In the syrupy charm of New Orleans' Garden District or the debauchery of the French Quarter, you might think the city has recovered from the trauma of Katrina. Streetcars are running, music is playing and tourists have stumbled back with beads on. But in the poorest part of the city, which also happens to be the lowest part, it's a different story. Nearly six years on, only 20 percent of pre-hurricane residents have returned to the Lower Ninth Ward. Citywide, the same percentage of residents had returned four months after the storm.
Christian Adams, 18, told me he has no idea what happened to most of his friends and former neighbors. We shared a bench behind a washed-out store formerly known as Blair Grocery. Now it's a school: Our School at Blair Grocery.
The air smelled of compost, some of which was splattered on Adams' boots. Other neighborhood teens were planting sprouts, harvesting okra and figs, and screening potting soil.
The school is not accredited, and many of its students can't read. Learning to read is not mandatory, says the school's founder, Nat Turner. "If a student wants to learn to read, we'll help them learn,” he told me as we rumbled toward Uptown in a creaky pickup at 6:30 in the morning. “If a student wants to take the GED, we'll help them prepare.” Turner is lanky, with endless energy. He smoked a hand-rolled cigarette as he drove, switching topics easily between the likes of compost science, racial politics and global warming.
We pulled in to the dock behind Whole Foods and loaded about 500 pounds of old produce onto the truck for OSBG's compost pile. Compost is gold at OSBG. Eventually they'll sell the excess soil they build, but now they need all they can make.
At last count, three-quarters of an acre was under cultivation, including bits of unused land on the adjoining, entirely vacant block. The school is largely funded by produce sales, which average $1,500 a week. High-end restaurants on higher ground pay a premium for the produce, but it’s sold in the neighborhood at a discount.
The school seeks to "create a resource-rich safe space for youth empowerment and sustainable community development," according to its mission statement. In a neighborhood notorious for violence, it's a supportive oasis where students can explore their interests, learn skills like blogging, and formulate and pursue goals. But before you can plan where you're going, Turner says, it helps to understand where you are. Local history is an important part of the curriculum. "They learn that things didn't just happen this way, that certain things led up to it."
"It's about being prepared, and figuring out, Where do we go from here: chaos or community?"
Nat Turner, founder of Our School at Blair Grocery
The Lower Ninth Ward is a basin without a drain, and it’s surrounded by water. The surfaces of the Mississippi River and Industrial Canal both often run higher than ground level in the neighborhood. When Katrina's storm surge pushed in from the Gulf of Mexico, floodwater spilled into the Lower Ninth Ward from three sides, covering many houses completely. The water was finally pumped out 29 days later. Today, most houses in the ward are gone or vacant. Whole blocks remain empty.
As bad as Katrina was, Turner thinks worse disasters await, both natural and manmade. "It's about being prepared, and figuring out, Where do we go from here: chaos or community?"
The neighborhood wasn't entirely welcoming to the school, which was founded on Thanksgiving Day 2008. But locals caught on to what OSBG could do for the community. One student is a former gang member suspected of vandalizing the school when it first opened.
Renovations to the old grocery building have addressed core issues like structure, water damage and restoration of utilities, with virtually no attention to finish work. Wires, pipes and roughed-in beams are exposed. The cinder block wall of the classroom is cracked. The bathroom plumbing can't handle toilet paper. Outside, the lot is filled with raised beds, sheds and hoop houses made from salvaged materials. Shade cloths protecting tender greens are repurposed burlap sacks. The air smells overripe—the result of a compost aeration problem Turner is dealing with.
One student is a former gang member suspected of vandalizing the school when it first opened.
The first time Jasmine Christmas showed up at the ramshackle school, she thought, What the hell?
"But when I started doing things, seeding plants, making compost, I started thinking, Man, this is cool. I never would have thought that delicious foods like okra and cabbage came from ..." she nodded toward the compost pile.
The Lower Ninth Ward is a food desert. Most of its groceries come from Walmart in the neighboring St. Bernard Parish. Turner hopes to have a grocery store opened in the building soon. Meanwhile there are beehives to install, chickens to get permits for and an overgrown block next door to tame.
I slept on the floor of the classroom, sharing the room with a volunteer group from New York City. Also around by day were some teens paid to work there by the city of New Orleans as part of a summer youth program. When it got too hot out for farm work, the whole crew headed inside to the classroom. Andrew Hammerstein, a UC-Santa Cruz student doing independent study research as an instructor at the school (and who also slept in the classroom), led a discussion on environmental racism.
They compared a dam in India, a timber project in Bali and an oil spill in Nigeria before turning their attention to the industrial stretch of the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as "Cancer Alley."
Stuck at the bottom of Cancer Alley, New Orleans was drenched by Katrina with a toxic cocktail of effluent from swamped chemical plants upriver. The Lower Ninth Ward (and neighboring St. Bernard Parish) got the worst of the exposure. After the water was finally pumped out, a film of toxic residue coated the ward for months. The resulting unusable, contaminated topsoil is why compost is so important to OSBG. A farm is only as good as its soil.
Hammerstein read the group an academic definition of environmental racism: "A sociological term referring to the enactment of any policy or regulation that negatively affects the living conditions of low-income or minority communities at a rate disproportionate from affluent communities." Then he asked the group what that meant, "in English."
From the back of the classroom came a response: "Polluting the hood."