New Orleans: Inspiring change, one community at a time

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New Orleans has produced its share of celebrities over the years but since Hurricane Katrina, musicians and celebrities have been keen to give something back to a city that has given and lost so much. Taking their personal passions to a new level, these celebrities are lending their name and fundraising support to create safe and affordable communities with a long-term view of economic redevelopment and poverty eradication.

New housing programs target specific populations or neighborhoods that have been dislocated by the sequence of events initiated by Hurricane Katrina and which are critical to getting the New Orleans economy thriving again.  This article looks at three different visionary approaches to re-building neighborhoods filled with newly empowered home-owners educated and dedicated to preserving a safe and healthy environment for their children.

Keeping the city safe

In 1980, Dan Aykroyd turned his love for blues music into the cult comedy “The Blues Brothers”.  And now, nearly 30 years later, he is lending his financial and fundraising support to get first-responders back into the city that created the blues.

Aykroyd connected with The Blue Line Foundation when he struck up a friendship with the Harahan Police Chief Peter Dale shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Recently the foundation was chosen to buy 21 storm-damaged properties from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority near Dillion University for repair or re-building.  Once they are built, the foundation will also help police officers, firefighters and EMT’s purchase them.  Originally the intent was to provide training and resources to the department but then it was realized that the key to maintaining the safety and security of the city started with the comfort and security of first-responder families.

Cutting costs, thinking about the environment

Brad Pitt is another celebrity who has taken his love for progressive architecture and his passion for the city into the creation of Make It Right, a housing project that will ultimately build 150 sustainable houses in the storm ravaged lower 9th ward.  Six families have currently moved into uniquely designed Platinum LEED certified homes, but 100 more are projected for completion within the next year.  Using Cradle to Cradle design thinking, these homes are built to maximize air flow and water conservation efforts while reducing utility costs up to 75% through the use of solar technology.

The homes are aesthetically an “evolution” from the previous architectural history but the new homes were designed with changing environmental patterns in mind to ultimately protect them from future natural disasters.  The pilot project involving the first six families includes a process that incorporates homeowner counseling, design selection, assistance in finance securement and ultimately move-in.

Preserving culture

But the most well-known of these unique efforts is an idea jointly developed by and for the people who made the city so musically famous.  Conceived by Harry Connick, Jr and Branford Marsalis, Habitat for Humanity’s Musician Village will ultimately house 80 musicians and their families who lost their homes, many of whom were forced to move out of the area.  To help get the culture bearers back to their roots, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s Raisin’ the Roof Housing Program partnered with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH) to take their traditional model for eliminating poverty housing and focus it on a venture that would uniquely facilitate the preservation and evolution of New Orleans music scene.

“The NOAHH partnership requires that qualified families put in 350 hours of sweat equity, take home repair and maintenance classes, plus we train them on some basic financial skills that most families in this situation have not had.  We also went the extra step of helping these musicians, whose traditional source of income doesn’t necessarily line up to standard loan requirements, secure no-interest 30 year loans to purchase the houses from us” said Aleis Tusa, Communications Director of NOAHH. The result is that New Orleans rich musical history will not only be preserved, but artists and their families futures are positively impacted through new skill sets and behaviors and the establishment of good credit.

“Their support was invaluable when it came to owning a home and providing a stable environment for my son,” stated Shamarr Allen, Musician Resident and performer.  “It’s a dream come true.”  Aleis also noted that because of the musician’s proximity to each other, finding replacement and back-up talent makes it easier to keep gigs when one band member gets sick and there are even stories of the kids being influenced by their new neighbors “Two boys in the Village have started singing recently” she said.  “It’s pretty exciting.”

All of this makes for a compelling reason to get music loving volunteers involved.  Dean, a volunteer from Toronto is a jazz fan who responded to a mention on Blue Note Records web site promoting volunteerism at Jazz Fest via the chance to help build the Village houses. “It’s a pretty good feeling, knowing you’re contributing to the source of something as significant as the blues”, Dean said.    The quantity of volunteers has dropped in the three and half years since the storm, but Aleis said they are still significantly up in their productivity relative to pre-Katrina project efforts.  “We used to build 10 homes on average each year and last year we finished 130.”

While not all of these projects focus on environmentally sustainable practices, it’s important to consider that a different kind of sustainability is the goal of all of these programs.  Empowering these communities to help themselves out of poverty through education, training and respect will help re-direct the future of New Orleans.  The program models incorporate sustainable practices and products when financially feasible but the most important components is the partnership between home-owner families, volunteers, sponsors and communities and the critical contribution that stable families can make to a growing economy.

Note: if you happen to be in New Orleans tomorrow (Wednesday), ten musicians who participated in the NOAHH program will be celebrating its success with a noontime conference and press conference in Musician’s Village.

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