The Lower 9th Ward was arguably the epicenter of the massive flooding that followed the failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina on Aug 29, 2005. While the neighborhood will forever be marked by that epic event, it’s not all that identifies this historic and intrinsic part of New Orleans. This week, in the first of a new “Voices” feature, NolaVie speaks with some of the residents of the Lower Nine, about their lives there, the people there, the community there. Today we talk to neighborhood elder Pete Ellis.
Everyone in the neighborhood knows the Man from Shiloh. That’s what they call 62-year-old Pete Ellis. It all has to do with the lush and beautiful farm lot he leases right next door to his shotgun house on Lizardi Street in the Lower Ninth Ward. It’s the one with two signs in front that say:
Place of Peace
There are two tall flagpoles flying Navy flags and two homemade benches out front, too. That’s so any of his neighbors can come and pick from the vegetable garden and sit a while if they want. They are welcome at any time. Depending on the time of year, they might fill a bag or a basket with crowder peas or okra, corn or collards.
Pete Ellis grew up in Lower Nine, the fourth of nine children. He graduated from Abramson High School, then joined the U.S Army in 1969. Four years later he came back home hoping to find a job, one that would lead him to his preferred occupation as an electrician. But it was not to be. So keeping that dream alive, he did the next best thing: he joined the U.S Navy, figuring he would give them their four years and they would give him training as an electrician.
“But I enjoyed it so much, I stayed in for 18 years,” he says. “I’ve been around the world and seen so many countries when people ask me where I’ve been, it’s easier to think of the few countries I haven’t been.”
When he retired in 1990 he came back to Lower Nine. “It’s like my daddy said, home is what you know around this corner and what you know around that corner and what you know behind you.”
And so it was until Katrina. Pete did not evacuate, saying he felt that leaving would be like abandoning ship. But when the water inundated his neighborhood, he ended up in the Superdome. Having been part of many naval construction forces, he had observed first hand the high level of American disaster capabilities. “So I told people, it’s gonna be all right,” he recalls. But it wasn’t. “I really got my feelings hurt,” he says. “I mean this is America; it’s not supposed to work like that here.”
When Pete got out of the Superdome, he went on up to Virginia. But, like his daddy had said, he wanted to come home; to a place where things were familiar, a place where you knew everybody around every corner.
Of all his siblings, only three are back in New Orleans: two in Lower Nine and one in the Carrollton area. Would others come back? “If things were better, they would come back,” Pete says. “But for my sisters, right now there is no place for them to go and make groceries, no medical care.”
But Pete is staying. He has made himself a little paradise. There’s a porch in front of his shotgun house and a couple of chairs for relaxing. You can hear the birds in the trees, occasionally the sound of boats on the river. It’s like being in a small village, if not for the abandoned house across the street and those weed-infested lots further up Lizardi Street.
Pete, who grew up planting and growing things in his family’s backyard, as most did in his childhood days, has now become the go-to guy for others wanting to start their own vegetable gardens. Last year he figures his garden contributed to 192 meals. He says if he could find one or two other available lots, “I’ll feed the whole Lower Nine.”
Pete works with another L9 returnee, Jenga Mwendo, and her Backyard Gardeners Network. “I am what they call the Lower Nine expert garden representative,” he explains. “Anybody who wants to have a garden, they can come to me. I can do soil tests for them and show them what to plant and when.”
There’s still so much to be done in Lower 9, Pete says, particularly the need for a grocery store. “I’d like to see more businesses, especially those that won’t exploit the people around here,” he says. “And I’d like to see some activities for kids.”
So why the name Shiloh?
“I’ve seen so much trouble,” Pete says. “This is my place of peace. If anybody wants to share it, they’re welcome.”
Future Voices series will look at other New Orleans neighborhoods. Email comments and suggestions about this and other areas and people to cover to editor@ nolavie.com.