“Oh, this was a fine neighborhood. It was a lot of fun back here…. We knew one another. It was like a big family. You could leave your house open and go off.”
—Phil Harris, recalling the neighborhood’s past
“Trailers, trailers, trailers, trailers. All the houses were messed up, it was just trailers everywhere.”
—Shekiel Leblanc, on returning to Hollygrove
Phil Harris is now an octogenarian; Shekiel Leblanc is seventeen. The Hollygrove of Phil Harris’s youth is not the same place that Shekiel grew up. Postwar Hollygrove was a bastion of working-class black families; an oasis of quiet streets, modest but well-kept houses, and rambling childhood adventures. Its decline was slow but inexorable. The city reached an economic and population peak in 1960; afterwards, jobs began to disappear, municipal funding for schools and parks dwindled, and families with the means to relocate moved to suburban neighborhoods.
The war on drugs and its attendant hyper-incarceration decimated many of Hollygrove’s remaining families. (Its most famous son is the rapper Lil’ Wanye, whose heartfelt tributes to his childhood home recall a rough and tumble life.) Shekiel grew up without a dad, and he was separated from his younger siblings when his mom spent time in prison. Growing up, he spent most of his free time at a neighborhood youth center called Trinity Christian Community. TCC, as it is known, was a second home to dozens of Hollygrove kids before floodwaters drove them away.
If TCC hoped to one day resume its youth work in Hollygrove, its immediate task was clear. “If you don’t have a house to live in, you don’t have any kids,” TCC director Kevin Brown explained. “We had to re-create a neighborhood so that we’d have kids to work with so we could get back to our mission.” Almost overnight, TCC turned into a construction hub, coordinating 100 Americorps workers and thousands of out-of-town volunteers. Recovery followed “wherever we re-did a house” Kevin explained. “If we do one or two houses on the block, that block would come back. And so we’d move to another block and do one or two houses, and that block would come back. And you can tell. Right now, I mean, if you were to drive with me through Hollygrove, you could tell where we did a house because the neighbors are all back. And you can tell where we didn’t do a house because those blocks have maybe one, two people on them.”
Hollygrove continues to face tremendous social and economic problems, but most of its population is back. Once again, the hallways at TCC echo with children’s voices.