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After Hurricane Katrina, a grocer rebuilds his community a shop at a time

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Each Friday this month, we're marking 20 years of StoryCorps by revisiting classic conversations from the past two decades with updates on the participants. Today, a story from New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward. The neighborhood was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and slow to recover. Almost 10 years after the storm, it still didn't have a single grocery store. Burnell Cotlon wanted to change that. He saved money by working at fast-food restaurants and dollar stores. Then he bought a rundown building on an empty block and opened a neighborhood grocery. In 2015, he talked to his mother, Lillie, about the days after the storm.

BURNELL COTLON: I remember coming back home. That was the first time I cried.

LILLIE COTLON: We lost everything.

B COTLON: Yep. I was in that FEMA trailer for almost three years. And I drove around the Ninth Ward. We didn't have no stores, no barbershops, no laundry room.

L COTLON: There's nowhere for people to go buy a loaf of bread.

B COTLON: Right. You have to catch three buses to get to a store. And I was taught if there's a problem, somebody got to make a move. So I decided to open up a grocery store. I remember when I first bought the building, everybody thought that I was crazy

L COTLON: When I peeked in the door before you started working, I said, this is nothing but junk. I mean, it was trash and debris on the floor that you had to crawl over. And how can he make anything out of this? But you were one of my very interesting sons, always jumping into things you had no business doing.

B COTLON: It was hard. It was real, real hard. And those eight-hour days turned into 14, 15 hours a day. But what motivated me the most was seeing the people that was walking by with the groceries and seeing them get off the bus with all of those bags. That made me work harder. We finally did the ribbon-cutting ceremony. And that day I will never forget. You served the...

L COTLON: Snowball.

B COTLON: ...Very first snowball. And the first customer cried because she said she never thought the Lower Ninth Ward was coming back.

L COTLON: You saw something that I didn't see. I'm glad you took the chance.

B COTLON: It was a headache back then, but now it's...

L COTLON: It's all worth it.

B COTLON: It was all worth it. And if it takes me do it by myself, I'm going to put one business at a time back into the Lower Ninth Ward 'cause it's home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

B COTLON: My name is Burnell Cotlon. And I'm here with my moms, Lillie Cotlon, also known as Number One. Number One, do you remember when you first did StoryCorps?

L COTLON: Yes - 2015, I think. How have things changed since then?

B COTLON: Some things has not changed. The Lower Ninth Ward is still stuck in 2005, 'cause, you know, when you turn on TV, what you see? You see Bourbon Street.

L COTLON: Yeah. You see...

B COTLON: You see the Saints. You see everything's living good. Take 10 minutes' ride to the Lower Ninth Ward. There's still no banks. There's no doctors office, a dentist office. We have none of that. The only thing that change is my little building. We have a barber shop, a sweet shop. We now have a laundry room. Everybody come there to the store 'cause there's nowhere else for them to go. Do you remember I told you about that day they had that little girl behind the grocery store 'cause it was already after dark?

L COTLON: Yeah.

B COTLON: So I had to ask, why are you at my building after dark? And she said I had free Wi-Fi. She came over...

L COTLON: Yeah.

B COTLON: ...To do her homework. So I said, no, I got to fix this problem. So the next thing that we're doing is opening up a internet lounge. I'm extremely happy about that.

L COTLON: You had lots of different obstacles, like Hurricane Ida or COVID. Why did you stay open during those times?

B COTLON: 'Cause there were many people that was doing much worse than us. I remember - I ain't going to say the lady's name 'cause she still shop today - but it was a elderly lady. She had her grandkids with her, and she had a gallon of milk and some candy, some chips, you know, for the kids. And she attempted to swipe the card, and it declined. And she stood there and cried. And I did something I wasn't supposed to do, but I did it anyway. I came from behind my counter, and I gave her a hug - 'cause at that time, we supposed to have the six-feet distance in between us - and I told her, take the items. Feed your grandkids. When you get your money, come back and pay. And then I started seeing that again and again with a lot of other customers. So I got a journal, and I wrote down names and the items they had and how much it is. When they got the stimulus checks, some people did come back, and they paid it. And I still have that book today.

L COTLON: Yeah. You're carrying your community strictly on your back. And sometime I worry about you. Is there anything that would make you just give up?

B COTLON: Nothing. I'm not a quitter. If you can see the look on some of these customers' faces begging for something to eat or a job. It hurts. So some days, I'm madder than a six-shooter, and then other days, I cry, and I have to sit in my car for a few minutes and get myself composed 'cause I have to be positive for everybody else.

L COTLON: What would you hope your legacy to be?

B COTLON: I never really thought about that. But something I liked in the military - you know how people say you only live once? That's not the truth. You don't just live once. You only die once. You live every day. So every day that you live, you have to do something impactful. You're not just born to fall in love, have a few kids, get a job, pay your bills, grow old and die. That's not why you're here. You have to find out why you're here. And my purpose is easy. It's service.

L COTLON: I appreciate you, and I know the neighborhood appreciates you much more than you would ever know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: That was Lillie Cotlon with her son, Burnell. Both their conversations are archived, along with all StoryCorps interviews, at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kerrie Hillman