Sunday, August 23, 2009

New Orleans Beauty Shop Owner Lone Ranger in 9th Ward

Four years of progress, plight and possibilities

Anyone would assume that on an average hot, humid and hazy day in a southern city, if you hear an ice cream truck, you’re likely to see a trail of children laughing, smiling and pointing, after buying their favorite cold treat. That’s not, however, even close to the reality in many New Orleans
neighborhoods, especially in the Lower 9th Ward.
Four miles away from the sights and sounds of random melodic jazz bands, street entertainers, flavor bursting restaurants and excited, busy,
happy tourists, you’ll find a gumbo of progress, plight and unfulfilled promises, post-Katrina. “They haven’t built anything new down here except for the school,” says Nedra Bell, 37, owner of Flaminn’ Design, a beauty shop in the Lower 9th Ward.

Four years have passed since Hurricane Katrina’s high winds and waters from levee breaches drowned and destroyed homes, businesses,
schools and everything seemingly normal about the predominately African American neighborhood. Sadly and on some level surprisingly, it looks like
the storm of the century hit yesterday.

For several blocks, on average there may be three newly constructed homes, amid seven or eight empty, dry, grass-filled lots where homes once stood. The old homes, churches and corner stores that seemingly survived Katrina’s battering, look depressing, lean to the side and are discolored. Some still have the original markings spray-painted by law enforcement or members of the military days after the storm, indicating the home or structure had been checked for survivors or bodies. Grocery stores are absent, as well as 24-hour gas stations, a hospital is at least a 10-minute drive and the only school in the Lower 9th Ward is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School.

So why would any business owner rebuild in the area, where there is so little progress and not even half of the residents have returned? “I love New Orleans. There’s no place like home,” says Bell.

Her beauty shop, near N. Claiborne Avenue and Lizardi Street is in the heart of the Lower 9th Ward.  She could have easily opened a shop in Houston and made the city where she evacuated with her three children her new home. When Bell returned to New Orleans months after Katrina to check on her property, she was motivated and moved to tears. Her business was still standing. “I felt like God kept it here for me to come back. It felt almost unreal. Everything was black and white. Animals and trees were dead. The smell was awful. You’ll never forget it,” says Bell.

Despite the despair and desolate conditions she found surrounding her salon, none of it outweighed Bell’s determination to come back. Starting over was a financial, emotional and professional challenge.  Ripping out and remodeling the inside of the business cost $60,000.

To cover the cost, Bell took a job as a stylist at a shop in another New Orleans neighborhood,
saved every penny she made, combined the money with funds from her savings account and a small business loan. It took her a year to get back in business. She believed her return to the area hardest hit by Katrina, would motivate other business owners to come home.

A fraction of residents have returned but so far Bell is a bit of a lone ranger.  Flaminn’ Design is the only salon open in the Lower 9th Ward. The doors have been open for nearly three years. Bell’s appointment book stays filled. Flaminn’ Design with its two styling stations, two hairdryers, contemporary artwork on display, is where you can find accessories on sale, get the trendiest hairstyles and openly talk about anything that bothers you.  “Even though they’re around all of this, they feel better when they get their hair done,” says Bell.

Perhaps the better feeling is also tied into how customers come to the shop and their casual conversations swing between everything from rebuilding efforts, returning home, family domestic issues and life away from New Orleans. Everyone has a Katrina flashback.  For some, it helps them maneuver through life. “I saw the news the day before the storm and said, ‘I got to go’,” says Sheryl Morton, 45, a customer of Bell’s for 15 years. “I thank God I left or I wouldn’t be here.”

Others clients however, still struggle with haunting images. “I spent four days on the roof with family, hoping and wishing,” says
Veronica O’Neal-Wilson, 41.” To get to safety, Wilson says she and her family found a boat and rowed to higher ground, using wooden sticks from bunk beds. “My son still has nightmares,” she says. O’Neal-Wilson now lives in Spring, TX but routinely hits the road for the six-hour drive to Bell’s shop. “I come back to get my hair done, fill up on New Orleans seasonings and meat and drive back to Texas the same day.”

Bell remains optimistic that the days of residents not wanting to come home and stay and businesses setting up shop primarily miles away from the Lower 9th Ward will eventually fade. “Five years from now, I see more progress. It’s going to be better because most of the neighborhood is going to be homeowners but I think it might take at least 10 years for this area to fully come back and look better.”

8 comments:

  1. Great story of survival and endurance. Hopefully we can began to have broader discussions about the pace of rebuilding and recovery efforts in our beloved New Orleans.

    - DM

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  2. I love the optimism of Ms. Bell, and I agree “their no place like Home”. However, as a former resident of the New Orleans area I believe ten plus years will bring forth an area that is unrecognizable. Therefore it is no longer considered home.

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  3. I love the optimism of Ms. Bell, and I agree “there’s no place like Home”. However, as a former resident of the New Orleans area I believe ten plus years will bring forth an area that is unrecognizable. Therefore it is no longer considered home.

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  4. I think that there should be more people in the Lower 9 community to come together and stand for economic development in that area. Although, Katrina robbed those people of their home and lifestyles, it will take more pioneers like Ms. Bell to rebuild a stronger and better 9th ward community. Hats off to you!!!!

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  5. This was a great article. I love it. Good job

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  6. Very good article. It definitely sends a reminder that even though it's not talked about as much there is still a lot of work to do. I admire the efforts & accomplishments of Ms. Bell. I would love to hear more updates on the progession.

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  7. This article is great!!! When I was living out of town after seeing the damage and destruction done to New Orleans and to my realatives homes was heartbreaking and made me feel that home would never be home again. I felt like the people I knew and loved would never return because there was nothing left or worth returning to. But when you see a small business owner like Ms. Bell a regular person like myself return home and rebuild something so great out of nothing this gives so many people who desire to return home a light at the end of the tunnel. It gives people like me hope. I just want to say congratulations to Ms. Bell on her efforts and acheiving her goals. To be a mother of three this has to be setting a great example for her children. I wish her all the best and pray that God continues to bless her through all her efforts.

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  8. I've never been to New Orleans and I will never have a chance to see this community the way it was prior to Katrina. It's a powerful statement that people will return to that devastation and try to rebuild. This is an opportunity for those that decide to return to improve the neighborhood and make it bigger, better, and stronger. Thank you for the insight.

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