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Building a Neighborhood from the Porch 

A nonprofit helps revitalize a Seventh Ward neighborhood through art.

Areas of the Seventh Ward still lie in an in-between state in their recovery, with some residents returning to homes they can move into, while other houses are dilapidated and still bear the ominous spray-painted Xs from Hurricane Katrina rescue crews. But within the blocks bounded by Claiborne, St. Claude and Elysian Fields avenues and St. Bernard Street, there's a glimmer of hope amid lingering recovery and storm-ravaged houses.

The neighborhood may not quite be on its feet, but kids are on theirs at the Seventh Ward Arts Alive! summer camp. In the backyard of a former house and corner store where Urquhart and Pauger streets meet, children are dancing on a makeshift stage with careless abandon. Inside, others are hard at work forming the beginnings of clay sculptures, collages and their own rap songs, seemingly oblivious to the bleak environment that surrounds them.

Now in its second year, the Arts Alive! camp carries out the vision of Porch, an organization formed after Hurricane Katrina to infuse culture into a neighborhood in need of revival. Just like the camp, which is made possible by local arts education nonprofit KidsmART and Xavier University, collaborations constitute much of Porch's efforts.

"I had a big realization (after the storm) -- and I know activists all around town had a similar realization -- that it was now or never," says 7th Ward resident Helen Regis, and anthropology professor at LSU. "I knew we would lose our neighborhood if we didn't do something."

Concerns about the future of this suffering neighborhood compelled Regis and renowned local artist Willie Birch to take action. "We wanted to create something to benefit the people who reside here now and in the future," Birch says.

The two attended Reinhabit NOLA, a series of workshops sponsored by Tulane and Xavier Universities in November 2005, where they met Ron Bechet, chairman of Xavier's art department, and the three formed the core of what would become Porch.

To Bechet, forming a culturally based rebuilding initiative is only natural in a city so imbued in the arts. "New Orleans is a cultural and arts center since its founding," he says. "We believe that the arts make a tremendous difference in people's lives."

Cultural revival was on the forefront of the group's efforts, but they worried that the damaged neighborhood would be vulnerable to gentrification, and a lack of resources jeopardized the group's ability to thrive. But as the needs of this community became more salient, friends and organizations came to the rescue.

Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans, a nonprofit group that helps residents find affordable housing, partnered with Porch to enable residents who want to return home find places to live. "This helps us to focus on cultural programs while also trying to sustain a diverse neighborhood," Regis says. "The two programs compliment each other."

Needs of the 7th ward and Porch even attracted students from the University of Kansas Architecture School, who built structures for the neighborhood, including a portable stage for theatre and music performances as well as a shade structure for the 7th Ward Herb Farm, a garden that grows crops that are sold to farmer's markets and local restaurants.

Because it had no financial backing or a permanent home, Porch met in peoples' houses and pooled resources to create small but memorable community events.

"The small-scale, modest projects we've done have really been to our benefit," Regis says. "They were things that didn't involve a lot of money, but still brought people together."

In May, Porch started the 7th Ward Festival, which provided food, kids' activities and live musical entertainment for the 500 people who turned out. It is now slated to be an annual event.

The group subsequently organized other neighborhood activities, such as block parties and tree plantings, and collaborated with the Neighborhood Story Project on Seventh Ward Speaks, which features posters highlighting interviews from residents. But when summer came around, Porch realized the neighborhood still lacked safe activities for children who were just returning home -- some from very traumatic situations.

"We had to do something for the kids," Bechet says. "We knew that after school (was out), there wouldn't be anything to do in the city." To remedy the problem, Porch, KidsmART and Xavier created the Arts Alive! summer camp, where neighborhood kids can find refuge in the arts.

"The art camp was a result of people returning and the kids needing something to do," says camp director Michelle Lavigne, a sculptor and assistant professor at Xavier. "This offered them some activities to give them a sense of home and stability with returning after being in an unstable situation for so long."

The arts also help to educate academically challenged children by using a unique medium. "Many kids struggle with certain subjects, so we plug that into art projects and it helps them. It's not as scary," Lavigne says. "Art becomes a medium of doing things the kids didn't think were doable. It creates a comfort zone."

Last year's camp attracted about 25 neighborhood youngsters to its location in a church on Robertson Street. Instruction in theater, photography, quilting, painting and other mediums, along with field trips, culminated in a theatrical performance by the campers. That performance turned into a major community event, with more than 150 people coming out to help with the production or simply to watch. This, according to Porch member and camp cook Edward Buckner, was the goal.

"It showed that Porch is trying to have a very transparent community organization," he says. "We just figured that everything we do, we should let the community know about it. It strengthens the community and the organization."

The Porch cultural center on Urquhart and Pauger opened its doors to campers about a week ago, and 95 percent of last year's group returned for another summer. The aura inside the house is a stark contrast to the grim neighborhood that surrounds it. Inside, everything is positive, with campers organized into groups named "Hope," "Trust," "Strength" and "Vision."

"We always try to go with positivity -- always, always -- at every opportunity we get," KidsmART member Ruth Robbins says of the group names. "I just don't want to miss one second to put something positive into their ears. It's positive, you always calling those names, you always saying those words over and over."

The camp promotes Porch's vision of empowering young people through art. "I hope they develop a respect for themselves and through that, their community," Birch says. "We want to use the camp to get kids to understand quality of life, living in a neighborhood and being respectful."

For the children of the 7th ward, some of Katrina's youngest victims, an appreciation for themselves and their community is a necessity. "As lot of the kids have been through a lot -- what they've experienced is a lot more than other kids their age have dealt with," Lavigne says. "They need a fresh outlook on their environment."

click to enlarge The Arts Alive! summer camp in the 7th Ward teaches - children to create art, but also empowers them to be - creative and confident in their educatonal and personal - lives. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The Arts Alive! summer camp in the 7th Ward teaches children to create art, but also empowers them to be creative and confident in their educatonal and personal lives.
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