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In New Orleans’ Mud, A Ward Determined Not To Slip Away

The Lower Ninth wants to rebuild

November 1, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


New Orleans' Ninth Ward was, until Hurricane Katrina, a solidly working-class neighborhood blessed with remarkably strong family ties and a high home ownership rate.

NEW ORLEANS — One doesn’t have to talk to too many residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, which was wrecked by Katrina and Rita, to discover that this historic, mostly African American New Orleans enclave is a remarkable human community. Like the threads of a sweater that keep the whole from unraveling, the Lower Ninth Ward was woven together by a network rich in family history, social connections, and proximity to relatives and friends.

Yet in spite of the allegiance residents have for the Lower Ninth, business and city leaders have targeted the community for major bulldozing, asserting that its location at the lowest part of the Mississippi River flood plain puts it inevitably in harm’s way.

The idea is fiercely resisted. Residents say the idea that tearing down standing homes is necessary is a ruse. City officials and their allies in the development community, assert neighborhood leaders, have been eying the Lower Ninth Ward for upscale redevelopment for years.

Mistrust Amid The Mud
A tour of the ward provides ample evidence for why developers might be interested. The national press, you recall, described the Lower Ninth Ward as ramshackle and poor. But that’s not the full story.

Before the two hurricanes, the Lower Ninth was — and still is — a mix of finely-carpentered shotgun cottages and bungalows, with brick homes and an occasional larger Victorian fitted along a fine grain of interlocking streets. The comfortable neighborly community provided the pedestrian-friendly connections that minimize the need for car ownership. Mass transit was within walking distance.

Home ownership is close to 60 per cent.  Homes, handed down through the generations, are often mortgage-free. Many residents bought or built an additional dwelling for their mom, aunt, dad, or son. They invested in their homes and the neighborhood the same way wealthier people invested in the stock market. Many families own more than one property. Scores of damaged homes are not only clearly repairable but had recently been fixed up or were in the process.

In many ways the Lower Ninth Ward incorporated all of the components of a lively, sustainable, engaging Smart Growth neighborhood. Residents understand the authentic connectivity that made their neighborhood work, the kind of physical, social and economic co-mingling that so many Americans desire, but which actually existed in the Lower Ninth.

It’s easy, even in the wreckage left by the hurricanes, to understand how the Lower Ninth Ward represents the idea of “neighborhood” and “community” — not as developers build them, or planners map them, or architects design them or politicians campaign in them.

Voices From The Ward
Betty Lewis described it while checking out assorted family homes with the help of a cousin. Ms. Lewis’ mother, 12 aunts and uncles, and 19 of their children owned homes at one time on three contiguous blocks. She paused in front of one family bungalow, partially wrecked, and said, “You couldn’t get in trouble in this neighborhood without someone telling your mom. In front of whoever’s house you were at lunch time is where you went into eat.”

Durwin Hill, a carpenter and renovator, pulled loose the plywood he carefully covered his front door and windows with before evacuating. He peered inside and saw that the eight feet of water that immersed his simple brick house had ruined everything in sight, including the two attached rear apartments for his sons. “It was in worse shape when I bought it,” Mr. Hill said. “I fixed it once and I’ll do it again.”

Why? It’s home. He knows the policeman who just finished fixing up his home, catty-corner to Mr. Hill’s. He describes Mercedes’ Place, the corner neighborhood bar and restaurant with a simple white stucco façade and green scripted letters. He remembers the young white couple next door who moved here from Texas to teach in the neighborhood school but were laid off after recent budget cuts.

Beth Butler, the chief organizer for New Orleans-based ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the nation’s largest community organization of low and moderate income families, described how close-knit her Ninth Ward constituency is. Before the hurricanes one of ACORN’s bulk mailings was returned to her office and marked “undeliverable.” Ms. Butler asked the postal clerk to sit down with a Ninth Ward resident who knew everyone. Every last addressee was located. “Her mail goes to her mom around the corner,” the resident explained, “and that one is living with her sister.” She knew who had moved nearby or far. She located them all.

Fats Domino Lives Here Still
No, this is not the “poverty-stricken” Lower Ninth Ward depicted by public officials and TV commentators. Modest income yes. Minimum wage jobs yes. But countless chefs from the French Quarter live here, along with restaurant and hotel workers who make the tourist industry function. Harrah’s casino employees live here and so do civil servants who work in City Hall and are among the professionals who make up this working class neighborhood. Dockworkers and other people who earn their keep at the New Orleans port live here too.

Most notably, the Lower Ninth is the area where known and unknown musicians learned their art from birth. Fats Domino, who’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, came from here and still lives in a modest yellow-and-black house, with his ex-wife living in a house he bought for her next door. This is the kind of place people choose to live out their life, even when they can afford to move.

Right now, though, the Lower Ninth is a frightened community filled with people who want to return – in fact, are determined to return – and to rebuild. Residents of the Lower Ninth were the last allowed to return to inspect the damage. They heard about threats of cholera, extreme toxicity, lootings, shootings, chemical spills, engulfing mold, irreparable damage, and the plan for demolition. In interviews here, residents said they don’t know what is true and whom to believe.

Despite all of this, a resolute, almost defiant spirit prevails. The refrains most often heard are: “We’ll be back.” “We’ll rebuild.” “This is home.” 

Roberta Brandes Gratz, an international lecturer on urban development issues and a former reporter for the New York Post, is the author of "The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way," and "Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown." She lives in New York City and can be reached at LIVINGCITY@aol.com

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