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.