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Business owner talks gentrification in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

Photo by Shamere DeMolle for Steed Media Service

Photo by Shamere DeMolle for Steed Media Service

10 years after Hurricane Katrina, half of Black population is gone

“I could never compare my personal trauma to theirs at all,” shares Brooke Boudreax, the daughter of Dwayne Boudreaux, the owner and operator of Circle Food Store located at 1522 St Bernard Ave. in New Orleans.

Circle Food Store comes from humble beginnings as a produce stand, which was established as the St. Bernard Market in 1854. In 1949, it was turned over to Herbert Gabriel and Mike Gabriel. In 1964, it was sold to Circle Food Realty, Inc. However, Gabriel controlled share of stock in the company. Circle operated well over the years. In 1991, Gabriel passed the business on to his longtime head manager, Dwayne Boudreaux, who has owned and operated since then.

Circle has always been one of the staple grocery stores in the 7th Ward Treme area catering to Creole, middle-class families.

However in 2005, Hurricane Katrina left Circle’s three-story building covered with at least nine feet of water as well as roof damage. It has been a long, hard road to getting reopened, but the Boudreaux family never gave up. Circle Food Store reopened in January 2014. With the 10th anniversary of Katrina quickly approaching, we spoke with Brooke Boudreaux, director of operations and business development, to get Circle’s story.

Read what she has to say. –shamere demolle

How were you affected by the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, professionally and personally?

Of course we completely lost the business. It was devastating to watch. We weren’t actually here when it hit because we evacuated, but we were watching it on television. It was just surreal. Nobody realized or could ever imagine it would be like that. We were watching the news. Initially, I brought a couple pairs of jeans and a couple of t-shirts thinking this will be just like the rest. We’ll go for a couple of days and come back. It was just way more than anyone could ever have imagined.

The store, itself, became kind of a gauge on the news and such to see the water. Like, this is really happening. I’ve had many people say to my parents and myself about once they saw Circle underwater they knew something was wrong.

Personally, that does take a toll, but I would never be able to compare my story. Yes, we lost the business. But a lot of people lost so much more. I can’t stress enough to try to compare the stories. I mean there are people still dealing with this trauma.

Nobody really thinks of it lightly at all. You hear stories of people that had to actually stay because they couldn’t afford to evacuate. I could never compare my personal trauma to theirs at all. Mine [experience] is horrible, but just watching on the news and empathize and to feel useless and helpless. Those were all the feelings I personally felt. I can’t imagine how people who were actually here felt.

Are you in the same business you were in before Hurricane Katrina? If no, what were you doing before?

We are happy to say we are in the same business, same location.

What is the most noticeable difference in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina (socially, economically, physically)?

From a business standpoint, the first thing we noticed is a change in our local community. I think this is happening everywhere. We used to have a neighborhood that was 90 percent Black or more. Now it’s probably more like 60 percent Black, quite a few Caucasian people, and a little bit of Hispanic people. I think that’s happening all across the board. Housing pricing is going up. People that live in the city can barely afford to live in the city. There are huge differences in those things.

Things have definitely changed in the way we do business and also the way the city is run. I kind of feel like Circle is similar to the city. In that, we are the same at heart, but different. We have employees today that were with us before Katrina. They were living in Texas, Florida and Atlanta. They would tell us, “when Circle opens up, we’re coming back,” and they have.

While I have some of the same employees, I have some new people as well. Some aren’t from here. I think that everybody here really wants to be a part of the city.

Photo by Shamere DeMolle for Steed Media Service

Photo by Shamere DeMolle for Steed Media Service

Did you receive emergency relief? Was it sufficient? If yes, how did you make it work? If no, what should have been done differently?

There was no real emergency relief for the store. My father just got back as soon as he could. He basically got people from the neighborhood to help clean up. We did receive funding to reopen. That was years after.

Are you hopeful that things will continue to improve?

Yes, Hurricane Katrina has shed a light on this city for things such as the growing film industry. We have a growing entrepreneur community. People want to be a part of this city and take part in the rebuilding. We don’t need to be saved. We just need people that want to be a part of our growth. I think we had a very negative spotlight during Katrina, but it has caused people to take us serious. People are seeing us as much more than Bourbon Street. I feel like we finally have a seat at the table.

Are you active in the community? How?

We try to help as much as possible. We’re just one store run by a family. We can’t always help when people come and ask for donations. We offer things to older people, delivery service. We also provide credit to our customers.

We like to hire from the community as much as possible. You don’t get people running tabs or credit anymore.

We also hire special needs individuals through agencies like Odyssey House and other organizations.

We provide tours to individuals about healthy eating and reading food labels.

A big part of us reopening is that people needed fresh produce in the area. We do try to push and offer the best selections we can. If there anything the community needs and we can provide we definitely try to give as much of ourselves both personally and professionally.

Are you active politically? If yes, how?

I try to stay as far away from politics as possible just because I have a big mouth, and I don’t like to lie. If I’m going to say something, it’s going to be the truth, and I might make the wrong person upset. The only time I’m ever political at all publicly is to talk about Former Senator Mary Landrieu and Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Really, whether you love them or not, they were amazing with helping the store reopen and even after opening. Mayor Landrieu’s office was really helpful, helping us to offer WIC (Women Infants Children). That’s the only time I ever really get political. You don’t always agree with politicians, but when asked what have they done for the community? I can tell you what they’ve done for this community.