WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 5, 2007
An essay I wrote soon after the storm about the amazing NO East Vietnamese community.
Turn off Grande Route St. John on to Gentilly Boulevard. Pass the Fairgrounds, the Bike Plus place on Paris, the Gentilly Terrace area with so many beautiful arts and crafts homes of upper middle class Creoles, then quiet Dillard University on the left, empty strip malls galore, (basically you follow old 90 the way your grandparents would when going to the North Shore and Biloxi) and then you pass under I-10 and you are really on Chef Menteur Highway.
Chef (as we call it, not really affectionately, more as an affectation of our parents word for it), is a mix of auto repair shops, small bedroom communities and as you near the Michoud plant, the Vietnamese community.
Have you been to the Vietnamese community in New Orleans east? Haven’t been? Not surprising, most have not, and asking them to get in the car at 6:00 am to go is too bizarre to even suggest. So, some never experience it.
Amazing. I started venturing out 4 years ago, when my work at the farmers market coincided with seeing it. Actually, Robert and Elizabeth of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse took me there first, and like so many New Orleanians-by – choice (aka not born here); they know the city very well. They explore every corner and have done so since the late 60s.
They drove me out there one morning about 6 a.m. and showed me the gardens that ring the canals, the houses with elaborate statuary in front and sports cars for the children in the driveway. We had Vietnamese coffee, wonderful. Strong and sweet. They explained the history of this settlement that has been built by the Catholic Church since the fall of Saigon, with a larger Buddhist community on the West Bank.
For me, the open market was the most fascinating part. Set up alongside storefronts on Alcee Fortier Boulevard (not much of a boulevard, and not sure anyone out here knows this historian from the early 20th century), it is a walk through another country.
Farmers and fishers stand or squat in front of their products that are unfamiliar to most Americans. Once in a while, you spot cilantro or water spinach or something else appetizing and fragrant, and then point and ask for a price. Everything is between 1.00 and 2.00. You walk slowly into the interior courtyard, looking at every display and listening to the life around you that could be 300 years past. At 7:00 a.m. the market kicks into overdrive with the mass attendees mingling with the less devout.
The nearby storefronts also need time from you; the mangoes, noodles, dried mushrooms are there alongside of sweets and unfamiliar sauces on the crowded shelves. My friend, Veda loves all grocery stores since her early years in her family corner stores; she can be here for hours and when they talk to her, it’s clear that they see a kindred food soul and give her incredible discounts. We always stop at the storefront with no signs or ambience in the middle of the market for the Vietnamese “poboy”; their sandwich that is a taste and texture treat, with pork, carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, peppers, sauce. We buy 5-10 sandwiches to bring back and share with anyone we think deserves one. They always are amazed and delighted after eating the half or quarter we share with each.
Most outsiders and locals that venture here go to the bakery, Dong Phuong. Pork and water chestnut pastries, glorious bread (baked hourly), cinnamon rolls to take home. I have a calendar on my wall from there that I look at when at the computer; always makes me think of the homemade egg breads.
The levee breaks did their damage out there. But, true to their immigrant attitudes, they have begun rebuilding at an astounding rate. Their dynamic Catholic priest, Father Vien travels to Houston often to see his parishioners that have not shown up yet at Mary, Queen of Vietnam Church. He has big plans for Viet Town, and will take the time to tell anyone who can possibly help. We were invited for lunch with the staff at the church to talk; the priest has an energetic, can-do presence that one can believe in. He is ready to create this beacon of light for the region to see and draw from.
We’re there that day because my boss is a true believer in the power of markets and local economies to rebuild a world. He has been interested in making a bridge between our Italian, Croatian, French, Southern farmers world and this one for some time. He also understands that it is a genuinely exciting time to live in New Orleans, in between the heartbreak and exhaustion, if one can make things happen.
It occurs to me while listening to them that these two could end up being the fulcrum in lives of hundreds of families in the next 5 years.
They talk of small and big ideas, but mostly they talk about helping small entrepreneurs get back in first gear. They agree on sensible methods and partners and take their leave as if they were two musicians that have finished rehearsing for their big break. Understand each other’s rhythm and syncopation. Got it. Turns out funders are liking what they hear from these two, and are almost ready to put up. Big money to leverage small communities. Big ideas to let farmers get back to bringing that bitter melon to Alcee Fortier. Rebuild without city, state or (cough) federal help or awareness for the most part. We’ll be back out here many times.
All because of food.
( Vietnamese patriarch Father Vien shared a history in a video that I did for MarketUmbrella in 2009):