P!Nterview: Youth activists denounce neglect in the Lower Ninth Ward

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New York to New Orleans (NY2NO) volunteers have been involved in rebuilding and community projects in the city since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Image from http://ny2no.com.

Aug. 29 marked the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest and most costly storms in U.S. history. Katrina devastated towns and cities along the Gulf Coast. The region’s urban hub, New Orleans, was hit especially hard, and suffered the highest loss of human life.  Not all sections of New Orleans were equally impacted. As is so often the case when natural disasters hit, the city’s poorest neighborhoods saw the greatest losses of life and physical structures. Nowhere in the city was the devastation greater than in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Last month, PLAN!T spoke to three youth activists taking on part of the responsibility for rebuilding this part of the city for their perspectives about where the Lower Ninth Ward is six years later. Two, Myaisha Hayes and Abby Beatty, work with New York to New Orleans (NY2NO), a youth-led activist organization created by high school students in New York City following Katrina. Since 2005, NY2NO has been bringing New York City high school students to the Lower Ninth Ward to help gut and rebuild homes, clean debris from green-spaces, canvass residents to document their stories, and educate participants about the power dynamics that determine where government resources go and where they don’t. One of the activists, Fatima Avellan, participated in a rebuilding trip arranged by Occidental College in Los Angeles. This trip was co-led by Myaisha Hayes. Myaisha, Fatima, and Abby’s insights raise questions about the role of race and class in response to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, even while the existence of groups like NY2NO mark at least one positive step towards recovery. For more information on NY2NO, visit http://ny2no.com.

Q: Based on your observations, how far along are the rebuilding efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward?

Abby Beatty: Not far at all. It’s becoming one big overgrown lawn. When I first started going down there in February of 2008 there was a much more noticeable volunteer presence. All the houses had been gutted, and construction materials and assistance were available to citizens through organizations like Project Lower Nine. There was greater national attention to the area, but that had already begun to fade by 2008.

The problem is not just the city’s purposeful inability to provide solutions like physical rebuilding. There are many other deeply routed issues that affect New Orleans that simply became more evident because of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Structural discrimination in the New Orleans school and food systems, along with much else, has long plagued the Lower Ninth Ward.

Q: As of last year, news articles quote Lower Ninth Ward residents speaking of slow progress, many blighted homes and a landscape without stores or other economic engines. Do you agree based on what you’ve seen, and has it changed since last year?

Myaisha Hayes: I agree. I’ve been to the Lower Ninth Ward three times since 2005, the most recent trip being this past December. When I arrived this past winter, it had been two years since I’d been to the neighborhood, yet it looked exactly the same. It felt like a ghost town. It absolutely lacks infrastructure. There are no grocery stores, except the Magnolia Grocery, a small neighborhood store that sells more alcohol than food. The food it does offer is not nutritious. Other than that, there is a gas station and a few chicken joints. There is no public school in the neighborhood, which is why NY2NO partnered with Our School at Blair Grocery, a community center and school created by a passionate New York City transplant named Nat Turner. …

The levees in the Lower Ninth Ward are still not fixed. …If a sizable storm were to hit tomorrow, the neighborhood would be destroyed. The relatively quick recovery of New Orleans’s French Quarter compared to the neglect of the Lower Ninth has been very disappointing. In one of my first neighborhood canvassing trips several years ago, a Lower Ninth Ward resident told me he felt like he and his neighbors were being treated like cockroaches local and state officials wanted to be rid of. …In comparison, when forest fires threaten wealthy California communities, the local and federal response is immediate and strong. Where is the political will to repair the Lower Ninth?

Q: What is NY2NO’s relationship to the Lower Ninth? Share a little about your work there. What insights do you have based on your work there about how the Lower Ninth has been treated versus other parts of the city like the French Quarter?

Fatima Avellan: Our work with NY2NO entailed learning how to use sustainable farming methods to analyze oppressive systems and empower youth and community residents to hold government officials and others accountable. Our School at Blair Grocery, a former grocery store transformed into a home-school for youth in the Lower Ninth community after the flood, is the place where we had most of our interactions with New York City youth from NY2NO. Along with harvesting vegetables, learning how to compost and attending workshops that describe systems of power in order to transform them, we also visited Angola State Penitentiary together.

This was the turning point of the trip for me personally. It made me want to focus on education, youth and the prison industrial complex. My experience visiting the former plantation is a constant reminder of the desperately needed, radical change this nation must undergo. …As for the pace of the rebuilding efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward compared to the French Quarter: the French Quarter is city’s tourism epicenter, a place that was immediately rebuilt in order to bring the city revenue. However, when it comes to the parts of the city mostly inhabited by people of color and those of low socio-economic status (like the Lower Ninth), rebuilding efforts are slow or non-existent. The wealthy areas of the city, like St. Bernard’s Parish, have a Whole Foods, yoga studios, cafes and restaurants – obvious signs of a flourishing and economically vibrant community. The racial divide between the Lower Ninth Ward and areas like St. Bernard’s Parish, which are predominantly white, beg questions about the role of race and class in the popular and political will to rebuild following natural disasters like Katrina.