New Orleans East: The Prime, Decline, & Potential
My best memories are credited to New Orleans East. From the day I was born in 1995, to the day we evacuated for the storm in 2005; "the East" was home.
I remember everything -- passing up the Powerball billboard while driving to school on "the high-rise," getting shrimp po'boys from Castnet on Friday's during Lent, my mama and I ordering marinated crabs from Llama's off Read, cotton candy sno-balls (with extra gummy bears) from Rodney's, and going to church at St. Maria Goretti.
Unless you worked or went to school in another part of the city, there was no need to leave the East for any necessities; pre-Katrina East had everything you could imagine.
My daddy brought me to Joe Brown Library to get my first library card and taught me how to ride a bike right over in Joe Brown Park. I used to go with my mama to get her nails done inside The Plaza, the same mall where I would tag along with my maw maw to pay her bill at Entergy. In the same area as The Plaza was The Grand Movie Theatre, and every year, the UniverSoul Circus (aka the Black circus) would set up in the parking lot nearby.
The Grand Theater, artwork by Brandan "B-Mike" Odums
My childhood was based in the Toys-R-Us off Bullard and my maw maw and I always picked up Little Debbie's snacks from the Bunny Bread store off Downman. I vividly remember the Pizza Hut on the service road, and picking out VHS tapes from Hollywood Video off Crowder. Everything you could have possibly needed was only an exit away in the East.
Then there was Jazzland and Six Flags.
From 2000-2002, Jazzland Theme Park was ducked off in the back of the East, near Michoud. Jazzland included a man-made beach and an entire body of water that guests were able to zip-line across. After two years, Six Flags took over and renamed the park. After school, my daddy would take me to the newly-built Six Flags, which was only an exit away from our home at the time.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the East was considered a Black suburban area. Families that were historically rooted in areas like the Seventh Ward migrated to the East around the '80s and '90s. This migration established the East as a Black middle/upper class area. The Eastover subdivision is a gated community that was home to a number of those that were both upper and middle class, including Cash Money Records' own: Birdman, Slim, and Lil Wayne.
Some Black residents moved back to the East following Katrina, with others migrating to other parts of the city, such as Gentilly and the Westbank. A number of people moved to the East due to Section 8 vouchers that were implemented after the storm. Some were pushed out of their neighborhoods due to gentrification, and relocated to the East to avoid rising costs of rent. While some neighborhoods in the East were able to shake back after Katrina, others are still visibly neglected. What was once a self-substantial, Black suburban community, now suffers from one of the highest crime rates in the city and accounts for less than 10% of New Orleans' property tax revenue. The East was one of the worst-hit areas from Hurricane Katrina, but was left behind in much of the city's revitalization.
Hurricane Katrina hit way in 2005; New Orleans East did not have a Wal-Mart in the area until 2013 (the previous one on Bullard was destroyed in the storm). Anywhere else, you can find a Wal-Mart less than ten miles away from your home. The East went EIGHT years without a Wal-Mart, with the nearest one located 20-30 minutes away.
After nine years, a fully-functioning hospital was finally built in the East. With nearly 90% of New Orleans' pre-Katrina population living in the East, it is a grave injustice that it took nine years for residents to receive something as imperative as medical services. Prior to this, the nearest fully-functioning hospital was over 20 minutes away.
While there is an influx of beauty stores, seafood marts, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants; there is a serious lack of chain restaurants and healthy food options in the East. If you are looking to sit down and have dinner at a fine dining or chain restaurant, your best option is to drive about 20 minutes to Mid-City, because once you're over that high-rise, your options are very limited.
The most prominent symbol of neglect in New Orleans East has to be the abandoned Six Flags Amusement Park. When driving on the I-10 towards Slidell, you can see where theMega Zeph roller coaster still stands, along with a number of other rides. Pictures that show what is left of the theme park look like something out of a horror movie. Twelve years following the destruction of Katrina, I cannot wrap my mind around how or why 224 acres of land was left abandoned, rather than capitalized upon. There has been numerous offers to transform and redevelop the area into: a water park, a resort, a retail and dining site, festival grounds, and even re-opening it as Jazzland Theme Park again. However, the Industrial Development Board that owns the property did not accept any of the offers, due to "a lack of solid financial commitments."
In 2014, the Little Woods neighborhood of New Orleans East was ranked as the most dangerous area in the city with 136 violent crimes over a three month span. In 2016, the East ranked second as the area with the highest homicide rate in New Orleans. The deserted parts of the Michoud neighborhood are notorious for "burnt-out" cars and the dumping of bodies, and Chef Menteur Highway has been associated with prostitution and drugs for decades. Many people, including myself, are hesitant to even stop at redlights at night due to the high numbers of carjackings in the East.
Devastation All Over Again On February 7, 2017, a tornado unexpectedly hit New Orleans East, causing devastation to an area that had not even fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina. According to the National Weather Service, it was the strongest tornado to hit New Orleans since 1950, causing 33 injuries and massive damage across the East. Nearly a third of the homes hit were either under-insured or uninsured.
With New Orleans approaching its 300th year anniversary, it is long overdue that the residents of New Orleans East receive the self-sustaining community that they deserve. In May 2017, the East New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission held a meeting in which numerous attendees expressed their frustration with the lack of attention the East has received. Some even suggested the idea of seceding from the City of New Orleans.
There is no excuse for the negligence of New Orleans East. The predominately-Black area is home to a number of families, modernized homes, and upcoming, local businesses that are building their own revitalization.
I have high hopes for the city of New Orleans, and New Orleans East especially. While the East has been one of the slowest areas to recover, the resilience of its residents is what has kept the community standing.
When we lost our New Orleans East home in Katrina, my family and I relocated to other parts of the city. However, I would still find myself in the East fairly often, for more reasons than one. I always end up reminiscing on what it once was, and envisioning what it's SUPPOSED to be:
I visualize a self-sufficient, Black-owned New Orleans East. One where you don't have to cross an entire body of water just to maximize your food options. One where there is an influx of retail stores, department stores, outlet malls, amusement parks, movie theaters, schools, community centers, business offices, and playgrounds. One with a low crime rate and high property values. One where the area is so utilized, that people are flocking back to the East to raise their families. It may not happen overnight, but by advocating change and implementing our own change, the bounce-back will be far more impactful than the setback.