Building Blocks

Neighbor by neighbor, house by house, New Orleans struggles on

"I've lost all sense of what's normal," says New Orleans resident Bart Everson. His house, which took on five feet of water, stands at a crossroads in the city's recovery—one of the points where people staring at destruction must decide whether to stay or go. At the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, he and his wife are back in their Mid-City home, in a neighborhood where fewer than 30 percent of the families own the place they live in and which most visitors might see only on their way to Jazzfest.

Absentee landlords have abandoned more than half the nearby buildings in his district. His neighbors across the street, an elderly African American woman with her three grandchildren, are gone, replaced by someone who seems to be a squatter. Newly arrived Hispanic laborers are paying twice the pre-Katrina rents, yet some have no electricity or gas. Some pile their unbagged garbage in the street. The block around the corner is full of FEMA trailers, and across the street is a grocery store untouched since the storm. Inside, rats scurry over a floor slick with rot.

And yet Everson, who works at Xavier University, and his wife, who teaches school, have no plans to leave. They are renovating their flooded first story. They complained to their City Council member about the garbage and the rats, and used Spanish-language flyers to persuade new neighbors to clean up. And most of all, the Eversons are active in their neighborhood organization, which like dozens around the city is working independently to devise a plan for rebuilding. Their group is proposing to form a community redevelopment corporation to buy blighted houses and provide a path to homeownership for those willing to renovate them.

"We want to give people a reason to move to Mid-City," Everson says, especially people from more wrecked neighborhoods who can't afford to buy in the areas that stayed dry. "I really think we are the best of the worst, as far as a flooded neighborhood that's coming back."


If you want to get what's going on in New Orleans right now, you need to understand Everson's state of mind, which he describes as "tightly bridled optimism." People here have always read the map as a checkerboard—rich and poor, safe and dangerous, white and black. One year post-Katrina, the grid has acquired a few more dimensions. Multiply the August 30 flood line by the percentage of renters vs. homeowners, and by the distance from the "sliver on the river" or the "Aisle of denial"—the dry area from the French Quarter to Tulane University—and you get a rough index of viability.

The grassroots commitment of individual residents like Everson is the X factor in the fate of each of the city's 73-odd neighborhoods; still-inadequate hurricane protection and an absence of citywide coordination are the immovable variables that threaten them all.

Add to that mix the big money and big plans coming at the beginning of September. Up to $150,000 in homeowners' assistance is coming through the Road Home program, federal grants administered by the state Louisiana Recovery Authority. But for rental housing and every other city planning issue, no one knows what exactly will be funded, or how and when. John McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute, a national urban planning and developers' trade organization, has been advising in the process officially and unofficially for the past year. He says Mayor Ray Nagin has just a few weeks to designate someone who’ll make sure the money goes where it's supposed to. "There is a window of opportunity now with the plans in place and the money coming in,” McIlwain argues. “If they're not coordinated by a strong organization, the money will be wasted."

On the other hand, he says, "One thing I think is really positive is that the neighborhood groups are involved in the planning effort . . . . Recovery has to be neighborhood based and block by block."

Dozens of neighborhood organizations have either been formed or greatly expanded, even in the most devastated areas, and suddenly everyone knows the local city councilperson by name. "I knew my neighbors to wave to," says Karen Gadbois. After the storm, she co-founded the Northwest Carrollton Civic Association and is now trying to get elderly neighbors back in their homes, shut out a big-box store, and improve police response. "I've called them and they literally say, 'If you'd like to report an emergency, press 3--it's like calling Cox Cable, except you're calling 911." At a recent 2nd District community police meeting, she says, a man reported that a gunshot victim crawled under his FEMA trailer and died.


Talk to neighborhood activists citywide and you hear the same chorus of complaints: housing blight, decaying infrastructure, resurgent crime, and a lack of leadership. "The mayor is invisible," says Maitri Venkat-Ramani, a Shell Oil geologist who hears drug deals outside her house on Magazine Street.

"He's done nothing for the city," seconds Linda DeGruy, who moved back into the Iberville projects in June without authorization and is withholding rent. She’s suing the Housing Authority of New Orleans for her right to stay. While most of the city's public housing remains closed and slated for demolition, around 250 residents have returned to this development, some with permission and at least 29 without it. The drug trade is back here too, with a vengeance. Cleveland Young, one of a group of men standing outside Iberville's corner grocery with beers on a Sunday afternoon, says he got out of prison in the spring after five years and is "just trying to survive."

Another widespread theme is suspicion of the official recovery process, and of wealthy developers widely believed to have the inside track. The convoluted path connecting neighborhoods like Mid-City with federal funds granted to rebuild them opened in October. Mayor Nagin assembled the business-heavy Bring New Orleans Back commission, chaired by Joe Canizaro, a local developer who is a Pioneer-level Bush donor. The BNOB's plan, drafted by a Philadelphia consultant in January 2006, included stronger levees, regional light rail, more parks and a two-tiered neighborhood restoration process, based on flood zones. A report from the Urban Land Institute—of which Canizaro is also a board member—went still further in proposing shrinking the footprint of the city to higher ground.

But flooded neighborhoods like Gentilly and New Orleans East angrily rejected "greenspacing," the term for essentially removing people and houses permanently. The mayor backed off from both proposals; the BNOB plan failed to get FEMA money, and the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state's major funnel for federal money, withdrew its support.

At that point, the City Council announced that it and the Greater New Orleans Foundation, a previously existing booster group, would hire Miami consultant Paul Lambert and New Orleanian Sheila Danzey to work with 49 flooded neighborhoods to draft their own recovery plans—due out nearly month. These plans, says Lambert, are substantially complete and surprisingly modest. "The first order of business is streets and basic infrastructure. For the poorest communities in particular they're looking for the basic quality of life services: streetlamps, sidewalks, decent schools, public housing properties."

And yet another process is just getting off the ground. The Rockefeller Foundation awarded a $3.5 million grant to the Greater New Orleans Foundation to create a single plan for flooded and dry neighborhoods alike. The latest acronym, the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), hired New Orleans-based consultancy Concordia LLC, which started this month matching neighborhoods with several different planning teams. UNOP has strong support from the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the largest single source of money for recovery, although the LRA has not yet committed to fund any particular proposal.

Officials with UNOP say they'll issue their plans, which they call "dreamscape for the future" projects, in early 2007. Lambert voiced his protest in a full-page ad in the Times-Picayune. "The money and the plans have been so slow in coming, the last thing people needed was another delay. My most important concern is that we shouldn't wait for the less damaged neighborhoods to catch up.”


People in New Orleans these days have little patience with dreamscapes. Everson calls UNOP a "boondoggle." Elizabeth Cook, a public housing activist, says that "it's window dressing for the real game: Make as much land available for wealthy developers as possible." Nikki Najiola, founder of a neighborhood organization in the flooded area of Gentilly, says, "Whatever is going to happen here, it's not going to be a bureaucracy, it's not going to be a government agency, it's going to be on the backs of the people that are living there."

Meanwhile, the floodwaters are long gone, and yet the seepage continues. From Uptown to the Treme, corroded pipes are leaking drinking water that drowns the grass and spills a bloom of algae across the sidewalk. It's been estimated the pipes are losing 70 percent of all the water they carry. It's as good a metaphor as any for both the breakdown and the recovery process—not a flow, but a trickle.

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