Fighting Poverty with Passion
I briefly mentioned BDC’s MLK Day service project in my last post but I wanted the opportunity to go into more detail as it is a story that may benefit others by being told.
For many years, an ugly, blighted, long-forsaken senior center sat unoccupied on a street corner in Broadmoor, New Orleans. The neglected building was contributing to a continuing cycle of divestment in the area, not to mention the fact that it was simply an eyesore; it was rather un-affectionately known around the neighborhood as “the pink elephant” due to its mauve hue and relative ginormity. After years of advocating for the ramshackle building to be torn down, residents finally succeeded in felling the pink elephant when the old senior center was demolished by the City of New Orleans two years ago.
However, the celebration was short lived as the now empty lot quickly became host to six feet tall weeds, garbage, and rats. Despite being owned by the City, the parcel sat largely untouched and forgotten; the pink elephant had merely been replaced by a jungle lot. A year ago, BDC organized a volunteer lot clean up. However, one year later on MLK Day 2014, the lot’s overgrowth was even worse than before much to the frustration and disappointment of several volunteers who returned to Broadmoor to see that nothing had, in fact, changed.
On January 20, 2014, Tulane VISTA and Bard College volunteers spent their “day on” by clearing the lot once more. It was a tough job. The “weeds” were taller than most people stood and they carried prickly burrs as big as grapes. There was an assortment of trash hidden amongst the overgrowth including nine abandoned tires as well as other industrial refuse. The volunteers worked hard for several hours and called it a day around noon. They were able to clear about half of the lot and the remainder of the job would be finished by another volunteer group the following month.
Once the volunteers went home, I was left to figure out what to do with the ten bags of trash, nine abandoned tires, and bonfire-size pile of green waste. One non-NOLA native assured me that “of course the City will come pick this up” while a local disagreed and said there was “no way the City would come get this.” (Informed by my experiences dealing with City of New Orleans during my VISTA term, I unfortunately suspected that the latter was more accurate.) That day, I made a few calls to City Hall and hoped for the best.
Two days after the lot clearing, I went back to check on the site and started to panic. Not only was everything still there, but people had started dumping MORE trash on the lot. How long would it take for the parcel to turn into a landfill? Another week or so? I went back to my office and frantically started calling and emailing several departments at City Hall including our City Council member and a former Tulane VISTA who works there now. All my panicked appeals apparently hit the right nerve as a few days later, all the waste was removed from the site, save for the tires which the City generally will not pick up (which is why everyone seems to abandon them in empty lots…)
Now comes the most curious part of the story. A week and a half after the lot clearing and a day after New Orleans’ sneauxmageddon, I came upon the lot fully cleared, freshly mowed, AND all the tires gone. I was completely flabbergasted as was everyone else in my office. It was the first time, they told me, that the City had touched the lot in the two years since they had demolished the pink elephant. Perhaps it was a PR move precipitated by election season or maybe City Hall just wanted me to stop calling, but something triggered something with the Powers That Be and the City finally did what was right and took responsibility for their property.
I learned that sometimes being the squeaky wheel actually gets the job done, even in a place like New Orleans where it’s pretty easy to become jaded about things changing for the better. Residents have been asking us what the lot will eventually become–a community garden? A new neighborhood center? Unfortunately, we don’t have the answer to that right now. I will, however, do my best to see that all the volunteers’ hard work was not in vain and that the lot doesn’t get forgotten. City Hall knows that I know where to find them 🙂