Though the Vietnamese enclave of Versaille in New Orleans has made significant progress in its effort to rebuild a community, it still faces major challenges. New community institutions are grappling with pollution, community divisions, and investment needs for rebuilding.
Versaille or Village de L'Est is a sprawling community cut by sharp tang of the nearby Folgers coffee roasting facility. There are ranch style houses and mini-malls. You can make out large Buddhist temples, Catholic churches, and community spaces. Even the non-profits seem to have generous space.
The area is 50% Vietnamese-American; the other half is primarily African American with a few percent Latino. Vietnamese own the overwhelming majority of businesses in the area, even places with non-ethnic names like We Never Close Po-boys. Racial tensions remain between these communities.
Many buildings remain uninhabited. Some are fallen in and have head-high overgrown lots. Unlike other parishes in New Orleans, this particular parish that covers Versaille never threatened to bulldoze homes that the owners neglected. The area has limited services including a health facility and supermarkets.
The canals cutting through the community carry water with high concentrations of chemicals including arsenic. Though the enclave's organizing efforts captured in the film, A Village Called Versaille, shut down the Chef Menteur Landfill, that dump still holds hundreds of thousand of pounds of refuse, some toxic. That landfill and a second dump are seeping into the water. Private companies are also dumping a great deal of waste in the area. However, through force of habit, many residents continue to use water for their vegetable gardens.
Residents continue to address these obstacles. Through the newly formed CDC, two new medical clinics have been established in the area. There are efforts to create a 28 acre community farm, the Viet Village Urban Farm, to produce local produce, livestock, and possibly fish. Dan Nguyen, an organizer for the CDC, noted, however, even this faces difficulty as remediation costs for utilizing wetlands (much of New Orleans is below sea level) areas have risen sharply to hundreds per acre. The CDC are also developing new businesses and a charter school. Some hopeful efforts of bringing the African American and Vietnamese American community together occur through the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association (VAYLA)'s work with youth in the area and CDC's collaborative work around employment issues. VAYLA also is working on a campaign to reform the area and state's dismal schools. In some parts of the neighborhood, residents have made major efforts to signal the return of the community through beautifying homes, streets and improving signage.
Katrina wiped out much of the area but offered opportunities for new initiatives. In addition to rebuilding, Versaille faces the challenge of building a more sustainable and more just community. It has made progress but still looks at a long journey.
You can support for the work of these groups by contacting the Mary Queen of Vietnam CDC
Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association Youth group