It might seem like a strange time to be walking along a disinvested commercial corridor trying to envision a brighter future, but that’s what residents of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward came to do in November 2020.
They met outside the offices of “NENA,” the Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, at the corner of Lamanche Street and St. Claude Avenue. Strolling down St. Claude, residents pointed out the array of small businesses that used to be there — a barbershop here, a sandwich shop there. Hurricane Katrina wiped them all out, from many of their buildings to most of their customer base.
Some activity and businesses have since returned or emerged on St. Claude Avenue in the Lower 9th Ward. The annual Big Nine Second Line Parade still centers on the corridor, with its traditional terminus at Mickie Bee’s Lounge — though the pandemic cancelled last year’s parade, and its founder died while hospitalized with the virus.
But fifteen years after Katrina, the most visible change to the corridor has been the demolition of structures deemed unsalvageable after the flood waters receded. But the status of the built environment along St. Claude Avenue belies the neighborhood’s energy and interest in bringing the corridor back as a thriving center of Black businesses and culture. Some of the buildings that might look unoccupied or dilapidated on the outside now have businesses inside.
On one of the previously vacant plots left behind by Katrina, Sankofa Community Development Corporation is soon to break ground on the construction of a new building to house a fresh foods market and community learning kitchen. At the same time that building is going up, the organization is bringing the neighborhood together to revitalize the corridor by designating it as part of Louisiana’s Main Streets program. The November walking tour was part of the research that is going into the Main Streets application materials.
“It was great to collectively walk together and talk about memory, a lot of discussion of what used to be there,” says Rashida Ferdinand, executive director of Sankofa CDC. “It made it feel like this would be possible, because just within our lifetime, this existed. It also makes you angry that this is the situation that we live in now and it’s really hard to get some activity and some movement going. The system that we live in does not work for us.”
Ferdinand has spent more than a decade now navigating that system. She co-founded Sankofa CDC in 2008, hoping to use food as a driver of community revitalization for the area in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She’s also a fifth-generation homeowner in the neighborhood, and now lives on the same street where her grandmother lived as a child.
“We were exploring different ways to address community development and health and wellness needs in the neighborhood, looking at social determinants of health that affect people’s access to better quality of life,” says Ferdinand.
As it was for decades before Katrina, the Lower 9th Ward remains a predominantly Black neighborhood. There’s a long tradition of Black neighborhoods and immigrant neighborhoods turning to food in the face of segregation, redlining and other forms of economic injustice.
In Indianapolis, during the early days of the Great Migration the organization known as Flanner House established urban farms and gardens and established a co-op grocery to sell whatever growers didn’t need for themselves — a tradition that continues today. Fleeing the Jim Crow-era south, Black families often arrived with a strong knowledge base and tradition of growing their own food that helped them survive in the face of discrimination in the job market or in small business that limited their opportunities.
Immigrant and refugee communities have also brought that knowledge base and inclination toward farming with them to this country time and again, leading to urban farming initiatives in cities from Buffalo, New York, to Anchorage, Alaska. Meanwhile, Chinatowns across the country are connected to vast regional networks of immigrant farmers who prefer to work only with brokers and retailers who they trust to give them a fair price.
But resources to support urban agriculture have been spotty, or tenuous. Some of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most powerful tools for commercial agriculture fall under its “Rural Development Program,” which is restricted to communities with a population of 25,000 or less. Ferdinand has gotten a small amount of grant support from USDA for the Fresh Stop Market produce stand.
Louisiana is among the states with an “Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone” law, which in Louisiana’s case permits municipalities to offer property tax reductions for landowners of vacant land who allow their land to be used for urban agriculture. But that program still depends on property owners agreeing to terms with urban farming groups.
In the Lower 9th Ward, Sankofa CDC owns 6,000 square feet of urban farming land and also leases more land for urban farming, totaling a little over two-thirds of an acre used to produce food for distribution during the pandemic. The organization also has an agreement to acquire produce for distribution from Grow Dat Youth Farm, located in New Orleans’ City Park.
Sankofa CDC’s urban farms also produce food sold at its Fresh Stop Market stand, open just one or two days a week at a former vacant lot on St. Claude. Ferdinand says there used to be a store there, but the building was demolished after Hurricane Katrina. Sankofa CDC acquired the land through a pitch competition from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority in 2014. As part of its work, the authority serves in a land bank capacity, acquiring vacant or dilapidated properties and clearing them of condemned structures and other barriers to revitalization and putting them back on the market. Through the 2014 pitch competition, Sankofa CDC paid just a fraction of the market value for the property.
That gave the Fresh Stop Market a permanent home. Previously, Sankofa CDC did pop-up fresh food markets inside senior centers or church properties, but never had a consistent location. Sankofa CDC built a produce stand on the vacant lot, and while it helped to have a consistent location, being open only one or two days a week has remained a barrier.
“Some people work on Saturdays or their schedule varies,” says Ferdinand. “It hasn’t always been like this. But we haven’t had a high quality major grocery store in the neighborhood for many years. There have been corner stores in the area and gas stations, but they don’t sell healthy products at reasonable prices.”
That’s why Sankofa CDC is replacing the stand with a permanent building, to create a store that will be open seven days a week. While it’s obvious that every neighborhood wants and needs a place where residents can shop daily for fresh produce and healthy staples, it’s hard to know when the timing is right to embark on such a venture when a neighborhood is recovering from the generational trauma of something like Hurricane Katrina.
“Some businesses just didn’t come back, seeing the risk because so many had evacuated — so the customer base has decreased,” says Ferdinand. “That’s also a part of that chicken versus egg question. We’re afforded more flexibility to do this, being in the nonprofit sector, we can do the work not just to generate revenue but we can build in the social impact, community health component, to raise grant support to help fund the operations.”
Sankofa CDC is taking on some risk, as it took out a loan from Hope Credit Union, a community development financial institution, for the design and construction of a new building at the former vacant lot. The City of New Orleans provided matching funds alongside the loan, as part of its Fresh Food Retail Initiative. The ultimate source of the matching funds from the city was the federal government, through the Community Development Block Grant program, which is administered through local and state governments.
The plan currently is for a fresh food market and coffee shop on the first floor with a community learning kitchen upstairs to allow for sharing of knowledge around fresh and healthy food. The project also received a grant from the Healthy Foods Financing Initiative, a federal program, to support operations after it opens.
Ferdinand would like residents to operate the market itself, with Sankofa CDC as landlord and operating the community learning kitchen on the second floor.
“I don’t want to run a store myself, ideally someone would come in and rent the store, maybe help a group of community members to come in and run a co-op model,” says Ferdinand. “We need that type of competitive edge for this business anyway.”
If all goes well, the new market and community learning kitchen will both add to and benefit from increased foot traffic along St. Claude Avenue as a revitalized mixed-use corridor. And if that works out well, it would be just the first Sankofa CDC-developed property along in the corridor. Sankofa recently formed a steering committee with representatives from other community groups and the city, and filed an application to begin the process of designating the St. Claude Avenue Corridor in the Lower 9th Ward as part of the state of Louisiana’s Main Streets Program.
Found in most states, Main Streets programs were formerly housed under the National Main Streets Center, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The center became an independent subsidiary of the trust in 2013, and in 2015 it re-branded as Main Streets America. It seeks to help community groups learn how to attract developers and investors to historic commercial corridors. In Louisiana, the state credits local Main Streets programs with supporting more than 14,000 new jobs, 3,300 new small businesses, and nearly a billion dollars in new investment along designated corridors.
But across the country, since it was created in the 1980s, Main Streets designation has been an approach mostly adopted in smaller towns and villages to revitalize downtown districts. That’s why Main Streets America created its UrbanMain initiative in 2017, which is now active in cities like Chicago, Charlotte, Memphis and Atlanta.
Ferdinand sees a Main Streets designation for St. Claude Avenue as an opportunity for branding, and as a way to ensure small businesses who may want to locate along St. Claude or developers and lenders who may want to develop or finance development along St. Claude are all on the same page as residents.
“It’s an opportunity to look at different systems for growing and developing and revitalizing a neighborhood and not just big box stores or chain stores or fast food but investing in stakeholders in the neighborhood, the residents here who own businesses and may want to be a part of it,” Ferdinand says.
Editor’s note: We’ve corrected the name of the Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association.
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.