The Lower Ninth Battles Back
The word "will" comes up constantly in the Lower Ninth Ward now; We Will Rebuild is spray-painted onto empty houses; "it will happen," one organizer told me. Will itself may achieve the ambitious objective of bringing this destroyed neighborhood back to life, and for many New Orleanians a ferocious determination seems the only alternative to being overwhelmed and becalmed. But the fate of the neighborhood is still up in the air, from the question of whether enough people can and will make it back to the nagging questions of how viable a city and an ecology they will be part of. The majority of houses in this isolated neighborhood are still empty, though about a tenth of the residents are back, some already living in rehabilitated houses, some camped in stark white FEMA trailers outside, some living elsewhere while getting their houses ready. If you measured the Lower Ninth Ward by will, solidarity and dedication, from both residents and far-flung volunteers and nonprofits, it would be among the best neighborhoods in the United States. If you measured it by infrastructure and probabilities, it looks pretty grim. There are more devastated neighborhoods in New Orleans and neighboring St. Bernard Parish, let alone Mississippi and the Delta, but the Lower Ninth got hit hard by Katrina. Its uncertain fate has come to be an indicator for the future of New Orleans and the fate of its African-American majority.
The place has come a long way already. Even seven months after the storm, when I first visited the Lower Ninth, it was spookily unpopulated and almost untouched since the storm. Cars that had been flipped and tossed by the waters still stood up against buildings, atop each other, hung over fences and laid on their backs. Houses that had been shoved by the force of the water into the middle of the street or that had been smashed into splinters looked untouched, except by sardonic graffiti: Thanks for Nothing FEMA on one dislodged building; a simple Baghdad on another house later rehabilitated by Common Ground Collective, the radical relief group co-founded by ex-Black Panther Malik Rahim. Debris was everywhere. Down near the levee break, Common Ground had opened up a little tool-lending and supply center where returnees could get volunteer help, and its logo flew defiantly over the blue house: Solidarity Not Charity with a black fist holding a wrench.
The ruinous terrain of the Lower Ninth contrasts with the vibrancy of the culture there. New Orleans remains troubled by deep race and class divides and high levels of crime, but the city, by all accounts, also had a lot more civic life than most of the United States--not just cavorting in the streets during Mardi Gras season but a long tradition of gregariousness and neighborliness; people knew their neighbors, talked to strangers, called everyone by endearments, invited everyone on the block to the crawfish boil, had strong networks in carnival krewes, second-lines, music groups, social clubs, churches, to say nothing of the extended families so many people have. (The Lower Ninth had a high percentage of homeowners, but even the renters often rented from relatives or lived near homeowning family members.) It's why a lot of people come back, or want to, and it's a major resource for reclaiming the city--though it can't replace money and institutional willpower. Though various forms of government support exist, most people regard the capricious red-tape bureaucracies with frustration at best. Many homeowners have found that they are not eligible for Road Home (the state rebuilding program) or other funding, for one reason or another, and even the eligible have found the rules strangling and the flow of money excruciatingly slow and unpredictable.
In the Lower Ninth, the wrecked cars, smashed houses and debris are gone, for the most part, and a lot of the remaining houses look pretty good, though mold and other damage can be hard to see. People have even made their own street signs, further evidence of social strength and institutional weakness. NENA, the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, keeps a big map in its cement-block office--lent by St. David's Catholic Church next door--with a green pushpin for every returnee, and the green dots are scattered everywhere, though they represent only a small percentage of homes and residents. NENA was founded by resident Patricia Jones, a former small business owner, with many other Lower Ninth Ward residents, in April 2006, and the organization helps people cut through the extraordinary red tape that surrounds the new building codes, the Road Home fund, the insurance regulations and other bureaucracies returnees face, but it also fosters connections and community.
Though a lot of outside organizations are here, locals lead most of the efforts. I asked Linda Jackson, a member of NENA, how the community felt about the assistance pouring in from around the world, and she replied in her whispery voice, "They're stunned. They never thought the world would reach out the way they did. I'm not going to say that it makes up for [the initial, official Katrina response], but the help that we've been given from throughout the US and the world, it makes us work that much harder. We say: You know what, if these people can come down here and take off of work, drop out of school for a couple weeks, there's no way, there's just no way we can have a negative attitude. These people feel this way, that's something worth fighting for. And that's what we're doing at this point."
Not long after the storm, in October 2005, the Sierra Club--which has long been involved in environmental justice politics in the Lower Ninth--convened a press conference. The club's young president, Lisa Renstrom, spoke of the need to "rebuild smarter and better" and "repair the inequities of the past." Pam Dashiell, a longtime neighborhood activist and organizer for the environmental group the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, recalls, "A bunch of us were able to come on that day, and what a great day that was too. And we sat down together and talked about creating a plan for the community and ourselves." Dashiell, a warm, easygoing political powerhouse, had been president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association (Holy Cross is the southern stretch of the Lower Ninth and its highest ground). As members of the HCNA began to return, they held meetings several times a week. They still meet weekly rather than monthly, as they did before Katrina. Though there are many forces at work in restoring the neighborhood, not all of which intersect, the HCNA has been potent for both its ambition and its coordination of many outside groups and funders, including the Sierra Club. And while a lot of individuals and groups aspired to restore only what had been, the HCNA looked at how to make the Lower Ninth better.
The list of who came to help sounds like the setup for a joke: A Black Panther, an accountant, a bunch of Methodists and the mayor of Portland walk into a bar. Or if you prefer, Brad Pitt, some graduate students, lots of young anarchists and the Sierra Club walk in. No one yet has assessed the scale of the volunteer influx to New Orleans, which has been compared to Freedom Summer during the civil rights era but has far outstripped it in sheer numbers. It's a safe understatement to say that more than 100,000 volunteers have come from out of town, and they have done and are doing everything from medical care, food preparation, demolition and construction to aid with red tape and planning.