Tuesday, June 2, 2009

When Isaiah Met Nola

Isaiah Funds president Jeffery Dekro applauds as he receive a $225,000 check from the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation. This follows a half-million check from Isaiah Funds to Gulf Coast Housing Partners.

About a year ago I had the opportunity to meet representatives of an unusual group, a consortium of interfaith-based groups devoted to helping meet the needs of the ongoing recovery effort in New Orleans's Central City area. Isaiah Funds is composed of disparate philanthropic groups like Jews for Justice, CHRISTUS Health and MMA (an investing arm of the Mennonite Church). The Isaiah Funds managers are determined to provide millions of dollars in loans to needy areas such as Central City. The rebuilding effort in Central City began at least a decade ago. Yes, this was prior to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. If it might be said that any one area benefited from the fallout of the flooding, Central City could well be considered. No amount of flooding could have washed away the sins of the city fathers who had allowed it to dilapidate into such a crime-riddled, depressed area before 2005. If anything, the loss of property in the area to the flooding helped clear the way for a new possibility in the area. To be sure, it is still a high crime area, but with the loss of the C. J. Peete and St. Thomas Housing Projects, many of the denizens of violent crime have been relocated. Some never returned from evacuated cities like Houston. According to the city's master plan, these areas in Central City are due to become multiple mixed housing units, some owner-owned, which should bring about pride and stability in a large city region that has had little of each. Monday brought about the first anniversary of the launch of the Isaiah Funds and as many as 60 strategic partners whose faith-based missions have become allies met in New Orleans at Loyola University to tour the city and see real measured progress. They toured several areas in transition, many of which are still devastated from the effects of the post-Katrina flooding. Then, they toured the area of Central City bordering on the former Dryades Street, now renamed Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Dryades Street was known decades ago as "the second Canal Street," a retail area that was largely composed of Jewish merchants, many of whom served a significant area there that was largely Jewish. After World War II, the area began to fall on hard times and by the 1970's was largely in need of urban renewal. Many African-Americans did their shopping for bargains on Dryades Street in an era that was devoid of Wal-Marts and K-Marts. Many African-American merchants began their careers on what is now Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, but so many of the storefronts still remain vacant. An exception is the Ashé Cultural Center, constructed on the site of the former Venus Gardens grocery store. Participants gathered there before breaking up into two groups and embarking on a close-up tour of the area. They then reconvened at Cafe Reconcilé, a training ground for chefs and wait staff for the service industry. The delegates dined on broiled chicken, sweet potatoes, collard greens, and famous New Orleans red beans and rice (side order of sausage were also available. Following desert of their James Beard Award winning Bananas Foster bread pudding, everyone applauded as a check for $500,000 was presented to Gulf Coast Housing Partners, one of the major developers in Central City, by the Isaiah Funds executives there, chief among them Jeffery Dekro, who also serves as the executive vice-president of Jewish Funds for Justice. The Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation came up with their own check to Isaiah Funds in the amount of $225,000. These funds will certainly fuel the economic recovery machine that is just now gearing up into full steam with several projects that will completed by year's end like phase one of The Muses, a mixed income housing complex. Progress is slow, but it is coming.

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