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Hurricane Katrina

Houston's 5th Ward finds kinship with poor evacuees

By NICOLE JOHNSON
Published September 6, 2005



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HOUSTON - A Marvin Gaye classic blares from the boombox propped up on a table just outside Coghlan's Grocery Market on Lyons Avenue in Houston's 5th Ward.

Colorful straw hats are placed meticulously in rows. Wide-brims on one row. Short cloche styles on the next. Bundles of incense and small vials of scented oil are lined up on the table.

On this corner for the last nine years, Muhammad Bilal has sold straw hats fit for a Friday night. The makeshift shop has become a central location for residents of one of Houston's oldest black neighborhoods to congregate.

Like most places in Bayou City, and the nation for that matter, Hurricane Katrina dominates the conversation between men standing outside the store.

"To see a baby with nothing in the streets is a terrible thing," said Bilal, a thin man in a red cap. "And just think how long they had to be that way before they got rescued is worse."

Like most places across the city, there have been clothing drives and sit-down dinners in the 5th Ward for hurricane evacuees.

A big red-and-white sign hangs from the roof of the 5th Ward Church of Christ alerting evacuees on Interstate 610 to free dinners. The church served up barbecued chicken and macaroni and cheese to 100 people on Sunday.

But for the people in this community, the empathy comes from a place deeper than most.

"Day after day, you saw those people suffering in the 9th Ward, and I asked myself, "If they were a different color, would this have happened?"' said Minister Gary Smith pointing to images on the news.

Those images showed mostly people in New Orleans' 9th Ward, a predominately poor, black section of the city. The federal and state government has been criticized for responding too slowly to the area.

The 5th Ward, east of downtown Houston, is one of the city's oldest black neighborhoods. Founded by freed slaves and whites in the late 1860s, it was predominately black by the early 1900s.

Around the 1920s, hundreds of blacks from Louisiana migrated to the neighborhood and opened businesses.

Spatterings of one-room shacks throughout streets are the same style found prevalent in New Orleans' 9th Ward. And jambalaya is featured on the menu at the neighborhood Frenchy's Fried Chicken.

But the similarities between the 5th and 9th wards do not stop at architecture and food.

More than 60 percent of 5th Ward residents and almost 40 percent in the 9th Ward live below the poverty level.

And relief efforts taking place for evacuees are similar to the services provided to this part of town on a regular basis.

Every Wednesday, the 5th Ward Church of Christ opens its doors to those needing nonperishable food, and hot meals are served throughout the week.

"We have people who come by here every day for bus change and money for utility payments," said Herman Brown, an elder at the church. "If the same thing happened here that happened in New Orleans, where would those people go?"

Poverty is vulnerability, Brown said.

Of course, being more than 50 miles from water, the 5th Ward is not exactly lying in wait for a hurricane. But there is a belief that if a disaster happened, the neighborhood could be last on the list for help.

"We don't have money for campaign contributions, so who is going to consider us when there are people who do that need to be rescued?" Bilal asked. "We are just trying to live day to day."

[Last modified September 6, 2005, 03:15:21]


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