New Orleans' black community fights back in bid to save Lower 9th

August 29, 2006|By Clarence Page

NEW ORLEANS -- Compared with other New Orleans neighborhoods, the Lower 9th Ward is Pluto - remote, disrespected and feeling devalued. Yet unlike the recently redesignated "dwarf planet," the Lower 9th still has advocates fighting to prevent its further demotion as a place worth saving, despite its being almost completely depopulated a year ago by Hurricane Katrina.

As I visited New Orleans in the run-up to the anniversary today of Katrina's landing, the hard-hit Lower 9th looks cleaned up, but not by much. A vast tableau of battered houses, cars and trucks swept up against one another like toys still can snatch your breath away. Here, the floodwaters from nearby broken levees ran 12 feet deep or more. Prairie grass now grows on lots that once held wood-frame bungalows with neatly trimmed yards.

The ward had 20,000 residents; now just a few dozen are living in refurbished houses with well-manicured lawns dotted here and there in the devastation. Cast in news accounts as a near-lost cause, saving the Lower 9th has become a citywide rallying cry against a perceived tide of rich developers eager to snatch valuable land from under what's left of New Orleans' black community. Black New Orleans fought back.

"There are people who want to wipe out the black presence in this city," said the Rev. Leonard Lucas as he drove me around the ward. "The decision was made before Katrina to buy it [the land] all up. What they [the developers and their political cronies] did not foresee was the power of the black community coming together and fighting back."

Mr. Lucas wasn't satisfied with the city's black leaders, either. "I tried calling [Mayor Ray] Nagin's office the other day. They told me they were busy. I said, `Hey we put you back in office; now where are you?'"

I met Mr. Lucas after he had just finished showing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, and Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu some of the Lower 9th Ward's landmarks, including the home of rhythm-and-blues legend Fats Domino.

Mr. Lucas showed me a Lower 9th Ward that defied the usual media stereotypes. Contrary to its media image of poverty and crime, the ward was mostly a middle-class and working-class bungalow community with a 65 percent homeownership rate - one of the highest in the region. We visited some homeowners who had repaired their homes and moved back in. Reinvestment is happening slowly.

Mr. Lucas' church, the church school and the sandwich franchise he operated were under 10 1/2 feet of water after Katrina. When I visited last week, the church was getting cleaned, the restaurant was in mid-rehab and volunteers were handing out free food to the needy.

He was one of many New Orleanians I met, black and white, who were upset with the failure of the Nagin administration to come up with an acceptable master plan for redevelopment. That delay has prevented the city from receiving up to $7 billion in federal redevelopment funds.

New Orleans Council President Oliver Thomas told me he expects a final master plan early next year. Some homeowners aren't waiting. Those who have the means are proceeding with their repairs and rehabilitation.

"We ... gutted out more than 1,000 houses in March," Mr. Lucas said. "Now it is time to rebuild. Instead of depending on government, I am saying that you have to do it yourself."

The tenacity of those who are the first to return and rebuild is a sign that the city's future did not drown in Katrina. If the city harnesses the energy and ideas of those loyal neighborhood investors, old New Orleans may yet be replaced by a better one.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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