The Lower Ninth Ward was the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, with floodwaters surging over the nearby Industrial Canal. Jenga Mwendo calls the Lower Ninth a "community of survivors." Only an estimated 25 percent of residents have returned. As a result, a sort of stand-off has occurred: businesses won't come until the population increases, but the population won't increase without even basic amenities. There is currently only one school and not a single produce-stocked grocery store there.
Mwendo, 32, was living in New York City and working in computer animation when Katrina struck in 2005. She moved back to rebuild her house, and then started on the neighborhood. In the past few years, she's revitalized and built two community gardens, launched the Backyard Gardeners Network, and facilitated the planting of 175 fruit trees for homeowners throughout the Holy Cross historic district in the Lower Ninth. She's also launched a vegan catering business.
To paraphrase Huck Finn, it's enough to make a body feel real mean low-down and ornery. The raging inequity! On the one hand, the story of an individual meeting a challenge and filling a void that might not otherwise be filled is inspiring. A real be-the-change-you-want-to-see-in-the-world moment. On the other hand, the glaring absence of state (and federal, for that matter) support is unacceptable. What gets me is that sinking impression of "if she weren't doing something, would anyone?" (Yes, but ...) Because elected officials aren't picking up any slack, or spearheading any (re)investment.
In an ideal world, Ms. Mwendo would be doing her outstanding work amid a crowd of other state-funded initiatives, and would hopefully receive a portion of that funding to scale up her work.
NB Harper's Index archives are (practically) infinite and searchable.