Pass by the 2400 block of St. Roch Avenue on any given morning and one is likely to find Mr. Ray Martes on his regular patrol, picking up trash and monitoring the cars parked on the neutral ground.
Look a little closer, and one will quickly realize that Mr. Martes is not a city worker.
“Eventually, you have to make a choice,” says Mr. Martes, who purchased his home at 2416 St. Roch Avenue in 1999. “You can sit around waiting, hoping for the City to do its job, to take care of what they should be taking care of without your asking, or you can step up and take things into your own hands.”
Having spent time in the Navy, and having spent much of his professional career as a BellSouth technician who specialized in repairing communications infrastructure in disaster-stricken areas, Mr. Martes speaks with a hardened tone of self-reliance.
“To me, when that’s the hand you’re dealt, there’s only one choice you can make,” he says.
But Mr. Martes does not have to fight this battle alone.
Alongside him is longtime resident Mr. Donald Francis, who has called 2408 St. Roch Avenue home since 1970.
“He was my inspiration. He was the main reason I came back here after Katrina. In fact, it was Donald and his wife that I first saw trying to clean up the neutral ground and I simply joined in,” says Mr. Martes.
But the group admits their efforts can only go so far.
At his home two blocks from Florida Avenue, in the shadow of an Interstate-10 overpass, Mr. Martes explains that he and his neighbors suffer from a lack of representation in discussions over the allocation of public resources.
“I have no problem saying it. I don’t care who it offends. We’re in a neglected part of town.”
Such a sentiment is difficult to argue. Gaping potholes, crumbling sidewalks, leaking water lines, and blighted lots abound in the colloquial “back of town” part of St. Roch.
Why not contact the City Council representative to see that the situation is addressed?
“Don’t get me started,” says Mr. Martes with a laugh.
Unlike the more visible face of St. Roch, including the well-known St. Roch Market, St. Roch Cemetery, and Sampson/St. Roch Playground, which are all part of Council District C, Mr. Martes’ part of the neighborhood falls within the river-side boundary of Council District D. As such, the “back of town” part of St. Roch competes for the attention of District D Councilmember Cynthia Hedge-Morrell with more prominent parts of the Gentilly and Lakeview neighborhoods—two neighborhoods which also happen to be more affluent.
“We’re caught in no-man’s land back here,” says Mr. Martes. “We ask what repairs are scheduled for St. Roch. They talk about the seafood market, they talk about the repairs to Urquhart, they talk about the neutral ground between the seafood market and the park, they talk about the pool, but not one of those is in our district. Not one. Tax dollars are tax dollars. All I’m asking for is what’s fair to me and everybody else.”
To make matters worse, the disrepair of public infrastructure around Mr. Martes’ home can be infectious.
Mr. Martes has seen it too many times to call it anything other than systemic: contractors park their trucks on the neutral ground; a local auto repair shop puts damaged cars on the blighted lots of absentee property owners; worst of all, on multiple occasions, Mr. Martes has witnessed work crews dumping trash onto the neutral ground in the last block before Florida Avenue.
“Can you imagine what that feels like to see? We’re proud to own homes here. And you look out and see a crew just dumping trash on the neutral ground – same way they would if they went to unload at a junkyard.”
Not one to idly complain, Mr. Martes says that these sorts of scenes helped incite him into action.
“You think they’d ever go dump trash on the St. Charles neutral ground? This is my neighborhood—this is our neighborhood—we’re not going to stand for it,” says Mr. Martes.
“Look, pride isn’t exclusive to the folks who live in the mansions on St. Charles. And if the City isn’t going to care about this part of town until we force them to, so be it. We have to be loud to get anything done out here. If you crawl under a rock, they’re just going to put more rocks on top of you. You have to speak up. You have to do the best you can to keep the neighborhood clean, to make a voice for what you think is right,” he says.
When he collects trash each morning, or keeps an eye out for cars parked on the neutral ground, or continues his 8-years-and-counting-long fight with the City’s code enforcement over the blighted-turned-vacant lot next to his home, or even cuts the grass of his neighbor’s front yard, Mr. Martes certainly holds true to his own word.
“And I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon,” he says.
*Courtesy of Faubourg St. Roch Project