Activists from far and wide helping N.O.: They fill 'void' in the 9th Ward

Gwen Filosa, Staff Writer - Times Picayune
Date Published: 
November 4, 2005

Pre-Katrina, this gritty 9th Ward corner was never a highlight on any tourist map.

But these days, a former day-care center at Louisa and North Robertson streets is drawing visitors from Ohio, San Francisco and other far-flung cities; college students; and activists in town to help clean up and revive the devastated neighborhood.

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Common Ground, a nonprofit activist group, has set up shop in the brightly colored house to serve 9th Ward residents with a long list of Katrina survival needs, from food to FEMA forms. They tarp roofs, gut homes, cart away ruined refrigerators, serve meals and even offer a solar-powered shower in a neighborhood that hasn't seen electricity since the deadly storm made landfall on Aug. 29.

They're also the only game in town when it comes to a 9th Ward distribution center for free bleach, meals and other disaster assistance.

"A lot of groups take in a lot of money, but where they at?" said Brandon Darby, the director of the 9th Ward Common Ground, as he showed off the well-stocked distribution center. "People don't have their needs met."

The "radical" activists, as Darby puts it, arrived to fill the void they felt in the 9th Ward when it came to assisting residents. Come Nov. 20, Common Ground promises to bring hundreds of volunteers into the 9th Ward to work one block at a time to scrub, repair and restore damaged homes, as part of the nationwide Road Trip for Relief.

"There is no substitute for working directly on the ground and getting your hands dirty," said Aida Alston, 20, who graduated from a college in Long Beach, Calif., in May and recently took a break from an internship with a human rights group to spend almost a month in New Orleans.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita exposed the nation to New Orleans' impoverished neighborhoods and struggling families, placing the 9th and Lower 9th Wards in the collective conscience of activists.

"A lot of us were surprised to see how much inequality and injustice was here," said Darby, 29, a native of Houston. "I've made a five-year commitment. We're attempting to have a permanent presence here."

Only two miles from the French Quarter, the Louisa Street neighborhood remains scarred and smelly. Natural gas and electricity remain off. Garbage trucks on Thursday removed tall piles of garbage and debris that were as high as the cemetery wall across from the Common Ground center -- a rare sight, Darby and his colleagues said.

While Darby can give a stump speech filled with references to "empowering the people," and talk about how his group trains citizens to use video cameras so they can monitor police conduct, he is also refreshingly chipper.

When someone mentions that the city won't turn on the lights, Darby launches into the benefits of solar-panels on homes.

The Common Ground effort was born days after the levees collapsed, flooding the 9th Ward and Lower 9th and leaving dried-out destruction. Robert King Wilkerson, a former state prison inmate turned cause celebre for his Black Panther leanings and longtime solitary confinement, was trapped in his 7th Ward house for 10 days, Darby said. When activist friends came to rescue him, they put the call out to their activist friends.

First, Common Ground opened a medical clinic in Algiers, in the 300 block of Atlantic Avenue, where volunteers have cared for more than 100 people each day, many of whom haven't seen a doctor in years or don't qualify for Medicaid.

The 9th Ward center has identified 250 people it believes are trying to move back to live in the surrounding streets.

A first-aid clinic, staffed by a registered nurse, is available 24 hours a day, and legal advice is available to those facing eviction or other housing problems.

The point of Common Ground is based on the "concept of solidarity, not charity," as co-founder Malik Rahim of New Orleans likes to say. The daycare center the group is using will be returned to its owner in a few months, fully repaired and ready to open, organizers said.

Bleach and bottled water are just a few items they're handing out on Louisa Street. Residents are welcome to use the "tool library," to check out shovels, rakes and other necessary items for household recovery.

Nicole Chandler, 33, a lifelong 9th Ward resident, welcomes the help from Common Ground, especially in a city not known for its rampant activism. It was Common Ground volunteers who tarped her roof.

"People here are complacent and accustomed to doing without," said Chandler, an electrician who owns rental properties in the Lower 9th and had a house on Pauline Street in the Upper 9th. "This event only highlighted what existed here."

Chandler, still waiting on that "second" FEMA check, said she had no choice but to rebuild in New Orleans. "You can't start over in a new city when you're broke," she said.

Chandler, a graduate of Ben Franklin High School and Loyola University, evacuated to rural Clayton, La., where she stayed with friends of friends, and returned to her hometown three weeks ago. She worries that New Orleans evacuees got a taste of how other cities, like Houston and Dallas, deliver services and found it better than what awaits them back home.

Yet the post-Katrina world is an opportunity to resurrect wrecked neighborhoods like the 9th Ward, Chandler said.

"With the passage of time, the desire and drive to return will dwindle," Chandler said. "We need self-sustenance. We'd like to have a charter school. We don't need another cashier school or beauty school. We don't need another politician exporting our jobs to another community."

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The Common Ground 9th Ward distribution center is at 1507 Louisa St., and can be reached at 913-9691. The group's Algiers clinic is at 331 Atlantic Ave., and can be reached at 368-6897. For more information, visit

Gwen Filosa can be reached at gfilosa [at] timespicayune [dot] com or (504) 826-3304.