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Rough Cut
New Orleans: A Village Called Versailles
From our Abroad at Home Series
After tragedy, a community finds its political voice

 

 

S. Leo Chiang

Filmmaker S. Leo Chiang was born in Tawain and lives in San Francisco, where he runs the production company Walking Iris Films. Leo's previous film, To You Sweetheart, Aloha (co-directed with Mercedes Coats) aired on PBS in 2006. He is currently completing a feature-length version of A Village Called Versailles.

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Length: 15:32

In a section of eastern New Orleans called "Versailles" resides the most dense ethnically Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. The name refers to "Versailles Arms," the New Orleans East public housing project where a group of Vietnamese refugees was first resettled in 1975. This unusually tight-knit group -- most of whom are devout Catholics with roots in the same three rural North Vietnamese villages -- fled from North to South Vietnam to escape communist persecution in 1954, and then came to New Orleans during the Vietnam War through the Catholic Church's refugee-resettlement program.

Surrounded by lush wetlands and with a humid climate reminiscent of the Mekong Delta, the Versailles clan was grateful to find peace on the easternmost edge of New Orleans. Fellow refugees, who had first settled in other parts of the country, moved to join their friends and family in Versailles, and the community grew steadily through the 1980s and the 1990s to 8,000 strong.

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In early February 2006, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin signed an executive order permitting the dumping of Katrina debris at the landfill, located less than two miles from Versailles.

Like the rest of New Orleans, Versailles was devastated in the fall of 2005 by Hurricane Katrina and the floods that followed. Many Vietnamese Americans in New Orleans East were evacuated and dispersed. But despite all of the difficulties they faced, the community, led by Pastor Vien Nguyen of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, refused another forced exile. "There has been a switch," Father Vien says. "Before Katrina, home was Vietnam. After Katrina, home is here."

Armed with this new sense of belonging, the Versailles Vietnamese returned just six weeks after Katrina to begin rebuilding. By January 2006, more than half the community had returned, and the rest of the City began to take notice.

Ironically, it was the flood and its aftermath that catalyzed the transformation of Versailles from an isolated refugee community into an integral part of New Orleans. Besides the work of community leaders such as Father Vien, Vietnamese-American activists began arriving from elsewhere in the country after Katrina to work with community members toward the goal of gaining a unified political voice for the previously ignored Versailles community. Soon after, they found a common enemy in the Chef Menteur Landfill.

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Armed with a new sense of belonging, the Versailles Vietnamese returned just six weeks after Katrina to begin rebuilding. By January 2006, more than half the community had returned, and the rest of the City began to take notice.

In early February 2006, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin signed an executive order permitting the dumping of Katrina debris at the landfill, located less than two miles from Versailles. Because of the emergency powers granted to Mayor Nagin in the wake of the hurricane, he was able to override city zoning ordinance and grant a six-month permit that turned the Chef Menteur site from a light industrial zone to a landfill.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) and New Orleans Waste Management faced huge pressure to clean up the 22 million tons of Katrina debris as soon as they could. With the Chef Menteur site located in the heavily damaged 9th Ward, trucks hauling debris only needed to travel a short distance to the landfill, making it an ideal location. LDEQ and Waste Management assured the public that the site would only be for construction and demolition debris, material that was thought to be cleaner than regular garbage.

Environmental groups argued that the state of Louisiana had expanded the definition for "construction and demolition debris" to include everything inside a house, which would mean the potentially toxic household chemicals and moldy furniture. The landfill also lacked the standard-required liners to prevent ground water contamination, especially important given the site's proximity to the Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge, the largest urban national wildlife refuge in the country, and the Versailles community, where gardeners watered their vegetables from canals connected to the site.

Versailles residents and their coalition of supporters initially succeeded in urging Mayor Nagin to shut down the Chef Menteur Landfill after staging a protest in front of New Orleans City Hall. Nagin did so during the week leading up to his re-election at the mayoral run-off race, but soon after allowed the landfill to reopen. The Versailles community continued to fight both in the court of law, filing suits against the agencies behind the landfill, and in the court of public opinion, speaking up in the media about how their rebuilding, which had inspired so many, was now threatened by this potentially dangerous landfill. This determined fight ultimately led to their victory in August 2006, when the community staged an energetic protest that blocked the gate to the landfill. On the same day, Mayor Nagin chose not to extend the controversial dumping permit, and the Chef Menteur site was permanently shut down.

Only through this struggle to rebuild their community and to make their voices heard have the Vietnamese American residents in Versailles finally learned the tools of democracy and ultimately claimed their American identity.

A Village Called Versailles was funded in part by ITVS and CAAM. The Abroad at Home series is done in partnership with the National Minority Consortia.

REACTIONS

Boston, MA
I live in the States and never knew that this kind of situation ever happened. It is very touching and a good leason learned about community and working together.

Peggy Coats - Seattle, WApeggy@the-coats.com
Leo Chang's video, "A Village Called Versailles," was very moving and inspiring - a perfect example of people with strong cultural and community values as well as great spiritual strength persevering against all the odds to exercise and claim their rights as citizens of the USA. I hope their example serves to inspire their fellow New Orleanian flood victims to persevere in claiming THEIR rights.

(anonymous)
I'd like to commend all your efforts in delivering such a historical piece. We (the Vietnamese-American) community have come a long way. I thought I'd never live to witness the day when FIRST generation immigrants exercised their civil liberties, fought for what they believed in, and deservingly triumphed. KUDOS TO EVERYONE WHO MADE HISTORY!

Tram Bui - 8118 E. Enrose St., AZ
I felt a sense of pride seeing Vietnamese American standing up for what they believe in and willing to fight for what belongs to them. Immigrants are the backbone of America and throughout history had to overcome many obstacles in order to have their part of the "American dream". Please keep on working and doing what you need to do to build your community. I believe in you and god bless.

Jean-Guy Trépanier - vancouver, BC
Power to the voice of the people. We need more documentaries like this to illustrate the rights of citizens.

Sydney Leung - Berkeley, CA
Thank you, Leo, for documenting the struggles and triumphs of the Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans.