The 10th Annual Gentilly Festival Shows the Resilience of New Orleanians

How one Festival brought a community back together

By Eric Craig

Nearly 12 years ago, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans devastating Gentilly, one of the City’s central Black neighborhoods. Despite the life-changing impact residents banded together to revive their community. How? A local festival.
On October 6th, 7th, and 8th, organizers will host the 10th Annual Gentilly Festival at Pontchartrain Park. The annual event will feature over 50 restaurants, 20 craft vendors, and several local and national artists.
Expecting to top last year’s attendance of 25,000 people, this event is free and open to the public.
The Festival 
The first Gentilly Festival started in 2007 attracting roughly 500 people. The Festival’s board pledged to donate proceeds of the Festival to first responders in the community, supplying them with furniture and funds for structural repairs. As the Festival grew, it became a platform to bring awareness to Gentilly and its array of local businesses.
“It’s such a family-friendly event,” said Gretchen Bradford, President of the Gentilly Festival Committee and life-long resident of Gentilly. “It has a great vibe to it.”
Bradford said that over the past decade, the Festival has brought attention to the Gentilly Community. It has, in many instances, increased the morale to people returning home, Bradford said. For many, this Festival serves as a reunion for neighbors, relatives, and friends displaced by Katrina.
“It’s a local and wonderful event, but it’s catching on,” Bradford said, recognizing that the number of attendees has steadily risen over the past decade.
After operating for 10 years, the Gentilly Festival Committee continues to donate funds to first responders and neighborhood non-profits such as Roots of Music. This year’s Festival will extend its reach, promoting a Hurricane Relief Charity Onsite to benefit victims of recent summer hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Now that the Festival has become a staple of the Gentilly Community, it can more easily empower local businesses in the community. While it often highlights local entertainers, the Festival’s Committee buys supplies from local businesses, employs local laborers, and invites many local businesses to set up shop during the Festival.
“We’ve grown quite a bit. We weren’t able to do that at one time. But now we’re able to help out others and grow their businesses,” Bradford said.

The committee has announced that it would add new festivities to the Festival. Local Artist Harold Bradford will unveil a 10th Anniversary Poster (the first poster in five years) for the Festival. Other highlights include a parade that will kick off the Saturday festivities, starting on Chef Highway near Walmart; Fireworks at the end of the Saturday festivities; and a Second-Line that will close out Sunday

This year also marks the Inaugural 5k Race, held at 6500 Press Drive, taking place from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

 Impact on Gentilly 
“Pontchartrain Park is very important. We have a lot of history behind our community,” Bradford said, reminiscing the powerful history the neighborhood holds.
Gentilly, which encompasses over 21 smaller neighborhoods, was one of the first communities developed for middle-class African-American homeowners. Many of those first-time home owners were WWII Veterans.
And that’s what made Hurricane Katrina especially devastating to residents of Gentilly. 
“It was a nightmare after Katrina,” says Jimmy Stokes, the Secretary-Treasurer and Resident of Edgewood Park. “That’s why we started the Festival, to help the policeman, firemen, playgrounds, and Roots of music.”
Both Bradford and Stokes note that while the neighborhood has improved over the last few years, the neighborhood still has some concerns.
“We still have issues with blight—all of Gentilly struggled with blight, abandoned lots, overgrown grass, and streets that need repair,” Bradford said.
Many residents remain concerned about business and restaurant access. Bradford said that Gentilly holds several fast food restaurants, but fewer sit-down restaurants. She wants the neighborhoods to have more places to shop instead of people constantly having to leave their community for leisure and errands.
“We still have a long way to go,” Bradford says, looking forward. But she remains positive of the outcome. “The neighborhood was as an unknown jewel until Gentilly Fest put it on the mark,” she says.
 An Honor to Play at This Festival 
On Saturday, October 7th, Electric Violinist Michael Ward will return to Gentilly Festival after performing in 2016 alongside Singer Philip Manuel, and Leo Nocentelli of The Meters. He describes his upcoming performance as an honor.
“Gentilly Festival is a great thing because people lost their homes after Hurricane Katrina. This festival brings this community back together,” Ward said, mentioning that his mother-in-law is from Gentilly. 
“No matter what happens in a community, music is always the healer for the environment,” he adds. 
Recently, Ward performed in Texas roughly two weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall. He said that people wanted to get out and enjoy themselves, briefly taking their mind off the troubles of the natural disasters.
“Musicians can give you a peace of mind. If it’s for one night or for a moment, I can give you piece of mind where you can get away,” he says.
This festival also hits home for the performer. Ward served as a first responder, a Deputy under the Orleans Parish Sheriff Department, for over 17 years. 
Performing Artists
The 2017 Gentilly Festival will have its Main Stage, Gospel Tent, and a Public Stage in its Kid’s Village. Highlighted performers include: John Pierre, James Andrews, and Charmaine Neville on Friday; Michael Ward, Tonya Boyd Cannon, and Kevin Styles on Saturday; and PJ Morton, Rebirth Brass Band, and Zena Moses on Sunday.

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