It’s been more than 11 years since Hurricane Katrina, and much of New Orleans is in pretty good shape. By 2015, more than half the city’s neighborhoods had regained 90 percent of their pre-storm populations. But in the Lower Ninth Ward, a working-class, black neighborhood that experienced extensive flooding, only 37 percent of residents had returned.
Due to a variety of ill-advised government policies that tended to write off the Lower Ninth or favor other areas, the neighborhood’s damaged homes, schools, and businesses were left to founder. While the situation is improving—federal, state, and local forces have come together to open a new community center and high school in the past two years—the area is still rife with abandoned houses and empty lots, and suffers from a lack of services.
One area of the Lower Ninth has seen particular grassroots growth. In 2015, a man named Burnell Cotlon opened the neighborhood’s only post-Katrina grocery store; a barber shop, laundromat, and other small shops followed. Next to his compound, abutting empty lots, lay a concrete slab. Ryan Swanson of the Tampa-based design firm The Urban Conga identified it as the spot where he wanted to create a music-based play area—the kind of safe public space for kids and families to gather that the neighborhood lacked.
Swanson, who received funding for the project from KaBOOM!, a nonprofit that brings play to disadvantaged children, spoke with Cotlon and other residents to find out what musical elements they would most enjoy. The answer? Drumming. The Urban Conga placed blue steel cylinders in groupings that suggest chairs around a table—inviting people to sit, play music, and talk. Each cylinder makes a different sound when touched, with most emitting a drum beat but with a few piano notes tossed in. The cylinders also light up in different colors in the dark.
The community has embraced the project, dubbed The Hangout. Aside from the fun of the music, residents appreciate that the cylinders provide light. The surrounding roads, which were finally repaired during The Hangout’s installation last year, have no street lamps. A bus stop—both for school and for regular transit—sits in front of Cotlon’s compound. “In the early morning or the evening, kids and adults were just hanging out in the dark there, waiting for the bus,” says Swanson. “It didn’t feel safe or conducive to interacting.”
Cotlon’s businesses provide the electricity needed to illuminate The Hangout, though solar panels may be forthcoming to help offset the cost of energy. The Urban Conga has a two-year maintenance agreement with Cotlon in which he takes care of the area on a daily basis, but if something major goes wrong, the firm comes to fix it. In 2019, The Hangout will belong to Cotlon—and to the community.
“We wanted to give the Lower Ninth something they could call their own,” says Swanson.