There's a corner lot deep in the heart of New Orleans' Seventh Ward that looks and smells like a freshly mowed front lawn. It's where neighbors, mostly men, mostly middle-aged, have met for years to toss horseshoes, catch up and enjoy a beer or two in the sweltering Southern sunshine. They care for a flock of wild chickens and cheer on young kids playing football.
Empty lots in New Orleans are hardly unusual. Especially since Hurricane Katrina, they've come to pepper the city, a depressing reminder of the storm's devastation. Many of them are trashed, overgrown and — too often — magnets for crime. But the corner of North Roman and Columbus is different.
"If you're the first one [out in the lot], you know in about five minutes, someone's going to come outside and join you," says Renald Edwards, a big, barrel-chested guy known, for some reason, as Dinky. "We keep the lot straight, cut the grass."
Most of the guys on the lot were born and grew up in one of the neatly kept single-story houses in shades of white and beige (also known as "double shotgun camelbacks") that line this working-class block. Their irregular gatherings initially didn't mean much to the new residents — many of them young and white — trickling into the neighborhood. Then came Katrina, the storm that changed everything.
Rachel Breunlin was a high school teacher who lived near the lot but never really noticed the guys until she made it back, after being evacuated. In the new book Cornerstones, which she helped edit, Breunlin writes:
Most of our neighbors weren't home yet and I felt this desperation for signs that the blocks would fill with families again. ... After a few weeks, I started to see a group of older men hanging on Roman and Columbus. I introduced myself and realized this corner had a real presence.
Breunlin attributes that presence to a neighbor, Terry Joseph, who raised five kids in his house next to the lot. Their neighborhood took it as a sign of recovery when, soon after the storm, Joseph went outside and started barbecuing. Breunlin went on to co-found a group called The Neighborhood Story Project that empowers New Orleanians to document their communities in books. She dedicated a chapter to the lot.
Over the following months, I'd often end up there with a Heineken in my hand talking about the struggles of rebuilding. For a while, I thought everyone was there because of the trauma of the storm, and the irregular schedules we were all keeping while trying to get things back together. It soon became clear that Terry had been hosting for years and that I'd just been too busy before Katrina to really notice.
The lot became a point of community pride. In the wake of the storm, it brought neighbors together, people previously separated by race, age and class. It helped them become friends, even family.
"That gang on the corner is lifesavers," says 78-year-old lifetime resident Evie Antoine. "I swear, you holler one time, you get five to help you. They're good people. That's people, baby."
The lot is private property. It belongs to Pat O'Brien, a cheerful woman who moved to the neighborhood in 1969 and lives in a beautifully renovated Creole Cottage a few blocks away. O'Brien demolished a blighted old apartment building that had been standing on the lot, initially to create a community garden.
"But instead it evolved into something of its own," she says. "It's a very nice community gathering spot."
What if developers came knocking? Would she sell the lot? O'Brien shakes her head, laughing.
"If we have an oil well, I'll put up a rig," she declares. "Otherwise, no. It will stand as a community endeavor."