New Orleans Empty Lot Brings Neighbors Together Empty lots are hardly unusual in New Orleans. Many of them are trashed and overgrown, a depressing reminder of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But the corner of North Roman and Columbus is different.
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New Orleans Empty Lot Brings Neighbors Together

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New Orleans Empty Lot Brings Neighbors Together

New Orleans Empty Lot Brings Neighbors Together

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The City of New Orleans is still dotted with empty lots three years after Hurricane Katrina. Most of them are overgrown, and some are magnets for crime. One lot in New Orleans is different. It's been empty since long before Katrina, but it is a lively spot. And that lot is featured in a book called "Cornerstones," which documents the city's overlooked landmarks. For the second of two stories on those landmarks, here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

Unidentified Man #3: Right there.

(Soundbite of clanking sound)

NEDA ULABY: Deep in the heart of the Seventh Ward on a sunny weekday afternoon, about a dozen men, mostly middle-aged, play horseshoes and drink beer on a lot that looks and smells more like a freshly mowed front lawn.

Mr. RENALD EDWARDS: You see, it's our gathering place.

ULABY: Renald Edwards is a big, barrel-chested guy also known, for some reason, as Dinky. He joins his friends on the lot nearly every afternoon.

Mr. EDWARDS: If you be the first one, you sit down for about five minutes. Somebody's going to be outside to join you. And we keep the lot straight. We cut the grass and keep it clean.

Mr. GREGORY HILL: This is the fun place.

ULABY: Meet Gregory Hill. At least that's one of his names.

Mr. HILL: They call me Swinger. They call me Frog. They call me Boo(ph). What else you call me?

Unidentified Man #4: Things you don't want to put on and record.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Most of the men hanging out today were born in the shotgun doubles and camelback cottages that line this working-class block of North Roman. They're mostly from old Creole families. And they say they've watched as the neighborhood descended into poverty and violence over the past few decades. But, Hill says, not this block. It's clung to the pace and the peace of a gentler time.

Mr. HILL: Look at the baby chicks. That's what we do. That's what we like. We like that, you know? You know, the chickens in the hood?

ULABY: Yes. A flock of wild chickens dashes out of the way of two guys hauling a cooler. Tony Morero(ph) doesn't even live in the Seventh Ward anymore, but he visits the lot almost daily after finishing work at the docks. He says the lot's importance in the neighborhood's social fabric was especially obvious when everyone evacuated after Katrina.

Mr. TONY MORERO(PH): Everybody would call from all over the United States, finding out who's home, who's home.

ULABY: Among them, Glenn Doucette, who'd fled to California.

Mr. GLENN DOUCETTE: They didn't even have lights when they came back around here. And everybody was saying come on home. Come on home. I'd say come home to what? They say, man, come on, man. We on the corner, man. We're barbequing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORERO: We even had a clean-up crew when we first came back, because there was debris everywhere. We bleached out everything. We scrubbed our barbeque grill, you know. We had a good time doing it, you know. It's all about home.

ULABY: One of the very first people back was 30-year-old Rachel Breunlin. She was desperately seeking any signs the neighborhood might return to normal. That's when, for the very first time, that she really noticed the guys hanging out on the lot.

Ms. RACHEL BREUNLIN (Co-founder, The Neighborhood Story Project): Then I started realizing over time that they had been doing it for years and years and years, and I had just been too busy, really, to notice it before. On a deeper level, I hadn't understood what it really meant to our neighborhood.

ULABY: Breunlin works for a group called The Neighborhood Story Project. She helped document the lot in the new "Cornerstones" book. Breunlin says before Katrina, there was not much mixing between the neighborhood's longtime African-American residents and young white people who'd just started to move in before the storm - people like Katie Green(ph).

Ms. KATIE GREEN: When I came back, they welcomed me with open arms. We all helped each other. And they've just taken me in as their daughter, their granddaughter, their sister and everything. That's what the lot - it's my family.

ULABY: Green lives right next door to a lifetime resident, 87-year-old Evie Antoine.

Ms. EVIE ANTOINE: That gang on the corner is lifesaving. That's right. You holler one time, you get five to help you. That's people, baby.

Mr. DOUCETTE: Here's the lady here that owns the lot. We call her the boss lady.

Ms. PAT O'BRIEN: Yes. Yes, I am. I initially demolished a very rotten, blighted old apartment building initially to have a community garden for the neighborhood. But instead, it evolved into something on its own. It's now a meeting place for all of these guys. They play horseshoes. Some of the kids play football. And it's a very nice community gathering spot.

ULABY: Pat O'Brien has lived in the neighborhood since 1969. She says that she has no plans to sell the lot - not to developers, not to Wal-Mart, not to anyone.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Now, if we have an oil well, I'll put up a rig. But other than that, no. That's the - it will stand as a community endeavor.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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