Sunday, January 20, 2008

Neighborhood groups take action

Olive Stallings Park
January 19, 2008
New Orleans, La.

It’s 6:30 am and Kate Parker’s eyes are bleary.

The clouds that will be visible an hour from now drop cold rain pellets on people’s plastic rain slips and nylon ski jackets. A forecaster has even called for a slight chance of snow in New Orleans this morning.

Snow. In New Orleans.

The conditions are the only thing Parker, the president of the Faubourg St. John neighborhood association, can’t control after months of planning today’s playground. Three hundred people are expected in 90 minutes to volunteer for the all-day affair complete with a mural, tree-planting, horseshoe pit and a spiral slide.

Some will come from the local universities who are mobilizing in honor of Martin Luther King Day. Others are neighborhood residents or AmeriCorps NCCC members, the traveling troupes who spend 10 months sleeping on floors, and other random places.

Parker, the president of the Faubourg St. John neighborhood association since 2006, and members of the Kaboom! playground project have been setting the build since Thursday. Walls were primed, holes dug, and x’s spray painted to mark the destination for purples poles, the structure of the playground.

“Rain, sleet or snow,” Kaboom! members say, “we’ll build in any of it.”

Group by group volunteers went into the rain and cold, equipped with zip-locked bags that contained directions and tool belts with wrenches and sockets, nuts and bolts.

Garbage bags became rain slips for the unprepared.

Funny thing about a volunteer build: figuring out the difference between an Allen wrench and a socket then figuring out how to use them.

One of the Kaboom! captains comes by our station and looks at some of our assembly. Wrong bolts he says. A fellow volunteer and I looked at each other, “I bet he could do this whole thing faster than all of us,” he says.

It’s true, the project managers could probably do this in their sleep. Their patience, with well-intentioned beginners day after day, build after build, must wear thin.

New Orleans’ neighborhood associations, local Bobby Wozniak says, are catalysts of on-the-ground action in post-Katrina New Orleans. “It’s a 100 times more than it was,” Wozniak says. “We figured out that we have to make it right this time. If we’re (New Orleans) gonna do it, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

Michael Green agrees. He’s under a big white tent with a smoker being loaded with hamburger and hot dogs for the volunteers. Friends call him “Cobbeannie” although he didn't say why. He had a restaurant before the storm, but now runs Cobbeanie’s grill, a catering business that is “doing really well.”

Green grew up at Stallings park and has been a bit of an advocate/greens keeper ever since. He learned to play sports here, played pick-up basketball on the courts beginning at age 12. He’s in his early 4o’s now, but has never lost his affection for the nights he grew up here.

“One time when I was 12, we were practicing outside and the street lights went out. We practiced in the dark.”

“Any legends from Stallings?”

“A guy named Willie Bland," Green says. "He ended up playing in college and would always be around playing pick-up,” Green says.

“And me.”

I ask Mark Andry, Green’s friend if he’s a legitimate Stallings legend.

“Cob is a Stallings park legend, he’s a neighborhood legend,” he says.

Green feeds the volunteers who are helping improve the place he’s been “replacing the nets at for the last 2o years.”

A woman comes by with an empty platter to bring the food inside to the wet-socked, muddied pants volunteers.

“They love your burgers in there,” she says.

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