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

New Orleans: “Dying City” or “Brain Magnet”? Saturday, Feb 19 2011 

A couple of weeks ago (“The Incredible Shrinking City”), I reported on the fact that according to the 2010 Census the population of New Orleans dropped 29% during the decade. And while the city’s population has been in decline since the 1960s, clearly Hurricane Katrina was the primary ingredient in such a drop.

Of course, this reality did not stop Newsweek from putting New Orleans atop of the list of “America’s Dying Cities.” They used census data to document significant drops in both overall population and the population of those under the age of 18. New Orleans finds itself in the not-so-good company of Vallejo, CA, Detroit, MI, Rochester, NY, and Cleveland, OH. And the folks in New Orleans are not happy.

At the same time, a lesser known online magazine, newgeography, has used census data to show that New Orleans is first in attracting college-educated migrants, although many might just be former residents finding their way back. And while that is good news, it shows, as civic leaders have pointed out, the danger of using census data out of context . And it’s pretty obvious that the bad news from Newsweek will carry further than anything from newgeography (although it’s possible that newgeography is in better financial shape than its more august rival).

For one, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has come out swinging. Citing low unemployment, a high rate of investment in infrastructure, and steady population growth, the Mayor is fighting the claim that New Orleans is a “dying city.” He points out in today’s Times-Picayune that New Orleans is coming back from the point of nearly being emptied of its population in September 2005; and as the century enters its second decade, the population is steadily rising.

And while Mitch has vociferously made his case, the Newsweek column clearly stuck in his craw.  I don’t think we’ve heard the last word on this one.

The Revenge of “A Streetcar Named Desire” Wednesday, Jan 26 2011 

In the opening of Tennessee Williams’ famous play, Blanche DuBois arrives in New Orleans and takes the “Desire” streetcar line down Bourbon Street to Elysian Fields Avenue. There she enters the cramped apartment and lives of her sister, Stella, and brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. What follows helped remake 20th century American drama. However,  New Orleans changed dramatically between Williams’ setting in the 1940s and “urban renewal” of the 1960s. By then, only the St. Charles streetcar line remained in service. Blanche’s mode of transit had become a bus named “Desire.”

Streetcars were making something of a comeback in New Orleans prior to Katrina. A short riverfront line opened for tourists in 1988 and a residential line serving the Central Business District and Mid City began service in 2004. But the working class neighborhoods and bohemian pockets of the Downtown neighborhoods were largely ignored. That is, until now.

On Tuesday, the city announced that it is investing $90 million to extend streetcar service down Rampart St. and St. Claude Avenue, with a spur running up Elysian Fields Avenue. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, city officials, and some forward-thinking developers believe that this “back to the future” approach might help revitalize these long neglected neighborhoods. Their goal is to complete the 2 ½ mile extension by the end of 2013.

And while the line won’t exactly duplicate the one that Blanche took Downtown, streetcar bells will once again clang through the streets of venerable neighborhoods like Treme, Marigny, New Margny, St. Roch, and the Bywater.

New Orleans Exudes a Positive Vibe…for a Change Tuesday, Nov 30 2010 

As 2010 nears it end, the Crescent City has eschewed some of it characteristic fatalism and is teetering on the edge of being…well, positive. Five years after Katrina and in the wake of the BP oil spill, the city seems to have rounded a bend. Kind of…

Violent crime has not gone away. The U.S. Department of Justice has been brought in to help oversee the New Orleans Police Department. And, there is still a housing shortage for New Orleans’ poorest citizens.

On the other hand, the citizens of New Orleans have given Mayor Mitch Landrieu an impressive 75% approval rating. And in a normally racially polarized city, Landrieu’s support crosses racial lines (78% for white respondents and 72% for African-American respondents). Compare this with a 24% approval rating for former Mayor Ray Nagin just prior to his leaving office. For more about the poll, visit nola.com.

And, as I witnessed this past spring, nothing has put a bounce in the step of New Orleans more than their World Champion New Orleans Saints. In a city lousy with parades, the Saints’ victory parade is considered the largest parade in the City’s history. And to cap it off, Sports Illustrated just named Saints’ quarterback, Drew Brees, its Sportsman of the Year.

Invariably, the doom and gloom will reemerge. Disasters, real and imagined lie on the horizon. But for now, New Orleans is exhibiting an uncharacteristically positive outlook.

Bayou Politics Friday, Nov 5 2010 

Politics in New Orleans seemed to achieve an unprecedented sense of rationality with the election of Mitch Landrieu last spring. He received widespread support throughout the city and appears determined to clean-up the many messes he inherited.

However, fast forward to this week’s and politics in Louisiana seemed to reverted to it’s messy, unpredictable, and wacky best (for entertainment value) or worst (if you consider a working government to be a good thing). In the race for the U.S. Senate, incumbent David Vitter (R) was pitted against a popular, “blue dog” Democrat in Charlie Melancon. And given Vitter’s public admission to dalliances with the DC madame (he never fessed up to reported visits to brothels closer to home), most wouldn’t give Mr. Vitter the staying power of a snowball on a July afternoon. But, the more Charlie made of Vitter’s indiscretions, the more the incumbent’s poll numbers went up. Vitter won big-time; evidence that the electorate really meant to take their government and their scalawag back.

Melancon’s seat went Republican in the election, which left the 2nd district as the Democrat’s only hope to have a representative in the U.S. House from Louisiana. And the incumbent there was an electoral oddity, even by New Orleans standards. Two-years ago, a soft-spoken Vietnamese-American by the name of Anh (Joseph) Cao, defeated long-time Democratic Congressman William Jefferson. Needless to say, the fact that “Dollar Bill” was being hounded by investigations and indictments (we needn’t mention the $90,000+ in cash found in his freezer), helped the former seminarian become the first Vietnamese-American congressman. So in a year marked by Democratic landslides, a predominately black district did not elect an African-American or a Democrat to Congress.

This year would be different. While Cao proved to be a very moderate Republican, his opposition to healthcare reform and the economic stimulus package did not help him in his district. He was up against Cedric Richmond, a young State Representative from eastern New Orleans and an African-American. Clearly, Cao stood little chance against a popular Democratic opponent who was not under indictment. So in the midst of a Republican, electoral tidal wave, New Orleans sent a Democrat to Congress.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Who Dat? Nobody! Redemption, at last. Monday, Feb 8 2010 

I don’t think there has ever been an American city that could have as much going on as once as New Orleans. And this is a city that thrives on special occasions.

OK, first of all, this is the first big weekend of Mardi Gras parades and celebrations. Then there is this election to choose a successor to Ray Nagin. So, let’s throw in a little thing called the Super Bowl  for the neer-do-well local team — just to make it interesting.

So, Monday has dawned. New Orleans has a new mayor. Multiple opponents. No run-off, First white mayor in 32 years, but one who received a majority of the African-American votes against a black opponent. It helps that the new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, is the well-connected son of the last white New Orleans Mayor, “Moon” Landrieu.

Then there’s this little thing called Mardi Gras. Parade times, along with mass schedules had to be rearranged to accommodate the Super Bowl. What a pain. The normal parades took place, although crowds were a little thinner than usual. Sunday parades included one of my favorite, the Krewe of Barkus parade, themed: “The Dogs Go Barking In.”

BUT, and I must repeat, BUT, the Super Bowl and the Saint’s definitive victory is the exclamation point on the weekend, if not, in fact, that of an entire decade. It’s as if the remaining water left from Katrina has been drained from the streets of New Orleans. The city is back. The people are looking forward. The sadness is over. If the Saints can overcome four decades of football futility, the city can overcome four decades of decline.

This is a time for the city to celebrate. But what this may represent, is a far more significant reason for New Orleans to celebrate. It is back! Big time.

Who Dat Say They Gonna Replace Ray Nagin? Saturday, Feb 6 2010 

Some things are normal in New Orleans. Krewe members are gathering bags of throws to distribute at Mardi Gras Parades. Dog owners are preparing costumes for their pets so they can march in Sunday’s Krewe of Barkus parade in the French Quarter. But wait, the Mardi Gras parade schedule has to be rearranged. Churches are altering mass schedules. And school on Monday; don’t count out on it. So Mardi Gras, mass, and school all take a back seat when the Saints are playing in their first Super Bowl.

But something else of importance is happening this weekend. Today, New Orleans is holding an election to see who replaced Ray Nagin as mayor. Eight years ago, businessman Ray Nagin was swept into office because he was not a career politician. He would bring business sensibilities to city government and had no history of personal entanglements that would lead to corruption. History may or may not disprove these assumptions.

So, all eyes are not on this race. There’s a lot at stake, but the election is far from being on the front burner. Early voting has been strong, but that could be because voters want to clear their weekend to follow the festivities. So what’s at stake?

Much rebuilding needs to be done, and electing someone with political connections appears important to most. And race, whether from post-Katrina demographics or Ray Nagin-fatigue, doesn’t appear that important. The most promising African-American candidate withdrew, leaving Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu as the odds-on-favorite to follow Nagin. In fact a low turnout could make him outright winner without the usual runoff election.

The result: the first white mayor of New Orleans in 32 years. But a pedigree that makes him a politically-connected him one. His sister, Mary, is the senior U.S. Senator from Louisiana. And his father, Maurice “Moon” Landrieu, was the last white mayor of New Orleans. In fact, one of my favorite spaces in the city is the green space along the river know as the “Moon” Walk in his honor.

So, while krewes march through the streets. And the Colts and the Saints prepare for battle. New Orleans will also be electing a mayor. And while neither as colorful as parades, nor as exciting as the Super Bowl, the election will have significant impact on the future of New Orleans. For more on the election, click some fine analysis from the New York Times here.

Unconventional Times for an Unconventional City Saturday, Jan 30 2010 

“Stop thinking of New Orleans as the worst-organized city in the United States. Start thinking of it as the best-organized city in the Caribbean. New Orleans is a city-sized act of civil disobedience.” Dan Baum

Weird times for New Orleans.

For over 290 years, New Orleans has accepted life behind the eight ball. Spring floods, yellow fever epidemics, ethnic strife, hurricanes, and pervasive corruption. Even before Hurricane Katrina, the city was a mess. Just this week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to education in New Orleans.

Honestly, New Orleans still has serious problems: crime, corruption, education, health care, and the realization that the next big storm could cripple the city for decades. And while residents remain aware of their collective frailties, they are drawn to the good things that are taking place in the city. And much of this energy is focused on the annual carnival celebration and the singular success of their perennial NFL near-do-wells, the Saints.

The Saints entered the league in 1967, on the heels of Hurricane Betsy, and although they have fielded numerous stars, from field goal Kicker Tom Dempsey, to quarterback Archie Manning, to running back Deuce McAllister, they are a stranger to the playoffs and have never appeared in the Super Bowl. Until now.The Super Bowl will affect Mardi Gras parades, Catholic mass schedules, and, quite possibly,  public school on the Monday following the big game.

On the Saturday before the Super Bowl, citizens will go to the polls to elect a successor to Ray Nagin. Many fear that the mania will depress voter turnout, which will likely benefit Mitch Landrieu, son of former mayor “Moon” Landrieu and brother of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu. And while the results are of intense importance to the city’s future, more immediate interests cloud the peoples’ minds.

So, even though New Orleans’s values have never been aligned with “American” values, this level of disconnect is extraordinary. But I think it can be explained. New Orleans, regardless of its problems, is the epitome of resilience. It went from hard-scrabble colonial settlement to become the richest city in America. And within a few decades, it was among America’s poorest cities. Through it all, the residents surround themselves with tradition, history, and a joie de vivre  that is fed by local food, music, and culture. It’s easy to come back if you’ve never, truly been anywhere else.

The entire region is gearing up for the Super Bowl. If they win, it will be the biggest municipal party in the history of the United States. However, if they lose, they’ll look to their new mayor, to the last nine days of Mardi Gras. They will eat well, party hard, sing, dance, and make the most of their days before the beginning of Lent. And they’ll be fine, thank you. And they will do this, because that is what they’ve always done; overcome the most awful adversities and move on.