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.

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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.

New Orleans Happenings Thursday, Feb 5 2009 

OK, so it’s in the single digits here this morning, so I have to think of warmer climes. Oops, the strawberries and citrus in Florida are threatened by a freeze and New Orleans is in the 30s.

However, there are a number of interesting stories about New Orleans of late:

Zatarain’s, the New Orleans-area food producer, is petitioning to have Mardi Gras made a national holiday. Read (and sign) here: http://blog.nola.com/cest-la-nola/2009/02/zatarains_spearheading_petitio.html

An observant blogger (not me) discovered that if you search for “New Orleans” in Google, you can come up with a timeline of New Orleans history, with links from specific dates to open source content, a veritable “New Orleans History 2.0” (to use her words). For the blog and link to the timeline see:  http://blog.nola.com/cest-la-nola/2009/02/history_of_new_orleans_20.html

The NOPD is at it again. An autopsy shows that a man killed by police on New Year’s Day was shot in the back of the body nine times:  http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/02/man_shot_by_police_hit_nine_ti.html

And in spite of such news, Mayor Nagin and the city council have reinstituted “Disney-like” sanitation services for the French Quarter.  It’s good to see where their priorities are. Which raises some interesting questions: do tourists vote? Does the rest of the city get dumpsters? See:  http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/02/deluxe_quarter_cleanup_resumes.html