Foreword: Amy Stelly and Tremé

No conversation about New Orleans will end without someone bringing up crime. This is something I’ve learned as a new resident of the Crescent City. When I sat down with New Orleans native and activist Amy Stelly at the Tremé Coffeehouse, our conversation was no exception.

 Photo: Aimée Lapeyre 

Photo: Aimée Lapeyre 

Amy believes that crime in New Orleans is driven by two forces: poverty and gang activity. According to a report done by the Louisiana Budget Project in 2016, poverty rates in New Orleans are higher than the state average, with a quarter of the city’s residents living below or on the poverty line.  Poverty rates disproportionately affect black families in Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Budget Project analysis.

Poverty rates disproportionately affect black families in Louisiana.

Amy Stelly believes affluence in New Orleans is what affects the racial divides. That’s still apparent today, as you scroll through Craigslist to find temporary housing in the city. The rentals available in neighborhoods like Uptown and the Garden District go for almost twice the amount per room as the rentals in Tremé. Amy’s  family moved into the Tremé neighborhood after the first years of her life were spent Uptown, a traditionally white part of town.

In a city like New Orleans, money buys safety. Or at least perceived safety. Amy’s daughter, Camille, a friend of mine from my days working for LSU’s Student Media program,  commented briefly about the tourists she comes in contact with while driving for Uber and Lyft.

“People ask me where they can go, or where is safe to be. I don't want to scare them, but I also want to tell them the truth so they can be aware. I say to be aware, if you feel like something isn't right, it probably isn't. You can sense hesitation, because they heard bad things.”

It’s interesting to note that when I went to do research about this neighborhood, the third option for Google’s autofill was “Tremé neighborhood safety.” Tourists are often worried about ending up in the “wrong” part of town. Before living in this city, I would have lumped Tremé into this category, myself. But as Camille went on to tell me, avoiding crime in the city is mostly about trusting your gut instinct.

When I went to do research about this neighborhood, the third option for Google’s autofill was “Tremé neighborhood safety.” Tourists are often worried about ending up in the “wrong” part of town.

One of the most useful tools human beings have at our disposal is pattern recognition. There’s no doubt our ability to collect and recall information has helped us survive long enough to become an advanced civilization. But unfortunately, our brains find negative information more useful to survival, so we’re more likely to retain bad news, reports of crime and negativity than the positive. While tourists may come here and have the time of their lives, when they return home, their conversations (much like the news narrative) will emphasize any sightings of criminal activity.

 Photo: Aimée Lapeyre

Photo: Aimée Lapeyre

 

The neighborhood we met in, Tremé, is one of the historic areas of New Orleans that tourists may avoid because of stories of crime. Between an HBO drama based on the so-called “lawless” months after Hurricane Katrina and the way crime is reported in our 24 hour news cycle, many are afraid to go to what they think is the “wrong side of town.”

But Tremé’s history is no stranger to outsider fear. In the early days of New Orleans, it was the home of Congo Square, a gathering place for enslaved people each Sunday. Many residents were concerned, as were the local police, by the activity there. Following the Civil War, it became the birthplace of jazz music, the audio accompanying any tourists’ idea of the city.

 

In the early days of New Orleans, it was the home of Congo Square, a gathering place for enslaved people each Sunday.

Today, Amy Stelly believes Tremé has two sides: “When it was founded, it was a melting pot of Italians and free people of color intermingling. But growing up here I realized that the white people I saw were mostly shop owners, not residents.”

It was fitting that within view of where we drank our coffee was the Tremé community center, where Amy Stelly first dipped her toes into community activism. A few winters ago, three women including Stelly noticed the water in the pool was cold. That, coupled with the noticeable mold on the ceilings was enough for them to raise their voices. Since Amy Stelly’s background was in building design and she’s a self-described “loud mouth”, she quickly became the voice of the concerns.

Since that day, Stelly has been quoted in several community news stories regarding the needs of the Tremé neighborhood. She admitted to me that at times it’s threatened her career, saying she’s very selective about who she works for because of her “quirky personality.”

“I was labeled as an activist, which makes me a danger or risk for brand image. When you don't mind criticizing the mayor in front of his friends, you're labeled a certain way. But I would do it again.”

Pausing for a moment she clarified in a manner that makes me certain of the truth in her words, “I will do it again.”

Stelly’s latest cause is rebelling against the city’s proposal for a remodel of the Claiborne Corridor in the Tremé area. The Claiborne Corridor isn’t a place you’d go for an afternoon stroll right now. Amy Stelly wants to change that. Right now, the city plans to place 60 shipping containers under the I-10 overpass to create a new business district.

 Photo: Aimée Lapeyre

Photo: Aimée Lapeyre

 

While Stelly doesn’t think the motivation behind the project is flawed, she thinks the planned execution is. She hopes to hold a community design clinic to address the proposal from the city of New Orleans, which is slated to be unveiled at a neighborhood summit on December 2nd.

“We were challenged to come up with a better idea than what the city has. I don't think that'll be difficult at all.” Stelly believes in the community and thinks their collective creativity can come up with a better plan that will better serve the neighborhood.

The project was spearheaded by city officials who are blind to what the neighborhood actually needs, and Stelly is focused on making sure the city listens to its residents. Her top priority is the health of the community. The group of residents working toward this goal has an opportunity to work with an earth scientist, which she believes will help them to better understand how to best suit the local community and surrounding environment.

“Land use is a treacherous thing. Planning affects people for fifty years. When you make a decision, people in the community are burdened in it for a long time,” Amy remarked.

Anyone who’s ever opened their fridge to grab the milk carton only to find it wasn’t where they left it understands Amy’s point. The city wants to build something for a community that doesn’t exist, while Stelly hopes to design something that they can actually use. Our conversation left me feeling like they have a long road ahead of them, as city projects often do. But Stelly radiated energy during our conversation, which I believe will make her successful.

“Land use is a treacherous thing. Planning affects people for fifty years. When you make a decision, people in the community are burdened in it for a long time,”

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When dealing with city departments, there’s a lot of red tape and bureaucracy. Unreturned phone calls to be followed up on, requirements and hoops to jump through from each department, and a lack of concern from your fellow residents are just a few battles Stelly knows first hand. But for her, improving the community that she made her home in is fueling her.

Remarking on her southern identity, she told me she feels a special attachment to New Orleans in particular, “When I briefly lived in Florida I stood out like a sore thumb. Here, I'm just like the other crazy people who walk up and down the street.”

“When I briefly lived in Florida I stood out like a sore thumb. Here, I'm just like the other crazy people who walk up and down the street.”

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I’m reminded of a quote, however cheesy it may sound, from Steve Jobs, when she said this:

“Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do.”
 

-- J.K.