Before and after.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, stories about New Orleans can be broken into two categories: Before and after.
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, stories about her no longer focus heavily on devastation. Rather, tales these days of Hurricane Katrina are rife with examples of perseverance, overcoming and rebuilding.
This is an "after" story.
For residents living in New Orleans' Hollygrove neighborhood before Katrina, the following story was likely an afterthought.
Before Hurricane Katrina, Hollygrove was mostly known for its high crime rate, which exceeded the American average. Perhaps to pop culture fans, Hollygrove was also known as the birthplace of rapper Lil' Wayne. In "Hollyweezy," Lil' Wayne described his hometown with lyrics stating, "I come from Hollygrove, everyday Halloween. We shoot your block up and just say we shot a scene."
Before Katrina, Hollygrove's Conrad Park arguably represented that "Halloween" scene described by Lil' Wayne. Ahead of the storm, Conrad Park's playground was a nightmare, a place overtaken by crime. Drug dealers lurked in corners slinging their poison to the neighborhood's residents. Hookers turned so many tricks on the park's picnic tables that the picnic tables were removed. Screams emanating from the park weren't made by children playing, but the result of gun shots ringing out.
After Katrina, the same water and power that destroyed Hollygrove washed it clean. Over time, Hollygrove reemerged as a new neighborhood, filled with community instead of crime and opportunity instead of plight. At the center of this rebirth was Conrad Park.
In the months following Hurricane Katrina, much of the discussion surrounding the storm focused on how the government failed New Orleans' citizens and rebuilding the city's economy. With thousands of families displaced, though, little to none of the conversation centered on how to restore childhood to New Orleans' kids.
That was until KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit focused on bringing active play to children's lives, arrived.
110 days after Hurricane Katrina, KaBOOM! rebuilt a playground in Bay St. Louis, MS. Since then, KaBOOM! and volunteers have built 173 playgrounds in Gulf Coast areas impacted by Katrina. "We knew that we wanted to help kids deal with the atrocities of Hurricane Katrina the best way we knew how, by bringing play back to the community," said KaBOOM!'s chief mission officer, Kate Becker.
In 2011, KaBOOM! came to Conrad Park.
"Conrad Park had been dormant since Hurricane Katrina. Prior to the hurricane, the park was there and available for use, but it wasn't being used much because of the crimes taking place within it. Drug dealers had taken over the park. There was prostitution going on. We had to remove the tables that were there, because the prostitutes were using them," said Jarvain Bingmon, the executive director of Trinity Christian Community, an organization focused on empowering Hollygrove's youth.
The morning in 2011 when Conrad Park's playground was rebuilt ushered in a new identity for Hollygrove. City leader and former criminal alike rolled up their sleeves to restore the park.
"There's a guy who has a son who's about ten-years-old. This dad was one of those guys who caused a little trouble. He used the park as his place to sell drugs. When we rebuilt the playground, he was one of the first people there to help. He said he was there because he wanted his son to have a place to come and play on a football team. This park is not only changing who this kid's dad is, but it is also giving the son a place to come and play sports in a safer environment," Bingmon explained.
To say that rebuilding the playground in Conrad Park completely eradicated crime from Hollygrove would be a overstatement. However, rebuilding Conrad Park's playground accomplished something important: It created a sense of community amongst Hollygrove's residents.
"When KaBOOM! came in and offered us the opportunity to rebuild the playground, it was like a shift happened in the neighborhood. It caused people to get behind something. It was huge for us in terms of rallying community members and businesses," said Bingmon.
Today, the park's picnic tables are back. The drug dealers are gone. In their place, children play, laugh and simply enjoy the carefree joy of being kids.
"We hadn't had a park supervisor in years. Now, our park not only has a park supervisor, but the athletic director for the New Orleans Recreation Department is housed there. We hadn't had teams coming to the park for years. Now, we are actually hosting football tryouts. There are yoga classes, bootcamp classes and Zumba classes. These things were unheard of prior to the playground being rebuilt," Bingmon remarked.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, bringing back children's laughter wasn't a priority discussed on the nightly news. Yet, KaBOOM! recognized that bringing joy back to New Orleans' children was critical to the city's restoration story.
"Many believed it was too early to think about building playgrounds and people needed to get back on their feet first. Play just wasn't a priority at the time. In the aftermath of Katrina, the need for playgrounds, which can also serve as a social hub, was apparent. We have made a positive impact in 44 communities across the Gulf and have served nearly 300,000 children. Playgrounds remind us what our childhoods were all about. I have no doubt that our playgrounds have added a few more smiles and made communities a little brighter," KaBOOM!'s Becker said.