The Forgotten Ward Saturday, Feb 16 2013 

The Lower Ninth Ward was among the last parts of Orleans Parish to be settled. And along with areas like Lakeview and Gentilly, it is among the last areas of the City to be repopulated in the wake of the flooding following Hurricane Katrina. In fact with a population about 25% of its 2000 population, it is dead last.

The first time I ever entered the Lower Ninth was in March 2006, just  months after the flooding caused by the breech of the Industrial Canal. It was the first time anyone, including residents, was allowed to reenter this devastated neighborhood. I had come down for the first time to help with the cleanup, but I was totally unprepared for what I was to see. Nothing that I had seen on television in the wake of the flood could reflect the total, widespread destruction that I saw. Homes flattened and carried away by the rushing waters. Concrete slabs left behind; somber tombstones for homes, for communities, and for neighborhoods. Among the rubble were vehicles, household furnishings, children’s  toys and medical equipment, the forgotten detritus of a once vibrant community.

Lower Ninth, May 2006.

Lower Ninth, March 2006.

It was so total that I felt something meaningful had to happen. A lion’s share of the City’s deaths were from this neighborhood  The damage was so unspeakable. Truly something had to be done quickly and decisively to correct this travesty.  But, the people of the Lower Ninth were left to wait…elsewhere.

Tennessee and Galvez, March 2007.

I’ve gone back every year since then, accompanied by students from the University of New Hampshire. I always take them back to the intersection of Tennessee and Galvez, the spot where I first remember standing. I remember that day in 2007, once the students had wandered off to view the devastation. Nearly two years later. Nothing. Rubble had been cleared only to be replaced weeds. I sat on a stoop that once had been occupied by parents waiting for children to return from school. Hot tears of anger and sadness welled up. To this day, I don’t think I can separate the two.

Former President Bill Clinton,
Lower Ninth Ward, March 2008.

A year later, in 2008, we encountered news crews, Brad Pitt, and former President Bill Clinton. Make It Right Nine was underway and over the last few years, change is noticeable, but it is not enough. It is a fine demonstration project highlighting sustainable building, but given all of the money that has poured into New Orleans, it is but a token. Thousands are forced to live elsewhere and, to this day, the Lower Ninth is but a shadow of its former self.

This was made clear about a year ago, when the New York Times Magazine chose to publish a large article on the Lower Ninth under the rather insensitive title of “Jungleland.” Written by Nathaniel Rich, it began by emphasizing the neglect and accompanying decay. If the writer had every witnessed the rural infestation of kudzu, the rapid overgrowth would not have proven such a spectacle. For a community so ignored, the incursion of wildlife, vegetation, dumping, and crime should not have surprised anyone. Neglect does that. And facile sensationalism is not the answer.

Tennessee and Galvez, March 2011.

Me at Tennessee and Galvez, March 2011.
Photo by Sonja Loeser.

Thankfully, a community activist named Jenga Mwendo responded to the content and tone of Rich’s article. She takes him to task for not going after the root cause of institutional and governmental neglect; the many millions that have poured into New Orleans have not helped the most vulnerable. Former Mayor Ray Nagin, who allowed the bulldozing of the projects elsewhere, had little time for rebuilding the Lower Ninth. And while current Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been more responsive, his efforts have shaded towards removing blighted properties and paving streets (many of which were not paved before Katrina). Where was the support for former residents? Where is the housing or direct housing aid necessary to bring residents back.

Image from the Nedw York Times Magazine article, March 2012.

Image from the New York Times Magazine article, March 2012.

As Mwendo point out, aid was non-existent in the aftermath of the flood. Post-Katrina aid benefited those whose property was worth more than those in the Lower Ninth. In addition, government at all levels moved slowly to provide the amenities necessary to support the community. They had to fight for schools, libraries and city services. And to this date, the nearest grocery store is miles away in Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish. She points out that reporters, like Rich, need to peel away institutional neglect, longstanding racism, and the toll of longstanding poverty to truly understand why the Lower Ninth is where it is at today. Much good is happening, from Brad Pitt’s homes, to urban gardening, to sustainable development, but more help is needed for the community to come back, even to half of what is was before.

This year, My class and I will be working in the Lower Ninth. And I’ve done this long enough to know that as satisfying as it is, it is but a drop in the bucket. However, I am happy that we can contribute what we can to the rebuilding and development of this too-long neglected community.

Advertisements

Strength and Rebirth: New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Wednesday, Apr 4 2012 

Bumper stickers at the House of Dance and Feathers, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2012, Taylor Frarie

It was our last night in the city; the air was warm and the city was alive. Despite the fact that it was around one in the morning the city was showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. It was then, as we were heading back to the van, that Shanti asked me what my favorite part of New Orleans had been. I thought about it, and gave her my honest answer: “I don’t know.”  I asked her the same question and she told me it was the spirit of rebirth that the city embodied.

I digested this and realized how perfect of an answer it was. I was even a little embarrassed that it did not come to my mind. When she had asked me I thought of obvious things like the food, the craziness, and the music. I know these are all a major part of the city, but when it comes down to it, none of that would be there if it weren’t for the strong inner spirit that the people of New Orleans have.

Levee along the Industrial Canal, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2012, Taylor Frarie

Thinking about it brought me back to the Lower Ninth Ward where we had visited on Sunday, our first day there. I just remember standing there when we learned about the destruction and how all the houses we were seeing would have been completely submerged in water. I tried to take it in, to fathom the magnitude of the damage and horror, but I just could not. It was surreal, like none of it had happened. But I know it did.  Even when we saw where the levee broke, it still didn’t quite hit me, and I don’t think it ever will. No one can imagine such an event unless it happens to them, the rest of us just have to try to do what we can to help. And people did try to help, just as residents tried to help each other.

Today the Lower Ninth Ward, even though it has a long way to go, is looking infinitely better. I remember long-time resident Ronald Lewis telling us that one of the things that made him happiest was the sight of children playing in the street in front of his house.  This hit me and I thought it was a beautiful way to describe it. It meant that life was truly coming back to his home and neighborhood. At first, I was surprised to learn that not all of the efforts into helping the Lower Ninth were fully appreciated. For instance, the modern and energy-efficient homes built by Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” Foundation. But now I understand that many residents just wanted help getting back to their old lives, they didn’t want everything to change. They just needed some support to get back on their feet.

Cover of Dan Baum's "Nine Lives"

Although foundation support is mostly a good thing; I can see where the mixed feelings are coming from.  I think these feelings are embodied through a song written by Paul Sanchez for a musical based on the Dan Baum’s book “Nine Lives.” Ronald Lewis’s story is one of the nine. The chorus of that song states: “We were fine in the Lower Nine.” These words are drawn straight from Baum’s interview with Lewis. The song reflects Lewis’s exuberant pride in his neighborhood and helped me to further understand the feelings held by him and his neighbors.

As I walked down the streets of New Orleans for the last time, these were my thoughts. As music played and people laughed and danced and stumbled all around me, I knew that the city was once again a place of high spirits despite the tragedy and devastation that it had faced.  It took me some time, but I finally saw and realized that the spirit of rebirth was alive and well in New Orleans and I watched as it pulsed through the city. And maybe, I thought, this is my favorite thing too.

–Taylor Frarie–