Our School at Blair Grocery

[If you like to listen, "tune in" to hear Stacy Pearl and I talk the delicious decadence of NOLA and the rebirth of Blair Grocery on her KSFR Mouth of Wonder radio show]

My first visit to New Orleans’ notorious lower 9th Ward was in July, 2007. I’d been to New Orleans on a nearly annual pilgrimage for years prior, and never even really known that the NOLA version of a “burrough” is called a “ward”, let alone about the lower 9th.

Prior to Katrina, the lower 9th Ward was notable for the highest percentage of black home ownership in the city. But I think most of us learned about the lower 9th in the aftermath of The Storm – the district was flooded and devastated. In 2007, just 2 years short of the 2nd anniversary of Katrina, the area was almost completely erased and abandoned. Entire neighborhoods, the architecture that housed generations, and the families that lived there: all gone. Peering into every rusting carcass of a car, stepping over the shadow stains of floorplans rusted into concrete foundations, silenced beside the lone mailbox standing sentry over an empty lot, I was acutely aware of the absence of those lives: the sheer scale of it all was sobering.

Lower 9th Ward, 2 years after Katrina

According to the New York Times, residency in the lower 9th is still down a staggering 85%, 7 years after Katrina.

On my recent (December, 2012) trip to NOLA, I found myself again driving through the lower 9th. There were fewer ruins, and even larger stretches of open land. Some of the houses that remained still bear the cryptic X-codes symbology of search and rescue reconnaissance – visual disaster vernacular writ large across the facade of each abandoned home. But this time I wasn’t there to witness devastation: I was there to see and taste first-hand the re-growth of a neighborhood.

By re-growth, I mean the literal greening and growing of food in a field. To my utter amazement and delight, my cousin, on break from college, is working at a place called Our School at Blair Grocery.

Our School at Blair Grocery

It’s the kind of project that can make you feel optimistic, even as you look past the planted field at condemned homes enclosed in boarded-up windows. I could wax endlessly operatic poetic about that farm. It’s one thing to have good ideas, and progressive conversations – the rhetorical search for solutions. It’s another thing entirely to smell the freshly composting soil and walk through vibrant verdant rows. At Blair Grocery, they’re growing change.

They have a mission that’s both simple and profound: “to what extent are we empowering at-risk youth to take leadership in making New Orleans, Louisiana the City that Ended Hunger?”

I can’t capture here everything they are doing towards answering this question, but programs include teaching local high school students about growing food, which is then sold locally at the growers market as well as to New Orleans’ restaurants like Cowbell and Cafe Carmo, eager to source local, organic, sustainable ingredients. College students from around the country intern at the farm: learning in the field, beyond books, about environmental justice, farming, community building. See? Pretty amazing.

Thanks, Jennifer, for introducing us to the farm. I spend a lot of time visiting and photographing rural farms throughout northern New Mexico. My first visit to a working urban farm brought real, grounded perspective to phrases like “sustainable” and “local food”: if you can do it in the lower 9th, we can do it anywhere.

Greening the lower 9th, one row at a time...

An abandoned building provides shelter on the far side of the goat and chicken yard.

Local grocery stores (yes, even big corporate ones) contribute "over-ripe" produce to the compost pile, where the farm produces its own fresh soil.

In addition to the greens, the farm is developing a mushroom growing room.

Chef Brack May, one of the New Orleans chefs thrilled to have access to fresh local produce. His restaurant Cowbell was an absolute highpoint of the trip: genuinely creative and delicious menu, original art everywhere, in a funky building I think had a previous life as a gas station. Epic.