A Water Block Party
For many New Orleanians, Gentilly is home. The neighborhood spreads from the sunny shores of Bayou St. John to the spreading live oaks of Pontchartrain Park, and is home to thousands of families deeply rooted in the city. It is both racially and socio-economically diverse; with expansive homes on wide avenues and walk-up apartments, packed tightly around the lakefront campuses of the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans.
As Atianna Cordova will tell you, Gentilly has a complex relationship with water. A designer, researcher, and educator born and raised in New Orleans, Cordova is the director of Water Block, a startup which uses technology to provide a culturally sensitive community planning tool for managing storm water, and other development projects, at the neighborhood block level. Her work demystifies the complex environmental systems underlying both New Orleans’ streets and flowing powerfully through the histories of the city.
Water Block’s community engagement includes workshops which incorporate art and storytelling, similar to Paper Monuments’ process, with a focus on communities’ relationships with water. Cordova focuses her work in communities which are underrepresented in the profession's water management and disaster resiliency planning, including Black communities and working-class neighborhoods.
Gentilly’s story begins with the swamp, home to rich plant and animal life in the time of Houma, Choctaw and Chitimacha settlement. Apart from the Indigenous trails hugging the high ground along what is now called the Gentilly Ridge, the land that is now the neighborhood was often underwater, and flooded often, as high water from Lake Pontchartrain flowed directly into the woods and grasslands. In the French and Spanish colonial era, Africans like Juan San Malo who escaped from enslavement settled in the swamps, forming Maroon colonies and using the wetland environment as a means to evade those who would capture them.
Small farms were developed along the Gentilly Ridge in the 19th century, but the swampy ground proved difficult to develop until A. Baldwin Wood’s screw pump and drainage planning realized the vision of a modern drainage canal system. Levees were built along the London Avenue Canal, which cut from the back of the Seventh Ward, alongside the home of newly consolidated Dillard University, straight to the lake. Beginning along the ridge and the lakefront high ground built by the Orleans Levee District in the 1930s, spacious Spanish Revival and Craftsman-style homes for middle-class and wealthy people were developed.
Guided by federal policies known as ‘redlining’, developers used deed restrictions to prevent the sale of these homes to people racialized as Black, creating a segregated all-White neighborhood of homeowners not far from the Black community of the segregated St. Bernard public housing projects, built in 1942. The acute need for housing built for middle-class Black people after World War II led a group of civil rights organizations and philanthropists, including Rosa Freeman Keller, to advocate for the development of Pontchartrain Park on the neighborhood’s eastern side in the mid-1950s.
As the remainder of the neighborhood was developed in the era of school desegregation, civil rights legislation and White flight, some White homeowners left, but many remained to live alongside new Black neighbors. New developments filled in vacant tracts, but unlike in the early 20th century, many homes were built slab-on-grade, instead of raised. The practice of pumping storm water into the canals kept streets dry, but also dried out the soil, which compacted and sank up to eight feet below the level of the former swamps.
Water in the canals, however, still flowed at the same level - sea level. The greatest disaster of Hurricane Katrina, as many New Orleanians know, was not the rain or wind but the rupture of canal floodwalls. About 9 AM on August 29, 2005, one of these breaks exploded onto Warrington Drive, sending 10 feet of water into the ranch-style houses of Fillmore Gardens. The water killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands, whose long road home was often blocked by legacies of redlining practices, discriminatory policies, and poor recovery planning.
The Water Block Party, latest in a series of engagement events Cordova has hosted, aims to draw out New Orleanians’ relationships to water across the spectrum. From stories of the Katrina flood to memories of squirtgun fights, Water Block’s process uses community members’ experiences to explain the past, present, and future of humans’ relationship with water in New Orleans. Local artists led friends and neighbors in painting a mural illustrating community plans for living with water, while organizations distributed native plants, information on water management projects, and - in our case - Paper Monument posters.
We’re thankful for the dozens who stopped by to learn more about the People’s Process to create new monuments which represent the people, places, movements and events which shape New Orleans. And we’re grateful to Atianna, the Cordova family and all who helped make the Water Block Party on Warrington Drive the place to be last Saturday!