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How one man single-handedly opened the only grocery store in one of New Orleans’ poorest wards and inspired Ellen DeGeneres

Burnell Cotlon in front of the grocery store he built by hand in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward to restore his beloved neighborhood, which was decimated by Hurricane Katrina and had no grocery store or laundromat. (Photo by Sarah Netter)

Burnell Cotlon is talking  intently to the soft-spoken woman on the other end of the line.

“Can you hear me, Grandma? What’chu want down there?” he asks. “ Some bread, some ham and cheese?”

The woman requests a jug of Hawaiian Punch.

“I’ll drop it off to you, okay?” he confirmed. “Yes, ma’am.”

It was a quick phone call for Cotlon, but a lifeline for the woman he calls Grandma and the thousands of other residents who live in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward.

More than 10 years after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans and all but destroyed the Lower Ninth, Cotlon has sunk every cent of his life savings into restoring the quiet neighborhood to the family-friendly community he remembers from his childhood.

His one-year-old store, the Lower 9th Ward Market, is the only grocery store in the neighborhood. His sweet shop next door is the only place to grab a sno-ball – a shaved ice staple in any true New Orleanian’s diet. Cotlon’s efforts even caught the attention of New Orleans native Ellen DeGeneres, who brought him to Los Angeles last fall to appear on her daytime talk show — and donated washers and dryers so he could open a laundromat.

Cotlon’s market is an oasis in the middle of what’s known as a food desert – defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a place devoid of stores selling healthful food, typically in a low-income area where many residents do not have access to a car. It was a term Cotlon first heard when he moved back to the Lower Ninth after Katrina and started calling Walmart and local grocery chains Winn-Dixie and Rouses, trying to get one of them to build a store. As it was, the closest grocery store was a Walmart in the next parish over. It took three buses to get there.

“Imagine if you don’t have a car and you have three or four kids,” he said. “You have to get on those buses with those kids and then get to Walmart and go up and down those aisles. Now you have to get back on those buses with those kids and bags.”

[Kids don’t have to be lonely at recess, anymore, thanks to one little boy and his ‘buddy bench’]

“This is the United States of America,” he said. “You should not have a hardship like that you have to endure.”

But his efforts to recruit a chain grocery store were unsuccessful. He said he was told “there’s not enough people back there for us to come and open up a store.”

Cotlon made up his mind.  “If the big-box stores are not willing to come back here and rebuild, I am.”

Cotlon built the Lower 9th Ward Market by hand from the skeleton of a former two-story structure that was ripped to shreds by Katrina. To save money, he learned how to do electrical work and general construction from YouTube videos and hired a licensed contractor to inspect it.

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Cotlon, an Army veteran with an easy smile and that famous New Orleans patois, sells everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to New Orleans necessities like red beans and rice. There’s also a hodgepodge of cookies, toys, school supplies and shoes.  He also sells condoms and diapers at customers’ requests.

He proudly points to a blue sign hanging above the cash register: “If you don’t see it, ask for it.”

 ‘It’s going to come back’

The situation in the Lower Ninth lies in stark contrast to other neighborhoods that were quickly rebuilt after Katrina and touted during last year’s 10th anniversary as symbols of resilience. The neighborhood, its residents almost all black, is still a shell of what it was.

In between newly built homes, most constructed by nonprofits and with aid money, are rows of empty, overgrown lots. The city has removed hundreds of blighted houses, but they still dot the Lower Ninth, barely standing on rotted wood and shifted brick.

Less than 25 percent of the ward’s pre-Katrina population has come back. The lack of resources, Cotlon said, is a major deterrent for people wanting to rebuild.

“Before Katrina, I had 42 neighbors,” Cotlon said. “Today I have three.”

The city has sunk about $500 million into the Lower Ninth, including a new $20 million community center with a pool. But there is just one school open – an elementary school with a waiting list of 500 children. A high school is nearly complete, but for now students are bused to other parts of the city.

Why has the Lower Ninth been so slow to recover? Cotlon has heard every theory in the book, including that  “the man” blew up the levees on purpose.

“If it is something to do with racism or classism, shame on them,” he said. “It’s above my pay grade. All I know is people are suffering. You are either part of the problem or you’re part of the solution.”

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu maintains that the blight surrounding the market has nothing to do with race or class. Rather, he said, it is a result of the immense poverty and economic challenges that gripped the Lower Ninth before Katrina and have yet to let go.

“The water and the horror of Katrina did not discriminate against people based on race,” said Landrieu, a native son who was elected in 2010, then reelected in 2014, both times with the support of white and black voters.  “It does have a lot to do with poverty and who had insurance and who didn’t.”

New Orleans has 73 neighborhoods, he said, many of them with a black majority and all of them clamoring for the same rebuilding money. But the Lower Ninth, he said, has not been forgotten.

“It is not for lack of trying. It’s certainly not for lack of care,” Landrieu said. “It is just because of the reality of how hard it is for neighborhoods that have gotten hurt that badly.”

He pointed to the neighborhood’s new Family Dollar and a planned CVS. And of course, Cotlon’s market.

“It’s going to come back,” Landrieu said. “It’s going to come back.”

‘I saw the city go underwater’

Cotlon was born and raised in the Upper Ninth Ward, a couple of miles from where his store now sits. “I had a phenomenal childhood. Everybody knew everybody. It was just like one big extended family. It was beautiful,” he said, his face lighting up with a wide smile.

After high school, Cotlon enlisted in the Army and spent the next 10 years in Germany in the military police. He came home fluent in German and with a degree in criminal justice, but burned out on police life.

“Switzerland, Amsterdam, Holland, England. I’ve done it all,” he said. “There’s no place like New Orleans.”

He bought a modest house in the Lower Ninth Ward and took a job as a fast-food manager, working 12- to 13-hour shifts.

On August 28, 2005, he was at work, ignoring repeated phone calls from his mother before finally picking up.

“She said ‘Katrina is going to be ugly, please come and get me.’ Something in her voice told me to evacuate,” Cotlon said, his high-wattage smile disappearing. “I grabbed three pairs of jeans, the shirt on my back, my wallet.”

It took them 18 hours to reach a shelter less than 250 miles away. Gathered with dozens of people around one small television, “I saw the city go underwater.”

They watched as people hung out of windows and clung to each other on rooftops, begging for rescue.  Cotlon found his house in shambles in the middle of the street, pushed off its foundation from the surge.

“I lost everything. It was like a dream. I cried. I cried like a baby,” he said. “Nobody else was around, but I just stood there and cried for about an hour.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency bounced him around the country, from New York City to San Antonio. By 2007, he was back in New Orleans, housed in a FEMA trailer in New Orleans East, a neighborhood with its own problems. He saved every penny he could.

In 2010, he returned to his beloved Lower Ninth Ward and began rebuilding.

“I was the only person on my entire city block,” he said. “No neighbors at all. My moms was uncomfortable with me moving back because I didn’t have any neighbors. But it was my home.”

And yet, he considers himself lucky. He didn’t deal with contractor fraud or toxic building materials like so many others.  And he didn’t realize at first how much trouble his neighbors were in.

“It didn’t hit me until I got my very first neighbor, Miss Emmanuel. She was taking her groceries out of a taxi one day,” he said. “It hit me. There’s nothing. There’s no stores, there’s no laundry rooms.”

Cotlon emptied his life savings and got started. With eyes on the city during last year’s 10th anniversary coverage, he was able to raise $65,000 out of an $80,000 GoFundMe goal, which paid for a new refrigerated case and the construction of a small addition on what he’d built himself. He says he’s not in the red, but he’s putting everything he makes back into the store.

Landrieu said Cotlon was a consistent presence at community cleanup events and neighborhood meetings. And he rarely missed an opportunity to grab Landrieu after a news conference to tell the mayor what his community needed.

“He’s got a never-say-die attitude and that’s what you build strong communities off of,” he said. “And he’s a great messenger for what’s possible in the toughest part of the toughest neighborhood in America.”

He carried that message on to the DeGeneres show. Cotlon told the comedian about a man he knows only as John, a father of two who rides a bike laden with dirty clothes across the Industrial Canal to the nearest laundromat. DeGeneres bought him new washer and dryer sets so he could open a laundromat next.

And he’s made good on her offer, back at it with his self-taught construction. He smiled up at the new ceiling of the soon-to-open business, noting that his handiwork has withstood three major rainstorms already.

 ‘If they’re hungry, I have to feed them’

Cotlon is up and working by 7 a.m. most

mornings. His wife, Keasha, trades places with him at the cash register or in the kitchen while he jumps to greet his steady stream of customers.

As lunchtime rolls around, his mother, Lillie Cotlon, scurries around the kitchen making po’boys and french fries for their regulars in between sno-ball orders.

“It’s a good thing, what he’s done,” Charles Isabelle said as he sat down for lunch. “We need more stuff in the Lower Ninth.”

David Collins, eating alongside Isabelle and his mother-in-law, agreed. “Slowly, but surely, it’s getting there.”

Cotlon rarely leaves the store except to deliver groceries, sometimes as late as 9 p.m.

“I don’t want to tell them no,” he said. “If they’re hungry, I have to feed them.”

Cotlon’s optimism is hurricane-proof.

“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Aren’t you afraid of another Katrina?’” he said. “I always tell people, what if I build it and another Katrina never comes?”

He’s also made the bold move of purchasing the ramshackle building behind his market, envisioning an Internet cafe. And he’s got his eye on the property across the street, hoping to some day build a one-screen movie theater.

“My dream is to make my neighborhood catch up with the rest of the city. Everybody, when they turn on the TV, they see the French Quarter, they see Bourbon Street, they see the Saints,” he said.

“They think New Orleans is finished. But the Lower Ninth Ward is part of New Orleans and we’re not done.”

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