Gulf Coast Notebook

The Mary Queen of Vietnam Church

The recent election of U.S. Congressman Anh Cao, a first for Vietnamese Americans, stunned many observers but not those in the pews at Mary Queen of Vietnam, a Catholic parish in New Orleans East where Cao has been a member for over a decade. Refugees began arriving in New Orleans East shortly after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. By 2000, the district was home to most of the city's 14,000 Vietnamese Americans, one of the largest concentrated enclaves in the country. When Mary Queen was founded in 1986, it became the first U.S. Catholic church to offer mass in Vietnamese.

"We are back to the extent that we can bring forth a candidate," says Father Nguyen The Vien, 45, who has been a pastor at Mary Queen since 2003. He has lived in New Orleans since arriving as a 12-year-old refugee in 1975. During Katrina, most of New Orleans East was submerged under flood waters, leaving hundreds of parish members homeless. But New Orleans' Vietnamese community drew on its immigrant refugee experience and tightly knit church to quickly rebuild.

"All of our older members have had the experience of evacuation throughout the wars in Vietnam," Nguyen says. "We're also familiar with returning to build, the countless times we've done it throughout 21 years of war." When Katrina floodwaters dispersed parish members to Texas, Arkansas, and throughout Louisiana, laity and clergy were already in their cars, mixing consolation with organization.

"Wherever we'd go, we'd take pictures of one location and show it to the other [scattered parishioners]," said Nguyen. "Even while they were dispersed, they were in connection with one another." When Mayor Nagin officially reopened the West Bank area on Oct. 5, 2005, Nguyen already had his community back.

The following Sunday, over 300 people attended mass, a welcome display of community for those who returned to empty blocks and storm-ravaged houses. The surrounding Versailles neighborhood became one of the first sections of New Orleans outside of the central business district to regain power, after Mary Queen, 95 percent of whose members returned after the devastation, submitted 500 petition signatures to the city requesting quick action.

Nguyen used the same red-tape-cutting skills in a January 2006 deal he struck with FEMA to lease 13 acres of church property to the agency for free in exchange for giving the displaced elderly of Mary Queen first dibs on the trailers that were installed there. When the pagoda-bedecked trailer park opened six months later, FEMA gave more than half of its 199 units to outsiders, angering Nguyen and parishioners who had pooled together $80,000 to pay for the site's liability insurance. The church fought back by enlisting the support of Sen. Mary Landrieu and Sen. David Vitter to make FEMA live up to its contractual promises.

Shortly thereafter, Mary Queen formed its own community-development corporation (CDC). Its first major project was spearheading a multiracial campaign of churches and environmental groups to close the Chef Menteur landfill, located on wetlands just a mile from Mary Queen. Mayor Ray Nagin used an emergency order to open the storm-debris dump in April 2006 but was forced to shut it down four months later. Today, the CDC is working on turning the trailer park into a retirement home for the parish's elderly. And in July 2008, it celebrated the opening of a pediatric clinic in New Orleans East, bringing pediatricians back to the Vietnamese immigrant enclave of Village de L'Est for the first time since Katrina. The Mary Queen CDC partnered with New Orleans' Children's hospital to build the bilingual clinic.

Today, the CDC is at work on an urban farm and a charter school, and the neighborhood continues to change in unexpected ways. The church now counts many newly arrived Latino immigrant workers among its flock, despite only offering Vietnamese-language services. "For our community, the rebuilding is done," Nguyen adds. "When you come to church, you see [2,000] or 3,000 people, you're certainly strongly encouraged, shall we say."

Market Umbrella

The farmers and shrimpers of the Louisiana Bayou were hurting long before Katrina, Rita, and Ike knocked out grocery stores and dockside icehouses. For over a decade now, Market Umbrella has worked to find local and global markets for South Louisiana's growers and fishers. Twice a week, its flagship program, the Crescent City Farmer's Market, turns a vacant lot west of the French Quarter into a foodie's paradise of homemade croissants, heirloom greens, and soft-shell crabs.

Today, the group operates with an endowment upward of $750,000 and counts on support from such diverse sources as the Ford Foundation and Louisiana Cookin' magazine. Market Umbrella started out in 1995 as the Economics Institute, a Loyola University New Orleans project founded to promote "ecologically sound economic development." In the last three years, the organization became independent of the university, renamed itself Market Umbrella, and now trains groups throughout the country on how to create, run, and manage public markets. "In the last few years, we've developed into a much larger organization," says Emily Schweninger, the director of research for Market Umbrella. "We grew from an organization that ran farmers' markets. Now we are a national leader in mentors for markets, and we are also trying to build a rigor around the field of markets." Still, Market Umbrella's No. 1 rule for potential market operators remains "you must grow it, catch it, or make it to sell it."

A new pilot program by the group in conjunction with the United States Department of Agriculture brings nursing-home seniors to the market to play bingo and gives them extra food stamps if they purchase home-grown produce. In 2003, Market Umbrella launched "a traveling shrimpers' road show" called the White Boot Brigade, which put bayou shrimpers in parking-lot cook-offs and national TV spots in order to build boutique cachet for Louisiana wild-caught white and brown shrimp.

Lance Nacio, a third-generation bayou shrimper, credits the group for helping him market his shrimp in Whole Foods and the Williams-Sonoma Catalog. "It's allowed us to get one-on-one connection with restaurants and customers that care about what they eat," he says. But it's more than just marketing. After Katrina and Rita knocked out much of the shrimpers' infrastructure of icehouses and shipping docks, Market Umbrella inked a deal with FedEx that allows Louisiana shrimpers to box their catch and overnight it to anywhere in the U.S.

Nacio now flash freezes his daily catch, which allows him to bypass dock markets altogether. This was made possible by a grant from Market Umbrella's Go Fish program for commercial fishers transitioning into niche markets. "Now I'm probably self-sufficient," Nacio says. "You have to do something different than sell in docks."

People Before Ports, Biloxi, Mississippi

Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, is the only place in the U.S. where the Bush administration waived a longstanding rule that at least 70 percent of community-development funds must be spent on low-income housing. As a result, in September 2007, Gov. Haley Barbour diverted nearly $600 million of Housing and Urban Development grants originally slated for low-income Katrina victims who owned homes to a $1.6 billion plan to transform the state port at Gulfport into the country's largest container port. The port, known for its imports of Central American fruit, is the 17th largest in the country and takes in $10 million annually. It suffered $50 million in damages during Katrina.

"There are more than 18,000 families in Mississippi that have not recovered from Katrina," says Roberta Avila, head of the Mississippi Interfaith Disaster Task Force and a board member of an advocacy campaign called People Before Ports. "That's why the governor's $600 million decision was so offensive." (That number has since been reduced to $570 million as the state transferred more monies to low-income housing over the past year.) The governor has repeatedly said the state had already met the needs of storm-affected homeowners and emphasized that port expansion was necessary for the gulf's long-term economic health and would create 5,400 jobs by 2015. Then-HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson signed off on the request but took the unusual step of noting his displeasure with the governor's action, stating, "This expansion does indeed divert emergency federal funding from other more pressing recovery needs, most notably affordable housing."

In response, a coalition of Mississippi religious leaders and housing advocates have come together over the past 18 months in People Before Ports, which has drawn widespread attention to the port cash swap. Having exhausted their options, four Gulf Coast residents without homes, in conjunction with the Mississippi NAACP and the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center, filed a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., against HUD, claiming the agency failed in its core mission to make sure that $570 million of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money was spent on housing for low-income residents. "HUD's failure to act is of tragic consequence," the lawsuit states. "The agency's misreading of the law allows Mississippi [to] improperly siphon off over a half-billion dollars in disaster relief funds for use on a commercial port redevelopment project when those funds are still desperately needed to provide sufficient affordable housing for Mississippi's low-to-moderate income families."

Some 15,000 Mississippians remain in FEMA trailers. Only 7,500 of the 47,000 rental units damaged by Katrina have been repaired. As People Before Ports notes, if just a fraction of the more than half a billion dollars in federal HUD money transferred to the port were spent on housing, it would go a long way in addressing these needs.

The lawsuit is still in its early stages, but People Before Ports has also picked up some allies in Congress after bringing residents and advocates to testify before the House's Financial Services Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee in May. In June, a dozen congressmen, including the Financial Services Committee's chair, Rep. Barney Frank, wrote the House's Committee on Appropriations to block the transfer of funds to the port, stating that "to allow Mississippi to use federal CDBG dollars to advance a project that does not even receive General Funds from the State is simply unconscionable." Back along the Gulf Coast, most People Before Ports members are quick to point out they want more jobs and economic development in their region, even port expansion -- but not at the cost nor precedent of using money intended for the hurricane's displaced survivors. Reilly Morse, an attorney in the lawsuit against HUD, told reporters, "The most basic thing is that employers aren't able to fill jobs here now because there is not enough housing."

Central City Renaissance Alliance

For much of the mid-20th century, Oretha Castle-Haley Boulevard in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood was home to rollicking mixes of brass-band artists, racially mixed shopping malls, and the famous civil-rights activist for whom the street is named. As an undergraduate at Southern University in the early 1960s, Haley founded the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality and began organizing boycotts and sit-ins.

During the 1980s, Central City fell into a steep decline marked by violence and vacant lots. New Orleans began reinvesting in the neighborhood in the late 1990s, around the same time local rappers Juvenile and Master P. gave buzz to Central City's vibrant hip-hop scene.

In 2005, Katrina brought a strange new attention to this slice of New Orleans between downtown offices and Garden District mansions. While nearly half of Central City sustained floodwaters as high as 8 feet, a large chunk of the neighborhood came out high and dry, revealing itself to be above the city's infamous floodplain. Developers and city planners quickly took note. "This is prime real estate. A lot of developers here realized that after the hurricane," says Lynnette Colin, who collaborates with the Central City Renaissance Alliance (CCRA), the leading local neighborhood association, as head of the O.C. Haley Merchants and Business Association. But the elevation that attracts developers hasn't made storm recovery in Central City any quicker. Several thousands of its residents remain displaced, while a 2008 baseline study by the CCRA notes that "Central City's progress lags behind the city as a whole." Additionally, Katrina put a crunch on affordable rental housing in Central City where only 17 percent of residents own homes.

Those two factors have renewed the interest of residents alongside those of developers. "What's happening post-Katrina is there is greater community collaboration," Robinson says. Colin adds that what CCRA does for Central City residents is to "make sure they're at the table, they hold community meetings, and show this is what's at stake, this is what the city is planning. They bring the public in to make sure they're aware. That's what they do; they're kind of that bridge."

Before the storm, CCRA was already organizing residents and neighborhood groups. Its innovation post-Katrina was to take a hodgepodge of the community's public-housing groups, nonprofit funders, residents' groups, and rehabbers to unite around three projects: building a community-resource center, revitalizing the commercial corridor of O.C. Haley, and redeveloping the area surrounding the neighborhood's largest public-housing development. CCRA can now count on weekly conference status calls between the neighborhood stakeholders. The alliance has also formed a community-benefits coalition to organize residents to negotiate with the influx of developers.

The coalition has yet to work out as hoped. Over two years ago, two developers pursuing mixed-retail projects in the neighborhood met with the coalition to discuss building a community center and funding a housing-assistance grant but pulled up stakes. "It was a positive learning experience," says Kysha Robinson, who heads CCRA and explains her group and its partners will be well positioned to negotiate with future developers.

CCRA has had better luck grabbing the ear of New Orleans city planners, having grown out of a city-sponsored community-planning process, where over 200 residents came together to share their concerns on blighted buildings the city is seeking developers to rehabilitate. "We have businesses that are interested in coming and locating in this area; what we don't have is buildings that are ready for them," Colin says. To address citizens' concerns, developers have proposed more tightly concentrated development patterns, and improved lighting and sidewalks on the district's historic boulevard through the city's streetscape program. Like most New Orleans neighborhoods, Central City is still missing thousands of its residents. Those who remain or who have come back have a sharper sense of civic engagement. "After the storm, people all over the city found their voices," Colin adds. "Everywhere was a feeling [that] if we don't take control of our community, someone else will."