Tulane City Center teams up to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina

Alexa Christianson, Contributing Reporter

Armed with an innovative and quick-thinking workforce, the Tulane City Center is far from shy when it comes to opening its arms to understaffed, underfunded or overlooked community partners. This commitment blossomed following the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

For the past 10 years, Tulane architecture students and faculty have engaged with, listened to, supported and cooperated with nonprofit organizations in the city to provide them services such as graphic display and design-building.

Project Manager Emilie Taylor Welty, who has been with the Tulane City Center since 2006, is confident yet humble about Tulane City Center’s progress with post-Katrina rehabilitation.

“We actually didn’t start doing projects until after the storm hit,” Welty said. “[Before], the idea was that we could be doing projects in the community, but we didn’t really know what that meant.”

Once Hurricane Katrina made landfall, however, Tulane City Center committed itself to aiding smaller community groups and has not looked back. They participated in events like Reinhabiting NOLA, a conference which brought 150 residents, local and national universities, area nonprofit leaders and more to discuss a community-based vision for the future of New Orleans.

“We tried to talk with the people on the grounds about what it would take to recover,” Welty said. “A lot of conversations were happening amongst politicians and ‘higher-level’ people at that early stage. There weren’t a lot of conversations happening with community groups about what they needed.”

The City Center’s enthusiasm for sustainable design and architecture aided recovery efforts. Staff and volunteers with the City Center offered services looking at properties around the city that were badly damaged by the storm, as well as cataloging empty and vacant lands.

Tulane Architecture students have built around 40 projects in the city so far, including about 10 houses and 20 or 30 independent community structures.

“While small, [they] have made a really long-lasting impact in the communities that they are in,” Welty said. “It’s not like rebuilding entire segments of the city, but being really thoughtful and meaningful about small projects that can make a big difference.”

The Tulane City Center also holds a strong philosophy about why they help the nonprofit, often grassroots organizations, that they do.

“I think that often times, professionals and experts think they know what communities need and I think that what we try to do is make sure the voices of the community members are heard and understood,” Welty said. “Our communities are the experts, and in most cases, they know what they need more than anyone.”

Indeed, many community members and small nonprofits have had their voice and decision-making abilities stifled by various barriers since Hurricane Katrina.

“We think it’s more important than ever here, 10 years from the storm, that the community is part of efforts to shape our city,” Welty said. “We want to make sure that everyone has a voice, not just the people with the money.”

Current projects of the Tulane City Center include Grow Dat Youth Farm, an urban farm that employs dozens of disadvantaged high school students and teaches them valuable job and life skills, and Transitional Spaces, a group of skateboarders who help plan and construct a piece of a skate park in the city.

“One common theme is that we’re trying to make our city better through … really innovative and excellent design,” Welty said. “It’s working with groups of multiple scales.”

Welty emphasized the nonprofits around the city who are always eager to have volunteers aid in their projects, whether the commitment be a weekend or several weeks of involvement. Tulane student groups have been known to devote time to rehabilitative and innovative projects in the city.

Welty’s own personal outlook on the recovery of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina is realistic, yet determined.

“I think we’ve made some really great strides towards recovery, but it’s been an inequitable recovery in some ways and something we’re all still working on, and hopefully we can get to a point where everyone’s in a really good spot,” Welty said.