Do-it-yourself activists, aiming to feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty and fix the broken homes of their neighbors
By Alex Martin / Newsday
On the day that Hurricane Rita frayed what was left of the nerves of this frazzled city, intensifying to a Katrina-like monster and jogging ever so slightly closer toward the Louisiana coastline, I turned 46 and met my first communitarian anarchist.
The birthday, the new hurricane, and the things I had seen in the 12 days I'd been in town had sent me on a meandering drive. First, I passed the hospital uptown where I was born. It was the same one where my oldest, Will, came into this world 17 years ago, the same one where 45 people left during Katrina and its aftermath.
Next, I stopped at the first of my childhood homes at 716 Frenchmen St. to make sure the "A" I'd chiseled into the low cement wall out front in 1971 was still there. And, finally, I headed for the house at 724 Desire St. that I considered home.
It had been quiet on the block when I had passed 10 days before to find bits of its vinyl siding blown into the front yard. But on this Wednesday the house next door was bustling with people and a sign proclaimed the "Common Ground Collective in Da Nint' Ward," the last three words mimicking the southern-fried Brooklynese of locals, like me, who are called Yats.
I walked up to the folding tables and chairs under the sagging collection of tarps and introduced myself as a newspaper reporter from New York, one who'd grown up in that house right over there.
"You're Red's son?" a woman named Leenie Halbert asked.
Yes, Red Martin was my father. Leenie had lived next to Red and my mother, Jeanne, for about 8 years. I'd never met her. My father was one of those old men who made the daily rounds of the neighborhood, chatting up whomever he met. So Leenie knew about his son in New York, knew how Red hung out with other old men at Fraidy's corner store, knew how he watched Jerry Springer with the volume turned way past LOUD, knew how lost he was after my mother died, knew if he'd still been alive when Katrina had struck that he never would have left home.
Leenie is the co-chair of the Green Party of Louisiana. She said she works just enough in music publishing to pay the bills. "I do what I need to do and spend the rest of my time on activism," she said. "I live pretty frugally."
She had come back into town with some of the aforementioned communitarian anarchists - people who believe in do-it-yourself action within small groups - and some folks from the peace group Food Not Bombs. Her aim was to feed the hungry and bring water to the thirsty, to fix the broken homes of her neighbors and to offer a sense of community in their deserted streets.
It's easy to dismiss idealists and their passions. The folks who made up the collective had all the slogans, the George W. Bush punching bag under a sign that said "Therapy Center," the campers and a couple of old blue buses that would make it so easy to turn them into clichés.
Whatever Leenie and her friends called themselves and whatever they believed, though, they were doing a good thing. "I just wanted to bring love back to my neighborhood," she said.
Two days before Katrina hit, Leenie had fled in a van with her friend Camilla Brewer and their dogs. First, they camped in Athens, Ga., but the guy who ran the campground had ferrets, which didn't mix too well with the hounds. Then, they headed over to Asheville, N.C., where they slept in a public park next to a friend's house. Then to the Pumpkin Hollow Collective in Tennessee, and finally, to a camp in Covington, La., across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, run by the group Vets for Peace. Leenie began what she called "recon trips" into the city.
"After about a week of coming in and out," she said, "I felt pretty comfortable that we could have a supply line."
She joined with her friend Andrea Garland, who lives nearby on St. Claude Avenue, to take a census of who was in the neighborhood and develop a route to drop off food. People also began coming to Leenie's house to use her wireless telephone or log onto her laptop, which can link to the Internet through the cell phone system.
"We got here, and, within one day, people were showing up," Leenie said. "Folks come in and out all day long, eat, pick up toilet paper, whatever. This is the fifth day trying to do this here full-time."
Leenie and Randall Amster, a reformed lawyer from Arizona who teaches peace studies and works with Food Not Bombs, marveled at the relationship that has developed between the collective and the Oregon National Guard and other military and law enforcement units.
"We've seen about every flavor of law enforcement you could possibly see," Randall said. "In this case, the energy shifts a little bit. They seem in some weird way to be a part of the community ... we're both trying to restore order and normalcy in our own way. We're plugged into the same effort to keep the place whole."
Leenie told me her story as we walked the sidewalks of Bywater where the streets have names like Desire and Piety, Independence and Congress. (The neighborhood remained dry this weekend after Hurricane Rita.) Near the rubble of a warehouse full of propane tanks that blew up right after the storm when firefighters could only watch it burn, she spied something on the ground.
"Oh, there's a lucky penny," she said, picking it up "You need that in these times."
About 4 p.m., they tried to organize the food routes for the day. Unfortunately, things were a little more anarchic than collective - one of the volunteers left with the list in his truck.
After it was sorted out, Leenie hopped in a camper driven by Randall. The first stop was Miss Ginger's around the corner from my old house on Frenchmen Street. Miss Ginger appeared to be a mister, which is not uncommon in Faubourg Marigny, and everyone just went with it, dropping off some red beans and rice, as well as a can of tuna that looked as if it contained a whole fish.
When Leenie said she wanted to get "our city back to normal as much as possible," she meant she wanted it back to a place hospitable to Miss Ginger and Railroad Bill and No-Nose Louie and Slim from Fraidy's, which is pretty abnormal for most everywhere else. She wants to save New Orleans' character and its characters.
She's afraid that plans are being made that will change her city, cutting out the poor and the different in favor of the prosperous and the generic.
"People are really happy to see us," Leenie said. "It's just organic happiness, and that makes us happy because we're practicing our beliefs. We hope it will leave a legacy of concerned New Orleanians who can have a say in rebuilding our city."
I leave them at Miss Ginger's, and come back Friday with 64 pounds of ice as Newsday's contribution to communitarian anarchy and homegrown characters like Miss Ginger and Railroad Bill.
Rita is whipping up a little wind and rain. Leenie and Randall are preparing to go to Washington for Saturday's peace march in the blue buses, a decision that clearly leaves Leenie conflicted. The collective will relocate to Andrea's place until Leenie gets back.
As we said goodbye, this woman who I had met only 24 hours before hugged me for the third time, and she told me she was glad I stopped by.
"It was like seeing Red again," she said.
And even with Rita causing all of us in New Orleans to worry again, that made me organically happy.
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