For the past few weeks, national and international reporters have swarmed into the only grocery in the Lower 9th Ward.
“We’ve been inundated,” said Burnell Cotlon, a Lower 9 native who runs the Caffin Avenue Plaza with his wife, Keasha. But Cotlon isn’t like others, fed up with being in the media fishbowl for the approaching 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
“I don’t mind,” he said. “Because so many people are under the impression that the whole city has recovered. This shows them that the Lower 9 is still hurting.”
Since the middle of this month, dozens of television crews have visited his corner at North Galvez Street and Caffin Avenue, scanning the empty lots and boarded-up, flooded homes that are still more common here than rebuilt homes.
Except for the cluster of Make It Right homes that border the Industrial Canal, emptiness and blight reign over much of this section of the Lower 9th Ward, the heavily flooded area bracketed by North Claiborne Avenue and Bayou Bienvenue.
Four blocks away from the grocery, the Tricou Street house where Cotlon grew up floated from its foundation 10 years ago, pushed by roof-high floodwaters pouring through a broad gash in a nearby Industrial Canal levee.
In 2010, the couple bought a heavily damaged concrete apartment building for $4,000 and, piece by piece, turned it into a barbershop, sweet shop and grocery, with the help of the couple’s life savings and hundreds of Marquette University volunteers whose names are written in black marker on the walls inside.
“It was my home, and my home was hurting,” said Cotlon, a 10-year U.S. Army veteran who evacuated with his mother before Hurricane Katrina to a shelter near Fort Polk.
Today, his mother, Lillie Cotlon, 70, lives in Gentilly but is a constant presence at her son’s store, cooking often-requested dishes like hot wings, red beans and fish in its kitchen.
The place has become a hub. Neighbors stop in, leaving verbal messages for other neighbors who are sure to pass by later that day. Children wander in and out, getting chips and sno-balls but also praising the fresh peaches that the store stocks as a way to keep neighbors eating healthy.
Requests drive much of what the store carries. A blue sign above the register reads, “If you don’t see it, ask for it.”
A green spiral-bound notebook on the counter records handwritten customer appeals. Recently, neighbors have asked for more sugar-free foods, diapers small enough to fit a 5-month-old baby and blue Gatorade.
The grocery, which opened in late 2014, used to close on Sundays. But when neighbors asked them to stay open seven days a week, the couple complied. Many people have clamored for hot breakfasts, which will start soon. In response to requests, they now carry shoes, toiletries, hardware, gift wrap, toys, and fresh fruit and vegetables, to the point that neighbors refer to the store as “the Junior Wal-Mart.”
Though it was “a dire need,” the Cotlons couldn’t supply a pharmacist. So they’re thankful for the CVS pharmacy that just broke ground on North Claiborne Avenue.
But the Cotlons still have a want list. Burnell has long watched people board the passing Galvez bus with bulky bags of laundry, and so he’d like to add three washers and dryers and a long table in the back, in part of what is now a storeroom.
The couple also would like to replace a cooler that can display nothing but cold drinks because it’s provided free by a soft-drink company. In its place, in a cooler that the couple would like to purchase, they could stock fresh meat and more milk, cheese and eggs.
Recently, friends started a GoFundMe page to help the Cotlons finish their work, which thus far has been paid for by about $85,000 of their own money. To date, the store is sustainable, but it has yet to show a profit, much less repay their investment, he said.
Yet Cotlon is repaid daily, in ways that can’t be measured by a bank. “The neighbors’ response is priceless,” he said. “I would do it all over again.”