I did not expect the tears. Yet they flowed freely during my time in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
I was there to help the Your Shot team with logistics and with the writing portion of their two-day photo workshop in the L9, as it’s widely referred to. The workshop was led by National Geographic photographer Tyrone Turner, photojournalists Susan Sterner and David Y. Lee, and New Orleans-based photographers Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun and held at both the city’s brand new Andrew P. Sanchez & Copelin-Byrd Multi-Purpose Center and the L9 Center for the Arts.
The idea was to give the residents of New Orleans an opportunity to tell their own stories through photographs and words. With the anniversary of the storm that forever changed the Gulf Coast looming, it felt important that a devastated community have a voice in what was happening, ten years later. See the pictures below:
The tears began on the first day of the workshop, when I caught up to my group. They were already walking through the neighborhood taking photos with Sterner. As I ran to them, I realized I was running down a dirt road. There were more empty lots on the block than houses. And it was quiet. It was also blazing hot, so the tears behind my sunglasses were easily passed off as sweat.
This was not my first trip to the L9. I’m a frequent visitor to New Orleans and I lived there from the late 1980’s through the mid-90’s. Security at my university told new students to never go to the L9. But we all did. Some of my oldest friends and fondest memories are from there.
The L9 is home to many definitive New Orleans musicians, including Fats Domino, and it boasted the highest rate of home ownership in the state of Louisiana before hurricane Katrina. Ten years later, only a small fraction of homeowners have been able to return.
Those who can come back and rebuild face many challenges, including just being able to find food. The L9 is considered a food desert, and probably would have been one before Katrina. Five years after the storm, L9 residents Burnell Cotlon and his wife Keasha were regularly driving seniors in their community to the big box store for prescriptions and for fresh fruit and vegetables. Otherwise it would take half a day and three buses (six round trip) to get there.
Finally, Cotlon—a U.S. Army veteran—had had enough. He vowed to open a store in his community. Listening to him tell his story, the tears came again, this time out of inspiration. Cotlon sunk his entire life savings into the store—the only outside financial assistance was a $5,000 grant from Propeller for addressing food security in his community. He, his neighbors, and volunteers did all of the labor, using donated materials from abandoned homes to renovate a 6,000 square foot building. Cotlon embodies his Army motto—“Anything is plenty.” And there’s urgency in his eyes when he says, "I'm going to continue to fight because I want the Lower Ninth Ward to look like the rest of the city.”
Stories like this played out over and over during the workshop.
The Your Shot editors spent the final afternoon editing the participants’ photos from the previous two days and reading the written work. There was a clear sense of community pride, and the participants showed an urgent need to document life as they know it before it is irrevocably changed. While Katrina dealt a severe blow, the community still shakily stood. Fear of gentrification squashing their uniquely New Orleans culture is quite real now. They want progress and new neighbors, but they wonder what the cost might be. What will the L9 look like in ten years?
When the editing was done, we gathered at Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun’s L9 Center for the Arts for a projection party and BBQ. Family, friends, and neighbors of the participants all came to see the work. The participants’ excitement and pride in their photos and community was clear. When the slide show was over, a group of laughing kids, beaming parents and friends, and proud teachers spilled out of the front door into the neighborhood. It was time to eat, have a cold drink, and dance. As the sun set in the L9 that night, we all danced in the street at the corner of Caffin and Chartres, under a street light with a sign that read, “Keep It Funky New Orleans,” to music played from the speakers of an open car. Old school. And this time, there were tears of joy running down my face. Joy for a community that has lost so much, sees change is coming, and still celebrates what has not been lost in these past ten years. Yeah you right.
Sara Chauhan is a freelance writer, raised and based in Washington, D.C. and still in love with New Orleans. Follow her on Twitter.