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"Miracle of Versailles"
by Lance Hill
Last week I visited the Vietnamese community in the “Versailles Village” area of flood-devastated eastern New Orleans. The Versailles community is nearly thirteen miles from downtown New Orleans and stands in the wreckage of thousands of moldy abandoned houses that were once home to the thriving black “NewOrleans East” community. Yet in the midst of this despairing landscape, Versailles Village unfolds like a beautiful flower. Nearly 1,000 people have returned to Versailles and restored hundreds of homes. At the entrance of the subdivision, twenty-four businesses have sprung back to life, including restaurants, grocery stores and even a dentist office. Children are back in publicand private schools and work is easy to find--employers from around the city come to Versailles to recruit desperately needed service workers.
So how did this rebirth happen while adjacent black neighborhoods continue to stagnate in eerie silence?
A good part of the success of Versailles owes to the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. Before Katrina, the church was the center of religious and social life for the 4000 Vietnamese who lived in approximately 950 homes located within one mile of the church. Rev. Nguyen The Vien, pastor for Mary Queen church, estimates that in addition to the 1,000 people now living in Versailles, another 1,000 former residents have returned to the New Orleans area and are awaiting repairs to their homes.
During the evacuation, the church served as a vehicle for the community to collectively make decisions about when and how they would return and rebuild.
Church leaders kept the Diaspora Vietnamese community linked together, with Rev. Vien constantly visiting refugee sites and fellow priests dispatched to Houston and Dallas to work full-time with the displaced communities
From the first days of evacuation, the community began planning to return and rebuild Versailles Village. The decision to return together was key in helping overcome homeowner fears that they might lose their investment if they rebuilt in a neighborhood that later failed to revive. They community was convinced that if they quickly rebuilt and occupied their homes, the city government and utility companies would have to provide services. The plan worked.
By the first week of October, Rev. Vien had returned to New Orleans with 300 parishioners. They temporarily stayed in Vietnamese community centers in the area until they could set up tents and housing in the Mary Queen of Vietnam church building. Working together, they set about gutting and restoring their homes. Vien negotiated with Entergy, the local electrical utility company, to provide power to the subdivision, even though Versailles was miles from any other inhabited residential neighborhood. To justify the cost of the connection work and the diversion of scarce electrical power, Entergy told Vien that they wanted some guarantee that the community was returning. Within one week, Vien delivered 500 signed requests for electrical hookups. By November, Versailles had electrical power and water lines.
The Vietnamese community managed this rebirth despite the uncertainties about future flooding and the possibility that FEMA may require homeowners to elevate their homes at great cost in order to qualify for flood insurance.
None of this seems to trouble the people of Versailles. They have refused to wait for government agencies to tell them if and when they can return to their homes. Given that most experts now agree that the flooding was a result of mistakes made by the government--the Army Corp of Engineers in particular--the Vietnamese community’s doubts about salvation by government are understandable.
It takes an enormous leap of faith to expect the people who caused our problems to solve our problems.
What can be learned from the Versailles miracle? The Vietnamese community had several unique qualities that aided its successful return, some of which can be adapted to other communities. Foremost, it possessed a group-oriented culture that emphasized community needs over individual rights and interests; each individual in the community was duty-bound to help everyone in their community make it home. From the outset, community members understood that the individual’s survival depended on the community’s survival.
The catholic church provided a communication network for the community to make collective decisions and act in concert, even while dispersed around the country. No other community in New Orleans had the benefit of this kind of communication network. It proved crucial in bringing the community back at the same time and in sufficient numbers to force the government to provide services.
Perhaps the most important key to their success is that the Vietnamese community refused to place its salvation into the hands of the government. They simply came home.
January 17, 2005