The long road back
Sports are a key part of recovery in Lower Ninth Ward
Posted: Tuesday August 21, 2007 12:13PM; Updated: Tuesday August 21, 2007 5:42PM
Calvin Bernard feels sick. The pain starts in his chest, runs down his arm, and then stabs him right where it began. A heart attack, he thinks. But it's just another spell of anxiety, the panic of remembering what he once had, like awakening from a nightmare to find relief in the morning, only to realize the dream is real.
Before Katrina, Bernard lived in a house in the Lower Ninth Ward with his wife, Sharlene. Down the street was Alfred Lawless High, where Bernard once walked the halls and where his children went to school some 20 years later. There was a playground around the corner that on summer evenings would fill with laughter and the thud of basketballs on concrete, young people buzzing about the neighborhood like mosquitoes, their parents sitting on porches, playing music while savoring the relief of cool air exhaled by nightfall.
But now it's quiet.
"I've lost everything," says Bernard, 52, leaning over a foldout chair in an empty driveway. "I lost my house. I lost my wife. The last time we spoke, I was ready to send for her from Baton Rouge. Next thing I know, I get a call from my daughter saying, 'Mama is missing.' And I said, 'Baby girl, I'm on my way.'"
It took eight months for Bernard to find Sharlene's body under the pile of rubble that was left of their home.
"I can't look at this place and not cry," he says.
There's an odd sense of awareness when one listens to a man who has lost what he loved most in the world. The feeling turns to unease when talking to him about matters that don't weigh quite so heavily, like sports. So asking Bernard if he ever threw the winning touchdown for his school team, or hit a shot just before the buzzer at the Alfred Lawless gym, felt like interrupting a soldier telling his most horrific war stories to find out his favorite flavor of ice cream.
But Bernard is nothing but accommodating. He's relaxed and looks up through his tired eyes and replies that he had run track. "I was fast back then," says, pausing for a moment before giving a half-smile.
The truth is that sports matter more than ever in New Orleans. Every pitch thrown, every pass from a high school quarterback, every lap around a track is a sign of recovery. The lack of sports in the Lower Ninth Ward is symbolic of the lack of children there -- families who can't come back because of a weak infrastructure and a government that has failed them. Homes have been destroyed, sometimes leaving two or three concrete stairs that lead to nothing, and the ones still standing are branded with an X marking how many bodies were found on the property once the water levels went down. The abandoned streets eventually lead to a park where the Little League baseball field is overgrown, the bleachers cracked where they haven't been swept away by the flood.
"This was nice when I was a kid," says Dan Williams, a volunteer with the grassroots organization Common Ground. He walks over to first base, the position he played in middle school, and looks out onto the field. "To me, it was so much bigger then because I was so small. It doesn't look so big anymore, but back then, it was beautiful."
Success in the Lower Ninth is measured in much more fundamental increments than how many games are being played: running water, electricity, a small store to buy groceries. Wins are attained when basic signs of normalcy return: An elementary charter school on the edge of the neighborhood, a remodeled Baptist church with a kitchen, air conditioning and classrooms.
"I want to look around and say, 'I remember when I put up that wall,'" says Vincent Jerome Jackson, a contractor working on the building. "And when people get married, and they take pictures, they can say this church was laid out nice."
It's hard to imagine a wedding, looking around the overgrown and abandoned properties that surround the church. But the owner of the property that sits directly left of it has made it clear he plans to come back. On a stack of eight cinderblocks -- all that remains of his house -- is a baseball trophy from 2002. There's no name on the trophy, but it stands purposefully on its pulpit of concrete, overlooking items that give a glimpse of the family that had lived there: a coffee maker, a blue plaid bed sheet, a child's pajamas.
Whether or not this family will be able to return to the Lower Ninth remains to be seen. Only one fourth of the neighborhood's previous population is back, the remainder scattered in areas like Houston and inland Louisiana, and the government hasn't done much to bring them home. What the government has taken on is the Recovery School District, a state-run rescue effort of sorts to save low-performing New Orleans pubic schools. This year, 57 recovery schools (elementary and high school) are opening, 21 of which are privately run charter programs. Six of the 11 recovery high schools (non-charter) will field football teams. Warren Easton High, opened as a charter school approved by the New Orleans Parish School Board, is another school that will return for the first time since Katrina. The oldest public high school for boys in Louisiana, Easton hasn't won a football championship since 1942. Not that it matters. The Eagles roster is full for football season.
It's the same story for McDonogh 35, a public high school in Treme, whose Sept. 21 matchup with St. Augustine will be televised nationally. And also for John McDonogh High of the recovery district, once known more for a 2003 fatal school shooting than academics. Its players have practiced all summer with no ice machines, no working water fountains, no running water to take a shower. To top it off, only four players on the team have ever even played high school football before. But they're sweating it out, eager to look ahead instead of turning over their shoulder.
"I think teenagers are more resilient than we give them credit for," says Ron Gearing, athletic director for the New Orleans public schools. "They look back, see what happened, but they move on."
On the wall outside the Alfred Lawless gym is the name of the school's mascot, Pythians, painted in bright yellow. Next to each letter is a word: Perseverance, Youthful, Triumphant, Honesty, Intrepidity, Attitude, Noble, Superlative. These words once meant something to the students of Lawless.
And then a sign -- the most persuasive symbol of recovery in the Lower Ninth Ward that day, perhaps more meaningful that the few Habitat for Humanity homes every few blocks and the small fields of sunflowers planted by Common Ground -- arrives between Calvin Bernard's driveway and Alfred Lawless High.
It's a boy on his bike, heading toward the park.