Future cloudy for residents

While some say the 9th Ward community may very well be history, others struggle to pick up the pieces and rebuild the New Orleans neighborhood battered by Katrina

October 21, 2005|By DOUGLAS BIRCH | DOUGLAS BIRCH,SUN REPORTER

NEW ORLEANS, LA. -- As Serial Hebreard stands on Forstall Avenue, he can hear the breeze rustle through the debris, the crunch of dry mud underfoot. A dangling piece of aluminum siding bangs in the wind.

It may be the death knoll for the Lower 9th Ward, his gritty east New Orleans neighborhood.

"It hurts me a lot because I can't visit members of my family, like I want to," said Hebreard, a 40-year-old carpenter. Five generations of his family lived within a few blocks of one another in the Lower 9th. Now they are scattered across the state and country.

The Lower 9th was inundated twice by the recent gulf hurricanes. It suffered major flooding 40 years ago, during Hurricane Betsy. Now some public officials and urban planners have talked of razing this impoverished, overwhelmingly African-American community of about 14,000 and turning it back into swamp.

Mayor Ray Nagin said earlier this month he had "no ulterior plan" to bulldoze the community, and this week he vowed to rebuild it. But the city's director of homeland security told a newspaper that most homes in the Lower 9th Ward probably cannot be rebuilt. And the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development said last month that reconstructing the 9th Ward would be a "mistake."

Among the working-class families who once lived in this insular, isolated community - squeezed between the railroad tracks and the Mississippi River, the Industrial Canal and the city limits - this kind of talk has stirred anguish and suspicion that there is an effort to push them out. They talk about plans for an industrial park, port facilities and a golf course for the land.

Some want to go home but fear they won't be allowed. Many others say they don't want to return and risk losing everything again in the next storm. Even if some in the Lower 9th try to rebuild, Hebreard said, he will not. "Eventually," he said, "it's going to happen again."

The Lower 9th was, in some ways, a microcosm of New Orleans. It was predominantly poor and bore its burden of drug dealers and gangs. There was gunfire at night here and the occasional slaying. But the neighborhood was also home to nurses' aides, clerks and construction workers. There were musicians, including rhythm-and-blues legend Antoine "Fats" Domino, who played everything from traditional jazz to rap.

There was even a small historic district, called Holy Cross, that hugs the east bank of the Mississippi. There, a relatively affluent, racially mixed group of New Orleanians has over recent decades purchased and renovated a number of 19th century homes.

About 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded in the recent hurricanes, in some places up to a depth of 25 feet. Government officials must now decide whether to reopen the worst-affected neighborhoods, like the Lower 9th, and risk more destruction from the next monster storm. Those who argue for demolition in low-lying areas - which include the predominantly white, middle-class Lakeside section of the city - say it should be done for safety reasons. "Maybe we can avoid some of our mistakes, and putting the most vulnerable people back in harm's way," said Craig E. Colten, professor of geography at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

Choices about what to save and what, perhaps, to abandon will inevitably help decide what kind of city New Orleans becomes: how rich and how poor; how black and how white - how much the new city will resemble the old.

At its first meeting on Oct. 10, New Orleans' 17-member blue-ribbon commission asked the Urban Land Institute of Washington, D.C., to assemble a group of experts to submit a long-range redevelopment plan by the end of the year.

The institute is a trade association for some of the nation's largest real estate developers, and it generally champions free-market solutions to urban ills. Its senior fellow, former Indianapolis Mayor William H. Hudnut III, said last week that the city faces difficult choices, and the future of the Lower 9th is just one of them. "Should the 9th Ward be rebuilt?" he asked. "I don't know the answer to that."

He pointed out that the reconstruction of New Orleans, which could cost more than $100 billion, will be "unprecedented" in its scale. "It is uncharted waters," he said.

The study will make broad recommendations about how to spur economic development, reform government and rebuild infrastructure, said Mary Beth Corrigan, vice president of advisory services. But the group will also look at how to resurrect neighborhoods. "The neighborhoods are a huge part of what New Orleans is all about," she said. "The question is, how do you re-establish that fine, intricate fabric?"

Not all neighborhoods may survive, though. City officials and experts are planning for a shrunken New Orleans. City officials say they expect the population to stabilize in the next few years from 462,000 before the storm to as few as 250,000.

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