By Sharon Litwin
When I tell folk I have friends who live in and around St. Roch, more often than not they give me the look … you know, the one that says, “Really? St. Roch!” And you know they’re thinking that’s the neighborhood where everyone has to wear a bullet-proof vest.
Inundated with startling news stories about what’s going on in the streets, it might appear that this is not an area of town most people would want to visit, let alone live in.
But there’s a lot going on in the St. Claude/St. Roch area that’s exciting and innovative, with longtime residents determined to hold on to the good and get rid of the bad. And now there’s also a young, dynamic “outsider” who loves the neighborhood as much as they do and wants to see how he can help.
Darren Alberti, 24, a California transplant, came to New Orleans in July 2008 to work with AmeriCorps. For a year, he was the “guy in the orange T-shirt,” as a house captain working with volunteers in storm-damaged parts of town. “That started my interest in St. Roch,” he recalls. “Being new to the city, I wasn’t aware of some of its history, although it struck me that that it was a neighborhood that had its fair share of problems. But it also has a distinct culture; that’s what greatly interested me.”
So, after working as an analyst for Greater New Orleans Inc. and when his stint with AmeriCorps was up, Alberti applied for and got the job as Director of the St. Faubourg Roch Project, an organization whose main goal is to be a catalyst for the revitalization of the area.
Given their proximity to the French Quarter and the Central Business District, St. Roch/St. Claude avenues should be a prime location for residents looking for affordable housing and easy access into downtown. But, clearly, there are forces at work that are preventing that. Yes, crime is a problem and blighted property abounds. One only has to look at the long-shuttered, iconic St. Roch Market to see that. But hope dies hard in a neighborhood where second- and third-generation descendants still come in from Metairie to have an evening drink at the St. Roch Tavern.
“This is a neighborhood that has the potential to be so much more than it is today,” Alberti says. “So many people have been there a long time and are proud to call this their home. There’s an incredible spirit and a lot of positive things happening. I think civic engagement is at its highest level in a long, long time.”
And it’s true, things are happening. The swimming pool is being rebuilt in the St. Roch Playground. The Artwalk that snakes down the middle of the oak-lined St. Roch Avenue is on schedule to be finished. There’s even the promise that the St. Roch Market will re-open.
But, truth is, we’ve heard about the St. Roch Market for five years and it doesn’t look any different now than it did after Hurricane Katrina. So, to quote Anderson Cooper of CNN, I think we’re going to try “keeping them honest.” We’re going to check in every now and then with the brimming-with-enthusiasm Darren Alberti to see what’s going on. He’s doing his part for the neighborhood; we’ll try to do ours.
This is the first in an ongoing informal series featuring New Orleans neighborhoods. If you would like your neighborhood featured, please e-mail editor@NolaVie.com .