By Rebecca Solnit
New Orleans (August 23, 2007)- 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, 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 their 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 — a former community center 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 accountant, with former laundromat owner Linda Jackson, in June 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 Jackson 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 (named after the Holy Cross school, it 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 intersecting, 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 programs, 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 with 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.
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 committee “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 largely Vietnamese-American New Orleans East, 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 that 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 three times as wide as 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 help hold the wetlands as lands 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 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 organization- but orchestrated by the movie star Brad Pitt. Pitt, who with his partner Angelina Jolie and kids nominally moved to New Orleans after Katrina, 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 Bienvenue Bayou.
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 further 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 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 will also be rebuilt one piece at a time, and this piece doesn’t lack the powerful tools of will, vision or love.