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On the Right Foot 

Freret neighborhood residents team up with student volunteers to survey neighbors and collect community data.

On a recent sunny afternoon in the Freret Street neighborhood, Berenis Baez and Rafeeq NuMan made an unlikely pair strolling down the street. Baez, a senior at Bronx Community College in New York where she was born and raised, was here on a school trip. NuMan, a native of New Orleans, graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1960 and has been a resident of the Freret neighborhood for 26 years. Baez and NuMan are part of a larger team of residents and out-of-state student volunteers who recently surveyed the Freret-Milan neighborhood as part of an information-gathering initiative launched by Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans (NHS), Neighbors United Neighborhood Association and the Freret Neighborhood Center. The neighborhood is one of 17 areas in need of revitalization that were targeted by the Office of Recovery Management.

The surveyors blanketed the neighborhood walking from door to door, from Claiborne Avenue to Dryades Street and Jefferson Avenue to Gen.Taylor Street, in groups of two, with one student and one area resident per team. Each team's mission was to survey residents in the area to determine such things as their perceptions of the neighborhood's current condition, challenges and strengths, and the performance of local organizations in meeting the neighborhood's needs. The goal of the survey was to gather information about and for the community to increase understanding of the neighborhood's unique dynamics so NHS and Neighbors United can more effectively advocate for much-needed resources and support for the area.

No accurate profile of the neighborhood's population currently exists. The survey results will be used to prioritize the neighborhood's needs by utilizing input provided directly by area residents. When the results are in, all Freret-Milan area neighbors will be invited to workshops to help determine what those results mean for the community.

'It is a longer process to get usable data," explains Shana Sassoon, co-director of the Community Building Initiative with NHS. "[The process involves] data entry, resident participation in the analysis and interpretation (of the data), putting it together in a report by and for the neighborhood, and disseminating it to partners, government officials, etc." Though a conclusive report is a month or two away, the surveying process alone served as a catalyst for generating dialogue among the residents. Resident volunteers got to know their neighbors while conducting the survey, and student volunteers, who had been trained extensively on the surveying method, ensured the answers to the survey were accurate and properly recorded.

The morning began with a debriefing at the Freret Neighborhood Center, which became "Command Central" for the day. Seated in a sunny room with sky-blue walls and highlighted aerial maps of the neighborhood posed on the fireplace mantels, surveyors introduced themselves and strategized. Students like Baez were sponsored by one of three schools " the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, Middlebury College in Vermont and Bronx Community College in New York " which were recruited by Neighbors United Vice-president Andrew Amacker.

'I love this neighborhood," says Baez. "I was definitely interested in coming down here and seeing New Orleans. I'm glad that I came. People do need help out here. They are trying to help their community members." Like many of her student peers, Baez's school selected her as one of five students to be sponsored for the trip. She left her 3-year-old daughter with family in New York to dedicate three weeks to the survey project. At school, she is enrolled as a community service major. NuMan is active at the neighborhood center and hopes to get more residents involved in building on the strengths of their community.

Once all of the volunteers were paired, they set out to interview residents, asking them to rate how they felt about topics such as the size and age range of their household, the cleanliness and state of houses in the neighborhood, safety, access to health care and public transportation as well as the quality of schools and parks. Residents were asked what they enjoy the most about their neighborhood and what they like the least. They also were polled on how they feel about their neighbors and their involvement in the local Freret Neighborhood Center.

Success Measures, an evaluation method used by community-based organizations, helped Neighbors United and NHS tailor the project to unique experiences in New Orleans. The two groups plan to use the information obtained from the survey to apply for grants and funds for community projects as well as to bring more services and resources to the area and evaluate the impact of their current work on the neighborhood. The organizations hope the results also will help measure the success of local housing, economic development and community building programs.

Neighbors United is the neighborhood association that represents property owners and renters in the Freret-Milan neighborhood. Its mission is to improve the quality of life for all residents in terms of safety, blight, litter and economic health. It also coordinates and assists with housing repair, a neighborhood watch program, street lighting and park repairs. Additionally, it facilitates dialogue among neighbors and provides a forum for residents to address community issues with their elected officials.

NHS, on the other hand, is concerned with the development and health of the Freret community. A citywide organization, NHS works with low- to middle-income residents who want to become homeowners. It opened a homeownership center on Freret in 1999 to assist with the home-buying process. The organization offers financial counseling, classroom training, low-interest loans and home renovation services.

NHS also established the Freret Neighborhood Center in a location nearby in response to a lack of resources in that area after Hurricane Katrina. "All the programs we run are resident-driven," says Kimberly VanWagner, director of the center. "We have an advisory committee of people who live in the neighborhood who share their ideas and really take on the projects."

The Freret Center has a computer lab with Internet access available for use by the residents at no cost. It also has space inside and a large backyard for neighborhood meetings, programs and social gatherings, such as children's summer art camp and a Halloween party, during which more than $1,000 worth of donated costumes were distributed to neighborhood children last year. The center recently threw a potluck party to celebrate the wrap-up of the survey project, inviting student volunteers and residents who participated in the survey.

'The potluck party was a huge success," VanWagner says. "Neighbors that we had never met before and who had not yet been to the Freret Neighborhood Center came out to enjoy gumbo and red beans and share stories and experiences. I think the survey tool itself was both friendly and informative and allowed for personal stories about improvements and ideas. People really wanted to come out, meet others and continue that dialogue."

The neighborhood center also participates in the monthly Freret Market, an art, farmers and flea market. The next one will take place on March 1, from noon to 5 p.m., at the intersection of Freret Street and Napoleon Avenue.

click to enlarge A survey team conducts an interview in Spanish in the Freret neighborhood.
  • A survey team conducts an interview in Spanish in the Freret neighborhood.
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