Ward “Mack”McClendon: Embracing the Lower Ninth Ward
McClendon's Lower Ninth Ward Village is a linchpin of the New Orleans community.
Ward McClendon’s plan for the building—even before Katrina—involved antique cars. Prior to the storm, he had owned 14 of them, “and they made me feel good,” he says. But the cars, like so much else in the Lower Ninth Ward, were gone. “I was just trying to find something to pick up my spirits,” McClendon says. “I was always fascinated with old cars. It would be nice to tinker with them again. That was my intention when I got the building.”
The building in question—a big Quonset hut–like structure, located on a largely residential block—had intrigued him since he was a boy growing up in the neighborhood. At one point, it was home to a boat-propeller manufacturer; later, it was a beauty school. Pre-Katrina, McClendon, a former telephone company employee with a bad back and a modest monthly disability check, looked into buying the building, but couldn’t afford it. Like a lot of the Lower Ninth, it was abandoned after the hurricane, and suddenly, he could. He bought it in August 2007.
“It was never my intention to have a community center,” McClendon says. “That was nowhere on my radar. But I’d been down to town hall meetings and I knew how bad the community was suffering. So at a meeting I got up and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this building over here. If you guys want to take a look at it and try to make it a community center, then we’ll have a place for everyone to gather.’ I didn’t think anyone would come out, and I was shocked when just about the whole community showed up. But I’m stubborn. I had a little backup plan. I had some cards made basically asking, ‘Are you willing to donate money? Are you willing to donate time?’ I figured they wouldn’t bother filling out a card. Almost every one of them did.”
And so the Lower Ninth Ward Village was born. It is very much an ad hoc organization, staffed by volunteers and pretty much anyone else who walks in the door. “The building is like magic,” McClendon says. After buying it, he says, “I was in there gutting it out by myself, and a busload of volunteers just showed up and asked, could they help.” Indeed, the place feels special. Under a vaulted ceiling, there’s room enough for a lending library, and a big expanse of open floor that’s perfect for meetings and oversize art projects. Banners from schools, colleges (architecture schools are well represented), and volunteer organizations hang from the rafters, as in a high school gym. The building also has a media room stocked with donated computers, and plans for a small gym. Out back, Tim Duggan and the folks at Make It Right have installed a community garden and a performance stage.
The Village has become a beacon for both the neighborhood and visitors. “We know for sure that over 50,000 people have come through here and volunteered throughout New Orleans,” McClendon says. Last August, around the anniversary of Katrina, he hosted an emotional reunion for neighborhood residents exiled by the storm. Funded by small donations, the Village is a challenge for McClendon—“Mack” to just about everybody—but one he accepts. “You can go through your life and not find your purpose,” he says. “I’ve been able to find mine by embracing this project.”