The Lower 9th Ward Bounce Back

9th Ward Church memorial and abandoned property, August 29, 2010.

Here are a couple shots from the Lower 9th Ward that I took on Hurricane Katrina’s fifth anniversary. Misconceptions continue to abound about this area. I hear people suggest it was full of thugs, squatters and hovels. In reality the Lower 9th Ward had the highest percentage of owner occupied housing in Orleans Parish. This neighborhood was a tight-knit community. Perhaps a little rough around the edges, but genuine through and through.

Admittedly this area should never have been developed, but that wasn’t a decision the residents made. It was a money grab. A cheap way to make a buck off sub-par land, that could be developed and marketed to African Americans at affordable prices.

A ramshackle residence on N. Derbiny and Lizardi, Aug. 29, 2010.

They weren’t grand abodes necessarily, but they were family homes, often multi-generational. Grandparents, their kids and the grandchildren all living together under one roof. While sometimes dysfunctional, this neighborhood had a rich social history, and strong roots that held people together through thick and thin.

Like many ill-conceived plans, the Lower 9 hobbled along in obscurity to much of the world. It was populated by a marginalized segment of society, who lived their lives, but existed in the shadows of greater New Orleans, voluntarily segregated, until 2005, when the levees were breached in the 9th Ward and houses were swept off their foundations. Then this dirty little secret went public.

The smart move would have been for the city to step in and declare the Lower 9th Ward off-limits, and designate it as green space. That way a flood-prone section of town would not again be put at risk, and rebuilding funds could be allocated elsewhere.

But this situation isn’t that simple. The argument sounds logical enough, but not to somebody who lived in one of these 4,000 houses that were laid to waste. It was their neighborhood – generations of families grew up here and you can’t just wipe that slate clean and expect people who lived in such a dense social setting to simply move on with life in say majority-white Utah.

Fats Domino’s flooded residence on Caffin Street, in the Lower 9th Ward, Oct. 2005. Domino and his family elected to ride out Katrina in their residence, partly due to his wife’s poor health. The family was trapped in their attic until a Coast Guard helicopter rescued them on September 1, 2005.

Between spineless politicians and legal ramifications, it was unrealistic to make the Lower 9 a green space. Like much of New Orleans, reality confounds stereotypes. This place is neither made up or operates like any other major city. Some people had the right insurance, others did not, and for whatever reason, mortgage companies failed to require adequate flood coverage when loans were secured. This ambiguity left a lot of folks twisting in the wind after Katrina.

The consequences of not officially closing this neighborhood, especially for those lacking flood coverage, meant there was little option but to return to the 9th Ward. While far from ideal, if you owe money on property, or can’t sell what’s left, that’s where you gotta go. These are proud people, and they’ve stepped up to the responsibility of making their life again in the Lower 9.

The remains of a residence on the 2400 block of Deslonde.

Even for those with sufficient coverage, there is nowhere else to go that could replace the sense of home that was present in the Lower 9, so slowly former residents return.

But for the same reasons some come back, others cannot. The sense of family and community was so prevalent here, it’s impossible for former residents to return knowing the tragedy, pain and lives lost on each block. Every house could be looked upon as a cemetery plot.

The archway still stands.

In 2010, the Lower 9 is in transition. It continues to have an unimaginable number of vacant and dilapidated houses, mixed with empty lots overtaken by grass and weeds. Yet on many blocks one or two houses have been rehabilitated.

Common Ground Relief headquarters in the Lower 9th Ward, 1800 Deslonde at N. Roman.

The non-profit social services group, Common Ground Relief, has been instrumental in helping to gut and rebuild houses in the area. Their goal is providing short-term relief for victims of hurricanes along the Gulf Coast region, and long-term support in rebuilding the communities affected in the New Orleans area. “Solidarity Not Charity,” is their war cry.

A lot of these kids are trust fund refugees or “trustafarians.” They’re educated, from middle class upbringings or better, that have the luxury to drop out of society and become mutant social activists. It’s also a great way to rebel against your parents.

Others are protest kids, social worker-types, concerned citizens from wherever, along with the anarchy crew, that views society as having already failed, so they’ve stepped in to pick up the slack.

Regardless, these different tribes have coalesced into one cohesive work unit.

There’s a lot of dread locks, tattoos, and that not-so-fresh odor, but these folks grow their own vegetables and do some amazing work. There’s a distribution center, stocked with donated items, so volunteers can come in and grab whatever they need at no charge.

Common Ground Relief also set up a non-profit health care clinic at 1400 Teche Street, (504.361.9800). Malik Rahim, who is the mover behind both Common Ground projects, along with Sharon Johnson, and Scott Crow, established The Common Ground Health Clinic, in the Algiers neighborhood, on September 9, 2005, only days after Katrina.

It started as a fist aid station, and was staffed with “street medics,” who went out on bikes to offer care to those injured after the storm. Word spread quickly throughout the health care world of what Common Ground was doing, and the incredible need in New Orleans – and medical professionals from across the country and abroad answered the call.

The clinic is now staffed with rotating nurses, physicians, herbalists, acupuncturists, EMTs, social workers and community activists. The clinic has recorded over 60,000 visits – with no charge going to the patients.

Yes this is all a tad utopian, and commune hippie-like, but those at Common Ground are taking care of each other and taking care of those who lost everything, all while living within their means, which is a lesson our society could learn much from currently.

Signs like this from the “Make It Right Foundation” are cropping up in vacant lots across the Lower 9th Ward.

The other unmistakable change visible in the Lower 9th Ward these days is the presence of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. Pitt, a well-known architectural junkie, gathered experts in New Orleans, in December 2006, to brainstorm building green affordable housing in the devastated Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina.

That same group today comprises the non-profit Make It Right Foundation.  As stated on the foundation’s Web site, their mission is clear – “Make It Right is designed to be a catalyst for redevelopment of the Lower 9th Ward, by building a neighborhood comprised of safe and healthy homes that are inspired by Cradle to Cradle thinking, with an emphasis on a high quality of design, while preserving the spirit of the community’s culture.”

Makin’ It Right – 1708 Forstall at N. Derbigny.

The concept of Cradle to Cradle (C2C), or Cradle to Grave, looks upon structures as living beings, and puts them on a life-cycle, with a metabolism that is in tune with its natural surroundings. Elements of the C2C ideology include utilizing building materials that are either biodegradable or reusable, so metals and plastics can be picked clean to use in another property and the remains will not harm the environment.

Built off the ground, with solar panels and a green roof in the rear, this Lower 9th Ward house is completely sustainable, 1919 Tennessee Street at Prieur.

These are some of smartest, most cutting edge houses in terms of design and green technology available, especially for the price. All are built off the ground, or float, so they avoid the flooding issue and can be insured. They utilize photovoltaic solar panels to offset energy costs – and many have a living, vegetative roof component. These green roofs, or living roofs, absorb rainwater runoff, provide natural insulation, create an urban wildlife habitat and lower urban air temperatures.

As of December 2010, the Make It Right Foundation has constructed 150 homes. All have been LEED certified, for their energy efficiency and sustainability, making this once battered community in the Lower 9th Ward, the “largest, greenest neighborhood of single family homes in America,” according to the U.S. Green Building council.

There’s a red house over yonder – 1913 Deslonde at N. Prieur.

New Orleans continues to be the biggest social petri dish going. It’s hard to find a more distinct contrast between those with means and those without. New Orleans doesn’t really have a middle class. You’re either rich or poor. And the poor here are seriously marginalized.

The Lower 9th Ward is a microcosm of this experiment. Take a severely neglected minority population, mix in an epic natural and man-made disaster, include a so-called democratic government that fails to respond, and see what grows.

Thus far it’s predominately been volunteers, activists, church, social and college groups that have responded. Many of the Lower 9 residents have been neglected academically and socially for generations, making it extremely difficult for them to take large strides or compete on a basic level in this current depressed economy.

This is a big opportunity of the United States to show its true colors. This is an uncomfortable situation, and as the documentary about Al Gore’s global warming campaign put it, “An Inconvenient Truth.” The response has been fantastic, which leaves me to believe that our underlying values remain largely in tact.

It’s the lack of government recognition or accountability that’s so disconcerting. The responsibility for installing the levees, organizing and conducting a mandatory evacuation, providing assistance in the storm’s aftermath, and helping to get all of these citizens back on their feet was our government’s, and it failed at every one of these tasks and knows it.

This is a scary scenario for those in power. What happened ultimately was their fault, they double-talked over the top of it, but people came anyway, recognizing needs were not being met.

This creates a fragile balance between citizens and their government. Not only did the system fail in New Orleans, but our government maliciously contributed to the failure – and while that’s widely been documented, we as a people didn’t call our representatives on it.

It makes me wonder what will happen if this economic recession takes a dip for the worse, or the BP oil spill poisons our food chain, another terrorist attack comes about, or some other unforeseen calamity? How close are we as a society to the edge? There’s definitely a feeling we’ve been left on our own – like a modern regression to pioneers.

That’s certainly the feeling you get in the Lower 9th Ward. Finding a way to rebuild is on you. If you’re opening up shop in the Lower 9, put a flag in the ground to mark the territory and I’d advise bringing a firearm. Life is coming back there, but it’s dark on those streets at night and there’s no telling what can happen. I’d go so far as to say it’s inadvisable for the elderly, disabled or infirm to reside there – between accidents, crime and sudden health issues, the response time to that area by police and ambulance isn’t exactly immediate.

So plant that flag and welcome to the new frontier.

Corner of Tennessee and N. Claiborne, Lower 9th Ward, September 5, 2010.

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Published by:  Cedilla | Vol. IV | Missoula, MT | 09-20-10

This entry was posted in Events, News, Travel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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