In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, three New Orleans businessmen and civic leaders, Gerry Barousse, Mike Rodrigue and Gary Solomon, teamed up to play an inspirational role in the rebirth of their beloved city. Their effort to rebuild New Orleans through the creation of the Bayou District Foundation led to demonstrable results in the standard of living and people’s lives. They are part of a new, emerging brand of leadership that we should applaud and support nationally.
Two months after the storm, many people doubted whether certain parts of their city would ever recover. Gerry, Mike and Gary believed otherwise. They decided to focus their attention in the former St. Bernard public housing development, which was largely destroyed by the floods. They created the Bayou District Foundation, a nonprofit that served, to use a football metaphor, as a “community quarterback” for one of the greatest rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. Working with Columbia Residential as its development partner and the Housing Authority of New Orleans, they contacted displaced residents in New Orleans and across the country, engaging those who wanted to shape the new development with their input.
The three men were inspired to take on this enormous challenge after visiting the East Lake neighborhood in Atlanta, where businessman and philanthropist Tom Cousins championed the revitalization of one of the most dangerous and under-invested parts of the city. What the three men saw at East Lake provided a vision for what was possible: a revitalization that could have impact far beyond neighborhood boundaries.
Gerry Barousse, Mike Rodrigue and Gary Solomon understood the potential for a better future for New Orleans that could be accomplished through civic and business leadership. Over the past nine years, the Bayou District Foundation, with Columbia Residential, has led the development of 685 new, high-quality mixed-income apartments at Columbia Parc. Now it’s a fully leased development that is a safe and welcoming environment full of families and individuals spanning a wide range of ages.
Before the storm in 2005, the St. Bernard public housing development was only 72% occupied, according to the Housing Authority of New Orleans, due to the deteriorating condition of the buildings. In addition, it was an unsafe environment for families and children. From 2001 to 2005, there were 684 felonies and 42 murders within the 52-acre site.
Today, crime is virtually nonexistent. All residents of Columbia Parc are either employed, in school, in a vocational training program, or retired, and incomes of residents represent a healthy mix, from low income to those earning six-figure salaries. It is a community where people want to live that offers paths out of poverty for the lowest income residents.
The Bayou District Foundation also partnered with Educare to create an early childhood education center on the campus serving 167 children ages 0-5; created a health clinic with St. Thomas Community Health Center which serves more than 300 patients per month; and will break ground on a new K-8 charter school in 2016.
The leaders of the Bayou District Foundation are taking risks and making long term commitments, tackling issues that have bedeviled American society for generations. They are investing their reputations, connections, political capital and even their philanthropy in neighborhoods that have long suffered from the effects of concentrated poverty. Neighborhoods like this exist in just about every city across the country. The question is, why would leaders like this want to invest in them, and to what end?
The answer is that these leaders care about people and results. They believe that if given the opportunity to grow up and live in a healthy community, every child can succeed in school and achieve their full potential. It sounds idealistic, and it is, but there is now a track record of work in several fields that demonstrates this is no pipe dream.
At Purpose Built Communities, we are looking for more leaders who are not afraid to embark on a difficult path working with the community to transform neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, change lives, and ultimately, create a better country. We should all recognize and support this brand of leadership that can make a real difference in urban areas across the country.