A Louisiana Life: Wendell Pierce

HBO's Antoine Batiste is also a real-life activist

Cheryl Gerber

Whether he’s mingling with dignitaries at a White House state dinner, addressing the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, introducing trumpeter Kermit Ruffins during a stop on the “A Night in Treme” concert tour or advising his 30,000 Twitter followers to stop by the Backstreet Cultural Museum next time they’re in town, Wendell Pierce isn’t shy about his passion for the Crescent City.

But when it comes to his native New Orleans, the actor – who plays the smooth-tongued trombonist Antoine Batiste on HBO’s post-Katrina drama Treme – does more than just talk.

Pierce is president of the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corp., a nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding the neighborhood where he grew up. He’s also working with business partners to bring grocery and convenience stores to neighborhoods where fresh food isn’t readily available.

The Pontchartrain Park group is constructing affordable geothermal and solar-powered homes to replace those devastated in the floods after Hurricane Katrina. Built around a golf course in the mid-1950s, the neighborhood was a bastion of the black middle class, with many of the original homes purchased by World War II veterans.

Since its founding in 2008, Pierce’s group has built 10 homes and opened a sales and design center in the neighborhood. But there have been frustrating roadblocks along the way, Pierce says. For example, the project hasn’t been able to access some recovery funds because they’re earmarked for rehabbing existing buildings.

“Money’s sent to rebuild New Orleans, but you just can’t use it for new construction,” he says. “It makes no sense.”

For Pierce, it’s a case of life imitating art.

“That’s the sort of thing we deal with on Treme,” he says. “The highs and lows of recovery; the good and the bad.”
While doing this work, Pierce came to realize that despite New Orleans’ world-renowned culinary culture, many of its residents live in so-called food deserts. It’s a problem that predates Katrina, he says.

“There hasn’t been a decent grocery store in the Lower Ninth Ward in 20 years,” he says.

In response, Pierce and his partners, New Orleans businessman and childhood friend Troy Henry and Chicago developer James Hatchett, are launching Sterling Farms grocery stores and Sterling Express convenience stores in areas other businesses have neglected.

“It’s classic Business 101: You see a need, and you fill it, and it’s an opportunity to do well and do good,” Pierce says. “People choose to sit on the sidelines … Instead of sitting on the sidelines, we choose to bring that economic engine to the neighborhood. That’s classic American capitalism at its best.”

The first Sterling Express is open in the Shell station at Paris Avenue and Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans, and the first Sterling Farms store is slated to open late this summer in a former Winn-Dixie in Marrero. By year’s end, they hope to have two grocery stores and three or four convenience stores up and running.

The groceries will host monthly cookouts to raise money for projects identified by local community boards and will offer a free shuttle service for shoppers who spend $50 or more, Pierce says.

As for his day job, shooting for the third season of Treme wrapped up in May. It’s slated to premiere on HBO this fall.
The second season saw Pierce’s Antoine, the consummate hustling gig musician, mature as he struggled to manage his own band and reluctantly took a job as an assistant middle school band director.  

While he’s mum on what next season has in store, Pierce says the show will follow Antoine and the others as they continue to rebuild their city and their lives.

“It’s representative of the spirit of the people here in New Orleans,” Pierce says. “While we’re out of the national discourse, there’s still a lot of work to be done here in New Orleans and a lot of wrongs to be righted and a lot of lives being lived.”
 

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