Oral History: Greta Gladney, Renaissance Project Founder

I did a series of oral interviews with local residents that I felt were exhibiting new ways to lead their community. I hoped to use these stories to shed light on how local people were leading the recovery as they fought the consolidation of power from corporations and government.

In the end, I was uncomfortable with the way that publishers wanted me to shape these interviews and so I used them more informally, sharing pieces with leaders and writers when they wanted to understand the grassroots power of the city. None have ever formally acknowledged the contribution of these stories to their work, although some clearly drew on them.

Many of these interviews focused on food and farming, as that was my focus before and after 2005. Greta Gladney is one person who has never received the credit she deserves in the work we share and so I asked her to share a little of that but even more so, share information on her extended family. 

“Family has shaped my work”: Interview with Greta Gladney, Executive Director of The Renaissance Project and 4th generation 9th ward resident.

Lower 9th ward.  So many world citizens heard about this neighborhood for the first time around August 31, 2005, and it must have seemed an antiquated, oddly political way to define one’s home. (9th ward? That’s their neighborhood name? You can just hear someone from Roxbury or from Clifton-upon-Dunsmore ask with confusion.) The Lower 9th ward was certainly politicized before the levee breaks. The area has been a center of neighborhood activism since its founding in the early part of the 20th century.  The digging of the Industrial Canal in 1923 put a literal gulf between the rest of New Orleans and the Lower 9, and that (along with the largely rural feel of the area) accentuated the fierce need for self- determination and identity that continues to this day.

A 4th generation resident, Greta had begun to make her name as the founder and Executive director of non-profit The Renaissance Project around 2001. Its mission is to improve the quality of life in the 9th ward, and Greta missed few opportunities to be in on any new idea that might help her neighborhood.

Upon returning to the city after the hurricane, she ran for mayor in a group of over a dozen candidates (she says) to keep the conversation focused on those underserved areas and people that were in danger of being swept away in the “ new” New Orleans politics of late 2005. She received 100 votes in the election (4 candidates received less votes than she with more money reportedly spent) and also received more awareness from media and leaders, which the soft-spoken, newly married 40-something mother of 3 (grandmother of 2!) parlays skillfully into more help for her organization and her neighbors at every turn.


Interview location: Borrowed apartment in French Quarter

Where did you grow up?

“I grew up on the corner of Lamanche and North Roman, that’s about a block away from what’s now Martin Luther King Elementary School, which had been another school named Macarty (home of Bush vs. Orleans Parish School Board; the legendary lawsuit that forced integration of two 9th ward schools in 1960), where my mom went to school and my grandmother taught.

So, the house I grew up in was my grandmother’s house. She and my mother bought it together, and my mother was living there up until the storm. I have lived in Lower 9 all but 3 years of my life, when I was New York City doing graduate study (was there from 99 until 2002, so have done two disasters in my life).  After I finished my M.B.A, I came back home.

I have always thought about travel and have traveled, but this was always home. My mother was actually born in a house on Gordon in the 9th ward, and had never lived anyplace else (until the levee breaks). My grandmother was born in St, Charles Parish in Des Allemandes, but spent most of her life with her mother and family in Lower 9.

It’s interesting to me, because I’ve seen the neighborhood transition over 40 years; working class neighborhood, strong work ethic, mixed socio-economic. In our two-block area we had renters, homeowners, duplexes. Everyone knew everybody; everybody kept their grass cut. We shopped on St. Claude and Claiborne; there were thrift stores, pharmacies that delivered, supermarkets, what’s now (or what was last) the Philadephia Apostolic Church on St. Claude, was an A&P.

When I was in New York and traveling while I was in school, I was always looking at other remote communities, and looking for strategies that would apply to the lower 9. One thing was the Greenmarkets in New York City. Union Square of course, and I lived in Brooklyn, so the one at Grand Army Plaza on Saturdays I went to a lot. It was exciting to me because everybody was there; it was multi-ethnic and inter-generational; it was a social event and lots of good food and flowers, and I thought it would be great for the 9th ward.

Did your family grow food?

It’s funny; when I bought my house, I closed on my house on my 30th birthday (May 13, 1994).  That November before when I went to see the house, there was mirliton growing all the way up the fence. I only saw the house the one time, made an offer on it and refused to go back ‘til I closed, and when I went back there were peach trees in the backyard and garlic growing.

My grandmother always grew okra, eggplant, parsley, bellpeppers, tomatoes…

She enjoyed gardening, and she’d try other things (just because I was curious) like carrots and broccoli.  She also grew those tiny peppers, you know really hot.

How was your work different after the storm?

When I returned after the storm, the work was the same-writing grants to get markets, working with the St. Claude Merchants Association, chasing down the state about getting the Main Street Project, (which was awarded in 2006).

What has changed really is access to Lower 9, since not much of anything is open (as of early 2007). To help Lower 9, I have to work farther up St. Claude and have it trickle down.

Pre-Katrina, we wanted to do two (farmers) markets on St. Claude, one below and one above the (Industrial) Canal to encourage people to cross the avenue, interact and help with economic development.

6 months later:

Have things changed since last year in your work to build the

9th ward?

I see the progress made by committed individuals to rebuild their homes and churches to return home. I see a unified Holy Cross Neighborhood Association that pre-storm was thought to be elitist serving the entire Lower Ninth Ward. I see organizations staying out of each others way because there’s more than enough work and good intentions to go around and no need to compete.

With respect to my work, it’s time to come home.

Living outside the 9th ward broadened my perspective as well as scope of work. I spent a year working on St. Claude Ave. Main Street thinking that it was good for the community. While I won’t say that it was a waste of my time, I will say that as a result of that experience, I am more aware that behavior is indicative of emotional and moral intelligence, more aware of how language and behavior betray race, class and gender issues and am less tolerant of people overall. No good deed goes unpunished. So my focus shifted for a few months and is returning to areas where I believe I can move forward.

 Tell me a little about your immediate family  and where they all are at this point.

My mother and I received our Road Home money and moved back into her house in late October. Ironically, and typical of bureaucratic red tape and miscommunication, her gas has remained on at the property for the past two years. When she had the property inspected, Entergy turned the gas off and put a lock on the meter. A couple of days later, a technician returned to the property and took the meter. My mom called and was told that gas was not available in her area.

So my mother, second daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter are living in my mom’s house on Lamanche and Roman where I grew up. I am not crazy about the overall quality of work but it’s better than before the storm and my mom’s back in m grandmother’s house. My oldest child, my daughter Danielle, is still living in Marrero. Over the past year, she has gone from housing my entire family, mom, daughter, son-in-law, her husband and two children, to just her and the two boys. She and her husband have separated and are filing for divorce. They’ve been married just over a year. So life is returning to normal? Life in the house on Lamanche is returning to normal. In 1965 during Betsy my grandmother, mother, father and I lived in the house on Lamanche and Roman. (My father was out of town during that storm.)

Now after Katrina, my mother, daughter, son-in-law and their daughter live in the two bedroom house. Old fashioned family unit with the matriarch at home cooking dinner everyday and the entire family under one roof. And the house is across the street from MLK elementary where my two grandsons are in attendance.

After school they go over to Grandma Iris’ house until my daughter picks them up.

So they see each other everyday.

My dad is at American Can Company. Jim (her husband), Stephen and I are still in MidCity. I’ve committed to clearing away the overgrowth in my yard in Holy Cross, planting a garden and having the exterior of the house painted in November. Then I’ll hang shutters, and get the house rewired. I’m taking my time and rushing simultaneously.

Your thoughts about the future of the community you have been  rebuilding and how community has shaped your work.

Family has shaped my work. Both of my maternal grandparents lived in the Lower 9th ward as did their extended families. A week ago, my 95-year old great aunt died. She was the last of my grandfather’s generation. Her church has reopened on Caffin; the church that her father founded and built. The same church where I attended daycare as a toddler and my second daughter attended summer camp. Not far away is the land where she and four siblings grew up, the site of the Dunson Memorial Ethnobotanical Garden, the project nearest and dearest to my heart.

School, education, has shaped my work, since my mother and grandmother were elementary school teachers.  My children and grandchildren have had the same elementary school principal, Doris Hicks. So school and community are interrelated. The school is open and is an anchor in the Lower 9th ward north of Claiborne. The community has reinforced my belief in resiliency and self-determination.

I am very hopeful.











































Author: DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist. Public market consultant.

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