This article was written by Austin Kent on TheGoodPoint.com
It's just past two on a sunny New Orleans afternoon when, "I'm going to stop here, but if you still want to go, just keep going down St. Claude and turn left at the lights. I ain't going in there."
These are the words of our escort - if you'd call her that - as we pull up beside her in a gas station parking lot just outside of the humbled Mardi Gras city's infamous Lower Ninth Ward. In a hot Dodge Caliber that presumably belonged to her father, and fresh off a shift working at Starbucks on the other side of town, we turn to the young woman for any form of confirmation that driving in alone to take pictures of basketball nets won't result in our untimely deaths.
"Just remember, St. Claude is the street you'll want to take to get out."
We can only assume that the locals here know more about the area than what's shown on CNN, so our hesitation to go through with the plan builds. Convincing a barista at the end of her shift to show us the city's most "dangerous" neighbourhood was one thing, but asking her to drive in with her own vehicle was an entirely different story.
Not wanting to be a pair of "those people" who get themselves in trouble pursuing foolhardy thrills we ask ourselves if we really want to go through with the plan - to take photos of a dejected basketball court forgotten amongst the chaos and carnage of Hurricane Katrina. We're not volunteering, we're not putting ourselves out there for any significant reason, we're simply just tourists driving around with a camera more expensive than we know what to do with.
The "we" I mention refers to myself, the sports editor of a small circulation newspaper in Ontario, and a long-time friend whose journalism experience could be fully accounted for in a single sentence. Now, faced with an opportunity to experience something other than travel stops and continental breakfast, we were torn.
It wasn't long after we sat there with our nameless guide when, despite a horrifying infatuation with Anderson Cooper's post Katrina coverage of New Orleans in 2005 (or perhaps because of it), we knew that passing on this opportunity to witness society - equal parts fragile and forgotten - would come back to haunt us.
"They're human beings," I tell my partner, more for my own reassurance than hers. "It can't be as bad as it's made out to be."
And with that we turned on our blinker and left the gas station parking lot towards Culture Shock, Louisiana.
It's nearly 20 degrees Celsius and a clear day with little wind. For two Canadians in February, the short-sleeve weather is a comparatively tropical change of pace. When we approach the war-torn neighbourhood in our dirt-stained Mazda3 we expect the worst but skeptically wonder if anything could be as bad as the area is made out to be. The sun is shining and people are in and out of their homes nearby.
This time last year, the USA Today ran a story painting a picture of unabated violence and thuggery not far from where we stood, citing increases in theft as the major reason why. A frightening murder rate proportionate to the city's re-growing population and drug-related gunfire rounded out the harrowing account of criminal activity in the area.
With 210 killings in 2007 alone, the city of New Orleans took the dubious distinction of being America's murder capital. As such, the presence of the National Guard was justified. On Feb. 27, of this year, however, it was announced that the Guard would be pulling their last troops out of the city. A motion that, according to the Associated Press, is perceived to have caused quite a stir.
In a story published last Friday, journalist Mary Foster wondered if the "desperate and dangerous" city was in any position to fend for itself, referring specifically to the "woeful Ninth Ward". Statistically, of course, it probably could not. Realistically, however, is a different story.
Through a combination of horror stories, like the aforementioned, that run in newspapers across the country and on media networks like CNN, it's hard to imagine anyone being particularly optimistic about the area. Five minutes into our stay in the Lower Ninth Ward, we met exactly that.
Nervously shuffling around a barbed-wire encased basketball court with the fat lens on our camera, we stood out like tourists. My only hope as I hopped a padlocked gate that I found nearby was that we didn't come off as ignorant ones at that. This was, after all, what appeared to be a public basketball court and if anything could unite people it was, and always will be, the power of sport. There's nothing wrong with objectifying a backboard.
"I think the only reason you are able to talk to me right now is because of sports," says Ward McClendon, a close friend of one of the residents who watched curiously as we measured up our initial photo opportunity. "I think, without the sports in my life at the time, I would either be dead right now or spending my life in the penitentiary."
Ward McClendon is a hero in this neighbourhood, born and raised in the Lower Ninth. On the recommendation of a stranger working diligently to repair his home, we tracked him down to talk about a project he had been working on.
In November of 2007, McClendon purchased a storm-ravaged warehouse with the intention of storing and repairing antique cars. Prior to Hurricane Katrina he had owned nine such vehicles and a new house to boot. Nowadays though, he has left his automobile dreams behind, opting instead to use the facility as the grounds for a community centre in the seemingly post-Apocalyptic neighbourhood two blocks from where we arrived.
"I had been trying to get that facility for four years before Katrina because I love antique cars and I thought it would be a great place to work on them," said McClendon. "That worked until I got the keys in my hand. Once I got the keys in my hand and stepped into that place, childhood and teenage memories came back to me and I couldn't shake them."
Memories that consisted of growing up in this exact neighbourhood, the same one which, just three years and five months ago, sat trapped under 32 feet of surge water on August 29, 2005.
"You hear people talk about it - you know - how tragedy brings on change. I thought it was a myth. Now I know it to be the truth because I lost all my material things."
Instead of dwelling on it or complaining about his circumstances, McClendon - known throughout the community as simply Mack - went about making things better, starting with a dream he had to create a centre for children in the area - equipped with a regulation-sized indoor basketball court.
"I loved community centres, they were my sanctuary as a kid," says McClendon, referring to one in particular not far from where we conducted our interview. "That community centre was my sanctuary and it kept me from dealing with drugs, the whole nine yards. Everything that you wanted to do was in there."
With the help of over 4,500 volunteers in its first year alone (and as of Feb. 2009, not a single government dollar) the Lower Ninth Ward Village blossomed into a charitable organization capable of getting things done.
While awaiting the funds to begin major renovations on the warehouse, the Village has installed bathrooms and showers, and has opened their doors to dozens of people in the neighbourhood seeking refuge under a roof at night. The rows upon rows of cots that adorn what will one day be a basketball court are symbolic of how far the community has yet to go. It's been over three years now, but a mere fraction of residents have returned to their homes - provided they even withstood the hurricane.
According to McClendon, as much as 65 per cent of the Lower Ninth Ward was comprised of the elderly. In the years since Katrina, just five per cent have reclaimed their lives. Blocks amongst blocks sit vacant, with spray paint markings on waterlogged doors identifying search parties that first responded to count the dead or provide aid to the living.
Holes in devastated roofs remain as proof that not long ago people were breaking their way through their own attics to avoid drowning in their bedrooms while other houses stand silent, awaiting the return of their owners.
Across the street from buildings marked in black paint, "Do not demolish", lie collapsed heaps of drywall and A-frames less than 50 metres from where others have restored their own houses and go about living their lives.
On this particular day, Mack is overseeing a group of volunteers from Massachusetts as they clear debris from a lot that once would have contained a small home. Once clear of any significant vegetative ruins, the lot can be mowed and prepared for whatever the future has in store. Both adults and children work alongside each other - gardening gloves and garbage bags in hand.
These are the types of people in the neighbourhood who visitors to the area can more reasonably expect, and although crime in the area does exist (as can be seen in any low-income residence), the menacing perception people have of the Lower Ninth Ward is a far cry from the truth. Like anywhere else in the world, families live here and lead happy lives, it's not a plot of land reserved exclusively for blood-thirsty criminals itching to jack cars.
Perhaps a more telling danger than drugs or violence in the area would be the fact that we constantly let ourselves believe that the Lower Ninth Ward and neighbourhoods in similar situations are breeding grounds exclusively for criminals and hatred.
"What we have to be is willing to work with each other," says McClendon, "It doesn't matter what colour, breed, or whatever. If we can look beyond racial stereotypes, then we are going to find that this is a great world and we can save it."
It's a daunting task, especially for a man who two years ago would have never predicted he'd find himself spending his days as the Executive Director of a credentialed not-for-profit organization.
As a sports fan through and through, there's no wonder that a basketball court fits into Mack McClendon's grand solution - along with computer labs, a recording studio and a kitchen within which kids can learn how to cook.
"I know what sports did for me, so [the community centre] definitely needs a basketball court for the kids to get some of their frustrations out and to learn how to communicate with each other."
With sport serving at the core of McClendon's efforts, I wonder if it was any coincidence that it was a rundown basketball net photo opportunity that led me to uncover, for myself, the truth about the Lower Ninth Ward. The truth about perseverance, about people living in extreme cases of poverty, and the truth about the inherent merits of working as a team.
"One thing about sports," McClendon pauses, "Is that I don't care how good one individual is, they can never beat the team. Never beat the team."
And with that, I knew for sure.
For more information about the Lower Ninth Ward Village and how to contribute, check out lower9thwardvillage.org.