Jenga Mwendo, 34, is one of those dynamic New Orleanians who came back after Hurricane Katrina to help make things better. A graduate of McMain High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, she went off to New York to get a bachelor’s degree from the School of Visual Arts and stayed.
For a while she worked in computer animation for some high-profile movie companies. She invested in some property in Brooklyn and New Orleans. She was by all standards doing well.
But, says Jenga, something was missing. It was time to give back. So she came home.
Home is the Lower 9th Ward. And while so many parts of it are still ravaged from Katrina, others have been built back in spite of formidable challenges. The areas closest to the Mississippi River are still charming, with many cottages rebuilt and repainted. There’s an almost rural serenity to that area.
So imagine how Jenga felt when she read the recent New York Times Magazine story depicting the Lower 9 as a place that had returned to “jungle” growth, complete with a cover picture of a falling-down house covered in vines.
“I read it and I was horrified,” she says. “It was really insensitive and very shallow. It was sort of like if you walked into one unkempt room in someone’s home and wrote how the whole house was a mess.”
It so upset her that she wrote a long and thoughtful rebuttal, and then continued working even harder in the neighborhood.
“Katrina kind of created the impetus I needed to take a risk,” Jenga says of her decision to come back. “I asked myself, what can I do here? So I started creating community gardens and formed a non-profit organization I call the Backyard Gardener’s Network.”
She has already helped construct two gardens. The one on Chartres Street at Charbonnet has several small plots where individual gardeners have planted vegetables and flowers. A tiny red house sits next to it. When it has been completed, with help from neighborhood residents, it will be a place to come in from the sun, with a bathroom and a sink and a spot to read about gardening; there even will be free seeds.
It has the requisite front stoop and there’s a large banner along the fence that reads: “We remember Laurentine Ernst. Your commitment to the benefit of our community will not be forgotten.” Jenga says Laurentine Ernst was an elderly woman who planted flowers on St. Claude Avenue for years. Every day, she could be seen with buckets of water in hand trudging her way down the street to water them.
“What I have learned as I have been doing community garden work,” she says, “is that growing food is deeply rooted in the culture and history of this neighborhood. People who don’t know us assume nothing is going on down here. But there’s so much knowledge here, especially with those who’ve lived here a long time. And together we can create a better community.
“I was raised to believe I had to contribute in life. While I enjoyed what I was doing in New York, I wanted to do something more worthwhile.”
But it hasn’t been easy, especially near the second garden in a block of small, neat houses on Forstall Street at Chartres. Local gardeners, who have created a pretty space with citrus trees, vegetable patches and picnic tables and chairs, have to look out at a huge block-long square filled with mountains of dirt dumped there daily by dump trucks roaring down the street. There is no fence to keep the children out or the dirt in. And that is something that worries Jenga.
“To me, it shows such a lack of respect to the neighborhood,” she says.
But the gardeners still come; the roosters still crow as they wander around the neighborhood; and she hasn’t given up. She says she doesn’t plan to.
Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie.