Once you can do that, residents and activists are betting, you'll be able to envision a thriving community surrounded by water but not living in fear. It would be an urban and historic neighborhood chock full of energy-efficient homes that can withstand the ravages of hurricanes. The streets would bustle, and residents would think nothing of taking a walk to the river or the bayou -- at night. Light-rail trains and river taxis would ferry residents to work and tourists to visit. Folks from all colors, creeds and income levels would exercise civic engagement and pride. School children would be the caretakers of a Cypress swamp. In fact, its residents -- young and old and rich and not so rich -- would have rebuilt their community into nothing less than the first carbon-neutral neighborhood in the country.
Welcome to the Lower Ninth Ward in the year 2020.
At first glance, the area east of the Industrial Canal hasn't changed much since the storm. Many of the streets still look as if they've been shelled. Most of the homes are abandoned wrecks. Stoplights don't work, and only a few people can be found. But if you take a closer look and listen real hard, residents say, you'll discover not only a nascent recovery but also a budding renaissance.
"We want to use the man-made disaster that happened here to make major changes that people may have never even thought of before the storm," says Charles Allen III, new president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association (HCNA). Allen also is the assistant director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research (CBR) at Tulane and Xavier universities, which partnered with residents in October of 2005 to facilitate the area's sustainable redevelopment. "We need to flip this Katrina/Rita experience around to the positive and make the Lower Ninth Ward climate neutral."
In the nearly two years since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita laid waste to the Lower Nine's 17,000-resident community, nearly 2,000 residents have been able to return. It has not been easy. They have had to fight almost every step of the way for their continued existence in their hard-hit neighborhood. Although early "recovery" plans would have turned all but parts of the Holy Cross Historic District into green space, today homes are being rebuilt sporadically in all corners of the Lower Nine -- except the area closest to the Industrial Canal floodwall breach. Now, as the Lower Nine's return begins to gain traction, residents and activists hope to remake the neighborhood into a national model for sustainable living. Their mantra has become: Because everything needs to be rebuilt, why not rebuild safer and smarter?
Of the neighborhoods still struggling to recover post-Katrina, the Lower Nine is at the forefront of the drive to "rebuild green" from top to bottom, start to finish. From the earliest neighborhood meetings in the months after the storm, Holy Cross residents knew that if their community was to survive, they'd have to find a "niche" to make it stand out in a positive way, Allen says. They would also need to reach across the "historical divide" that has separated them from the rest of the Lower Nine. In geographic terms, that divide is St. Claude Avenue.
Going green was a way to finally "bring people together" while attracting attention and much-needed funds, Allen adds. It just made sense. Up until 40 years ago, much of the Lower Nine still had a rural, almost pioneering feel to it. Add to that the biblical flooding that accompanied Katrina, and going green became a "no-brainer," says Pam Dashiell, former president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association.
"I don't think anybody understands the effects of climate change and global warming better than the people of the Lower Ninth Ward and other parts of New Orleans," Dashiell says. "We've lived the effects.
"You have to do right and live right to get right and be right. And that applies here. We have to shepherd our resources, and we have to adapt to our environment."
The weekly Holy Cross Neighborhood Association (HCNA) meetings are the best place to get a feel for how residents are attempting to do that. Well attended by a diverse and outspoken band of residents, activists, college students and, during election season, politicians, the meetings are part therapy, part strategy sessions.
During the six years Dashiell led the HCNA (she stepped down, but not out, last month), she presided over hundreds of meetings. She says that she's still inspired by her neighbors' "pluck."
"What's so inspiring about the people of the Lower Nine is that many have very few resources and yet they staked claims and said, 'I'm coming back.' Some never left. Either way, they just started rebuilding the best way they could without resources. And that pioneer spirit, that pluck is what's going to make these neighborhoods come back."
It was exactly that "pioneer spirit, that pluck" that brought more than 200 people, including local politicians, community organizers, the governor of Oregon and the mayor of Portland, Ore., to Holy Cross in April for the opening of the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. Housed in a modest office behind the Greater Little Zion Baptist Church, activists and residents hope the little neighborhood center with a big name will spearhead the sustainable redevelopment of their community.
Kathy Muse, program coordinator for the center, says it serves as a rebuilding clearinghouse for returning residents. The center's mission is to empower residents to remake their homes both energy efficient and storm resistant. Residents benefit from donations, bulk purchases of energy-efficient materials and free, on-site training sessions. The training sessions cover everything from the installation of solar panels to deconstruction techniques to choosing impact-resistant exterior materials.
The center advances its two-pronged mission by appealing to people's pocketbooks. Ever since the storm, utility bills have risen drastically across the city. New Orleans now has some of the highest energy bills in the country, says Darryl Malek-Wiley, a local grassroots organizer with the Sierra Club and a Lower Nine activist.
"Beyond being carbon neutral and not contributing to negative climate change," Malek-Wiley says, "the fact is that if we have more money in our pocket at the end of the month, then we're better off."
New Orleans recovery czar Dr. Ed Blakely has also taken note of the sustainable rebuilding efforts. Several months ago, Blakely unveiled a rebuilding blueprint for investing $145 million in public funds over the next five years in the Lower Nine and eastern New Orleans. The plan calls for pumping desperately needed money into infrastructure to spark private investment in 17 target zones, of which the Lower Ninth Ward is one. Public investment in the Lower Nine will span nearly 20 blocks, from the area surrounding the historic Holy Cross School at the Mississippi River to the corner of Charbonnet and North Derbigny streets on the north side of North Claiborne Avenue. Blakely has pledged to show tangible progress by September.
This fall should be a busy time in the Lower Nine.
Global Green USA, which sponsored a sustainable residential architecture and design competition in the neighborhood, expects to have its first home finished by the two-year anniversary of Katrina. With financing from Hollywood star and recent New Orleans resident Brad Pitt, the nonprofit organization will construct energy-efficient and affordable single-family homes on the riverfront this fall. Former neighborhood residents will be given first option to buy the homes.
This fall also will bring the sounds of public school children back to the Lower Nine. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology will reopen on what City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis calls "sacred ground" -- the school's original but modernized site at 1617 Caffin Ave. King will be the first public school to reopen in the Lower Nine. (Holy Cross School, a private, all-boys Catholic middle and high school, reopened in January 2005 -- the first New Orleans institution to reopen anywhere east of the Industrial Canal.)
In addition, the MLK school grounds will soon include a "Learning Landscape," an interactive playground with public art and landscaping where students can learn about the weather and the wetlands, says Lois Brink, associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Colorado-Denver. Brink says the project will help kids understand rain and water and will provide a retreat for adults still struggling to rebuild their lives and homes.
"This is a really important place for the community," says Brink, who founded the Learning Landscapes program six years ago. Since its inception, she has raised $250 million to construct 46 Learning Landscapes at inner-city schools throughout Denver. "When you are living in a FEMA trailer and you're trying to rip apart your house and rebuild it, this community has to have one place where they can go that's completely finished and that looks great so they can, for just a little while, imagine what the rest of this neighborhood can be like."
The Learning Landscape is but one example of the academic and community partnerships that have sprung up since the storm. Several universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, LSU, Tulane, Xavier and Boston College, among others, have worked closely with residents and activists for more than a year. More importantly, the universities have made long-term commitments to help locate funding to help make the neighborhood's sustainable rebuilding plans a reality. "I have never witnessed a situation where academic folks have worked so closely with a community and where the community has so heartily embraced the academics," says John McLachlan, director of the CBR.
At the heart of these partnerships, and at the soul of the sustainable redevelopment of the area, lies the restoration of the cypress swamp at the headwaters of Bayou Bienvenue. Long-time Lower Nine resident Steve Ringo remembers a time before the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet flooded the bayou with saltwater and killed the native cypress trees and swamp just north of the Lower Nine. He remembers when there was more dry land than wet. He remembers being able to go duck hunting on Thanksgiving Day and the day his neighbor, "Mr. Joey," caught a 90-pound gar fish.
He also remembers when the steel levee went up around the bayou after Hurricane Betsy. "What happened when they built that wall -- the Berlin Wall, I call it -- it separated the bayou from the community," he says. "Nowadays, when you tell young people who grow up here that we're going to restore the bayou, they say, 'What bayou?'"
University of Colorado students plan to construct a temporary platform overlooking the bayou as soon as they receive approval from the Orleans Levee District. The platform is the first step toward bringing the community back to this natural resource, says Austin Allen, UC associate professor and interim chair of its Landscape Architecture Department.
These days, you have to know where the bayou is to find it. Tucked away in a patch of wild weeds across a set of railroad tracks, a pile of rocks alongside a rusted steel wall mark the headwaters of Bayou Bienvenue. Allen and his graduate students hope that once they've built steps and a platform there, more people will discover the bayou and work to restore it.
Meanwhile, graduate students from the University of Wisconsin are working with Ringo this summer to identify the plant, animal and aquatic life currently living in and around the swamp. They're taking water samples to determine salinity levels and measuring water depths, all in an effort to establish baseline data. Once they know what's there now and what was once there, they can begin the restoration process.
Ringo and the students who work with him have big plans for Bayou Bienvenue. They say that it's not unreasonable to expect to see 30-foot-tall cypress trees return to the swamp in the next 10 years. Meanwhile, in just a few years, they say the bayou can become an educational and economic engine for the neighborhood, while providing additional hurricane protection for the region. Residents and tourists could take canoe rides, go bird watching or even fishing, they predict. Research groups can study the swamp to learn how to restore wetlands, and school kids from MLK and across New Orleans can learn about their city's natural environment.
"This burden, Bayou Bienvenue, that helps keep the Lower Nine isolated from the rest of the city, if you gave it to residents, you can build a stronger neighborhood," Allen says. "But in order to create that you have to give some new energy to the place so it's not just about all the things that tried to kill this place. Then you can begin to utilize the economic and educational potentials of the bayou."
Although an optimistic, pioneering spirit dominates the Lower Nine these days, the neighborhood still has plenty of concerns. For starters, much of it still looks like a war zone. Crime has begun to return. A man was found shot in the head recently at the corner of Gordon and Urquhart streets. Some street corners are returning to late-night, wide-open drug markets. Looting continues. National Guard patrols are expected to end later this summer, and police patrols are nearly nonexistent.
There's also the anticipated loss of Holy Cross School, which will move to its new home on Paris Avenue by mid-August. The neighborhood association is in discussions with the school's administration and board of directors, of which Gambit Weekly editor Clancy DuBos is past chair, concerning future plans for the large and historic site. Several buildings on the campus have awe-inspiring views of downtown and are considered prime candidates for redevelopment.
The HCNA would like to have a say in how the property is redeveloped, and association leaders got some good news on that front last week. Holy Cross School has offered the HCNA and the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association (NENA) each a seat on its Redevelopment Committee, which is guiding the future of the historic campus in concert with Dr. Blakely and the city's Office of Recovery Management. The school site anchors one of Blakely's 17 redevelopment target zones.
"I greatly look forward to serving on the school's Redevelopment Committee," Allen says. "I'm proud to represent the Holy Cross neighborhood and the neighborhood association to help create a long-lasting, positive legacy for the Holy Cross School site in our Lower Nine community."
Last week, school leaders issued a request for qualifications, or RFQ, to local and national planning firms as a first step toward writing a new master plan for the campus. The two neighborhood groups will join Holy Cross School in selecting the master planning firm and, later, the campus' new developers. The school's board of directors also has stated Holy Cross' intention to retain ownership of the historic campus "to the extent feasible" and to develop a master plan that is "sensitive to the neighborhood, compatible with local land use ... [and] a catalyst for redevelopment of the Holy Cross Historic Neighborhood."
The issue that generates the most discussion and debate at the HCNA meetings is a plan to build an interstate-type bridge across the Industrial Canal at Florida Avenue. The bridge would connect the Poland Avenue Extension in the Upper Ninth Ward to Caffin Avenue in the Lower Nine and is derisively referred to by some as "the bridge to nowhere."
Before Katrina changed everything, the bridge made sense to many residents. It would provide an evacuation route out of the Lower Nine and St. Bernard Parish. "The question is," says activist Malek-Wiley, "do we need it here now? Or could that money be better spent on other transportation issues?"
In the wake of Katrina, and coupled with the decreased population in the area, many residents would rather spend the $358 million that the state has allotted for the project on public transportation. Light rail lines already run along Florida, Caffin and St. Claude avenues. They say trains and streetcars could take more people out of the area faster and, because some rail lines already exist, they'd cost a lot less as well.
"You can buy a whole lot of self-propelled street cars for $358 million," Malek-Wiley adds. "And you'd have money left to make repairs to the St. Claude and Claiborne bridges."
Also, in keeping with the green rebuilding plans, trains wouldn't cause anywhere near as much pollution as automobiles or buses.
Despite plans and some progress, the Lower Nine's most daunting obstacle remains convincing people to return. Josephine Butler knows that better than most. She lives north of North Claiborne Avenue, just a few blocks from the bayou. With help from the community activist group ACORN, she moved back in March to the only neighborhood she's ever known. The home where she lived since 1949 landed across the street on top of a neighbor's house, so there was no "rebuilding" for her. Instead, ACORN moved her into a brand-new, elevated modular home. She has one neighbor. A woman named Gwen is living in a similar home also provided by the nonprofit group.
Standing in her immaculate front yard, surrounded by destroyed and abandoned homes, Butler talks about her neighbors and wonders when they will return.
"A lot of people are waiting on the Road Home," Butler says, referring to the state's much-maligned homeowner assistance program. "But so many people are afraid to come back. They're afraid they won't fix that levee right. I just took a chance. I said the Lord was with me. I've been here so long, this is home."
For residents who have returned and for those waiting to return, rebuilding the Lower Nine sustainably "will set the neighborhood and New Orleans apart from the rest of the country," McLachlan says. "Because when people can do it here, why can't it be done everywhere? It's the smart thing to do."
Ariane Wiltse is a frequent contributor to Gambit Weekly. She recently bought a home in the Holy Cross neighborhood.