What if you had to take three city buses on a half-day round trip to buy groceries? Burnell Cotlon’s neighborhood, New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, was in just that situation.
Cotlon was born and raised in the L9, as it’s called, and except for a stint with the U.S. Army in Germany, he lived there his whole life. After Hurricane Katrina, he realized his neighborhood was a food desert—there were no grocery stores, and chains didn’t think they could make enough profits to move in. So he decided he was going to build an oasis.
Describing himself as “an average guy with above average dreams,” Cotlon put his life savings into opening a grocery store, the Lower Ninth Ward Market. I spoke with him about his experience turning a building damaged by Katrina into a market and community hub.
The photographs in this post were taken by participants of a two-day National Geographic Your Shot photography workshop in the Lower Ninth Ward.
BH: When did you have the idea to open the market? And how long did it take until you cut the ribbon?
BC: Before Katrina, I had 40 some neighbors on that whole block. Today I only have three. But when I first came back in 2007, I didn’t have any neighbors at all. My very first neighbor [after Katrina], was the one to bring it to my attention that we didn’t have a store in the Ninth Ward. I used to give her rides to Walmart, and that’s in the next city. In my world, you’re either part of the problem, or you’re part of the solution. There’s no stores? Build one.
I bought [the building] in 2009, 2010, and it took me almost four years to open up the actual doors in 2014. But before I opened the doors, we had a grocery store window. Everybody came to that little bitty window to get their milk, eggs, bread, candy—everything—through that little bitty window. I saved enough money from that to actually open up the store.
BH: Tell me about the people who shop in your store.
BC: Wow. Some people come and cry. I have people come and take pictures. I have total strangers come and give me a hug. The look on some of these people’s faces is priceless because they have a place that they can shop and just hang out. So my little bit of effort has made such a huge impact on my community.
BH: You said “just a little bit of effort” on your part, but it sounds like it was a lot of effort. Was there a moment when you were trying to have all of this come together where you felt like throwing in the towel?
BC: Oh all the time. It was extremely hard. It’s still hard today when I realized that all of my savings went into this. It cost a lot to bring a building that’s been damaged to that extent back to life. People are coming to me all of the time asking for a different type of food, or like right now we sell clothes in there. You’d be surprised some of the things people come in the store and ask for. Just yesterday a little kid asked me if I could open up a skating rink because he knows nobody else is going to do it. People come in and ask me, can I open up a laundry room. I mean, the list goes on and on and on.
BH: So what do you think keeps people from opening up another grocery store or other stores that are necessities in the neighborhood?
BC: I had the opportunity to talk to some of the major big box stores, and they all told me pretty much the same thing. They have to have “x” amount of people in like, a five mile radius of their store in order for them to make their money, so they’re about profit.
But the people that want to come back, they’re not coming back because there are no stores. But the stores aren’t building because there aren’t enough people. Meanwhile, back at the farm, the people that are in the Lower 9th Ward are suffering. So it’s like, what came first—the chicken, or the egg?
BH: And you recently started taking EBT right? Was getting that kind of clearance hard to do?
BC: Yes, that was a game changer for a lot of people. That was extremely hard. It was a stack of papers that you would not believe. Then they had to come out and inspect your store because you have to have—I believe it was 90 percent of your items have to be food. I went through quite a few inspections. You have to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
BH: So it’s expanded your customer base of people who can shop at your store?
BC: Yes, it has expanded. The customer acquisition cost was, when I first started, maybe $1.90, but since we did EBT it went up to maybe between $5-$7 because we accept the EBT cards. Now they’re asking me about the WIC program, women infants children, so I’m going to try to work on that next.
BH: So you acquired your building in 2009 and that’s been almost six years, where would you like to be in five or six more years?
BC: I would love to have opened up the second floor of my building, buy some more land around my building and open up more businesses. I would open up a laundry room. I wanna open up a notary public. There is so much that’s still needed in the Ninth Ward. So I want to continue to build my community. My goal is to make the Lower Ninth Ward like the rest of the city. That’s my goal.