Houston, Texas, January 4, 2006 — Nine New Orleans musicians and visual artists displaced by Hurricane Katrina found refuge in one of the most serendipitous places possible: an affordable housing development created especially for artists. Now sculptors, jewelers, singers, dancers, Web site designers, and jazz musicians from Houston and New Orleans live side-by-side in a historic building renovated by Avenue CDC, a Houston NeighborWorks network affiliate, in partnership with Artspace Projects Inc.
“It’s been a godsend,” said Lolet Boutté, a New Orleans visual artist who moved into the Elder Street artist lofts with her daughter, a jazz singer. One of her favorite parts of living in the artist’s housing is the spontaneous interactions among the residents. “It’s like living in a dormitory,” said Boutté. “We walk to each others’ apartments in our pajamas.” This collegial atmosphere inspired the artists to form a consortium to support each others’ work and to generate referrals.
When Hurricane Katrina first hit, the leaders of Avenue CDC knew they wanted to help. “We’re not an emergency services agency—we’re primarily a community development organization,” said executive director Mary Lawler. “But as a charitable organization, we felt a moral obligation to help in this time of such tremendous need.” In addition to the nine families living in the artist’s housing, 10 displaced families live in other buildings developed by Avenue CDC.
As a member of the national NeighborWorks network of more than 240 community development organizations, Avenue CDC received $55,000 in grants from NeighborWorks America to help cover the costs of helping Katrina evacuees. Most of the evacuees’ rent is being paid for by the city of Houston and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). For evacuees unable to access those resources, Avenue CDC is charging reduced rent or no rent.
Avenue CDC also hired a social worker, New Orleans evacuee Terris Eddington, to provide support to the New Orleans families. Eddington assists evacuees in obtaining furniture, medical and counseling services, as well as with placing children in Houston schools. Eddington, who had been in her final year of a graduate program in social work at Southern University at New Orleans, says she “got out of the city before the hurricane because I don’t know how to swim.” She visits each family once a week and gives out her personal cell phone number in case of emergency during her non-working hours. She knew many of the families before the hurricane in New Orleans. “All of my work with Avenue CDC is rewarding…just to meet the families and to go to them and say ‘we’re here to help.’”
Avenue CDC opened its 34-unit Elder Street artist lofts in October 2005, just after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region. Located in the former Jefferson Davis Hospital, the renovated neoclassic building is one of the few of its kind left in Houston and is considered a particularly good example of this architectural style. In addition, the organization and its partners are renovating the neighboring Winter Street Studios as part of an economic development project to encourage the growth of small businesses in the community. NeighborWorks America provided funding to Avenue CDC for the building’s purchase and renovation.
Back at the Elder Street artist lofts, the New Orleans jazz musicians are adding welcome diversity to the mix of residents, which had previously been dominated by visual artists. They play gigs all over Houston. “The jazz scene in Houston has really taken off,” said Lawler.
It’s too soon to tell whether the evacuees being served by Avenue CDC will return to New Orleans or make Houston their home. “Some people are content to stay in Houston,” said Eddington. “Others are in dire need to return to New Orleans.”
Boutté says she will stay in Houston until she feels New Orleans is safe enough for her to return. Though she enjoys life in the artist’s housing, the trauma of the hurricane still haunts her. After the hurricane, the 4-foot-11-inch artist waded through neck-high floodwaters to reach a dry highway overlooking the Superdome. She and many others waited there for help, which didn’t come until three days later. “Nobody brought us food or water,” she said.
Boutté was finally taken to Texas, not knowing where she was going or how she would return home. Boutté’s daughter, on tour at the time in Europe, had called a member of her band who lived in Houston to ask him to find her. The band member located Boutté in a Dallas shelter and asked her to stay with his family in Houston. Once in Houston, Boutté heard about the artist’s housing through other musicians.
“When we crossed the Texas border,” she said, “I felt like I was being treated like a human again.”
No matter how long the evacuees stay, Avenue CDC is determined to make them feel at home while they’re in Houston.
“I think the families we’re serving have been touched by the welcome they’re getting in Houston,” said Lawler. “I think they will thrive here. Out of all this bad, I think some good has come.”
For more information on Avenue CDC, visit www.avenuecdc.org. For more information on NeighborWorks America, visit www.nw.org.