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Washington Square Park's Welcome Home Kitchen is, well, wearing out its welcome

Sunday, November 27, 2005
By Doug MacCash
Staff writer

Brian Bégué calls it Do-gooderville. He's talking about the New Orleans Welcome Home Kitchen, an open-air disaster aid station that popped up in the weeks after Katrina in Washington Square Park, staffed by an ad hoc assembly of what one volunteer called "old-school hippies and punk rockers."

The balcony of Bégué's law office, in a lovingly cared-for 19th-century Creole townhouse, overlooks the sun-dappled pocket park, the centerpiece of the Marigny Triangle, one of the Crescent City's trendiest neighborhoods. There, a bivouac of assorted tents, tarpaulins and trailers peeks from beneath the oak limbs, colorful flags flutter from a clothesline and a stream of rather ragged-looking New Orleans residents shuffles through an al fresco lunch line.

A turquoise school bus brimming with camp supplies bisects one corner of the park, while a pair of portable toilets stands sentry against a fence. Dogs frolic, footballs fly, bicycles are disassembled and reassembled, conga drums pulse, the smell of frying onions mixes with that of incense and from time to time a tall man strides amid the picnic tables and lawn chairs wearing a rubber gorilla mask like a surrealistic babushka.

"We've been invaded," Bégué said.

The invasion began almost two months ago, when Filipé Chaves, a retired organic food distributor from Wisconsin, established a beachhead in the tree limb- and trash-strewn park. He began taking away debris and passing out free meals to the scant, sometimes desperate, occupants of the dark, mostly deserted neighborhood.

Silver-haired Chaves, 67, who considers everyone a "relative," is well-known among the loosely affiliated national community of neo-hippies called the Rainbow Family of Living Light. The purpose of the Rainbow Family is to gather on public lands to pray for peace, hold hands in large energy circles, eat communal vegetarian meals and otherwise defy the prevailing SUV-shopping mall-Big Mac culture.

Quoted on the unofficial Rainbow Family Web site is this American Indian prophesy: "When the earth is ravaged and the animals are dying, a new tribe of people shall come unto the earth from many colors, classes, creeds, and who by their actions and deeds shall make the earth green again. They will be known as the warriors of the Rainbow."

Within days, similarly inclined groups (Food Not Bombs and Barefoot Doctors among them) and intrepid individuals from across America braved Katrina's aftermath to join Chaves, adding herbal healing, midwifery and more ambitious propane-fueled food preparation to the burgeoning Marigny Middle Earth. As many as two dozen volunteers manned the camp at its zenith in October, serving 800 meals per day, while eschewing the conventional organizational pyramid. They overcame each challenge as a group of unfettered free agents, without a leader or rigid schedule -- even if it took endless meandering meetings and occasional quarrels to do so. No one and everyone speaks for the non-organization.

All concerned, inside and outside the park fence, recognize that there's a certain aesthetic clash between the residents of the free-spirited counter-culture enclave and the well-heeled owners of the surrounding properties (two of which are currently on the market in the $1 million range).

Bégué, 57, wearing a supple, charcoal-hued dress shirt that perfectly matched his salt-and-pepper goatee, described himself as a "liberal plaintiff's lawyer with a Republican's wallet, but a Democrat's heart." He waxed nostalgic about the lifestyle the Welcome Home Kitchen represents.

"In the '60s," he said, "we had nickel beer and free love. That was something to party about."

But he feels that the Welcome Home Kitchen's postmodern replay of the Age of Aquarius is an unwelcome anachronism.

"There was one hippie time," he said, "and this isn't it."

Bégué also identifies with the laudable compulsion among the park dwellers to serve a needy public.

"It's not that I'm against helping the homeless and needy," he said.

But Bégué, like many of his neighbors, thinks that the period of life-and-death post-Katrina crisis has passed -- in the Marigny, anyway.

Unexpectedly, one of the stalwarts of the Welcome Home Kitchen agrees. David "Rumi" Knight, a Colorado physical therapist and vegetarian chef, two years younger than Bégué, admits that lives are no longer being saved by the ministration of free, hot meals. On the other hand, he believes that he and his companions are still providing a much needed respite for Katrina-generated lost souls.

"A lot of what we do is provide a spiritual support system," Knight said. "There are a lot of people with post-traumatic stress disorder."

Knight, who sports a leather vest and western hat, points out that a percentage of those PTSD sufferers are self-medicating with the liberal and continuous application of alcohol and other intoxicants. Indeed, as some neighbors eagerly point out, there always seem to be a few addled Crosbys, Stills and Nashes staking out the sidewalk near the park entrance, soliciting money and sometimes cursing when denied.

One kitchen volunteer, Ryan "Deano" Dean, a licensed electrician and punk rock aficionado from the Chicago suburb of Woodstock (and no one is more aware of the irony of that than Dean), calls the occasionally disruptive denizens "wing nuts." Though volunteers padlock the park gates at 7:30 p.m. for their own safety, wing nuts sometimes return in the wee hours to bang at the cast-iron barricade in substance-fueled angst. Dean, 23, who sometimes volunteers for the camp's late-night sentry duty, says the most vocal among them are the ones most in need of the park's spiritually healing services.

"They start out angry, but then ask for a cup of coffee," he said. "They're my favorites."

The friction between the impatient Marigny inhabitants and the well-intentioned soup-kitchen squatters has been bubbling for weeks. A touch of bitterness has crept into the outlook of many inside the fence, who feel unfairly embattled. After all, since they were trying to help when help was needed, haven't they earned a modicum of respect?

The neighbors, meanwhile, are becoming more astringent in their outlook. Why should they have survived the plagues of hurricane and flood only to suffer the pestilence of unkempt campers?

Knight, who exudes an unflappable calm, feels that the indignation of the neighborhood's well-established residents is just another post-hurricane stress symptom.

"I understand their fear," he said. "Their way of life may be gone forever. The city's gone. The social fabric of their lives has been savaged by the privations. We're unusual. We give them a locus for their fear of uncertainty."

On Dec. 1 their uncertainty is likely to end. A letter from the mayor's office, signed by Dr. Evangeline R. Franklin, chief of clinical services and employee health, advises that although the administration is grateful for the work its organizers have done, the Welcome Home Kitchen is no longer welcome in Washington Square Park.

"It's not that we don't appreciate the help, we just want to get back to normalcy," said Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson in a phone interview. "We have to be very careful of sanitary conditions. You can't just let anybody cook and serve food. It's time to go."

Health inspectors had descended before, not pleased by the presence of flies and other hazards (diners wash and disinfect their own plates, adhering to their own hygiene standards, for example). But no official shutdown resulted.

This time, however, The Man will probably have his way. Even before the arrival of the recent letter, many volunteers had come to the consensus that the kitchen could better serve the people of the shattered city by moving farther into the flood zone.

"They're asking us to leave at about the same time we were going to leave anyway," Dean said. "I think everybody in the camp is on board with that idea. We're not here to bend the city government."

Dean remains philosophical.

"I think no matter what city you go to, you're going to run into some resistance," he said. "I love New Orleans; it's the most diverse culture I've ever seen. I believe I'll be here for as long as my path intends for me to stay."

Staff writer Doug MacCash can be reached at dmaccash@timespicayune.com or at (504) 826-3481.