Why Wendell Pierce Took On The Role Of Community Rebuilder
Wendell Pierce is perhaps best known for his acting roles on “The Wire” and “Treme.” Lately, he’s taken on a different kind of role, as community rebuilder. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Pierce invested time, money and art into to bringing back the neighborhood where he grew up. Ten years later, Jeffrey Brown accompanies Pierce for a look at his home that has not only survived but thrived.
GWEN IFILL: Now we look at one historic neighborhood before and after Katrina. It’s the home of actor Wendell Pierce, who tells his story in the forthcoming memoir “The Wind in the Reeds.”
Jeffrey Brown recently spent a day with Pierce in the neighborhood he grew up in, Pontchartrain Park, near the Gentilly district of New Orleans.
WENDELL PIERCE, Actor: I played on this golf course every day.
JEFFREY BROWN: You played…
WENDELL PIERCE: Football, tag.
WENDELL PIERCE: Everything but golf. And my game shows for that.
JEFFREY BROWN: A place for a child to play, for neighbors to enjoy green space and a sense of community. Can a golf course embody so much?
WENDELL PIERCE: I would hide in the bunker back here.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, says actor Wendell Pierce, that and much more.
WENDELL PIERCE: This is our anchor. This golf course is historic. It was the only place where black golfers could play. This was the epitome of what the civil rights movement was all about. This is hallowed ground.
JEFFREY BROWN: The golf course is in the heart of Pontchartrain Park in an enclave built in the 1950s as a separate but equal suburban-style development for middle-class blacks.
WENDELL PIERCE: OK. Hear me out.
JEFFREY BROWN: Pierce, who trained at Juilliard, is best known as Detective Bunk Moreland from the HBO series “The Wire,” and then as a down-and-out musician in post-Katrina New Orleans in the TV series “Treme.”
WENDELL PIERCE: And these are our first two model homes.
JEFFREY BROWN: But perhaps the role he relishes the most these days is that of a community builder, or rebuilder, trying to bring back the neighborhood where he got his start.
Pierce’s parents, Amos, a janitor, and Althea, a schoolteacher, moved here in 1955 to provide a better life for their three sons.
WENDELL PIERCE: Listen, that is the heart and soul of the American dream, homeownership, the idea of being able to buy a house and start to build your family.
JEFFREY BROWN: It was a secure and happy home for the Pierces, until, with Katrina, it wasn’t as floodwaters rushed into Pontchartrain Park, damaging everything in their path. The family escaped in time. And three months later, Pierce returned with his elderly parents and took this home video.
WOMAN: We’re in my bedroom, what used to be my precious, gorgeous bedroom.
JEFFREY BROWN: Debris, mud, a life overturned; 90-year old Amos Pierce told us of that moment.
AMOS PIERCE, Father of Wendell Pierce: I started crying. My wife started crying. The water line was up about a half-a-foot from the ceiling.
WENDELL PIERCE: I saw not this elderly couple. I saw a young couple with all their hopes and dreams in 1955 buying a house, and seeing it — seeing all of their dreams destroyed.
JEFFREY BROWN: Wendell Pierce made a vow to rebuild, so his parents could return.
WENDELL PIERCE: He fought so long and hard, my mother, too, to make sure that we had a decent place to grow up and a decent life. I wanted to make sure that they got back here no matter what.
JEFFREY BROWN: And they did, 16 months after the storm. Althea Pierce lived there until her death in 2012.
In the aftermath of Katrina, Wendell Pierce also felt called to respond through his art.
WENDELL PIERCE: It was on this road that I saw the lights of cars. And I said, it couldn’t be. Is it possible that they’re coming to see the play?
JEFFREY BROWN: The play was “Waiting for Godot,” the absurdist classic written by an Irishman, Samuel Beckett, in 1949.
WENDELL PIERCE: This is the corner where we did the play.
JEFFREY BROWN: But that somehow took on a powerful new resonance when staged in 2007 in the neighborhood hardest hit by Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward.
WENDELL PIERCE: I knew it would be special, because the play spoke to what we were going through so perfectly.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is that why you wanted to be a part of it?
WENDELL PIERCE: Absolutely. I knew that it was going to be a special moment. I knew that it was going to be the best display of power of art and the role that art plays.
Recognize the place? Recognize? What is there to recognize?
Two characters waiting in desolation in a void on a road waiting for something outside of themselves to save them or to give meaning to what they’re going through, and they can’t remember what their purpose in life is.
What are we doing here? That’s the question.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the middle of the performance, Pierce says, he felt a new call to action.
WENDELL PIERCE: I turned to the audience and, almost breaking character, I said, let us do something while we have the chance. At this moment, at this place, this hallowed ground where so many people died, we owe it to them. Let’s do something while we have the chance.
JEFFREY BROWN: Pierce formed the Pontchartrain Park Community Development association, a nonprofit group that builds affordable homes on abandoned properties. So far he’s built 40, including one for himself, with plans for another 85.
He’s also opened four convenience stores around the city. But an attempt to start a full-sized market in an area considered a food desert failed.
WENDELL PIERCE: The margin in the business is very thin, in the grocery store business. Ultimately, it was a difficult location, but we haven’t given up on it. And I’m going to keep going, you know?
JEFFREY BROWN: You’re an actor who’s learning to be a businessman, huh?
WENDELL PIERCE: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: With the success and sometimes failure that comes with that.
WENDELL PIERCE: Absolutely. When you succeed, it is sweeter when you know you have failed, you know?
JEFFREY BROWN: The learning goes on. And Pierce cites continuing battles with what he sees as the bureaucracy, inefficiency, and even corruption of various government entities. Still, 10 years after Katrina, his old home, Pontchartrain Park, has seen a resurgence.
WENDELL PIERCE: What was great about this neighborhood is back, which is families, churches, homes filled with homeowners, schools, all the stuff that makes for a really wonderful life and gives people a shot to build not only wealth in terms of finances, but wealth of love and family and just sense of community.
JEFFREY BROWN: A community that has survived and even thrived.