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Bayou Belles change tides in N’awlins

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Doug Krizner: It’s been two years since the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, and recovery for the Big Easy hasn’t been easy, to say the least — especially in city’s low income neighborhoods. But there have been strides in coming back. Sam Eaton reports on success for a small group of businesswomen.

Sam Eaton: They call themselves the Belles of Bayou Road. Their bright cluster of pastel shops in this largely-gutted section of New Orleans can seem like a mirage of the past.

But for these women it’s the future that matters.

Yashica Jordan: I’m Yashica Jordan, owner and director of Jordan’s Learning Academy. I’ve been in child care 11 years but this is the first chance that I’ve had after Katrina to open my own business.

Jordan, and the three other Belles, have come to see Katrina as an opportunity, and not because of any help from the government.

Pam Thompson owns the Coco Hut Caribbean Restaurant next door. She says she applied for the Small Business Association’s Disaster Loan Program when she was still sleeping on the floor of her flood-damaged restaurant.

Pam Thompson: But when I send my papers into them: nothing. I never hear from them as of this day almost two years now.

All of the Belles have had to dig into their personal savings to get their businesses off the ground. But Dwana Makeba, who opened a natural hair salon on the block, says it was their pooled efforts that paid off.

Dwana Makeba: At one point there was only one landline, so all the businesses used the one land line. And then there was just one copy machine, so we all used the one copy machine.

Much of the post-Katrina aid has gone toward providing housing, but Tim Williamson with the nonprofit, Idea Village, says that’s only part of the solution.

Tim Williamson: If you can actually start with the entrepreneurs and you can actually build a vibrant business corridor, those entrepreneurs are gonna be the catalyst to have other people say ‘I can move home now.’ It’s a sense that the neighborhood is coming back.

Williamson’s group is fostering networks of small-scale entrepreneurs across the city.

Less than half of the businesses in New Orleans’ poor neighborhoods have returned. That’s compared to 94 percent in the wealthy parts of town. Williamson says pioneers like the Bayou Belles are key to bridging that gap.

Vera Warren-Williams, who owns the Community Book Center on Bayou Road, says they didn’t have a choice. She cites an Ethiopian proverb that says “when spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.”

In New Orleans, I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

PHOTO GALLERY: Belles of Bayou Road

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