by Alicia N. Neal, MFA
In a city like New Orleans, community is everything. I remember when I would walk down the street, I’d speak to everyone I passed, and everyone would keep an eye out for one another. Everyone was our neighbor. Eight years ago, prior to Hurricane Katrina, walking around the Lower Ninth Ward meant passing several homes on every block. Now it means visiting one, maybe two, houses per block. As a result, a sense of community has disappeared from the area. With very few residents returning to the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina, many lots stand vacant, some filled with weeds and trash, others still are home only to dilapidated buildings.
The few residents who have returned also gaze out over the ghostly remains of a former cypress swamp. Bayou Bienvenue, once a flourishing freshwater cypress-tupelo tree wetland where community members would hunt and fish, is now an urban swamp decimated by salt water intrusion which killed the vegetation, and weakened protection from high winds and water surges. Loss of the cypress trees made the Lower Ninth Ward more vulnerable to flooding from hurricanes. Without the natural barrier protection provided by the Bayou, a daily downpour can instantly incapacitate neighborhoods with floods.
For Lower Ninth Ward residents, there is a movement afoot to, in a sense, take back the streets through improved stormwater management. With the help of an EPA Environmental Justice Small Grant, Groundwork New Orleans assessed community needs to address issues of stormwater management, ecosystem restoration, and quality of life. In the midst of the assessment, we recognized a common theme: lack of communal connection. Residents had simple requests like planting more flowers to attract butterflies back to the area. As a result, a simple rain garden was installed to mitigate flooding and grew into a beautiful green space for neighbors to gather and get to know one another.
Central to this process was engaging local residents in identifying solutions. For example, we incorporated Lower Ninth Ward residents’ needs and input to create a site that removes toxins from stormwater and provides an educational and beautiful space for residents to enjoy. A corner lot at Caffin Avenue and North Prieur Street was selected to create a rain garden and community beautification site. The site, located near the Industrial Canal levee breech that inundated the neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina, contains a shade structure, rain garden, native plants, fruit trees, benches and educational signage. After but a few months, the site has become a communal space where neighbors can feel welcomed, help alleviate street flooding, and improve watershed health along with neighborhood aesthetic.
Members of the Green Team, our job training program for high school aged youth, are a part of the process from start to finish. The students learn about research methods, public speaking, community engagement, science, construction, and water testing. The students are gaining valuable life skills while making improvements in their community, like using GIS mapping to plot drainage problem areas along Caffin Avenue and conducting water quality testing in Bayou Bienvenue. The results compiled from these activities were presented to neighborhood residents and organizations. At each workshop the Green Team leads a hands-on activity to share what they have learned and educate the community.
The restoration of Bayou Bienvenue is an important part of the rebuilding of the community because it can provide opportunities for fishing, canoeing, and other activities for local residents. Engaging the community in understanding how a neighborhood-level watershed and habitat design can reduce susceptibility to flooding is helping to usher in a sense of communal connection so that we heal our community while helping to heal the environment.
About the Author: Alicia Neal, MFA is the Executive Director of Groundwork New Orleans. As a long time resident of New Orleans, she welcomes the opportunity to make a positive change in the city. She is also a mother and a visual artist who is inspired most by nature.