Sunday, November 30, 2008

YURP Profiles: John Moore

Isaac Arnsdorf, a student at Yale, is writing different profiles about YURPs. The first one is about John Moore. Contact if you would like to be profiled.

John Moore left New Orleans for college with no intention of returning. Then when Katrina hit, he thought it was the city’s death knell. He tried to convince his family to stay with him in Atlanta.

But they would return, and — in a twist of fate — so would he. John took a job with Global Green, an environmental non-profit developing affordable and sustainable housing in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Today he is an energy and environmental policy analyst in the city government’s newly founded energy unit.

John’s roots in New Orleans stretch back five generations to the earliest settlers of the city. But as John followed another family tradition — becoming a third-generation student at Morehouse — he thought he would leave the Bayou behind.

So did leagues of his peers. New Orleans’ population has been declining since 1960, and young people in particular were leaving the city en masse in recent decades. Katrina, John thought, would be the knockout blow.

But the opposite happened. Since the storm, young people have started flocking back to the city, including John.

“I felt like I had to return,” he said. “That’s what I knew I had to do, and I did it.”

John was in Atlanta interning for Southface, another environmental non-profit, when the storm hit. His family took refuge with him but were determined to return, despite John’s urging otherwise.

John studied architecture in college and helped develop an eco-friendly dorm. At a major conference of U.S. developers, he caught Global Green’s eye. They wanted him to join the Holy Cross Project, which partnered with Brad Pitt to sponsor a design competition for sustainably redeveloping the devastated Lower Ninth Ward.

At first, John didn’t want to go back. But when he realized all his family was returning, it wasn’t even a choice anymore, he said. His grandmother, aunt and cousins were all trying to rebuild their homes, and he knew he could help.

But the city he returned to was not the city he remembered. Surrounding by roving military police, he rode around the neighborhoods where he grew up. John said it was like looking at ghosts.

“It was a gut-wrenching thing to see all these neighborhoods destroyed,” he said, “like, the first place I hung out, or the first place I had a beer.”

Though John felt a sense of duty in his homecoming, in other ways he had to make some sacrifices. He had been accepted to architecture school in California, which he deferred to join Global Green. In some ways, he said, he had to put the rest of his life on the back burner. But that’s because he had a responsibility in New Orleans that came first.

His new job with the city runs through 2009, so he’s sure he’ll be in town at least that long. After that, he’s not sure where grad school or career moves might take him. He wants to be back in school by 2010. For now, he’s been working with Tulane as a consultant on sustainable construction.

As he returned to help his family recover, he joined of movement of young people helping to rebuild his hometown.

“I’m passionate about what I’m doing,” he said. “I feel like I have some effect. I want to see if I can push the ball forward.”