Friday, January 13, 2012

Of Blight and Circumstance

EDIT 1/19/12: Thanks to all of you for your support. There is now a Ku's House Facebook page to coordinate information, updates and requests for help/volunteers. Please head over to Ku's House Facebook Page
We all know that there is blight in some neighborhoods in New Orleans. We also know that some people are taking advantage of that blight to knock down homes, buy them for a song to fix up cheaply and rent out, or just to get a neighbor they have a grudge against up against a bureaucratic wall. Since the storm we've seen that happen all over town. In some cases blight complaints have ruined lives, dreams, futures.

Here in my neighborhood sits a beautiful old shotgun house. Built in 1866, it's the oldest house on our block. It was once occupied by members of the Tujague family. Mrs. Tujague had a niece who was her particular favorite. That niece was a member of the Poor Clare order, who had been shuttled hither and yon due to various diocesan edicts for many years. Although the Order had been invited to New Orleans around 1877, they had left for Cleveland for a while. Upon their return, Mrs. Tujague's niece was now Mother Mary Magdalen, the head of the local order, and the nuns moved into the house and used it as a base of operations from about June 16, 1885 until they built a proper monastery.

Now that is a great New Orleans story. But here's another one.

Kweku Nyaawie grew up in Central Texas based mostly out of Austin. A carpenter and cabinet maker, he came to New Orleans with his brother to help out with reconstruction of homes damaged by the Federal Flood in late 2005. He saw the destruction first hand and continued to work and save his money. At some point he decided to stay. He wanted to contribute to the community, buy a house, make it a home not a speculation project and found the shotgun at 616 Port Street. It needed work, but he knew he was the guy who could do it. He looked for period architectural pieces, was painstaking in his research, checked the history of the house, delighted in knowing that he'd be the one to restore this little bit of New Orleans history with the added bonus of living in it.

He got involved with the Community Garden Project in Treme and put his money and time into fixing the house. Long after the Poor Clares, the house had been purchased by a Mr. Frisbe, who lived there with his partner from 1977 until he passed away. His partner continued to live there until the storm. Kweku, or Ku as we all call him, bought it already needing repair in 2008. He loved working on the house and loved that it was exactly 100 years older than he was. When we moved here we knew him to say hello but never saw him because he was always at the Garden or working on that house.

Then came the summer of 2010. As Ku was riding his bicycle on Dumaine Street in the Sixth Ward, a black sedan hit him. Hard. Knocked completely off the bike, he watched as the car sped away without even checking to see if Ku was alright. He headed to his girlfriend's house battered, bruised and scratched badly. He didn't go to the ER as he thought he was just healing from some bad road rash and deep bruises. Knowing him now, my guess is that he also figured he'd just tough it out and he'd be fine. Weeks went by. His back still hurt. Months went by. His back still hurt. Then in December 2010 he realized that his legs wouldn't quite support his 6'3” frame. He headed off to the doctor but realized that he couldn't get the help he'd need here in New Orleans, he couldn't work so money was also an issue (given that the bastard who hit him took off, there was no insurance money coming in to help with medical bills), so he made the decision to move back to Austin and his family. Those of us who knew him were worried as we didn't hear from him.

He was busy. He spent nearly 14 months in therapy and is still on crutches with his legs still unable to support him. Although he's the most positive attitude guy in the world, he's also a proud man and a man who loves his house. He is unfortunately learning the lesson many of us learned after the storm: sometimes you gotta ask for help.

A few weeks ago he got a letter from the City. A hearing. Blight. Neighbors complaining. (We're neighbors, we couldn't figure out who would complain knowing how hard he'd worked and knowing what had happened to him.) At the hearing it was discovered that one complaint had come from a doctor (a DOCTOR? Wouldn't he know how devastatingly long spinal cord injuries can take to heal?) because some vines had overgrown the fence and were interfering with his backyard garden. (This doctor is also the owner of a lot of property on our block.) Evidently Ku's next door neighbor, an absentee homeowner and an attorney who lives in the house intermittently, wanted Ku's house demolished. Ku was given a list of things that had to be fixed or a $500 a day fine would be levied.(Although he wouldn't probably bring it up, he's one of only 2 black property owners on the four sides of this block, and some of us, though not Ku, can't help but wonder if that's a part of these complaints.)

Ku sat in an office chair for a week sanding the front of the house in order to get it ready for painting. Stand across from it and you can see how far the outer limit of his reach is, which frankly from a desk chair is impressive. Today he's working on the bricks that front the house from the sidewalk to the base of the house. Siding needs to be replaced for sure. His brother had been able to help for a while, but we heard he recently got a job so he's on his own for the moment and his next hearing is a week from today.

I am asking anyone out there who can help, who can climb a ladder, sand, paint, write a letter, anything that can toss a road block into the $500 buck a day fine that he can't afford, to get in touch.

This is the guy you WANT for a neighbor. This is the man you WANT to settle in New Orleans, buy property and make it home. This is the man you WANT to fix up an historically interesting home and not fill it with press board cheap fixes to rent out at an exhorbitant rate. We're outraged that knowing his situation, some of our neighbors chose this time, when he's most vulnerable, to call his home out as a blighted property. It's just not fair. It's also not JUST.

We know Mardi Gras is early this year. We're all tossing glitter around our living rooms and keeping feathers out of our cats' mouths and eating more King Cake than is good for us. I'm glad we're doing that. It's a part of New Orleans life and we love it. Kweku chose to set down roots here and become a part of the New Orleans community. There have to be some of us willing to help him, just as people like him helped us when we needed it.

Don't let a hit and run driver who changed his life be joined by hit and run neighbors with their petty complaints to the blight police. He chose to join us. He chose to come back to fight for his home. We need to choose to help him so he remembers why he wanted to join us here in the first place.

Please contact me if you can volunteer some time, some clout, some information. If we can build a float, we can paint a house.

Old Mrs. Tujague and Mother Mary Magdalen would want us to.