“I am a lower 9th ward resident and military veteran. I did 11 years in the United States Army. I spent the whole time in Germany and was there long enough to learn the language. When I came home, I used my V.A. home loan to buy my very first house. I thought I was going to live happily ever after. I had 48 neighbors. Katrina happened. I lost everything like everyone else but I was able to rebuild. Today, I have three neighbors. So, wherever you are from, take nothing for granted. Appreciate and value everything! Having to start all over is really hard.”
Burnell Cotlon has received national recognition for his effort to improve the development of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward neighborhood. In 2015, Mr. Cotlon was flown to Los Angeles to tell his story on the Ellen DeGeneres show. He emptied his savings account in an effort to provide a grocery store to the residents of his community. The closest store was Walmart and residents (most of whom did not possess a car) had to ride three city buses, one way, for an item as simple as a loaf of bread. Mr. Cotlon was disheartened by the fact that it took three city buses for residents to feed their family. He begged larger chain stores to come back to the area. His requests were rejected. The chains felt the area was a food desert – there were not enough residents to support a store. On the other hand, former residents would not return to the area because there were no stores. Someone had to do something – Mr. Cotlon decided that he would be that person.
It took him and his wife, Keasha, 4.5 years and their entire life savings. The current store used to be a building that contained a barbershop, liquor store, and restaurant. Burnell’s store used to be open 4 days a week and is now open 7 days a week. You never know who may walk in the door. He got a tap on the shoulder while cleaning in the store one day – it was Mark Zuckerberg, who heard about Mr. Cotlon from a Washington Post article. Burnell’s store has also seen visitors from Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs), Wesley Snipes, T.I., Latoya Cantrell, Lester Holt, and many, many more. Both the store and Mr. Cotlon will be featured in a scene of an upcoming 2019 movie Cut Throat City. He acknowledges that the movie has violence in it, but is encouraged about the opportunity while also being able to act as himself in a positive role.
The store remains an anchored resource for the neighborhood, recently providing the neighborhood’s first ATM machine. The money from souvenirs that are bought from his store goes back into paying employees and putting more products on the shelves. These additions are significant progress for this local, neighborhood shop. In the beginning, Mr. Cotlon stayed up until 1 or 2 am, serving groceries out of the window because money was not yet available to open up the doors. He slept on a bench in the store as he was working to figure out (on YouTube) how to wire the building’s electricity. He was finally able to afford a licensed professional to come out and finish the work that he started. For Mr. Cotlon, you are either a part of the problem or you are a part of the solution.
This attitude is important for his endeavors living in and doing business inside New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. Mr. Cotlon feels that in any major city, you have to worry about the element of crime. There is the misconception, however, that the Lower 9th is nothing but violent. There is the belief that the area is forgotten about unfairly because of the perceptions of the residents. As the only business in the neighborhood, everyone comes to the store. Mr. Cotlon hears residents stories, their problems, and complaints. He has heard issues such as socialism and racism describe why Katrina is still alive today in the Lower 9th Ward. Mr. Cotlon understands this could be so and if it is true, it is shameful. He focuses on the content that makes up the person, instead of skin color. He has a family oriented business. Ms. Roxanne is one of the newest employees. She performs many different tasks within the storefront and is able to work there safely, alongside Mr. Cotlon’s wife and his mother. Ms. Roxanne also brings her kids to the store while she is working. He feels his cherished family and employees are safe when he, himself, leaves his store to deliver meals to the elderly. Through the years, they have never had a problem. If the area were as bad as the perceptions, he would have many problems. This is not the case for Mr. Cotlon, both as a business owner and resident.
Mr. Cotlon’s passion for Lower 9th Ward residents is consistently evident through his entrepreneurial efforts. He became emotional reflecting upon a resident who rode his bike to the store every week from over the industrial canal bridge. The man showed up consistently at the same time and always had a garbage bag on his bike. He always purchased a coke and laundry detergent. Upon talking with the gentleman, the man one day opened up the garbage bag and revealed it was full of both his own clothes and his daughter’s dirty clothes. Convicted because he had his own washer and dryer at home, Mr. Cotlon cried and promised the man that he was going to build a laundromat for him. He eventually did, providing what remains the area’s only laundry facility. The news traveled to Ellen Degeneres. She called Mr. Cotlon to travel to Los Angeles and be one the show. When she called, he did not believe it was Ellen and he initially hung up on her! Later, while on the show, Ellen provided him with a set of washer and dryers which, three years after the show, remain cared for and in great use inside the laundry facility.
Mr. Cotlon sees a future where the Lower 9th Ward has caught up to the development of the French Quarter. His businesses will play an active role in the process that it takes to get there. A child recently came to his store to do homework. He realized through her that his store was the only place in the area with free wifi. He decided to turn the home that resides behind the store into an internet cafe. They have begun the transformation through a group of volunteers. He has many plans for the adjacent land and looks forward to working with residents, the Mayor, and whomever else
shows interest in pushing the Lower 9th Ward forward. His nonprofit, Make It A Home Foundation, will help his vision for continuing to build. He plans to keep on going – he is not going to stop! He says, “when your home and community is suffering, you are supposed to do something about it. Even if you have to do it yourself.”
Want to Volunteer or Donate to Make It a Home Foundation?
Contact Keasha Drayton-Cotlon | 504.949.2712