Magazine article Parks & Recreation

The Andrew 'Pete' Sanchez Multi-Service Center

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

The Andrew 'Pete' Sanchez Multi-Service Center

Article excerpt

This fall, as Louis Duplessis prepared for his first day of seventh grade, he walked with his mom from their home to the nerve center of his neighborhood - the corner of Caffin Avenue and North Claiborne Avenue - in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.

Because it's bounded by water on three sides, the Lower 9 can feel like its own small town, separated from the rest of New Orleans by the Industrial Canal, a shipping channel that connects Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River. That day, Louis and his mom made their first stop at the corner of Caffin and Claiborne to check on a few last-minute back-to-school details at Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School. Then, they walked across the street to make sure his registration was current at the Andrew "Pete" Sanchez Multi-Service Center, run by the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission or NORD.

In 2015, neighbors cut a ribbon to open the sparkling, 65,000-square-foot Sanchez Center. The previous community center had been dedicated in 1977 but was ruined in 2005 when federal levees, lining the Industrial Canal, gave way after Hurricane Katrina and sent a wall of floodwater onto the neighborhood. Many houses floated from their foundations and helicopters spent days rescuing people from rooftops.

The Sanchez Center's breadth of services and spaces is impressive. On its first floor, it holds a full-size swimming pool; a dance studio with sprung floors; a large exercise center with treadmills, stationary bicycles and other fitness equipment; a full-size gymnasium connected to a large performance stage; a commercial kitchen; a police substation; and a large senior-citizen center, along with offices that include a parent resource center. Upstairs is a full-service health clinic, a breast-feeding room for nursing mothers, a sound-proof music room used for piano and strings instruction, classrooms with electronic whiteboards used for structured afterschool and enrichment programming, an arts-and-crafts room, and a teen center that NORD CEO Victor Richard describes as an intentional "space for teens to loiter."

Louis, 12, sees the new Sanchez as an essential part of his year. "I know I'm going to play basketball; maybe football too," he says. After school, he might walk upstairs to take part in The Loft, a men- toring, enrichment and homework assistance program. Between times, maybe he'll go to the teen center to play foosball, Ping-Pong or video games. He expects that his friends will be doing the same thing. "This is kind of a neighborhood gathering spot," he adds, leaning on the Sanchez Center's broad front desk.

Sanchez is important both because of its role and where it's located. "That corner was always a hub," says Austin Allen, 67, an associate landscape-architecture professor at Louisiana State University who lives nearby. To him, it seemed natural that, within weeks of the 2005 disaster, the National Guard moved onto the corner of Caffin and Claiborne to create a Lower 9 checkpoint, where neighbors could check in for escorts to their flood-torn homes.

Leaning Forward

Today, it's clear to anyone who enters the Sanchez Center that they've entered the heart of the Lower 9th Ward. Even the center's spacious two-story atrium seems perfectly designed for the way New Orleanians greet each other. That's made easier at Sanchez, where nearly all staffers grew up in the neighborhood, from Rec Center Manager Jerome Cochran, on down. So, as neighbors walk in the door, the greetings begin: "Good morning. How are you doing? Where's your son today? How's your mama doing?"

Most of NORD's rec centers were inoperable after 2005, leaving the community with limited places to get together. Even as recently as 2013, NORD had only three operational recreation centers and no year-round pools. Its green spaces were also limited because, for years after Katrina, the city's ballfields and playgrounds were used as FEMA-trailer parks for people trying to rebuild their homes. …

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