The Lower Ninth Battles Back
There is great dynamism here in the Lower Ninth, and determination, but the obstacles are huge, and many residents are still missing, far more than are back. Most of the returnees have lost family members to the Katrina diaspora, and the fabric of the neighborhood is still mostly holes. Dashiell evacuated to St. Louis with her daughter, her daughter's partner and grandchild. Only she returned, and she returned even though she was a renter who had lost everything in her home. That she loves the Lower Ninth is as clear as that she is a major force for its revival. Little more than a month after Katrina, she told the press, "We're not going down," and "We want to rebuild in the best, healthiest and most sustainable way." She told me this summer, "Our reputation was worse than the reality. Lower Nine was a synonym for poor, dark-skinned and crime-ridden."
To understand the strength of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, you need to understand that the environmental and social issues here did not begin on August 29, 2005. Founded in 1981, the HCNA had fought the attempt to build another lock on the Industrial Canal more than ten years earlier. Darryl Malek-Wiley, a big, cheerful white-haired white guy who lives at the opposite end of town, became an environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club, and his focus has long been on this neighborhood. So the Sierra Club and the HCNA were already in place when Katrina hit; Common Ground, Emergency Communities, NENA, the People's Hurricane Relief Fund and other organizations emerged in the wake of the storm.
A lot of people elsewhere bought the story that these places did not make environmental sense to reclaim and re-inhabit. Dashiell recalls that the developers who were part of the city's Bring New Orleans Back Commission "were in reality looking at ways to not bring the Lower Nine back. To hear what they were really saying at that level and what they were doing was just unbelievable, and for me that was a catalyst. We had to do something. We organized. We developed a plan. We were everywhere we could be." Environmentalists were the ones "who provided the support."
The HCNA pursued a rebuilding effort that would address the ways New Orleans had chosen to violate the natural landscape. Unlike mostly middle-class, white Lakeview or New Orleans East, home to many Vietnamese-Americans, the Lower Ninth is not a new neighborhood or one on extremely low ground, and its ecological precariousness is relatively recent. There were inhabitants here in the early nineteenth century, long before the Industrial Canal cut off the Lower Ninth along its western edge from the rest of the city. This canal, dug in the 1920s to provide a direct waterway between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, which forms the neighborhood's southern border, is penned in by levees that had failed catastrophically before, in Hurricane Betsy in 1965.
Another watery border, this time in the bayou to the north, was gouged out in the 1960s and named the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal, or MR-GO. It created a shorter route for shipping traffic--and for storm surges, salinization and the loss of some 27,000 acres of wetlands, making yet another unnatural edge of vulnerability for the place. Thanks to erosion, it is far wider than the US Army Corps of Engineers originally made it. Breaches of the MR-GO canal's levees were responsible for much of the flooding of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth in 2005, and water that surged up this "hurricane highway" may have been responsible for the even more devastating breaches of the Industrial Canal. It is quite literally a murderous piece of engineering, and in July even the Army Corps of Engineers finally agreed that it should be closed.
Restoring the wetlands at the Lower Ninth's northern edge is a challenge that has been taken up by the HCNA, with the University of Wisconsin's Water Resources Management doing the research. One of the first facts that emerged is that a forest had died there, in Bayou Bienvenue (which is also the southern periphery of New Orleans East, though the two places are many miles apart by road). The cypress forest that could still be seen in photographs from the 1950s died of the salinity from the MR-GO canal, and with it went one layer of protection against storm surges. A forest would buffer any future storm surge, and the trees would help hold the wetlands as land rather than open water. One idea under consideration is to develop the wetlands to serve as the final filtration system for New Orleans's sewage-system discharge, which, unsurprisingly, comes out near there. Such filtration systems have been developed in progressive/alternative areas like Arcata, California; putting one in a poor community of color that is as much the inner city as the ecological edge is a radical shift in who gets to go green. Other proposals involve building nature trails and recreational facilities. The landscape architecture department at the University of Colorado, Denver, has also shown up to aid the Lower Ninth, and its students are participating in landscape design for the wetlands.
And then there's the new development down by the Mississippi, organized by Global Green--a US branch of Mikhail Gorbachev's Green Cross International--but orchestrated by the movie star Brad Pitt. Pitt, who with his partner, Angelina Jolie, and kids temporarily relocated to New Orleans after Katrina to film a movie, has reportedly been interested in architecture for a while. He helped organize and underwrote a competition to design sustainable housing for New Orleans. Originally, the project was to have generated houses across New Orleans, but after Pitt met Pam Dashiell and the HCNA, he decided all the resources should go into the Lower Ninth. Members of the neighborhood group got involved in the competition to design an eighteen-unit apartment building, several single-family homes and a community center that will include daycare facilities. The Home Depot Foundation put up major money for construction, and ground was broken this summer on the former industrial land Global Green purchased.
The Lower Ninth also drew in the Sharp Solar Energy Systems Group, which initially decided to put minimal solar systems on five New Orleans roofs, and finally ended up putting far more extensive systems on ten rooftops in the Holy Cross area, including a system on the roof of NENA. Again the HCNA was a partner in developing the program. One argument for solar and related hyperlocal programs is that after the next disaster, those who aren't on the grid won't be hamstrung by its failure. Another is that if New Orleans is a major victim of climate change, it should be a major player in carbon-neutral energy sources and green building. Malek-Wiley also emphasizes less glamorous environmental steps being taken in the neighborhood, including installing heat-reflective insulation in attics and getting the city to recycle some of the cleared-away debris and not just dump it all in leaking landfills on the Vietnamese community's side of Bayou Bienvenue.
Restored local wetlands, green housing, solar roofs--these are only small pieces of the large puzzle of restoring one tiny area of the Gulf Coast. The Army Corps of Engineers is rebuilding New Orleans's levees to withstand a Katrina-level event, not a Category 5 hurricane. The ocean is rising. The wetlands farther out to sea are eroding. The city as a whole is in trouble. Like depopulated cities such as Detroit, it faces real problems about a shrunken tax base for the same-size footprint. New Orleans had been in steady economic decline since the 1960s, and nothing much suggests that's about to turn around now. Regeneration of this one neighborhood, like so many others, could be undermined or sabotaged by these larger forces. But the Gulf Coast will also be rebuilt one piece at a time, and this piece doesn't lack the powerful tools of will, vision or love.