Tulane staff, faculty engage in day of volunteering

Across the city, about 400 faculty and staff from Tulane University spent Monday painting, planting and preparing meals as part of the annual Wave of Green Day of Service.

In the Central City neighborhood known as the Hoffman Triangle, about 150 volunteers worked, both from Tulane and from other organizations, to beautify a section of the city Frank Lemann, a 1980 Tulane alum, called “forgotten.”

Focusing their efforts on homes that had been moved off of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center footprint in 2010 in the name of historic preservation, the volunteers worked to clean up surrounding vacant lots and board up the houses — neglected since their relocation — with colorfully painted plywood.

Lemann, director of the Community Art Program for the United Saints Recovery Project, spent 20 years living in New York City as an art dealer but moved back to New Orleans a year after Hurricane Katrina for what he called sentimental reasons.

A student of art history, Lemann returned to his hometown and found a part-time job with the nonprofit that restores homes in communities affected by natural disasters. The organization is based in Central City but also operates an office in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The program originally recruited local artists to design artwork for volunteers to paint onto the plywood. When Lemann came on board, he steered the project toward schools through a partnership with the nonprofit KIDsmARt.

For Monday’s project, Lemann said Tulane jumped in to provide funds for supplies as well as manpower.

Working on four different houses near the intersection of Jackson Avenue and North Johnson Street, volunteers drilled the plywood art to the doors and windows of the raised homes. The art was created in five local elementary and high schools.

It’s a win-win, Lemann said, bringing more art education opportunities into schools and providing a needed service to unoccupied homes in a neighborhood still working to recover.

“I hope to add a little joy and color to the neighborhood,” Lemann said.

Chris Schottland, program manager for the United Saints Recovery Project, said the homes have been passed to The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, which is currently trying to attract developers through a standard request for proposal process.

But uncertainty over ownership means it’s not clear who is responsible for maintenance, Schottland said.

The houses are in an area dominated by empty, overgrown lots and abandoned properties.

Schottland called the empty and unsecured houses “ready-made incubators for the backyard pharmaceutical industry.”

On the same block, a six-alarm fire in November displaced five families, damaged 10 buildings and destroyed five structures, including at least one unoccupied house that had been moved from the VA footprint.

Without being boarded up, the unoccupied houses have worsened in condition and also present a quality of life, crime, and safety issue for the neighborhood, Lemann said.

“They imported blight, as if we didn’t have enough,” Schottland said. But for Lemann and Schottland and their organization, the project is about addressing and fixing the “mess” and not spending time on politics or blame.

Boarding up the doors and windows is not a solution, Schottland said, but “it sends a strong message that someone is watching.”

Antoinette Abboud, who works in the undergraduate admissions office for Tulane, said it was a welcome opportunity to not only get involved in beautifying the neighborhood but also make it safer.

And, “The kids can walk by and say ‘I did that!’ ” Abboud said.

Jeffrey Schiffmann, who also works in the admissions office, said that part of their job recruiting students includes drawing young people to a place where they feel they have an opportunity to make a difference.

By volunteering in the community, “I practice what I preach,” Schiffmann said.

Tulane faculty and staff also spent Monday working on projects at Cafe Reconcile, Dryades YMCA and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.