Hope Gives Way to Desolation in Desire Last year, Noah Adams reported on the St. Philip's Kids Cafe -- families gathering for a church cafeteria meal in the neighborhood that many New Orleanians call Desire. Last week, he returned to find a deserted, badly damaged church and desolate streets.
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Hope Gives Way to Desolation in Desire

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Hope Gives Way to Desolation in Desire

Hope Gives Way to Desolation in Desire

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As Mexico feels the brunt of Hurricane Wilma and as residents of Florida prepare for her, we're going to take a trip back to a neighborhood in New Orleans. The St. Philip's Kids Cafe is in the city's Upper Ninth Ward. NPR's Noah Adams visited it a year and a half ago at Mardi Gras time and long before Katrina. He found families gathering for a church cafeteria meal in the neighborhood that many call Desire. Well, last week, Noah returned to find a deserted, badly damaged church and desolate streets.

NOAH ADAMS reporting:

I drove into the neighborhood late Thursday and left the car in the middle of the street, out in front of St. Philip's. It was very quiet. I saw no one. Deserted houses, collapsing piles of boards and bricks, abandoned cars and trucks--in some yards, four or five of them had piled up.

(Soundbite of footsteps in dried mud)

ADAMS: All the pavement is covered with a thin, crackling layer of dried mud, and the grass and the same mud is on the top of the cars.

(Soundbite of footsteps in dried mud)

ADAMS: You can see the yellow streaked, horizontal water line on the houses. If I had stood on someone's front step, as if to knock on the door, the floodwaters would have been above my head. The houses have the spray-painted X's that the rescue people would use to leave messages, dates, the units involved. Black writing on the front of one white house tells of a visit on October 4, something DOA, back right bedroom, keep checking.

(Soundbite of leaves blowing in breeze)

ADAMS: St. Philip's main sanctuary building seems OK. But the elementary school alongside is a wreck and the playground full of tree limbs and trash, and you stand in the silence with this question: What do you think happened here?

One year and a few months ago, I opened the door to this school and felt almost kicked by the happy energy of the young.

(Soundbite of busy activity in school)

ADAMS: Food was about to be served at the Kids Cafe. Oscar Scott(ph) was the maitre d'.

Mr. OSCAR SCOTT: All right. Welcome today. Guess you all see the Mardi Gras decorations so what we decided to do is have a Mardi Gras celebration. Our menu tonight is going to be Mardi Gras style, and we're also going to crown our king and queen of Kids Cafe.

ADAMS: The Kids Cafe, with food from America's Second Harvest and cooked by students at nearby Dillard University, was designed to bring families together at 5:00 on Thursday evening. A sit-down meal, sometimes with white tablecloths and candles. The kids would invite their extended families. I talked then with Connie Anderson, a single, working mom with three kids.

Ms. CONNIE ANDERSON: It's good. 'Cause that mean on Thursday nights, I don't have to cook. I call my mama, my grandma, my sisters, my nieces, my nephew. We all eat at Kids Cafe on a Thursday.

ADAMS: I asked for a restaurant review by Breshon Warner(ph), nine years old.

BRESHON WARNER: These people really inspire me, and I come here every Thursday with my brothers and sisters and I think their food very good.

ADAMS: Now that sounds like something that somebody told you to say.

WARNER: No. I thought it up myself.

ADAMS: Voices from the Kids Cafe at St. Philip Church in the spring of 2004. At that time, I said this was a neighborhood of need. Many coming to the Kids Cafe were hungry, but there was pride and especially respect for the older residents. The Desire housing project had been replaced by family homes. People felt the worst of the drug days were past. Now, for four or five blocks in all directions, I didn't even see one refrigerator out at the street. A ruined refrigerator would be a sign someone planned to come back.

In other parts of New Orleans, people are drinking coffee and reading The Times-Picayune and their trash is being picked up. And here I was happy to see a squirrel cross the street. I heard one bird singing. There were a few green sprigs in the flood-burned, winter-brown grass.

(Soundbite of distant train horn)

ADAMS: I returned on Saturday morning hoping to talk to some residents. Two sheriff's cars passed with the windows rolled up, traveling in tandem. I found three people to talk with. Edward Davis had come in from Maryland to help his two sisters and his dad.

Mr. EDWARD DAVIS: It was great growing up here. The neighborhood was full of people, kids our age and stuff. And back then you have the Desire housing project and stuff like that, but we mostly played in the park. We played football every Sunday in the park. On Christmas morning, I mean, as soon as the sun came up, the streets would be filled with their skates and their bikes. But as the years went by, people grew up and left and all that, but when we were young it was great.

ADAMS: Down the street, Willa May Loring(ph), 77, had come with her grandkids. She was laughing that the wind had finally taken down an oak tree in her front yard that she couldn't afford to. But she also can't afford to fix her house, even with federal help.

Ms. WILLA MAY LORING: I just want my grandson and granddaughter to go on to college and try to make something of themselves 'cause I'm old. I will go in a little home, you know, in a little nice place just for me with like a bed and a living room and a kitchen and a bath or something like that. And I'm (unintelligible). That's right. I ain't worried about nothing, 'cause I can't take nothing with me no way.

Unidentified Child: Really?

Ms. LORING: I always tell everybody, `We have more to come.' You know what I mean? Different things happen. It is destruction going on now all over, destruction all over this world.

ADAMS: And I found Calvin Joseph(ph), who was rescued with his mother from the roof of their house, and he's back now with three friends and a salvaged dog named Justice. Their electricity comes from car batteries and the National Guard brings them ice. At night, they know they are the only people left for blocks around.

Mr. CALVIN JOSEPH: We just set out on the porch and watch the neighborhood, watch our neighbors and things, see that nobody intruding on them and take their belongings, that's all. It's kind of weird. It's dark. We're getting a lot of light from the moon. It'd be shining pretty bright around here at night. But it's kind of lonely and dark, you know. Not scary, but--'cause we fear no evil around here, so we hanging in there.

ADAMS: Last week, the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, told some evacuees, `My big message is you can come back to the city, back to the red beans and rice and gumbo and all that you love.' And he spoke of jobs and FEMA trailers to live in. Those words seem strange here in this Upper Ninth Ward neighborhood called Desire. But then you're reminded, Hurricane Betsy roared through here in September 40 years ago with winds and water almost as high. Noah Adams, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Photos of the Desire neighborhood and Noah Adams' earlier report on St. Philip's Kids Cafe are at our Web site, npr.org.


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