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City Community Centers The Heartbeat Of Neighborhood Life

Derek Bridges

The term NORD is thrown around a lot in conversations about crime and public safety. It is actually NORDC now, which stands for the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission — the agency that oversees the playgrounds, ballparks, pools and sports teams that many see as the key to teaching kids community values.

NORDC community centers are often the heartbeat of neighborhood life, especially in the summer. However, when they’re closed — as many still are after Hurricane Katrina— the beat is gone.

Generations of locals still shout out to their home community center.

“I’m 31 and I grew up on the B.M. Palmer NORD camp site.” — Tasmine Fernandez.

“I’m 34, and the Tremé Center was my home NORD.” — Daniele Lewis. 

“52 years old. Carrollton Boosters.” — Mitch Landrieu.

“I am an adult female over 30. We would go to Taylor Park to swim.  Or Shakespeare Park or Lyons Center.” — Anika Glover

“I’m the chief executive officer of NORDC. I played little league football, baseball at Carrollton Boosters.” — Victor Richard

“I’ve been affiliated with Stalling since 17. I’m in my 50s. And me and my siblings, we’d go home, do homework, eat dinner, we in the park. We in the park till Mama say it’s time to come in.” — Susan Brady

NORD facilities used to blanket the city. But now there’s only a patchwork. For instance, in the 8th Ward the St. Roch Playground is cleared. At least the FEMA trailers are finally gone.

But Reggie Lawson, who lives across the street, says kids in the neighborhood don’t use it.

“There are kids in this neighborhood who have no concept of what NORD is,” Lawson says. He’s convinced that kids would have a place to spend their time if the area had a brick-and-mortar community center, not just a playing field.

“It gives kids activities, and activities lead to giving kids purpose, leads to giving kids a healthy social structure,” he says. “If they think about doing something dumb, there’s something there to deter that.”

Susan Brady is both an alum of the Stallings Center in the 9th Ward, closed since Katrina, and president of the New Saint Claude Association of Neighbors.

“We will develop programs that’ll meet some of the needs of these children, and we gonna make ’em all lead to one place: employment,” Brady says. “Employment opportunities.”

When construction on Stallings finally broke ground last month, Brady dreamed of a place that would meet all the needs of the neighborhood’s young people — classes in reading, writing, computer and dance.

“This is our church,” she says. “This facility is going to accomplish a lot of things for this community, and we can’t wait.”

The Tremé Community Center re-opened last month, after a six-year wait. It’s been filled with kids ever since. Director Jerome Smith says current and former residents of the 6th Ward walk through the door every day.

“It’s like a daily homecoming ’cause they be dropping in here,” Smith says. “It’s major.  It’s major for them to be able to come in here.”

Smith says the Tremé Center is a place for young people to gain a sense of history and themselves.

“If they’re not comfortable, they’re not going to come back,” he says. “All of them come back. I don’t know nobody who won’t come back. The problem is getting them out of here.”

Smith (whom everyone calls Big Duck) says when it’s closing time even kids who’ve spent all day playing ball and swimming don’t want to go home. Big Duck points to one of those kids — Derrell Patterson, his former duckling — who started coming to the Tremé Community Center at age three. He’s been coming back for 25 years... Minus the six years the center wasn’t open.

Patterson says he didn’t put those years to good use.

“We didn’t have nothing to come to,” he says. “I still came sat on this hill probably once a week for a year, just to talk about, you know, just to reminisce about the things we did here. But I’m glad it is back open now, though — when this closed, I’m closed.”

When Patterson was a kid he would go straight to the center from school. Staff made sure he and the other kids did their homework before hitting the gym. Now, at age 28, he wants to serve the place that helped him.

“That’s what I want, to give back to the community,” Patterson says. “Like start back our after school programs for the children.  Like we used to do, tutoring. And the same people that gave to me, I want to give back to others.”

This place is home to him, a home he wants to keep building and make strong so it can shelter others.

This news content made possible with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Eve Abrams first fell in love with stories listening to her grandmother tell them; it’s been an addiction ever since.