New Orleans Community Spaces in Crisis

Common Ground Womens CenterCommunity centers have long been central to New Orleans organizing, serving as a gathering location for people, culture and ideas. One activist recently explained, "organizing here looks like neighborhood get-togethers, potlucks, block parties, and conversations on a neighbor’s porch. Its about culture and community." But 18 months after Katrina, many of New Orleans’ community spaces, vital resources in the reconstruction of the city, remain shuttered. Traditional sources for support, such as foundations or charities, often miss this aspect of New Orleans' community, and many of these spaces have received little outside assistance.

In a city where many people are still in crisis, most federal support still has not arrived, insurance companies have evaded responsibility, and every repair seems to take longer than expected, a lot of these spaces need help. Few of have received anything close to the funding, resources, or staff they need for their work, and some are working unsustainable hours while living in a still-devastated city. Because New Orleans’ education and health care systems have been dismantled, many have either personal or family issues around health or school that they must deal with.

Many spaces were in poorer neighborhoods, which were more damaged during Katrina. This is the case for The Marcus Garvey Resource Center, a community space for African American youth located near the former Magnolia housing projects, which received several feet of water.

Many of these centers are Black-owned businesses which nurture the city’s culture, while supporting the community and local organizing. For example, in the legendary Creole restaurant Dooky Chase, Martin Luther King, Jr. held strategy meetings with local community organizers, the walls featured stunning artwork by Black artists, and figures from James Baldwin to Ray Charles would stop in to eat. For almost 65 years, the restaurant stood as a community anchor across the street from the Lafitte projects. Today, 18 months post-Katrina, both are still struggling to reopen. After months of work and the support of many prominent national allies, Dooky Chase is scheduled to open its doors in April. Lafitte remains shut behind metal gates, and is the focus of grassroots struggles, congressional hearings, and a federal lawsuit.

Other community spaces were part of public housing developments – such as the Sojourner Truth Center, which hosted a 2005 performance tour sponsored by INCITE Women Of Color Against Violence. The Sojourner Truth Center is located inside the Lafitte, and remains closed along with the nearby apartments.

Rising rents and costly repairs forced the Neighborhood Gallery, a Central City-based venue for everything from theatre, paintings and sculpture to dance parties and community meetings, out of their home.

More than damage from the storm, the Neighborhood Gallery was a victim of a housing market that has doubled in many areas. With much of the city still blighted, speculators snapped up non-flooded properties and affordable spaces became scarce. With tourism down and the population decimated, businesses around the city are suffering, and for Black-owned businesses and community spaces, the situation is at a crisis.

Before closing post-Katrina, Neighborhood Gallery had been open, in various locations, for almost twenty years. “Every neighborhood we’ve gone into, we’ve enhanced it,” Gallery co-director Sandra Berry tells me. “We take the arts to the ‘hood. We’ve taken artists to a deserted field and built a playground.” Neighborhood Gallery co-founders Sandra Berry and Joshua Walker are now organizing events at schools, coffee shops, and other spaces.

Two community spaces that share a Central City building, Ashe Cultural Center and Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, faced no storm-related damage, but were given a choice to either buy their spaces, or be kicked out, as the building they were located in transformed to condominiums. Ashe chose to embark on fundraising to buy their space, while Zeitgeist spent several months searching the New Orleans housing market. “The best offer I received was for a space in Shreveport,” complained owner Rene Broussard.

The Community Book Center, a vital seventh ward gathering spot, reopened in December along with several other businesses on the same block despite still having no front windows and a floor in major need of work. “Step carefully,” founder Vera Warren-Williams warned guests as they entered the store during the reopening celebration. After nearly a year and a half of shuttered storefronts, this street’s rebirth is a precious spot of hope in a city where 60% of the population remains displaced and many businesses still have not returned.

During the reopening, the owners of Community Book Center and other businesses on the block spoke of their dedication to their community and to the city. This is a theme echoed by other community spaces and small businesses. “We must have spaces that support all of us,” Sandra Berry of the Neighborhood Gallery explained. “We have to spread the art, support the culture. From prisons to church. Wherever there are people, we need to be.”