Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, I had the opportunity to visit New Orleans and see the Lower Ninth Ward. This ward was affected the most by the broken levees, and still shows scars from that fateful event. Despite the empty lots, overgrown sidewalks, and obvious struggle in the area, there are many people who remain hopeful for their community's future. The neighborhood is benefiting from state and federal funding, with new schools, gardens, and a community center. There are not only good people "coming out of the hole," but a lot of optimism for the next generation.
The only grocery store located in the Lower Ninth Ward was opened by Burnell Cotlon, who decided to contribute to his community after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area. The ward is a food desert, forcing residents to walk miles or take several buses to the nearest grocery store. Cotlon owns the next-door barber shop and his store even serves hot food like po boys. Soon, Cotlon will open a laundromat for the ward.
Trash and leftover rubble sit near bright, new homes, distracting viewers from the progress that the Lower Ninth has experienced since Katrina. Recently paved sidewalks lead nowhere and are already overgrown.
In its heyday, the Running Bear Boxing Club had at least 20 young boxers from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The founder, Harry Sims, wanted to keep kids off of the streets and away from bad influences that so often bring heartache to impoverished areas. Sims and his boxing club have been featured in articles in national publications and documentary films.
After Katrina, Harry Sims had to start anew with rebuilding his house and even his yard. Because of the possible contamination and chemicals from the junkyard a few blocks away, Harry scraped the mud out of his yard and replaced the dirt. The metal yard was used to cut up ships and Harry feared that the water would affect the generations "comin' up."
Dennis (black shirt) and Deshane (white shirt) Sims, 15 year old twins, know the hardships and difficulties of growing up in the Lower Ninth Ward. Their grandfather, Harry, helps their mother keep them on track. "This generation here [our goal] is to bring them up, teach them how to do things, make them straight in the mind," said Harry.
"She [Katrina] brought the water, we were gonna get the water anyway," Sims said. "It's hard for me to leave home, when you love somethin' you know." Harry has been through two major hurricanes, once when he was 13 and then in 2005 when Katrina hit. He was displaced each time.
"I was an ameateur when I was younger. I had this [ring] since the '90s. You know, we had a lot of trouble. It was takin' the kids really out of focus. I had this here to keep them busy. I had so many then, about 15 to 20," said Harry Sims. "Right now, I have my grandsons, my two grandboys, and one of the neighbor boys."
Construction projects are all over the Ward, giving signs of development. From 2009 to 2013, an average of 31% of people were living in poverty, according to The Data Center Research. 95.5% of these residents are black.
"Before I think I pass away from here, I think I'm gonna have myself a champion, bro," said Harry Sims, after reflecting on the history of his boxing club. "Right in this little gutter here. I'm tryin' hard, yeah."
"My generation, I came up where a lot of people got in trouble," said grandfather and trainer Harry Sims. "But I wanted to show that there was somebody intact. Somebody watchin' and intact. We got a lot of people in here that's really atheltes. Watch the football come outta that, watch the track come outta that. We got it. I'm tellin' ya, keep the drugs away, keep the liquor down, keep the gangstas from trying to be gangtas sellin' us drugs when we're tryin' to go to school. And that's what they're workin' on."
Harry Sims isn't worried or scared about another hurricane returning to the Lower Ninth. "If something comes again, I'll just take it all down and rebuild it when I can come back," said Sims about his boxing ring. "I got a boat now."
Kentrell Dantzler, 9, is a main member of the Running Bear Boxing Club, and also headed to compete in the Silver Gloves Tournament at the end of December 2015. Here, he looks away from a closing talk by Coach Ford. The coach has to get on his knees to spar with Kentrell, as he has no other younger members of the Lower Ninth to practice with.
Coach Darien Ford has 35 professional matches under his belt. His high, raspy voice rings out in the yard as the twins practice on the bags, huffing and hissing through their teeth with every punch. "Hands up high, and bring that jab back. Use your speed. Float like a butterfly, that's what Muhammad Ali say. Sting like a bee. A butterfly ain't got no gravity, stay light on your feet. He smooth, he fast. Hands up high."
Community gardens are scattered through the neighborhood. Brightly painted sheds and tires repurposed as plant potters mark each of these green spaces. Volunteers appear on the weekends to continue the established work.
Amarion Ozan, 12, joined the other boys that day after taking a long break from boxing. The next day, Saturday, he will be picked up by Coach Ford to run around the track at the community center. Coach Ford wants him to continue training to compete in a tournament in 2016.
Kentrell practices technique with a member of the coaching staff, Montgomery. The unusually warm December evening is marked by the massive mosquitoes hanging about and the buzz of crickets in the distance. As the sun sets, the only noises are the sound of gloves hitting mitts and the exhales of the young boxers. "Left, no. The other left. One, two. Again. Again."