Questions for ... Wendell Pierce
Wendell Pierce, star of the new HBO series "Treme" is the president and founder of the Ponchartrain Park Community Development Corporation in New Orleans. His best-known role was as Detective Bunk Moreland in the critically acclaimed HBO series "The Wire." The 47-year-old New Orleans native grew up in the Ponchartrain Park neighborhood, near the historic Joseph M. Bartholomew Municipal Golf Course.
What happened to Ponchartrain Park neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina?
We were in the deepest flooding of the city. We had 12 to 14 feet of water. Every home was destroyed. The golf course was destroyed. We had 200 acres and a 1,000 homes around the golf course that were lost to the flood. We are located at one of the most northern points of the city so we're right by the lake. We had a levee protection system around our neighborhood to protect it from the lake and the industrial canal. Actually the system did its job, but unfortunately about 10 miles away there was a break in the London Avenue canal levee and that water rushed to our neighborhood and was held in by our protection system. The water came from inside the city and wasn't available to run out of the neighborhood so it filled up like a bathtub. We were devastated and I didn't think we would be able to come back.
How was the Ponchartrain Park Community Development Corporation started?
We had the second lowest rate of return to the city after the hurricane, second only to the Lower Ninth Ward, where everything was totally devastated. Ponchartrain Park had been one of the most secure neighborhoods in America. It had about a 97 percent home-ownership rate. A good portion of the residents had been there 40 or more years. Most of the people in the neighborhood were elderly in there 70s and 80s. So as a second-generation Ponchartrain resident, the children of those folk who built the neighborhood in the 1950s, it was up to us to repopulate it and redevelop it in the 21st century. So I put out a call to action to past and present residents to exercise our right of self-determination to come back to the city. I knew that we couldn't wait for the government or those that didn't have our best interests at heart. There were people who simply wanted to let the whole neighborhood go back to green space.
How much money is the city spending on the redevelopment of the neighborhood?
It's upward of about $15 million now. The city still owns the golf course and the redevelopment of it. We negotiated with the government to get back all the properties that people gave up after the storm. Through the Road Home program we're building solar and geothermal homes. We didn't want to just redevelop the neighborhoods into their old form. It will be the largest green community in New Orleans. The remodeled homes are up now and we have about 50 people in line to buy homes.
The historic Joseph M. Bartholomew Golf Course is the anchor of the neighborhood.
During segregation it was the only golf course open to African-Americans in New Orleans. It was the workingman's course. It was the destination golf course for blacks in the 1950s and '60s.
Who was Joe Bartholomew?
He was a black golf-course architect who designed most of the public golf courses in New Orleans, including Metairie, City Park No. 1 and No. 2. But because he was black he couldn't play on them. He used to design at night so people wouldn't see that this African-American was walking the course that he was hired to design.
Over the years there has been a bit of golf lore generated in the neighborhood about Bartholomew.
He had a secret match against a U.S. Open champion. I don't remember what year it was. I think it might have been in 1920 or the late teens. He actually beat the guy. People know that story. Growing up he was just "Mr. Joe," the older gentleman who would be in the clubhouse or at the bar. It wasn't until I got older that I understood his significance in New Orleans history.
Your home growing up was very close to the golf course. Did you play?
I played on that golf course but unfortunately it wasn't golf. I was that kid that would terrorize the golfers and hide in the sand traps. A guy would hit a perfect drive and approach shot to the green and I would run up and grab it and toss the ball into the lagoon. The chase was on. The golfers would jump in their carts and try to chase us down. So I was a nemesis on the golf course.
Have you taken up the game in recent years?
Yes. I took up the game a couple of years ago, but I wouldn't call myself a golfer. The golf gods are paying me back for all the bad I did in my youth. I'm one of the worst golfers I know. We had the groundbreaking last Fourth of July and the course is set to open this October.
What do you hope to accomplish with the re-opening of the course?
I hope that it gives the game of golf back to the people in that community who for so long didn't have the opportunity to play on courses around the area because of segregation. The new and improved course will have all new greens, a complete irrigation system, an underground drainage system, new sand traps and a new First Tee facility.
As Detective Bunk Moreland in 'The Wire' series, you coined some of the most lasting phrases in TV. What's your favorite?
A man must have a code. And this man does have a code.
You play Antoine Batiste, a journeyman trombone player, in David Simon's New Orleans-based 'Treme', which is about a real neighborhood in the city after Katrina.
To be home doing this work is life imitating art and art imitating life. To be able to combine my activism with my acting is truly a blessing.
Is it easy for you to play a character from New Orleans?
It's actually a lot harder because I have a responsibility to replicate what's happening in New Orleans in a very unflinching way. We're very protective of our culture and we know that this is the 10-day nation. We had the consciousness of the world here for a few weeks. It's an added task but a challenge that I gladly take.
How are the trombone lessons coming?
I have a music lesson on Friday. I learned all the tunes but my chops aren't to the point where you can hear it. They turn my mike off to make sure that my sound double is heard. But I am playing. I'm getting three or four tunes with just days to learn them. I'm learning the music but I'm not really learning the horn. I hope though that during our downtime between seasons that I will learn the music a lot more.