We spent the night in the Emergency Operations Center bunk house. This involved trying to fit two people on one bottom twin bunk for several hours before resorting to splitting up between two bunks. This also involved vision-impaired trips to the lobby bathroom in the dark, with badge key to enter and exit sections of the building. (I thought roaming the national forest in my nightgown was weird, but this may top that!)
Over night the storm intensified into a tropical storm with widespread power outages and trees down throughout Kenner. We were probably in the safest building in town and didn’t hear anything until we emerged in the morning and saw the damage. The winds must have been fierce because trees were down in all directions.
At about 8 AM, we took a walk over to LaSalle’s Landing where a straggling farmer’s market was set up, and we climbed up on the levee for a view of the river. There was some lingering mist in the air. We met the gentleman named Johnny who was selling breads at the farmers market. He offered us a sample, and asked us about something, quickly realizing that we were the people he had heard about traveling the river. He said his fiancée Rachel was very interested. We saw him later in the day and he gave us a loaf of bread for our journey and wished us well.
We walked over to Heritage Hall only to find the power out there and throughout the Rivertown complex. Heidi greeted us with mop in hand because there was also a large pool of water on the floor that had blown in through the windows during the storm. Tom grabbed another mop and bucket from the closet and we got to work while waiting for our first appointment.
Our first scheduled interview was with Kevin Centanni, a local Justice of the Peace. He has spent 30 years as judge or elected official, and has long roots in Kenner, Louisiana. The Centanni family has apparently been in Kenner since the 1880s, and many of them are buried in the St. Rose cemetery. According to Kevin, back then, Kenner was the country, whereas New Orleans was the city. Early on, though, a streetcar did run between the two towns, establishing Kenner as a first tier suburb in the early 1900s.
Kevin pointed out that 3rd Street is currently the first street in town off the levee. 1st and 2nd Streets have been taken over by the river and the levee over time. His family owned riverside property, and he said his grandfather once moved construction stakes to gain more land during one of the levee rebuilds.
As we have made our way down through South Louisiana, we have found more and more Sicilian enclaves like we are finding here in Kenner as well. Kevin is very proud of being 100% Sicilian. The history of their immigration and effort to integrate into American society is a story he proudly tells. Kevin believes that at the time of Italian immigration, with the abolition of slavery coinciding, Italians ended up taking the place of slaves—not only in the fields but also in terms of discriminatory treatment. This belief is not shared by everyone, of course.
Becoming Justice of the Peace sort of fell in Kevin’s lap while working in human resources for the city. The sitting Judge needed someone to stand-in for him, and appointed Kevin to the position. Then Kevin was primed to run for the position in the next cycle, and he succeeding in winning the seat. He continued to work both the human resources job and the judgeship.
As Justice of the Peace, Kevin takes care of small claims and evictions, and through this sees a lot of the struggles in his communities. He says that people don’t have a rainy day fund anymore. They just aren’t raised with that mentality it seems. He also feels very strongly about how mental illness plays a part in social well being. You can only educate folks who are capable, he says. If you address this upfront you will save money and help people. Structure and love through a stronger family unit and mental health support.
Kevin’s idea for this mental health support is that people should not only get a primary care physician but they should also get a primary care therapist. He is also supportive of trade-based learning during incarceration to support re-entry for nonviolent offenders. Discipline and aptitude are needed, Kevin says, just a job isn’t enough. It’s a team effort. It doesn’t matter where you come from, according to Kevin. He thinks you need to balance individual and community rights.
As Kevin was leaving, it came time to make a decision about the rest of the day—a workshop with local school kids followed by a public performance had been planned, but with electricity still out throughout most of town, perhaps calling things off was a better idea. We reluctantly put a sign on the door announcing the cancellation of all events, and Tom and I got ready for our last appointment here in Kenner with councilman Gregory Carroll.
As a councilman in District 1, Gregory is another generational Kenner resident—fifth generation to be exact. His family land is just up the river a short way, and he told us to visit the old cemetery on Decatur Street where some of his relatives are buried. There were segregation laws here, leaving District One as primarily African American. But people work together, he says.
Gregory has many schoolteachers in his family. School and church were focal points of life when he was growing up—that’s where people got their information. He said teachers used to live in the community, but nowadays teachers live elsewhere and don’t see students outside of school. This is one of the troubles with education he feels, which is one of the main troubles plaguing his district.
The councilman gave us a lesson around the districts and continued racial segregation across the geography of Kenner. Geographically, the city of Kenner is 3 miles wide and 5 miles long. 3rd street was the focal point of the community, but in the late sixties and seventies expansion went north. The city is 12 feet higher on the riverside, and the soil is rock hard. Over on Veterans Blvd, about halfway north through the city toward Lake Pontchartrain, the soil is softer. There was an exodus to the north, according to Gregory, but now the homes on the riverside are on more stable land.
The Airport also bought out some District 1 property. It wasn’t a good move to sell, said Gregory. It hurt the neighborhood. Kenner has river, highway, railroads, planes. They have every mode of transportation—short of the submarine! Gregory also mentioned that trains and barges are also carrying chemicals, which is concern into him.
While his interest is clearly on District 1 matters, Gregory has an eye for all of Kenner. He even ran for mayor. He was OK with the process. He said you don’t have to like me. Right now, however, he’s not thinking of running again, but he’s also not going anywhere either—he’s going to be planted in that cemetery down there, he said.
He’s fighting for a people who don’t always have the fight in themselves—or that’s what Kevin might say. But Gregory believes in public schools, not charter schools. He believes the education system is the biggest thing we need to work on—give our schools the assets they need to succeed.
This strong belief comes right out of his first hand experience as Director of Inmate Programs for the City of New Orleans, seeing people who have been through a failing education system and are now involved with homelessness, drugs, alcohol, and worse. Some people from Kenner are in his jails in New Orleans, which has a culture of its own. We need to understand culture, he says, because we are territorial, which means we are close knit.
I guess I need to think about that again: We need to understand culture because we are territorial, which (also) means we are close knit…. Gregory would perhaps close this off with reminding people, as he said, that they are smart and beautiful and should not be afraid to engage a diverse crowd, even if it’s not in your own territory.