Project Lower 9th

This blog is an archive of design process created by multi-disciplinary students from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. We are exploring how design can make a difference in the course of reuniting Lower 9th Ward residents. Please join our journey in helping the people of New Orleans.

February 28, 2006

E-mail from Edgar

Our friend Edgar in New Orleans forwarded this e-mail from his friend.

About 15 miles east of downtown New Orleans, the community of Versaillesis nestled into the edge of a long, thin reach of the city called New Orleans East. Once home to 90,000 people, including most of the city's black middleclass, New Orleans East is almost entirely deserted. But it's never been busierat the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church.

The Rev. Nguyen The Vien, church pastor, points out that the 6,500 peoplein his congregation before the storm were used to difficult times. Many of them had been displaced twice before, once when they moved from North to South Vietnam, then again when they fled for refugee camps as Saigon fell. Among them is 88-year-old My Huynh, whom Vien was giving a lift home on a recent afternoon. Stranded and alone after the storm, she picked up fish that had been deposited on her street by the flood, filleted them, salted them and dried them on cars that had been abandoned on her block. "The military found her and brought her out, but she was calm as couldbe," Vien said with a chuckle. "She was fully prepared to be there for a monthor more."

Within days of the storm, Vien recognized the Catch-22 of New Orleans' redevelopment: People want to return to revived neighborhoods, but neighborhoods will be revived only when they are repopulated. Vien determined that if he brought enough people back to Versailles with him, local officials would be forced to provide them with enough infrastructure to survive. He was right. When the electric company blanched at Vien's demand for power, he brought photos of hundreds of people attending Mass on Sundays, and signed papers from hundreds more saying they were preparing to come home. Soon, the lights came on. City officials managed to get a company to deliver giant bladders of water to the church for drinking and cooking - no small matter, considering that the water system wouldn't be functioning for months. The church has served as the base of what is, effectively, a collective movement; Vien collects money from shopkeepers who have reopened so thathe can hire cleanup crews to prepare stores that still need work.

Today, the church and the surrounding community have made progress that seems staggering in comparison with the surrounding areas. More than 1,000 members of the congregation are living within a mileradius. Another 1,000 can't yet move home but drive into New Orleans every weekend to work on their houses. Ninety-five percent of the families that made up the congregation have pledged to return. The church recently held a meeting at which urban planners devisedintricate plans for community housing, a retirement village and a pedestrian bridge connecting residential areas to the business district. Vien organized a community-wide poll on the plans, the results of which were turned into colorful mock-ups and posted on bulletin boards in a lecture hall. Not only did FEMA agree to bring in 199 trailers for temporary housing,but Vien persuaded the agency to design the power, water and phone lines for them so that they could be used once the retirement community is built on the same lots. Dozens of businesses have reopened. "The critical mass is here to do a lot of things," Vien said. "We have enough people to patronize our businesses. So more businesses reopen, and that engenders more confidence in the community, so more people move back. It's a snowball effect." Vien acknowledges that he was lucky in several regards. Versailles received only a portion of the floodwater that most surrounding communities shouldered. The trailers are coming partly because the Catholic Diocese owned 28 vacant acres near his church and agreed to use it for temporary housing - and assumed all of the liability for it, which the government did not want to do because Versailles was still so isolated from other functioning pockets of the city. In the end, Vien said the progress had its roots in community, in the fact that almost all of his congregants' ties date back generations to three tiny villages in North Vietnam. "We have an implicit 0bligation to help each other," he said. "People want to return, to be with each other."


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