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NEW ORLEANS — Before Hurricane Katrina, there were three markets in Mary Thomas' Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood where she might have found shrimp to make herself a sandwich. But a decade after her five grueling days at the Superdome, there’s only Cajun Joe’s: a bodega surrounded by abandoned, blighted lots that on a lucky day has fresh food.
Despite the economic development efforts focused on the energy and tourism industries touted by local authorities, “We look like the storm just hit,” the 72-year-old Thomas says of her neighborhood. “They don’t want to give us anything, because they want us out of here,” she added, referring to the local government. There have been several attempts to gentrify her neighborhood post-Katrina — Donald Trump at one point was set to turn it into “a Las Vegas Strip,” Thomas says with a chortle.
At Cajun Joe’s, there’s little behind the counter other than chocolate bars, chips, cigarettes and a bucket of pickled sausages sold by a Chinese-American woman from behind a bulletproof case.
“You have shrimps?” Thomas asks. The woman behind the glass shakes her head. “No? Frozen?”
“I felt like eating a shrimp sandwich,” said Thomas, dejected. She has a little shrimp at home, but “not enough to share” with her daughter and grandson; her 48-year-old daughter moved in after suffering a stroke two years ago.
If she could drive, Thomas would go to the predominantly white neighborhood of St. Bernard Parish, where she says stores may take her money, but they won’t like it.
Almost home and still empty-handed, Thomas stops at an urban garden launched in 2006 by Nat Turner, named for the legendary leader of an 1831 slave uprising in Virginia. This Nat Turner taught social studies and debate at New York’s Beacon High School and drew media attention after a row with school authorities following a trip with his students to Cuba. The trip nearly cost him his job, were in not for what he says was the support of the teacher’s union and his attorneys.
Turner is on the grounds of his farm, separating a donated pile of produce from a Whole Foods in Uptown New Orleans into that which remains fresh enough to eat, and the rest that will be used for compost. He has no shrimp farm, but he gives Thomas a bag of ruby-red strawberries.
Turner's project – Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) – was launched in 2006, and pays local youth to help grow produce to sell to New Orleans’ burgeoning foodie community. Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse is a buyer; his acclaimed restaurant, Delmonico’s, purchases arugula. So, too, do the restaurants of star chef John Besh. Just last month, Turner received over $300 in checks from local eateries in a single day. The small-scale production can rake in over $2,000 a week, but still experiences a minor slump in New Orleans’ short, typically forgiving, winter.
Thomas likes the garden, not just because, as she says, “fresh gives it a better flavor” that not many local residents are used to, but also in part for ideological reasons. She sees the project as an echo of similar efforts in the 1970s, when the black community was working to develop alternatives to an economic system many are again saying keeps their communities down.
“If we had more freedom to think about economic independence like Nat,” Thomas says, “you’d learn to take care of yourself.”
Turner aims to help the economically blighted local community benefit from the tourist and culinary-enthusiast dollars flowing more freely elsewhere in the city. “Let’s turn the craze [for organic, locally grown food] into an economic development engine,” Turner said of his idea. But the project, which originally aimed to tutor local children and promote a sustainable community, has fallen on hard times.
The schoolhouse where Turner had hoped to offer local youth tutoring and GED prep has been closed since July 2013, when Turner says 11 different inspectors told him the property wasn't up to code — even if, unlike many inhabited dwellings in town, the roof and walls are all intact.
“They were there for 15 minutes and cut our electricity as we were in the middle of harvesting vegetables with kids and getting ready to deliver to restaurants,” Turner said. “One of the city inspectors said, 'You must have pissed somebody off. I've never seen this many inspectors on a single site.' ”
Around the same time, what Turner and OSBG stalwarts — his husband, Rob Huffman, and two of his former students from his days in New York, Alex Goldman and Sam Turner (no family relation) — say were disagreements over the direction of the project saw OSBG lose five staff members. What followed was a phenomenon Turner has become used to, even from his days in New York City.
“Someone called Donna Blair, of the Blair Grocery family” who had given Turner their former grocery store for his community project “and was saying I was dealing drugs out of the building,” Turner said. “If I was dealing drugs here, they'd take my money and my drugs and kill me. Ain't nobody who's not from here gonna sell no drugs.”
His neighbor across the street from the complex that houses the original schoolhouse, the farm and the home where Turner, his partner and an intern from Tulane live, vouched for him. Deacon Kevin “Scooter” Turner (no relation to Nat), laughed when Blair called him to ask about alleged drug dealing.
Turner believes the slander started with disgruntled ousted employees, all of which have reportedly since left New Orleans and were not immediately available for comment to Al Jazeera.
More calls were made, this time to the United States Department of Agriculture, which had funded OSBG, and restaurants buying OSBG crops, saying that Turner was laundering funds.
An article in local newspaper The Lens questioned Turner's finances. OSBG members admit that, as a project just launching and dealing primarily in cash given to local children for work, it was hard to keep track of where the money had been spent.
“Our funding was gone for eight months” before USDA auditors cleared Turner and OSBG, said Sam Turner, a project organizer. “We could have passed it quicker if we had kept better finances. You gotta do finances. If we had just had the foresight.”
Al Jazeera obtained a copy of the USDA letter clearing OSBG of the allegations.
At the time, it seemed like a concerted effort to Nat Turner. “Back in the old days, they used to have COINTELPRO purposely seek to destroy social justice organizations, pit them against each other, destroy trust, undermine. They might still be around now, who knows,” Turner said, referring to the covert FBI program of the 1960s that sought to weaken black political activism across the United States and targeted key leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
“I can't say that it is COINTELPRO. I felt like there were people, I generally refer to them as immature revolutionaries,” Turner said. “They have an idea of how the project should function, and if they don't get their way, they would seek to destroy.”
Turner says he's used to being maligned – he patched up relationships with restaurants that stopped buying from him and moved on.
“Turner doesn't know all the sh*t Turner has been involved in: He's friends with Castro … He can roll a cig with one hand, he walks on water, stole from the USDA,” said Turner.
Friend of Castro
If Turner is guilty of anything with OSBG, it's being a step ahead of the times, he says. It wouldn't be the first time.
Eight years before the Obama Administration moved to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba, Turner fell afoul of the New York City Department of Education after he and a group of students from Beacon traveled to the communist-ruled island. Not formally authorized by the City's Department of Education — although previous trips had been — the students and parents had decided to visit Cuba privately, and that Turner would travel along in a personal capacity.
“I was not a chaperon – that's important to make clear. The parents wanted to go. The parents said, 'We'll chaperon the trip, it doesn't happen to be a school trip.’ I happened to be flying on the same plane,” he says with a subversive smile.
“A couple of days later was a blur,” he said. “My principal went through the roof.”
And not just his principal. Turner received death threats, he says, from Cuban-Americans in Miami after the trip.
“Teacher Nat Turner and about a dozen of his Beacon students traveled to Cuba this month to check out life in a workers’ paradise,” the New York Post wrote in an opinion piece published shortly after. “Now, we fully understand that American lefties remain nostalgic for Stalinist despotism.”
Despite what local New York news reports said, Turner was not fired, nor was his teacher's license stripped, although that was almost the case. He says he left a gentrifying school that had once served a diverse New York community to take up the challenge of economic empowerment in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. The New York City Department of Education said that Turner had “irrevocably resigned” and is “not eligible for future employment.”
“We need to push the envelope more. The civil rights movement got us so far. These ideas of finding democracy in a meaningful way are out there, and sometimes it's hard. And sometimes maybe you push too fast,” he said, referring to OSBG and his Cuba experience.
“Maybe I was just ahead of my time,” he said. “I wouldn't have trouble with Cuba, if I'd have done it tomorrow.”
Commenters on the Lens article on Turner's finances cited Turner's Cuba experience and derided him as a Communist.
But Turner takes inspiration for the project from the socialist administration of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He cited the example of the Barlovento community that sold chocolate beans. “They don't make much off just the chocolate beans, and so what Hugo Chávez did was build them a factory so they could have a finished chocolate bar product they could sell to the world. There's a lot more wealth creation in finished chocolate bars than raw cacao beans,” Turner said.
Still, OSBG isn't trying to recreate any pre-existing economic model, even socialism. At a recent meeting of local business and community advocates, a representative from a New Orleans charity told Turner and others that their organization had been doing charity in the town for 300 years. “I got up and said, if you've been working for 300 years, maybe it's time for something different. And there was dead silence. I don't know; made sense to me,” Turner said.
“If there are tastes of socialism in the project, that's fine,” said Alex Goldman, OSBG's service learning coordinator. “There are also aspects of capitalism. It's not a compartmentalized idea we've tried to uphold.”
“We're trying to create something new that's going to be good for people in a lot of ways,” said Goldman. “It's not a reinvention thing. It's a creation thing.”
Turner vacillates between despair and dogged optimism in describing his current work. In one breath, he'll say his former staff “destroyed” his project. In the next, it hasn't been destroyed — it's undergoing a rapid transformation.
“We're going to get this nut cracked,” he says, unflinchingly. He plans to purchase the entire block where his farm is located. OSBG currently occupies about a fourth of a city block. The rest is comprised of blighted, abandoned plots of land, where the owners never returned after Hurricane Katrina.
The upcoming documentary “Reversing the Mississippi”will show at film festivals across the country this year, detailing OSBG's journey thus far. Turner hopes screenings will help secure funds for his project. He has also reached out to internationally acclaimed artist Swoon, who years ago painted the side of the now-empty schoolhouse, to help fundraise to revive the schoolhouse and expand the project.
If Turner has learned anything from his travails, he says its what the Occupy Wall Street campaign had to learn about a leaderless movement – it doesn't come easily.
“It's just going to take a while,” said Turner. “Considering I started the project with $12 to my name, that's not bad.”
What OSBG has already achieved gives Mary Thomas something – if not exactly what she wanted – to bring home to her three-generation household. “I love it when they've got stuff I can use. Saves me at the grocery store.” What's more, “I like the idea of using a garden to bring money here. I wish.”