(By Oscar Perry Abello for NextCity) It might seem like a strange time to be walking along a disinvested commercial corridor trying to envision a brighter future, but that’s what residents of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward came to do in November 2020.
They met outside the offices of “NENA,” the Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, at the corner of Lamanche Street and St. Claude Avenue. Strolling down St. Claude, residents pointed out the array of small businesses that used to be there — a barbershop here, a sandwich shop there. Hurricane Katrina wiped them all out, from many of their buildings to most of their customer base.
Some activity and businesses have since returned or emerged on St. Claude Avenue in the Lower 9th Ward. The annual Big Nine Second Line Parade still centers on the corridor, with its traditional terminus at Mickie Bee’s Lounge — though the pandemic cancelled last year’s parade, and its founder died while hospitalized with the virus.
But fifteen years after Katrina, the most visible change to the corridor has been the demolition of structures deemed unsalvageable after the flood waters receded. But the status of the built environment along St. Claude Avenue belies the neighborhood’s energy and interest in bringing the corridor back as a thriving center of Black businesses and culture. Some of the buildings that might look unoccupied or dilapidated on the outside now have businesses inside.
On one of the previously vacant plots left behind by Katrina, Sankofa Community Development Corporation is soon to break ground on the construction of a new building to house a fresh foods market and community learning kitchen. At the same time that building is going up, the organization is bringing the neighborhood together to revitalize the corridor by designating it as part of Louisiana’s Main Streets program. The November walking tour was part of the research that is going into the Main Streets application materials.
“It was great to collectively walk together and talk about memory, a lot of discussion of what used to be there,” says Rashida Ferdinand, executive director of Sankofa CDC. “It made it feel like this would be possible, because just within our lifetime, this existed. It also makes you angry that this is the situation that we live in now and it’s really hard to get some activity and some movement going. The system that we live in does not work for us.”
Ferdinand has spent more than a decade now navigating that system. She co-founded Sankofa CDC in 2008, hoping to use food as a driver of community revitalization for the area in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She’s also a fifth-generation homeowner in the neighborhood, and now lives on the same street where her grandmother lived as a child.
“We were exploring different ways to address community development and health and wellness needs in the neighborhood, looking at social determinants of health that affect people’s access to better quality of life,” says Ferdinand. Read the full story here.