Students living in the Gentilly area describe the community as a ghost town. Many houses remain abandoned and tagged with “do not enter” and only a few businesses are returning. Ashley-Marie Weatherspoon, a senior marketing major at Dillard, grew up in the Gentilly neighborhood. Weatherspoon said that her family has not really noticed a lot of rebuilding efforts.
“There is always room to do more,” said Weatherspoon.
To promote economic and community development activities, Dillard University received a grant to help revitalize the surrounding Gentilly area, a place many students and returning residents call home. According to Theodore Callier, Dillard’s assistant vice president for sponsor research, Dillard received a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“This grant will establish a Gentilly resource center, which will be a source for people moving back,” said Callier. “It will be a center where residents can go for information to assist in rebuilding homes, financing and licensing contracting.”
Dillard is actively seeking a facility to house this Gentilly resource center either on or off campus.
“Some people are buying new property for the first time, but a lot of residents are coming back,” said Callier. “It was a slow start the first year, but we do see people coming back, particularly around the campus.”
In efforts to encourage and expand the growing number of partnerships formed between colleges and universities and their communities, HUD’s Office of University Partnerships, recently disbursed grants to HBCUs ranging from $584,600 to $600,000.
In a press release, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson said that historically black colleges and universities received a total of $8.4 million to help revive surrounding communities.
“Dillard was one of the universities who submitted an application to facilitate work in their surrounding community,” said Marvel Robertson, HUD New Orleans field office director. “We believe that HUD’s grant to Dillard will help recover the Gentilly neighborhood.”
According to Robertson, every year HUD makes an announcement for colleges and universities to compete for grants.
Dillard was one of 14 HBCUs to receive this grant. Other schools, including Tuskegee University, Southern University in Baton Rouge, Tennessee State and Texas Southern University also received grants from HUD.
“I think it’s fantastic to see students participate in service projects,” said Robertson. “It helps students become connected to their community and helps the university to promote volunteerism and giving back.”
Robertson said that Gentilly is still in a recovery mode and the work of the students and university will serve as a catalyst for the community to continue to grow.
“A healthy community is key to any university,” said Callier. “It has to be a healthy relationship because we wouldn’t want Dillard to come back as healthy as it could and not have the Gentilly community coming back strong because they go hand in hand.”
According to Callier, the grant will improve the lifestyle of the entire community.
College students comprise a significant part of the returning population. College administrators report that enrollment has climbed to between 60 percent and 75 percent of pre-Katrina levels at most of the New Orleans universities.
Struggling area merchants rely on student customers to help generate much needed revenue to remain open. Many say that the post-Katrina drop in student enrollment is having a devastating effect on business.
“A key element is getting people back into the Gentilly community to help businesses relocate in the area,” said Callier.
Due to the lack of businesses in the Gentilly area, students are forced to travel across the city to support other businesses.
“In the past year, there has been progress, but not as much as I think it could be,” said Brandon Carter, a junior chemistry/ pre-chemical engineering major from Dallas, Texas. “I think the community needs to realize that rebuilding could bring a lot of business to the area, especially from Dillard students who have to travel to the Carrollton [area], Metairie, and even the Westbank to shop.”
Hurricane Katrina left Dillard under up to 10 feet of water and caused more than $400 million in damages. Several buildings remain closed and under construction.