf better.

In August 2005, the hurricane breached the 17th Street Canal and turned the neighborhood into a lake that was a few feet deep in some places and 12 feet in others. “The hurricane completely wiped us out. But at the same time, I knew that it was also our chance to shine,” says Kevin Brown, 49, the director of Trinity Christian Community, a ministry his father started in 1967. “I knew we could come back much stronger than we were before if we seized the moment.”

Seize they did.

Hollygrove is one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city, but it recovered faster and with less outside attention than did neighborhoods in the well-publicized lower Ninth Ward. The recovery still has a long way to go—local streets are still pocked with potholes and lined with vacant lots and abandoned houses—but residents are confident it will happen because they have seen an important change that is still mostly invisible to casual visitors: They have started working together. And thanks to a long-term effort assisted by a coalition of outside organizations, including AARP, they are taking control of their future.

Down on crime

For one, the community doesn’t stand for crime anymore. There were six murders in the neighborhood during the first half of 2009, and three in the first half of this year. One murder happened in June when Darrien Christmas, 50, found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the drug wars struck again. Posters mark the spot on Edinburgh Street where he fell, offering a reward for information and a phone number for anonymous tips.

Several weeks after Christmas’ murder, Ryan Terrence and Michael White, both 22, died in a drive-by shooting just down the street. Terrence was a suspect in another murder case, and he had been charged with dealing drugs out of an abandoned house nearby. The city tore that house down a few days after he was killed, after months of urging by the neighbors.

Responses like these are a welcome change from the bad old days of 2003, the year Joe Sherman, 66, moved back into the house where he’d grown up. “Back then, this was one of the most murderous neighborhoods in the country,” he says. “And we still have serious problems. The difference is, now we are doing something about them.”

Sherman’s family moved to Edinburgh Street in 1948, when he was five. He says it was so safe back then “that I couldn’t get away with anything.” He moved away to go to college, got involved in the civil rights movement, “and since that time,” he says, “I have been trying to make things the way they ought to be.” There is more than enough in this neighborhood to keep him busy in retirement, and fighting crime is just one part of it. “The list is long,” he says. “But until the storm, nothing was being done.”

A rebound model

The Hollygrove project has been so successful that five years after Katrina, people are citing it as a national model for community organization. “AARP wants to help places build their own capacities by strengthening what is already there,” says AARP Louisiana State Director Nancy McPherson. “We have learned a lot from Hollygrove.”

Despite a long-term decline in the share of residents who own their homes, Hollygrove retains a core of committed “originals” like Sherman and his childhood friend Earl Williams, 55, who manages the finances at Trinity. The lot next to the church became a gathering place in the days after Katrina, with a circus tent, portable toilets and a field kitchen. Trinity was managing hundreds of volunteers at the peak of the rebuild; so far, they have worked on 1,600 homes, and there are only about 2,700 addresses in the neighborhood. In June 2010, about three-quarters of those addresses were actively receiving mail, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

In the early part of 2008, AARP Louisiana noticed there were over 1,000 members in the ZIP code that includes Hollygrove. McPherson arranged a meeting with local residents, but “we didn’t want to impose,” she says. “We wanted to make sure we could add value to what was already going on.” Residents told her that they needed to learn the rules of community organization, such as how to agree on common goals and work with authorities to achieve them. They also needed professional help, but couldn’t afford to hire lawyers or planners. So McPherson partnered with Louisiana State University to conduct an eight-week Leadership Training Academy for several dozen residents. “It made a big difference,” says Earl Williams. “A lot of New Orleans neighborhoods are deadlocked by warring factions. The academy taught us how to work together. It gave us a base to build on.”

The nuts and bolts of teamwork

Academy graduates organized four project teams to work on issues of health, crime, transportation and economic development, beginning in March 2009. Each team chose a short-term goal and a long-term goal; they were supported by a $440,000 grant from the Harrah’s Foundation. “The goals reinforced each other,” says Jason Tudor, the AARP staffer who worked directly with the neighborhood. For example, the health team’s short-term goal was to organize a walking club in Conrad Park. Once they started, they found that the walkers also chased away drug dealers. “You can’t be healthy if you’re afraid to go outdoors,” says team leader Ruth Kennedy, 75. “People aren’t as afraid now.”

The health team’s long-term goal was to save and reopen the historic senior center, which had been the South’s only privately owned black hospital in the 1940s and a center for civil rights activists in the 1950s and ’60s. A postcard campaign and oral history project helped convince the city to suspend plans to tear down the building; now the team has heard that $1.4 million allocated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to replace the building can be used for repairs.

Food turned out to be another crosscutting issue. Hollygrove did not have a full-service grocery store or adequate bus service, so the neighborhood’s Community Development Corporation (CDC) combined support from several groups to turn a vacant nursery into the Hollygrove Market and Farm. The farm operates a produce buyers’ club with about 150 weekly subscribers, as well as a community garden and educational programs. “Once we started, we saw all kinds of possibilities,” says CDC Director Paul Baricos, 62. “For example, the farm teaches local people how to grow food in vacant lots.” But what will the CDC do with the food? They’re discussing putting in a commercial kitchen, so they can make sauces and preserves—and sell them.

Help from the city?

Residents are hopeful that the city’s new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, will be more responsive to their requests, but years of corruption and incompetence in City Hall have also made them cautious. “We were told to dream big, and we did,” says Earl Williams. “Now it’s time for them to show us the money.” And the money may come to repair roads, streetlights and sidewalks as long as the group keeps pushing.

“Hollygrove people are focused on what they want for their neighborhood, and that gives them a big advantage when dealing with the city,” says Susan Guidry, the city council member who represents the neighborhood. “They are also optimistic that they can get these things done, which is remarkable when you see how much there is to do.”

Gregory Saville, a consultant on crime and urban design, led a walk through the neighborhood in July to identify places where small fixes might yield big results. He saw some residents putting up streetlights at their own expense and others cutting the grass around abandoned houses. “I was impressed,” he says. “We were talking about what the place is going to look like in 10 years. There’s a real transformation going on out there.”

Brad Edmondson is a writer in Ithaca, NY.

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