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Lower 9th Ward organization fights blight through gardening

All about gardening, food deserts, and the Lower 9

The Guerrilla Garden serves as the headquarters of the Backyard Gardeners Network, which also holds community classes and various activities for neighborhood residents.
All photos by Eric Craig/Curbed NOLA

Less than 10 years ago, 600 Charbonnet Street, which is just off of Chartres Street in the Lower 9th Ward, sat as an unkept and vacant lot. The dilapidated lot was like many other sites that were formerly homes, businesses, and community spaces in the neighborhood.

Fast-forward to 2017, and that once-lonely space is now a thriving garden that serves as an outdoor community classroom.

The Backyard Gardeners Network, a non-profit aimed at bringing communities together through planting, learning, and tranquil spaces, made that transformation possible. That action started in 2007 when a group of residents decided to no longer face community blight.

Starting the Backyard Gardeners Network

Jenga Mwendo, the founder and director of the Backyard Gardeners Network, grew up in the Lower 9th Ward, and briefly lived in New Orleans East during her adolescence. As an adult, she found herself in New York City pursuing a career in computer animation. In 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina, Mwendo came back to the Lower 9th Ward to help revive the community that raised her.

The Lower 9th Ward had changed, says Mwendo. Areas that used to bloom with friends and residents were left unattended and broken. Searching for a way to revitalize her home, she rallied neighbors to restore a dilapidated community garden.

“I realized I was not passionate about work in computer animation,” Mwendo says. “Gardening just became a thing that inspired me. It wasn’t really a conscious connection. I saw this gardening piece as a cultural tradition that is familiar in the neighborhood. It’s a way that we can bring people together; It’s a community-building tool.”

Backyard Gardeners Network Director, Jenga Mwendo, and Senior Intern Dyland Duplessis work together to operate the Garden’s Kids Club activities on Saturdays.

By the end of 2007, Mwendo led the team’s first restoration: the Lower 9th Ward’s Laurentine Ernst Garden at 601 Forstall Street.

The goals of the garden were to promote knowledge in food, community, health, and self-reliance. It would be the first step in standing up for the Lower 9th Ward.

Expanding the Garden

Mwendo says development starts with revitalizing blighted lots.

“We asked how open space like this can be useful in our community and help build stronger relationships between people and spread education about health and growing food,” Mwendo says. “This is about how we can take ownership of our spaces and make them useful and beneficial to us.”

In its first expansion, in 2009, the Backyard Gardeners Network began restoring, maintaining, and planting on an empty lot at 600 Charbonnet Street before the organization purchased it. By reworking the lot, the community actively fought blight.

“At some point you have to make a decision about what you want in your neighborhood. What you want you neighborhood to reflect,” Mwendo says. “A few other neighbors and I got together and decided that this was going to be something different. This wasn’t going to stay blighted and vacant; It was going to be useful and productive. So we cleared it off and we started growing on it.”

After two years of “guerrilla gardening,” the Backyard Gardeners Network purchased the site—hence the name of the second garden, the Guerrilla Garden. Today, the garden grows herbs, fruits, and vegetables on about a quarter of the lot. The Guerrilla Garden site has a shaded outdoor sitting space, a storage room, an overhead trellis, and an outdoor kitchen.

Gardeners at Guerrilla Garden teach residents and interns how to grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

During the fall and spring, the Backyard Gardeners Network hires roughly 15 high school students to assist with maintaining Guerrilla Garden.

The Backyard Gardeners Network also provides free community classes where residents learn how to garden, shop, and cook to maintain a healthy lifestyle. On Saturdays, dozens of children in the neighborhood attend the Garden’s Kids Club, where kids participate in projects themed around gardening and cooking.

The Impact of the Garden

When Mwendo came back to New Orleans, she says the Lower 9th Ward was markedly different. As a quiet kid who didn’t get out much growing up, most of what she knows about the neighborhood’s history comes from stories told by current residents.

“For me, coming back to New Orleans and the Lower 9 was almost like discovering a new place that I didn’t know,” she says.

But from what she knows now, she believes the Garden has improved the neighborhood.

“I think that having a space might, in place of a blighted lot, have a ripple effect and makes a huge difference on a lot of levels—creating more beautiful and positive spaces,” she adds.

The Backyard Gardeners Network offers community classes for adults and activities for children.

Mwendo and her team designed the garden with the idea of beauty and tranquility, not to be confused as a farm.

“Even if that was our mission, in urban areas, especially in neighborhoods where property values are rising, it’s very difficult to justify using the land for farming, which has a very low profit margin, instead of using it for a house,” she says.

The Lower 9th Ward is a food desert

While the garden provides some food for the community, access to fresh food is an issue in the Lower 9th Ward.

“Most people who live in this neighborhood are already used to not being able to go to a grocery store in the neighborhood,” Mwendo says.

Residents with transportation are likely to go to big-box stores like Walmart across the Industrial Canal. Others are close enough to shop at smaller grocery stores, like Burnell Cotlon’s community hub.

Mwendo says that it’s harder for people to shop at and support local urban gardens when their needs can be met at larger stores like Walmart.

Food as medicine

The Backyard Gardeners Network’s strongest community arm is led by program coordinator Courtney Clark, longtime resident of the Lower 9th Ward and former school teacher. The program teaches Lower 9th Ward residents how to shop, find fresh foods, and to prevent food-related diseases. The Backyard Gardeners Network named Clark the program coordinator over a year ago when it introduced the new program.

“My goal is to help my community, which is a majority black community, to not end up in that condition. Poor communities don’t have access to fresh food… we’re definitely in a food desert,” Clark says.

Mwendo says that Clark is a boon to the Backyard Gardeners Network, facilitating outreach and maintaining and creating a consistent class that builds stronger communities through lifestyle.

“I encourage people to take what we give you and expand on it,” Clark says.