At the corner of food & politics

In New Orleans in the summer of 2005 you needed transport and fuel in order to eat. In this landscape of dead refrigerators and flooded stores, abandoned by government, the author describes how individual improvisation woven into collective action fed empty stomachs

There is quite a literal and figurative distance between well-fed politicians, wined and dined by lobbyists in state and national capitals, and those politicians' more remote constituents who must fend for themselves in search of decent meals.

No resident of New Orleans, other than ego-deluded morally-challenged politicos like the self-published former Mayor and his staff - now in exile in Australia and Dallas, Texas - wishes to dwell on the facts of late summer 2005 any longer. We have put the horror behind us, and shut the page on the memories.  Things have changed hugely, and understandably so, but at that particular turning point something vital shifted in a way I always thought unlikely, if not unimaginable - we returned to our neighborhoods to find that we had no access to food.

Never did I suspect that in a twenty-first century "developed" country, there would be a possibility that you could starve if you did not have a functioning vehicle, and fuel. The few cars that had survived, like mine, had been drained of their gas by people escaping, since there were no gas stations functioning.  I did not begrudge them their exit, but finding a full tank of gas in those first months often required the expenditure of half a tank.

The only stores open were in unflooded Jefferson parish, which at that time, with the roads crumbling and always suspect, was the better part of an hour's drive away. There was no public transport. Buses would be months in coming back, and when they did return they appeared at, and in 2012 remain at, about ten percent of the level that was here pre-'05. The very few undamaged streetcars could not run, as it was to take almost two years to clear and then repair the crosstown tracks.

So, in a city oriented around the holy trinity of food, music & sex, all of a sudden one of those elements disappeared. There was no food.Which can put a serious damper on the other two.

Most of Orleans parish was a starvation zone. All the small neighborhood markets had disappeared into the tide of rank polluted water. Three doors from my own home the tiny El Palaceno Latin grocery was seriously storm-damaged and then looted. The property never returned to commerce.

In September of that year, the streets were lined with dead refrigerators, groups of which formed white metal Stonehenges in every neighborhood. The appliances were uniformly duct-taped shut. Most had not been opened for any attempt at salvage. Opening one was just too horrible a prospect to stomach. Those appliances that were accidentally cracked open were quickly resealed. With residents not allowed home for weeks, and no electricity available, food had been left rotting for weeks in the fridges, festering in the extended heat of that late summer, and the resulting mess was riddled with maggots. The stench in the neighborhoods was overpowering, even with the boxes taped tightly shut.

Medium sized stores fared little better, like the Robert's on Elysian Fields Avenue & St Claude Avenue, which was the sole "supermarket" for the entire Vieux Carré, Faubourg Marigny and Bywater Neighborhoods, encompassing tens of thousands of people. The building was flooded and stripped by looters, then months later, sealed with iron pull-down doors.

That particular store's renovation is still held up by litigation, with the cash-hungry property owners battling the leasing grocery retailers over who gets the insurance and government redevelopment money. Meanwhile there is no longer a roof on much of the structure, and metal pieces, drains, air conditioning ducts and plumbing, are falling into its parking lot on a regular basis. To keep from being served with a blighted properties warrant by the city, the still-standing exterior walls of the building were recently painted, and in yet another fit of irony, those decrepit surfaces were festooned with Christmas ornaments during the holiday season. It has been seven years. The fight for government incentive "Go-Zone" funding and separate private insurance money continues.  The iron doors are still down.

So for much of this entire time, you'd best have transport if you wish to eat.

Individual initiatives began to fill in some small cracks in getting food to the people. Mr Okra, the neighborhood-traveling "Veggie-table Man" returned, even though his vegetable truck was badly damaged in the storm. Mr Okra drives slowly through neighborhoods in need of his products, singing out a list of what he has available on any given day over his PA system: "I got ya okras and po-ta-toes, I got garlic an' ah-vo-cadoes..." When his truck finally failed, neighbors and car-less residents pitched in and bought him another working vehicle, just to keep him bringing fresh produce into the neighborhood. His song continues to this day.

Then there was this bead dealer. A warehouse located between Royal Street and Architect's Row called The Mardi Gras Zone decided that besides beads, mask and feathers, the two-story carnival supply warehouse would begin carrying basic dried and canned food stuffs. With the entire Faubourg as a grateful captive audience, the owner then sequentially purchased a freezer, then fridges, then started stocking vegetables & fruit on a limited basis.  This was difficult because until 2009 electricity was erratic and at times dangerous. But he persisted, bringing in health food and then automotive needs (garages were also slow to return). The store went 24/7.

Then in a bit of inspiration he installed a piano on the warehouse mezzanine, and allowed pianists to practice any time of the day or night. An on-site deli appeared with prepared foods.  This past year he personally built a two-story pizza oven and stack, and now is shucking raw oysters and either serving on half-shell or smoking the delicious local bivalves.

It is still a comparatively small operation, run on a shoestring, and he can't get the city liquor license that would make him financially viable because there are almost two dozen bars in the neighborhood already.

First reaction by the giant chains was to gut and board up their flooded and looted stores, wait and decide how many people came back

The network news footage of the massive Tchoupitoulas Wal-Mart being looted while police officers stood by and did not interfere did not make them anxious to reopen doors to the public.  But even that store eventually did come back and is now open, though badly reviewed by customers. The store is close by a redevelopment venture that houses past residents of the infamous housing projects that used to occupy the site, and is still the prime provider of foodstuffs for a vastly underserved neighborhood.

Still, at least one-third of the big-box food stores never did re-open, especially among the Winn-Dixie chain. The former French Quarter store, once lauded as the new source for food downtown, remains boarded. The store on Carrollton Avenue was sold to become a large construction outlet, a Home Depot. Hardware was in almost as big a demand as food and, of course, offered a much greater profit margin. Word is that the grocery chain is now, all this time later, considering opening a smaller version across the avenue from the old location. Meanwhile it has two locations in unflooded areas in uptown and the Westbank, and one at the edges of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans East. More on that to come.

Another food source twist involves a looted Chevrolet/Cadillac dealership about a dozen blocks to the west of Canal Street, New Orleans' main thoroughfare, in the Central Business/Warehouse District. The Sewell dealership was looted by New Orleans police officers in the name of commandeering emergency work vehicles. Police were seen driving massive Cadillac SUVs, Escalades, right off the showroom floor immediately after the storm passed. A number of the vehicles and their drivers showed up as far away as Houston before being required to return. In 2006 the Sewell Cadillac dealership commissioned a huge billboard that was placed at the very prominent intersection of the Ponchartrain Expressway and Interstate 10 in downtown New Orleans. The twenty-foot-high sign featured a shiny new SUV being driven down the highway, with the motto "Escalade: Preferred by New Orleans Finest".

"New Orleans Finest" to everyone in New Orleans, of course, referred to the NOPD.

Sewell abandoned the City and headed to the safer burbs and the safety blanket of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's deputies.

The Sewell building has now been bought and developed as a Rouse's Grocery, a Louisiana-based chain featuring local products. Though there are several markets in the more affluent uptown area of the city, and in Mid-City, this is the first new downtown store since the storm. It is, however, upscale, and aimed directly at the newly arriving waves of affluent young people who are now surging into a city rife with start-up entrepreneurial high-end opportunities, filling apartments and condos in the thriving Warehouse District within walking distance of the CBD - the Central Business District.

However, many areas of New Orleans, populated with people of more modest means, have had to fend on their own. The Faubourg Marigny was still searching for a regular supply of food and household necessities. New Orleans East no longer had a hospital, much less the mall, strip stores and supermarkets that once serviced the area. Neither area was seeing any movement toward restoration of services. So they both took matters into their own hands, though using vastly different methods.

Talk expands into group action

With Robert's still abandoned, there was no substantial market in Bywater/Marigny other than the Mardi Gras Zone and a tiny inaccessible storefront in the tourist-choked French Quarter. Consequently, people who had cars were still driving an hour minimum round-trip to the suburbs to get food. Others steeled themselves to paying substantial taxi fares just to get bread and toilet paper and laundry soap. So in 2009 a group of neighbors began to discuss the formation of a local food co-op. Even more importantly, they began to devise ways to tap into local food sources and farmers to get the producers of food back on line and into the community.

Talk expanded into action. Without the help of government. When bureaucratic grants aimed at helping neighborhoods bounce back fell through, the Co-op went to more conventional financing, and to residents, to provide the seed money necessary to build, staff, and stock a store.

Move forward just under three years. The New Orleans Food Co-operative opened on 1 OCT 2011 with almost 2,000 members from the neighborhood investing in the store to that date. Highly organized and technically oriented, an elected board and then a hired staff raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments, grants and loans. The store became a part of a re-development project known as "The New Orleans Healing Center", with a dozen stores, offices and public areas. In character with the area, a voodoo priestess was the prime mover/director/founder, and now runs The Island of Salvation Botanica in the sprawling complex of renovated buildings.

But even in the final days before its scheduled grand opening, the Coop was being negatively affected by government. Just days prior to its scheduled start-up, the management of the Coop was told that, because of some bureaucratic snafu, the store wouldn't be able to get its building permits in the foreseeable future. The store was already being stocked with fresh foods that would spoil or go stale if there was no opening. The Coop's founders, having learned their lessons in dealing with such matters, immediately mobilized their entire subscriber base and swamped City Council members and the Mayor with phone calls and email. One day later the permits were issued.

Even further under governmental radar is the Vietnamese Community Market in New Orleans East - it exists quite literally in the dark, opening only from five or six until eight on Saturday morning, sprawling on the sidewalks of the Versailles neighborhood.

Formed around Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church , which has over 5,000 members, the market is loosely organized, low-tech, with minimal funding and maximum motivation. Almost all the produce is grown by Vietnamese locals in community gardens. There is also local meat and fish, homemade pastry and bread and dairy products, Started well before Katrina, the Market came back after the storm destroyed their gardens and now is again flourishing.

The area where the market occurs was settled by Vietnamese refugees brought here by the Catholic church in the 1970s. Since the neighborhood was initially very poor and plagued by violence and crime, it must have seemed a natural thing to do for the elderly (few of whom can speak any English) to find peace in forty acres of wasteland behind the housing estate. The climate is similar to Vietnam - humid and swampy - and many of the immigrants had bought over their own seeds when they came.

The market has been running since the mid-'80s, first in individual gardens and abandoned lots. Then in the late '90s the land was purchased by a private landlord who rents the land to the growers for $1 a year. Without any involvement from the younger generations and no legal protection, local historians note that it will be interesting to see how, or if, the market continues to develop over the years. The only other alternative, a Winn-Dixie store offering generic chain goods, does not serve the needs of this very unique community.

Last fall two groups of my digital filmmaking students at Loyola University New Orleans, as part of a service learning project, documented these last two community developments to illustrate how people could take control of their food sources, and lives, without dependence on government or handouts. The resulting short films are revealing of the individuals behind the projects.

That is what it takes when the need for food meets the realities of muddled politics: individual efforts woven into group action. And for motivation it takes only that empty, growling stomach.

About the author

Jim Gabour is a film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. His New Orleans novel Unimportant People is available via Kindle.