Filed Under:  Local

The Ninth Ward’s humanitarian does it, again

19th September 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Kaelin Maloid
Contributing Writer

They told Burnell Cotlon he was crazy.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward, like much of New Orleans, needed some help. As the citizens tried to rebuild, Cotlon noticed the help they needed was a little bit different—they didn’t need another liquor store, nor another restaurant. They needed a grocery store. According to Cotlon, citizens had to take three buses into the next city just to buy a loaf of bread. The nearest laundromat? Even further away.

So Cotlon took his life savings and opened up a grocery store in November 2014. And then on Sept. 15 he made good on another commitment and opened the community’s first laundromat since the flooding.

Now 11 years after Katrina, he represents the soul of a neglected community where ordinary citizens like himself are doing extraordinary things, on their own accord, and when the spotlight has faded.

Owner Burnell Cotlon, center, opens the Lower Ninth Ward Laundromat at a ribbion cutting on Sept. 15 with his mother Lillie Mae Cotlon, second left; Councilman James Gray II, second from right; and Cotlon's wife, Keisha, at right.

Owner Burnell Cotlon, center, opens the Lower Ninth Ward Laundromat at a ribbion cutting on Sept. 15 with his mother Lillie Mae Cotlon, second left; Councilman James Gray II, second from right; and Cotlon’s wife, Keisha, at right.

“Maybe I am crazy,” Cotlon said.

His childhood dream was to become a police officer, and he achieved that. He was an Army police officer, and spent the whole time — 10 years—in Germany, enough time to learn the language. After he left the military, he became a manager at McDonald’s near his home.

That was when Katrina hit.

“That changed everything,” Cotlon said.

He lost a lot, just as everybody did, but he was lucky to be able to rebuild. Once he rebuilt his home, he found the community was suffering because they didn’t have a grocery store. He called all the old grocery stores, who said they weren’t coming back because there simply weren’t enough people to sustain business.

“It wasn’t about the numbers, it was about the people that were suffering,” Cotlon said. “You shouldn’t have to catch three buses just to get a loaf of bread. That’s a hardship they shouldn’t have to endure.”

Cotlon decided that since the big-box businesses weren’t going to do something, he was.

He used his entire lifesavings to start this grocery store. And he would gladly do it all over again if he had to.

“There have been people who have come into this store and cried because they can walk and get a loaf of bread and some milk now,” Cotlon said. “It’s about helping others.”

Before he opened the grocery store doors in November, his dreams started off with a two-paneled, orange blind-window. Everything and anything went through that window. Behind the window was a purple wall with a row of five orange and white painted cabinets and orange shelves. The cabinets, which Cotlon took from a house and painted, were nailed to the wall and a little crooked. The shelves were purchased by Cotlon from Home Depot.

In order to keep the food fresh, Cotlon had to have electricity — so he turned to YouTube and taught himself how to wire electricity. After that, he hired a licensed electrician who told him he had done everything correctly.

But he couldn’t stop there. After saving up his money for two-and-a-half years, Cotlon opened up the Lower Ninth Ward Market on 2036 Caflin Ave. In this market, he sells everything from fresh produce and vegetables to rice and beans to clothing and toys. At the register, there’s a sign that reads, “If you don’t see it, ask for it.” In other words, if a customer requests, Cotlon will get it for them.

“The best part of this is that the look on some of the customers faces are epic,” Cotlon said, with his quick-to-come grin and a hearty chuckle. “Some people come and just stand in the store in awe. Some come to just stand outside and listen to the music.”

David Jones, having only known Cotlon for a few weeks, said that the music was a great idea.

“It makes people want to relax and chill,” Jones said.

Jones was also one of the many New Orleanians that agreed Cotlon’s grocery store and laundromat was a great idea, including New Orleans Councilman James Gray II, who represents District “E.”

“I think it’s great. While we’re worried about gigantic plans, the victory is in a lot of people doing a lot of little things like that,” Gray said.

However, Cotlon’s dreams didn’t stop with a grocery store.

A customer came into his store one day, carrying with him a big trash bag filled with his and his daughter’s clothing.

“He always bought two things — some soap powder and a Coca-Cola,” Cotlon said.

Cotlon asked him where he was going, and the customer responded that he was going to ride across the Industrial Canal to find a laundromat. That touched Cotlon’s heart so much, he vowed to the man that he would open up a laundromat in some time.

That was how he met New Orleans native Ellen DeGeneres.

“I told that to Ellen DeGeneres, and she flew me to Hollywood put me on her show and gave me some washers and driers, and now the Lower Ninth Ward has its very own laundry mat,” Cotlon said.

On Sept. 15, when Cotlon had the grand opening for his Laundromat, Robert Green, a Lower Ninth resident was Cotlon’s first laundromat customer.

Before the opening of the laundromat, Green said he had to bring his clothes to a friend and “hope they got to them.”

“I’ll walk back here to get food, I’ll walk back here to get something to eat, now I can walk back here to wash laundry,” Green said. “We need more businesses like this. We need more people to invest in the Lower Ninth Ward.”

Cotlon also hopes that more people will invest in the Lower Ninth Ward. His dream is to have it catch up with the rest of New Orleans.

The owner of a barbershop, sweet shop, grocery shop, and now laundromat, many people would think Cotlon would stop. In fact, he’s just getting started. Next on his list is renovating the space he just purchased behind his grocery store to make an Internet cafe for teens.

“I’m an average guy, but I have above average dreams,” Cotlon said.

This article originally published in the September 19, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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