(Photos from Left: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images, Riverhead Books)
Actor Wendell Pierce is one of the most respected actors in Hollywood. Off-camera he has earned respect in a different role — as a community organizer. Pierce (The Wire, Treme, Selma) grew up in New Orleans’s Pontchartrain Park. In 2005, when Katrina destroyed his old neighborhood, he returned to Pontchartrain Park to revitalize the neighborhood and has built 40 new homes and plans to build 100 more. It's a mission he writes about in his upcoming memoir titled The Wind in the Reeds.
As part of BET News documentary Katrina 10 Years Later: Through Hell in High Water, Jeff Johnson recently sat down with Pierce to talk about the storm’s impact and his efforts to revitalize and rebuild his community.
This is an edited and condensed transcript of that conversation.
Jeff Johnson: You’ve talked about the history of Pontchartrain Park, this place where African-Americans could live post-World War II in a way they couldn’t anywhere else. What did it mean for you growing up?
Wendell Pierce: It was a really great place to grow up, and there was such a focus on education. It was expected that you went to college. My teachers lived in the neighborhood. My mother taught in the neighborhood. I was known for years as Mrs. Pierce’s son. That was my first name, Mrs. Pierce’s son, so it was a very special place.
Wendell Pierce: When I came here, I came and saw the destruction in Pontchartrain Park, I just thought about everything my parents and their generation had done to get here. It became an incubator of Black talent — lawyers, doctors, and it would be blasphemous for us to let this neighborhood go. That’s when I personally looked at my parents and said they will not die before getting back in that house. They said, "Oh, we don’t have to go back." I said if you don’t want to go back once I build it, then that’s fine, but I’m going to do everything possible to get you back in there. That was my personal mantra, and a year later, they were back home.
I got my parents in, and then friends and neighbors came to me and said, "You got your parents back in, we need your help. We need your platform."
It was something that was important, and I said, "Well, we have the resources ourselves. We can do this ourselves." I said, "Let’s exercise our right of self-determination." I literally called a community meeting and said, "All right, here’s the deal. We’re going to reconstitute our neighborhood association. We’re going to put together our own development corp. We’re going to make it a community development corporation, a nonprofit that allows us to access different revenue streams." Pontchartrain Park CDC was born, community development corp.
It was a short learning curve for me as I got into learning how to develop a neighborhood. I live in New York and Los Angeles. I’m an actor, but now I’m going to get involved in rebuilding my neighborhood and the very people that came and asked me have since moved on. They haven’t rededicated themselves to trying to come back. So my anger and frustration gets the better of me a lot of the times, but if I really want to honor my parents, it’s not giving up.
WENDELL PIERCE: It is the African-American aesthetic: in spite of the challenge, in spite of the oppression, I will survive. And that’s on display in New Orleans, and that’s the reason 10 years after the fact, we are back to where we are.
The Wind in the Reeds will be published by Riverhead Books on Sept. 8.
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