After the Storm: The Story of the Tulane City Center

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Photos: Will Crocker and Sarah Satterlee

IN 2005, AFTER HURRICANE KATRINA and the federal levee failures left more than 60 percent of the New Orleans housing stock under water, everyone from designers to residents to developers to architects had big plans for how the city should turn unprecedented loss into much needed growth.

Though ambition in the wake of disaster is never a bad thing, it was easy to get frustrated by just how much time long-term planning takes. Emilie Taylor, at the time a student of the Tulane School of Architecture, began to see community members get disillusioned in the months following Katrina. Thus, Tulane City Center, the public outreach arm of the Tulane School of Architecture, initially focused on small-scale projects, taking an incremental approach as it began its contribution to rebuilding New Orleans. Taylor, who is now the Center’s Design/Build Manager, says it was important to focus on short-term wins before moving on to the larger scale projects.

“People would go to charrettes and nothing would happen, and people would lose faith,” she says. “We called it planning fatigue, because people would go to all these planning meetings. Planning, for it to play out, is a 10-year process at best. So you’re not going to see any immediate results.”

So the City Center started doing projects as small as making pinup boards, just to show the greater New Orleans community that things were happening.

One of those small projects is the Columbus Greenway. The Greenway is located in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, a neighborhood that’s home to families who have lived there for generations. Despite the historical and cultural significance of the Seventh Ward, the neighborhood is also home to neglected infrastructure and flooding and drainage problems, particularly on the major thoroughfare of Columbus Street. Yet the lack of infrastructural investment on the part of the City of New Orleans has not affected the cultural investment of the Seventh Ward community. On Columbus and North Roman Streets, there’s a small green space where members of the community have been gathering for decades. It plays host to barbecues, birthdays, and a regular match of horseshoes organized by a group of older men who were born and raised in the neighborhood.

In 2011, Pat O’Brien, who owns the parcel of land on which the men play horseshoes, submitted a Request for Proposal (RFP) to beautify the Columbus Greenway. The City Center accepted the RFP and went about doing just that by using the skill set of a handful of architecture students to help complete the project. They cleaned up the Greenway, installed benches, planted trees, and tackled a simple building project of a clubhouse from which kids and adults alike could sit and watch the horseshoe match.

Seating area for the Columbus Greenway.

Changing the Commonplace at Tulane

For Taylor, there are three crucial elements to this kind of work. The first is lending a hand to the community. The second is letting the community decide what it needs and then acting on that vision. The third is making sure architecture students are getting a solid education, complete with real-life experiences that move the school beyond a clean, comfortable Ivory Tower classroom.

“For the longest time we were a very internalized academic school of architecture,” Taylor says. “We did paper projects and nothing ever resulted from them. It was just a theory-based school. Which is fine, that’s what schools are. But we saw this missed opportunity to actually affect positive change and do good things in the community and just be plugged-in. Tulane has had a reputation of just being this walled-in, little affluent thing within the city that didn’t interact much. So we were trying to bust open that model and find ways that we could actually be an asset to the community and not just this weird little island inside of the city.”

The City Center was an idea before the storm, but it didn’t get off the ground until after Hurricane Katrina. The need was so great that Taylor’s team had to be careful to strike the right balance in how it chose which projects to tackle. “About 160,000 houses were underwater or had substantial amounts of water,” she says, “and we as a school of architecture with 200 students and a couple dozen faculty, we didn’t have the ability or resources to work with individual homeowners to re-do 160,000 homes.”

So Taylor and her team set out to work with community groups and nonprofits to draw the line between all the people who needed help with their homes. There were already dozens of nonprofits addressing homeowners and affordable housing. The City Center decided to use its resources and energy to work with community groups and nonprofits on their visions for public spaces.

And the word vision is imperative in describing the City Center’s work. The City Center team doesn’t want to cook up its own ideas and try to force feed them to the community. Once a community is able to articulate that for itself, that is where the City Center steps in.

Each year, the City Center puts out a Request for Proposals. A jury comprised of faculty members, Director and Associate Dean Maurice Cox and community members decides which projects move forward. Taylor is quick to point out, however, that there are always back doors to get a project going.Of the 24 projects proposed last year, three of them got full funding through the RFP process.

As for the education the City Center is providing for Tulane architecture students, Taylor points out that most of the projects involve skills that aren’t necessarily taught in traditional architecture programs. “In the classroom, it’s designing buildings. In the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, it’s designing them, building them, working with communities and community organizers, and
everything else in between.”

The walkway to Grow Dat Youth Farm.

GROWING DAT YOUTH FARM

The largest-scale project the City Center has helped make a reality is Grow Dat Youth Farm. Located right in the middle of City Park, a 1,300-acre refuge of live oak trees, green space, and meandering sidewalks right in the middle of New Orleans, Grow Dat’s mission is to nurture a diverse group of student leaders through the meaningful work of growing food. The farm hires young adults from six different schools in New Orleans, both public and private. They go through 5-month leadership training with Grow Dat, where they spend about half the time involved in the actual work of growing crops and the other half in leadership-building activities.

“It’s a pretty broad range, in terms of what socioeconomic and racial diversity we’re drawing from,” says Jillian Gilligan, the founding director of Grow Dat, who proudly recites the project’s goals. “And we also hire for diversity and leadership experience across a spectrum. So that creates a really interesting peer education and peer learning.”

Last year, eighty students applied for forty spots on the farm. The job is partly attractive because it’s paid, but it also gives students intensive training in a wide variety of job skills. “…It’s also connecting them to the networks of businesses and organizations that we’re connected to,” Gilligan says, “which has translated to really great opportunities for them in the food sector, at places like the New Orleans Food Coop, the online food retailer Good Eggs, or scholarships. We’ve had several students make it to the final round and one actually secure a full ride to Tulane through the Plessy Foundation. We’ve [also] sent students up to farming wilderness programs in Vermont.”

The site plan for Grow Dat Youth Farm

The idea for the project was born when Scott Cowan, former president of Tulane University, approached the City Center with the thought to incubate some kind of food education project, using projects like the Edible Schoolyard as precedents for a entirely local approach to educational agriculture. Gilligan had been talking about starting a farm to give youth the skills they were already in need of. She’d taught high school in the New Orleans public school system for years, pre-Katrina, and she witnessed firsthand the lack of space dedicated to addressing major, real-life issues within the confines of an academic setting.

“I really saw how much my students were wrestling with very real-life responsibilities,” she says. “Some of them had kids, some of them had to be financial contributors to their families… there was high exposure to violence and lack of any good job opportunities in their communities. A lot of them had to work, but their opportunities were in the fast food sector…So I started thinking, how do we marry the idea of creating a space that creates a job opportunity for adults, creates the platform for them to develop communication skills, and taps into a market opportunity to grow all of the food for people who want and need it?”

The Grow Dat facility is made of leaf green-colored shipping containers, and though the repurposing of shipping containers is growing more common in the United States, its use in New Orleans is novel for the region. Many of the containers are dented, which renders them useless for trade, and two of the initial donors to the project were interested in using them to make public space. Students in the City Center worked on Grow Dat for two years, designing and building the project to fit Gilligan’s vision. The first planning studio was in 2011, and Grow Dat moved into the space in 2012.

Meeting spaces were created out of the shipping container structure.

Their facility reflects the multi-faceted educational platform that makes Grow Dat so unique to its community. The building has a small but efficient office upstairs, a teaching kitchen where students learn how to prepare the foods they grow and take home each week, and cold and dry storage space for materials. There’s also composting toilets, which use a grey water management system, unattached to a sewer. Gilligan says that cleaning the facility’s own water is just another educational aspect of Grow Dat that reinforces the farm’s dedication to sustainability.

A large bioswale in the front of the farm serves Grow Dat, but also acts as a model of flood prevention from which New Orleans as a whole can benefit.“It’s modeling appropriate plantings for this region, and also how to manage storm water,” Gilligan says. “We sometimes have flooding in this area, so we dug a large channel here and filled it with rocks, essentially, so water will drain into this bioswale. If it fills up then it returns back into the bayou over there. We had a water managing expert who was a friend of Dan Etheridge, former assistant City Center director, design this for us, but they’re really simple and cost-effective ways of doing water management in a place where we’re now experiencing periods of drought followed by heavy rainfall. That was all led by the City Center. The question was, how do we really make this place as green as we can?”

View of top walkway of Grow Dat Youth Farm

MORE THAN JUST DESIGN/BUILD

The City Center’s projects are broader in scope than a horseshoe clubhouse and an urban farm. The architecture outreach program also helps with projects as seemingly simple as graphic advocacy through messaging and signage. Students worked with Pyramid Wellness Institute, a New Orleans-based mental health facility, at a time when funding for this kind of healthcare was being dramatically reduced in the state of Louisiana. Not only did the City Center design and build a common outdoor space for Pyramid in 2012, but it also designed informational materials and stickers to educate the broader New Orleans community about the mental health facility. “They just wanted material to help people know what was out there, and give this message of inclusion, like 1 in 6 people have these mental health issues, so you’re not alone,” Taylor says. “[We’re trying] to de-stigmatize mental health… [the students] were going to try and sticker the city, but I don’t think that happened because I haven’t gotten any calls from the cops or anything.”

Another important category of the City Center’s work is community visioning without building, or what it calls Community Capacity Building. A particularly high-profile example of this kind of work is the fight the City Center joined this past January against Perez Architects, who wanted to build a 13-story riverfront project in a Lower Ninth Ward community of single-family homes. Neighbors opposed the project, and, represented by the Lower Nine Visioning Coalition, went to the City Center for help. “They knew they were opposed to the Perez plan,” Taylor says. “But we needed to help them think through what some of the viable alternatives were.” The neighbors wanted a park instead of a development, and the City Center brought in the resources to help the coalition understand the implications of that vision, including a sustainable real estate developer, the CEO of City Park, a landscape architect, a preservationist, and other professionals.

“We did some real talk with the community so that it wasn’t just like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a park,’ but understanding what it means to have a park and understanding the mechanisms, so that they weren’t just saying no to the developer,” Taylor says. “They were saying no because we have these other ideas and this is how we propose to implement them.”

Due to flood issues, a bioswale makes up the front of the farm.

EDUCATING FUTURE LEADERS

Justin Park, who graduated from Tulane’s School of Architecture in 2012, worked on three projects through the City Center, including Grow Dat. He still remembers the moment Gilligan looked at the view from what was to become her office space at the farm. “She climbed up and was pretty blown away by the experience of it. It turned into an emotional experience for our group. Standing in her future space seemed to crystallize and affirm all the hard work Johanna had accomplished up to that point, and sharing a moment like that really made me feel like I was a part of something much bigger than just working on a job site constructing a building.”

For Park, it was the potential of learning all of these other pieces to the build puzzle that attracted him to Tulane’s School of Architecture. “I chose to attend Tulane and work with the City Center specifically because I felt that I would learn so much more than just designing buildings,” he says.” I did not anticipate how deep and varied my experience would go though. Emilie Taylor was there to help guide the students and keep us on track and moving towards completion, but she also allowed us to make mistakes and take the longer path to learning valuable lessons. This is especially noteworthy because we were working first hand with clients. It is important to note that City Center clients are not regular architectural clients; they are very special people who are agents of change and catalysts for inspired action.”

“I think having a public outreach arm is critical for all architecture programs,” he says. “Especially Tulane, because it forces students to confront pressing, real world problems on a scale that few students have attempted before…New Orleans is especially well suited for outreach because its rich history, celebrated culture and tough spirit draw strong individuals who aspire to elevate the city to greater heights. These individuals need the energy and creativeness that architecture students posses. They need comrades in the pursuit of change for the betterment of everyone.”

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