Tom Wooten is the author of We Shall Not Be Moved: Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina, forthcoming this summer from Beacon Press.Since graduating from Harvard in 2008 and moving to New Orleans, he has worked as a researcher at Harvard's Kennedy School, as a neighborhood volunteer coordinator, and as a fifth- and sixth-grade writing teacher.
Nathaniel Rich’s recent New York Times Magazine article about urban abandonment in the Lower Ninth Ward is called “Jungleland.” Fascinated by the process of “nature reclaiming civilization,” Rich describes a dystopian city neighborhood: alligators drink from leaking fire hydrants; shadowy figures emerge from derelict houses to rob and rape honest residents; everywhere, lush green vines envelop blocks that were once densely populated. There is truth to Rich’s Joseph-Conrad-meets-David-Simon portrayal, but it isn’t the whole story.
Life is being restored to significant portions of the Lower Ninth Ward, and the heroes of this effort are fiercely determined residents who have returned to their blocks and rebuilt their homes. Approximately a quarter of the Lower Ninth Ward’s 20,000 pre-storm residents are back, mostly concentrated in the southern half of the neighborhood on higher ground close to the Mississippi. Shortly after the storm, residents collaborated to reopen the K-8 Martin Luther King Charter School, one of the rare community success stories in an education system increasingly dominated by outsider-run schools. A grocery store is set to begin construction soon on St. Claude Avenue. Considering the unique set of challenges residents faced after the flooding of Katrina and Rita, their progress to date is noteworthy.
What obstacles have the 5,500 residents who have returned to the Lower Ninth Ward overcome? Because of a particularly severe levee breach, their neighborhood experienced the most concentrated physical destruction in New Orleans. Not only did they have to work harder and spend more to rebuild than other residents, but they also had to overcome a unique stigma. Although the Lower Ninth Ward was no more vulnerable to flooding than dozens of other low-lying neighborhoods, Americans incorrectly inferred that the area was particularly at risk, and a national debate ensued about the merits of rebuilding there. The neighborhood remained sealed off months after the rest of the city reopened, straining displaced residents’ finances and forcing many into permanent exile. Owing to controversy over the Lower Ninth Ward’s fate, utility providers were slow to restore service to hundreds of blocks in the neighborhood, forcing some families to wait for years to return and prompting others to give up and settle elsewhere. The federally funded and state-administered Road Home program awarded rebuilding grants based on pre-storm property values, a policy that yielded higher payouts for residents of wealthy neighborhoods and put black working class areas like the Lower Ninth Ward at a distinct disadvantage.
In light of these challenges, restoring life in the Lower Ninth Ward has been a collective undertaking by necessity. As occurred in other New Orleans neighborhoods, a remarkable coalition of residents rose up to help their neighbors come home. Patricia Jones founded The Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association in 2006, providing financial coaching, free architectural services, and volunteer labor to hundreds of returning Lower Ninth Ward families. After years of pre-storm work with the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, the late great Pam Dashiell teamed up with dozens of other residents to found the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED). Mack Mclendon had the courage and vision to convert his newly purchased Lamanche Street warehouse into a multi-purpose community center, with the long-term goal of converting the space into a hub for neighborhood youth.
These community-based efforts are driving the Lower Ninth Ward’s recovery, and not only because of the direct services they provide. For one thing, they have created the social infrastructure needed for outsider-led groups to effectively do work in the neighborhood. Common Ground partnered closely with each of the above groups to provide them with volunteer labor. Brad Pitt’s meetings with CSED resident leaders helped to seal his Make It Right foundation’s commitment to the Lower Ninth Ward, and informed its focus on building physically resilient and energy efficient houses. More importantly, resident-led recovery efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward have given returning families confidence that they are not alone. There is a community meeting every Thursday night at the Greater Little Zion Baptist Church, and the optimism at each meeting is palpable. Every week, families who have just moved home are asked to ring the church bell to announce their return.
Unfortunately, the Lower Ninth Ward’s tremendous grassroots recovery efforts have not been enough to bring the neighborhood back, which explains the tableaus of abandonment that Rich explores in his article. The Lower Ninth Ward’s plight results from a failure of national will, and it fits into a broader pattern of divestment from American cities. Detroit, St. Louis, and other Rust Belt cities have been gutted from the inside out, and cities as diverse as Trenton and Colorado Springs have eliminated essential city services as a result of federal cutbacks. It doesn’t help when commentators contend that such urban decline is the inevitable result of market forces, or that struggling American cities have simply become obsolete. Similarly insidious is an emerging brand of post-apocalyptic voyeurism that revels in the decay of American infrastructure. The tour buses that rumble through the Lower Ninth Ward without stopping are prime offenders on this front; the winning Sundance film and a forthcoming documentary about scavenging scrap metal in Detroit seem poised to lead viewers into a similar trap.
So what should our orientation be to struggling urban environments? Without much prompting, Americans felt a profound sense of collective responsibility about rebuilding the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. We should apply the same sense of resolve and moral clarity to other sites. Cities are national treasures. They are centers of tremendous commerce and creativity; they are cultural and religious melting pots; they are humane refuges where Americans can live comfortably without cars. Like interstate highways and public universities, they serve a profound collective good, and they are worth maintaining even if their most direct beneficiaries cannot always foot the entire bill.
The Lower Ninth Ward is now internationally famous, often standing symbolically for the destruction wrought along hundreds of miles of the American Gulf Coast. With enough genuine will at the city, state, and federal levels, Lower Ninth Ward residents can transform their neighborhood from a symbol of abandonment into a symbol of hope.