NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans East neighborhood has been plagued with issues for more than a decade.
Lack of businesses, blight and problems with crime in some of the neighborhoods remain a problem.
Some feel there is a lack of police presence compared to other parts of the city, while others sympathize with law enforcement. Many are just tired of the negative perception and are taking it on themselves to help bring the East back.
Caresse Jackman spent the past few months exploring all of these issues, looking at the neighborhood’s past, the present and the potential future in a four part series we are calling “The Forgotten East”
Part 4: The Future
On a rainy Saturday at the Fort Pike Volunteer Fire Department, fishermen and their families crowded the room, eager to let Councilmember Cyndi Nguyen know about their frustrations with the Bonnet Carre Spillway.
“The crab industry is going down every year,” Chris Pomes, owner of Pomes Seafood said.
Pomes has been a fisherman since he was a teenager.
“Every time they open up the Bonnet Carre Spillway, the water is so bad they don’t catch no crabs. Every body is frustrated because it feels like nobody is hearing what we are saying,” Pomes said.
Pomes wants the city, the state and the government to listen to their cries.
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Nguyen promised to give the fishermen answers soon.
“When I leave here today, this evening, I’ll be reaching out to the leadership in St. Bernard and St. Tammany. I’ll definitely be calling our mayor up, as well as our congressman,” Nguyen told the crowd.
Pomes hopes something happens that benefits the area in the future, because their livelihoods depend on it.
“Let me tell ya, Louisiana seafood is the backbone of Louisiana. If you lose that man, you ain’t got no more New Orleans. You ain’t go no Louisiana like you should be. And it’s slowly slipping away,” Pomes said.
Whether it’s near Venetian Isles or the Little Woods neighborhood, many people sound like Pomes. They feel forgotten about by the city and everyone else around them.
But there are signs of development. Starting with roads.
On Aug. 12, Mayor LaToya Cantrell joined other local leaders to mark the completion of the Read East Group A road improvements in New Orleans East, a few blocks away from Joe Brown Park.
“We are being very intentional as it relates to implementing our joint infrastructure roads project as well as making sure we’re using our federal dollars wisely. We’re making real progress here, but we cannot do it alone,” Cantrell said.
The city says that the $5 million project is the first of six construction projects that will improve the infrastructure in the Read Boulevard East neighborhood, which spans from Read Boulevard, to I-10, I-510 and Chef Menteur Highway.
There are five more projects in the Read Boulevard East neighborhood worth approximately $25-30 million.
Some people are taking the East back through businesses, people like Stephanie Chambliss.
Chambliss opened up the new PJ’s Coffee shop on Read Boulevard in May 2019.
“This has actually been in the making for two years. So to actually get the doors open and get the ribbon cut is actually a great feeling,” Chambliss said.
She could’ve picked anywhere, but made it a point to open her business in the East, a place she remembers fondly when she was young.
“My family. We liked to skate so we would go to the skating rink on Chef Menteur on Sundays. That was kind of our family thing,” Chambliss said.
Walk around her shop and you will see that she has made it into a commitment to her community around her. There are clippings on the walls, letting people know about community events.
“As far as businesses coming to the East. I think that there’s great potential here in that people from the area have to be willing to invest in the area. And I think once the businesses come the people in the area have to be its biggest supporters,” Chambliss said.
She is also giving young people a chance to build their resume.
“We had over 200 people apply to work here. We have a lot of children. It’s their first job. They didn’t have bank accounts. Again, we just want to be great partners and support everybody’s business. So it’s been great,” Chambliss said.
It’s not just people from the East coming in for a cup of coffee.
“We get plenty of tourists. We get folks from all over New Orleans that come in just to see us. We get folks from Picayune, Mississippi. You know so it’s really becoming just a meeting place across the board. A happy place for everybody. So many people, they really come and thank me for opening this store, but I'm thanking them for patronizing and supporting. This was a dream come true. You know, I'm really blessed to be living my dream,” she said.
Chambliss is not the only one with big dreams for the East.
“The East, even though it may seem like it doesn’t have a lot to offer, it does,” Mary Adams Thomas said.
In Thomas’s office, she showed us her vision. A YouTube clip that shows a thriving area, filled with businesses. It’s a model she’s hoping to turn the East into.
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Thomas carries a lot of titles. She’s a real estate consultant. A broker. A housing counselor. All of those hats she is putting to good use to help the East bounce back.
"Right now, the New Orleans East market does not meet that quote-unquote, what you think would be a 'good investment' as an investor that’s looking for 10 to 12% return in seven-to-ten years, but it does have the opportunity for growth,” shesaid.
Thomas says she noticed that opportunity after researching the area using Esri, an international data source. First, she looked at the type of businesses currently in the East.
“14% is retail. 15% is professional and technical skills. 11% is public administration. 8% transportation and warehouse. 8% healthcare and social services. It doesn’t tell us how many, but it tells us the percentage of what’s out here. Arts, recreation and entertainment, it’s right at 1%,” Thomas said.
Thomas also examined spending habits of residents.
“They visit a lot of fast food places, 31,000 of them went to the movie theater. 21,000 dine out. 7,500 of them go to the casino. So, in other words, what I’m saying, we have more than 75,000 residents in New Orleans East that’s spending a lot of money! So it’s not that we don’t have the money in the community to support the business. We have to have the business and the investors to come out and wait for a quick return on their investment,” Thomas said.
The original report, done by Robert Hand with Louisiana Commercial Realty, can be seen here.
Thomas feels for investors to come to the East, it is going to take people from the inside and ground floor up taking charge.
Thomas says she is starting that by teaming up with Southern University at New Orleans and other community partners to create a program where small business owners can increase their credit score in order to give owners more power to borrow money and expand their opportunities.
She is also doing the same for residents.
“I’ve heard someone saying, we have the largest number of Section 8 vouchers in the City of New Orleans. You might’ve heard that comment before. Well, I say, okay fine! No problem! Section 8 has a program to create homeowners, with their Section 8 tenant. So then, what we’re doing now, and we’re in the process of doing this, we’re looking at the section 8 homeownership program so now we can turn those renters into homeowners,” Thomas said.
Improving the economy is not only coming from politicians, business leaders and realtors, but from the pulpit.
Fred Luter is the Pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church
“We started out with 65 members. And that’s why when I come here, Caresse, on Sunday mornings and see what God has done,” Pastor Luter said.
The Sanctuary on the 8200 block of I-10 Service road sits 3,500 people. Right now they’re up to about 5,000 members.
“This location where we’re at now, was an apartment complex. Real Estate agent found it for us. Found out that the owner was not going to rebuild the apartment complex. And so we came in and started building here and we moved in, in December of 2018.” Luter said. “We looked at New Orleans East as an opportunity in two ways. One, it would give us a place to build what we needed to meet the needs of the members of our growing church. And secondly, it would give us an opportunity of giving back to a community that many of us were a part and that we felt it was our calling to help all that we can to help just build up and revitalize New Orleans East.”
Luter said he did not want to just come to the East, have service Sunday morning and leave.
“No. We want to impact this community. This church is open every day of the week, because we want to impact our community,” Luter said.
During this four part series, we spoke with people who are angry, tired, fed up and sick of broken promises. But, we also met and spoke with residents who are resilient and determined to make the East better.
“Our community stayed together this long--fought together this long. So we believe there’s a purpose here,” Mark Nguyen with Vayla New Orleans said.
It’s that purpose and spirit that’ll keep those in the East fighting for a brighter future, no matter how long it takes.
Forgotten East is a four-part series by Reporter Caresse Jackman. To see the rest of the series, follow these links