Signs of a significant influx of Latinos were evident around the New Orleans region long before recent census reports officially detailed the area’s post-Hurricane Katrina demographic changes. One of the most visible signs has been the appearance of Latino day laborers congregating around home improvement centers to wait for contractors and others offering casual employment.
Such workers have had a hand in rebuilding countless properties in the area since Katrina, and now the city of Gretna has started a new pilot program aimed at helping them a bit, too.
Working with state and parish officials and local Latino advocates, Gretna has created a designated area for day laborers and those who want to hire them. It is found in a parking lot under an elevated section of the West Bank Expressway at Chilo Street, just a few blocks from the Home Depot in Gretna.
“Our decision to invest in a designated area came out of recognition that we are one community,” said Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris during a ribbon-cutting event to introduce the new facility.
This day laborer area includes a tent for shelter, bike racks, portable toilets and trash barrels, plus tables and benches that a group of day laborers built themselves using materials donated by the Home Depot. While far from luxurious, it represents a different approach to address a new dynamic in the New Orleans area.
Such ad hoc labor pools near home improvement stores are typical in communities around the country with large Latino populations, but they were rare in New Orleans until the Katrina recovery spurred a construction boom that drew thousands of workers.
In Gretna, workers first congregated in the store parking lot then moved across the street beneath the expressway. When contractors arrived at the store looking to hire, however, the workers would dash across three lanes of traffic to reach them. This resulted in safety concerns and complaints from neighbors and those who regularly used the expressway.
Gretna had previously tried ticketing workers when they ran across the street, but this new approach changes tact by creating a safe area where workers can gather and contractors can find them.
“Gretna is a model city, showing that a strong economy and safe streets are based on inclusion,” Harris said. “Our concern for public safety and our understanding the needs of the day laborers has resulted in this improvement for our community.”