New Orleans native Burnell Cotlon has spent the last five years on a mission. He’s turning a two-story building that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (along with most of his Lower 9th Ward neighborhood), into a shopping plaza. Already, he’s opened a barber shop and a convenience store, and as of last November, is providing the neighborhood — identified as a food desert — with its first full-service grocery store in almost a decade.
The Lower Ninth Ward, which experienced catastrophic flooding during Hurricane Katrina, has had a much slower recovery than most New Orleans neighborhoods. Before Katrina, the area had a population of around 14,000 and boasted of the highest percentage of black homeownership in the country. According to the last census, however, only around 3,000 people live in the neighborhood. Many of its roads are still torn up, it lacks basic resources and the closest full-service grocery store is nearly 3 miles away in the neighboring city of Chalmette.
Burnell’s merchandise is still mostly limited to non-perishables and fresh produce, but he hopes to add poultry, bread and dairy this year.