Last week, I took a long-awaited vacation to New Orleans, a city that has figured in my imagination since I spent a couple of years as a kid in nearby Houma, where I still have some relatives. The trip was partly a working vacation, since I planned to cover an appeals court hearing in a case I’ve been following for several years, both as a reporter at a newspaper I once worked for and on this blog.
But, in addition to covering the hearing and doing some of the usual tourist stuff, I had another objective for the trip: I wanted to see firsthand what has happened in the Lower Ninth Ward since the community was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
As I’ve written before, at the time I was working as a reporter for a paper in suburban Houston, and wrote several stories involving people who’d fled the storm and found their way to Texas, and the efforts of local residents to assist them. With one story, I witnessed the incredibly touching scene of a pair of sisters, separated for weeks, reunited as one arrived by small airplane at a local airport.
When I decided I was going to New Orleans to cover the hearing, I knew I wanted to see the Lower Ninth Ward up close. I was particularly inspired by a theatrical screening of I’m Carolyn Parker, the powerful PBS documentary by Jonathan Demme depicting one woman’s efforts to save her home after it was all but destroyed.
I carved out several hours of my first full day in the city to explore the area. Not being very familiar (really, not at all) with the city outside the French Quarter and the central business district, it took some time for me to find it.
But after getting some helpful directions from a cab driver at a nearby gas station, I was able to find my way. Crossing the drawbridge over the Industrial Canal, it wasn’t hard to recognize, especially with a bright blue sign welcoming visitors.
After driving around a bit, I parked just below the berm of the levee in the Holy Cross neighborhood. The area seems to be undergoing a quiet transformation into a mixed-race, mixed-income community, with some artsy flourishes. On a wooden fence near where I parked my car was painted a picture of a nun riding a bicycle, a somewhat incongruent image for the surroundings.
As I climbed to the top of the levee, I watched a young woman carefully pushing a stroller with her child making her way down. Reaching the top, with the canal and the city beyond stretched under the grey sky, I was able to take in nearly the entire neighborhood.
Walking along the top of the levee, I was amazed to see just how devastated the area still is, more than seven years after the flooding that destroyed the area. The scene is still almost apocalyptic, and as I continued to walk, the old 80’s hit from the Talking Heads, (Nothing But) Flowers, kept running through my mind.
As I walked, I chatted briefly with a man named Herman, who told me he lived in the Uptown area near Tulane University but worked at a nearby petrochemical plant. He said he enjoyed walking along the levee since it offered a panoramic view of the city, and he pointed out a couple of nearby landmarks. He asked me if I knew about the new houses being built by a nonprofit headed by actor Brad Pitt. I’d seen them briefly as I drove in, and in fact, I’d wanted to see them specifically, but at the end of my sojourn.
Herman told me that he saw some hopeful signs in the Lower Ninth Ward, and the new houses were one of them. But there was still a long way to go, he said, and it wasn’t hard to agree.
Everywhere I looked, the devastation was all too evident. Abandoned houses with rotting walls and collapsing roofs stand next to perfectly restored, brightly painted homes. Streets riddled with potholes, overgrown with weeds with overturned traffic barrels. Abandoned cars, including one burned-out and sitting on blocks, sitting for what appear to be years on the streets.
Still, amongst the depressing sights, there were indeed some signs of encouragement. I came across a building called the “Lower 9th Ward Village,” a brightly painted community center operated by the nonprofit Rebuilding Together New Orleans (www.rtno.org) with a sign asking, “Where is Your Neighbor?” Among the options given: “Left and not coming home. Left and trying to come home. Back in their own home. Back but unable to move home.”
On the opposite side of the drawbridge, in what is the more recognized portion of the Lower 9th Ward, I came across a group of AmeriCorps volunteers putting the finishing touches on a new home for a longtime resident, just below the reconstructed levee. At first, the volunteers were a bit leery of me taking pictures, but finally one of the leaders filled me in a little on the project.
But it wasn’t just out-of-state volunteers who were out working on that overcast day. Throughout my travels through the ward, I came across people — some contractors, others residents — making street repairs, clearing yards of weeds, painting houses. In what must be an agonizingly slow process, the people of the area are stubbornly reclaiming the community from the effects of the storm and years of neglect.
Finally, I made it to the area where Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation (www.makeitrightnola.org) is transforming a bit of the Lower Ninth Ward with new, architecturally imaginative homes for working families of the area.
As I walked, I marvelled at the newfangled houses while also being struck by how out-of-place they seemed in the midst of the pervading devastation. In another documentary I recently watched, called Urbanized, a Tulane University architecture professor likened then to “your mother’s Malibu beach house,” and it seemed an apt comparison. While you can’t fault Pitt and his colleagues for wanted to make a signficant contribution toward rebuilding the area, the sight of these Frank Gehry-style hones rising from what still appears to be a war zone is very jarring.
Still, it is promising. In my walk, I came across a makeshift lending library that apparently depends on the honor system (and was delighted to see that it included a copy of the same illustrated Children’s Bible that I had as a kid).
But just yards from these new homes, on the main road leading from the drawbridge, is a vacant gas station, with weeds growing over the abandoned pumps. For all of Pitt’s efforts, it seems that until there’s a fundamental transformation of the underlying socioeconomics of the area, real change is a long way off.
A few hours walking in the Lower Ninth Ward, of course, hardly qualifies me to write meaningfully about the area’s challenges or its future. But the impact of seeing it up close, unmediated, after years of hearing different accounts, was worth the effort and taking some small portion of my vacation.
Numerous failures by people and institutions at all levels led to the 2005 disaster, one of the worst in the nation’s history. But with the ongoing work of a lot of people — none more so than the residents themselves — it appears the Lower Ninth Ward can again become a much stronger community.
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Copyright © 2012 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.