"We actually turned 100 years old last year, but Katrina forced us to postpone the birthday party 'til this year," says Nancy Lytle, chair of Lakeview Fest, now in its seventh year. "We're expecting thousands -- we had more than 3,000 people turn out for our first neighborhood meeting after Katrina last October."
I was at that meeting, held in the schoolyard of St. Dominic's Catholic school. That's also where the annual Lakeview Fest will be held this Sunday, starting at 1 p.m. and continuing until 9 p.m. As much a statement of Lakeview's resiliency as a birthday party, this year's festival will include the usual array of live music, kids' games, raffles, food, drink, a giant birthday cake and more. Lytle insists it also will mark the fulfillment of the festival's mission statement, written years before Katrina: "To socially bring together the Lakeview residents, business community, churches and officials for the continued growth, beautification, and quality of life in Lakeview."
Lytle, who is business development officer for Gulf Coast Bank on Harrison Avenue, also chairs the business committee of the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association (www.lakeviewcivic.org), one of the city's oldest and most active neighborhood associations. LCIA is 82 years old.
"Let's face it, Lakeview is like Mayberry, RFD," she laughs. "There's just no place like home -- and I think a lot of people are homesick. That's why I think so many will come to the festival this year."
Among the special features of this year's festival will be areas for Lakeview's senior citizens to sit and talk. One of the hallmarks of Lakeview (and of so many other great New Orleans neighborhoods) is the role that older residents played in anchoring the area. For decades, the post-war settlers who built the neighborhood as we know it today have been touchstones for younger generations, coaching Little League teams and passing down oral histories of the community. "I'm hoping TV stations and others will come by to record some of their stories," Lytle says. "We need to hold onto those oral histories now more than ever."
Another new twist to this year's event will be booths where residents can meet with contractors and others to get current information about the area's recovery. One of the past presidents of LCIA, attorney Martin Landrieu, chairs the District 5 Neighborhood Recovery Steering Committee. Because Lakeview is one of the city's most stable neighborhoods, residents there got organized early and are miles ahead of the citywide planning process.
"It's a big effort that's going to take a long time," Landrieu says. "Lakeview and the rest of the city are going to come back, but it's not going to come back quickly."
What's most encouraging, Landrieu says, is that Lakeview has seen more than 4,000 building permits issued since Katrina -- which means more than half the homes are already in the process of recovery. Surveys taken by the LCIA showed roughly 75 percent of the residents "definitely" plan to return and another 15-plus percent indicated they "probably" will return. For an area that took more than 8 feet of water in some places, that's astounding. "Real estate folks are telling us that prices have stabilized and are rising again," Landrieu adds.
If there's a key to a neighborhood's recovery after Katrina, Landrieu says, it's the quick rebound of schools and churches. "When Mount Carmel High School opened in January, my girls were suddenly situated," he says. "The same is true for families with kids at St. Pius, St. Paul's Episcopal, Christian Brothers, and for the many families who worship at the churches that have reopened. Activity in this area is huge because of the return of those schools and churches."
In many ways, the return of faith-based community anchors symbolizes the kind of faith that it will take to rebuild the rest of the city. Faith ... and equal measures of patience and hard work.
Happy birthday, Lakeview.