Interview: What's Happening with the Lower 9th Ward Village?
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The Lower 9th Ward Village Community Center in New Orleans initially began as an abandoned warehouse. After Hurricane Katrina, community leader and antique car enthusiast Mack McClendon turned the space into a community center. From there it grew quickly: the center offered a number of classes, a community garden, and, in 2012, a skatepark. But building costs are high, and keeping the center open takes a lot of resources. We spoke to McClendon as well as Chika Kondo, a longtime volunteer who started the Kickstarter project, about the current state of the Lower 9th Ward Village Community Center.
Can you talk a little bit about how the center got started?
Mack McClendon: This project started in 2006 as just an idea in my head. I owned 14 antique cars before Hurricane Katrina and lost all of them through the storm. There was an old abandoned warehouse where we used to get our cars repaired, and I always liked the structure of the building. I went to the City Hall and found the owner and agreed to an owner finance agreement. [I] didn’t have the heart to turn the warehouse into my car hobby when I knew my community was dying, so I decided to turn the space into a community center in 2007. With the help of thousands of volunteers — close to 50,000 — we were able to transform the space.
Chika Kondo: I started off as a volunteer in 2011. I attended UC Berkeley and went on alternative breaks trips during my spring break. I led a trip down to New Orleans the following year and then attended a trip again in my senior year. Over the years I got to know Mack more and more, and was confiding in him a lot about my post graduation plans. During my senior year, I had applied to a couple fellowships and pitched a proposal regarding the kind of disaster recovery work that the Village was engaged in. Unfortunately, that fell through, but I was pretty determined by then that I wanted to spend some time in New Orleans helping out Mack and the Village. After graduation, my colleague Becka and I drove to New Orleans and have both been helping out [since].
What happened after it opened?
MM: Since the 2007 opening, over 50,000 volunteers have either been housed at the Village or had participated in service projects throughout the city. We also organized town hall meetings, GED workshops, community garden, a computer lab, library, cooking classes, fitness classes, music classes, and hosted various community events. Most of the events happening in the Lower 9th Ward were hosted at the Village. In 2012 Mountain Dew approached the Village to give out 1,000 skateboards in the community. We were able to give them all away in less than three hours! From such high demands, Mountain Dew chose our organization to put in a youth skate park. They contracted out to Glu Agency to build the skate park. In return they were going to pay off the rest of the building, get the building up to code, and give us operating monies. Unfortunately, they did not hold up their end of the bargain and only completed the skate park portion leaving the building in an inoperable state. The building is still in that state. The electrical needs to get up to code. There were also solar panels installed, but those can only operate once we can pass a building inspection in order to get the permit to get the panels approved by the city.
What was the rest of the building like?
MM: We still have the other rooms in which we organize community meetings and other gatherings. We still host volunteers, close to 1,000 have come through just in this past year.
Can you outline your ideal vision for the center?
MM: The Lower 9th Ward Village is and always was meant to be the hub to serve the community. The Village as an organization extends beyond the building and skatepark as we want to put in the infrastructure to help bring this community back. There are currently no grocery stores, banks, drug stores, cleaners, no job training centers, and only one of seven schools are back in operation. We want to serve the youth, the elderly, and the working class, as they are the ones who suffer the most from the lack of infrastructure and resources denied to the Lower 9th Ward. The Village is intended to be resource center to provide residents and community members with answers to the many unanswered questions regarding the well-being of this neighborhood. We focus on truly listening to the community and addressing these basic human rights issues.
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