The Other New Orleans

Photo: Francesca Pedersen.

The conventional wisdom about New Orleans these days is for the most part positive: an engaged mayor (with the obligatory “60 Minutes” profile under his belt), rebounding neighborhoods, improving schools, young people flocking in.  All of this is true, as far as it goes, but it’s an incomplete accounting. What has gone largely unreported in the mainstream press is the condition of the neighborhood hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina.  Much of the Lower Ninth Ward—despite the heroic efforts of Brad Pitt and Make It Right—remains desolate.

This past weekend I went on a bus tour of the Lower Ninth, sponsored by the local chapter of the AIA and hosted by John Williams, who in addition to his work as executive architect for Make It Right has taken on the role of unofficial master planner for the embattled neighborhood. While there are pockets of hope in the Lower Ninth—the Holy Cross section has seen about half of its residents return—the overall picture is troubling.

P1010980Photo: Alex Pedersen.

“Before Katrina, seventy-two percent of the residents owned their homes,” Williams says. “It was the highest rate of home ownership in the state of Louisiana. It was a dense neighborhood. There were blighted properties, but virtually no empty lots. Eighteen thousand people lived here. Today I’d put that number at thirty-two hundred.” Prior to Katrina, there were eighty businesses on St. Claude Avenue, a main drag running through the neighborhood; there are now five. There were once 72 churches; about 20 survived.  There is one school, but it largely serves students from outside the neighborhood. The children of the Lower Ninth live mostly elsewhere: Dallas, Houston, Baton Rouge.

For the past couple of years Williams has been fighting to get a school in the Lower Ninth. But it’s been a kind of chicken and egg game: the neighborhood asks for a school; the city says they don’t have the kids to support it (which is true); and the community responds, we would if they had a school to go to. According to Williams, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his sister, Senator Mary Landrieu, have expressed support for a high school in the Lower Ninth. To her credit, the senator appears to be showing an interest in the neighborhood, conducting regular meetings with community activists there.

P1010984Photo: Francesca Pedersen

The bright spot here in the Lower Ninth is Make It Right. Despite all the difficulties—complicated finances, bureaucracy, and the typical delays that plague all construction projects—the organization has built 74 LEED Platinum homes. “The most in the country,” Williams boasts. Ten additional houses are under construction. Make It Right expects to complete all 150 (the original goal) by 2014.

P1020044Photo: Alex Pedersen

The challenge now is to build these houses—many of them conceived as “Architecture,” with a capital A—to LEED Platinum standards at an affordable price (something around $150 a square foot).  Williams’ job as project architect involves modifying these schemes in an effort to satisfy both requirements—and it’s something of a thankless role. “Some of the architects don’t like what we’re doing,” he concedes. “But others, like Kiernan Timberlake, say, ‘Strip it down, this is about social justice.’”

Almost everything in the Lower Ninth revolves around social justice—or the lack of it. There are active community groups here, fighting to hold onto what’s left of their neighborhood but it’s a nearly impossible challenge. There just aren’t enough of them to create a cohesive political force. Make It Right, for all of its success, sits in one of the more desolate stretches of the neighborhood. To achieve its ultimate goal, it would need to be about ten times as large. I talked to a couple of life long residents and both said, ruefully, change is coming. “I saw a young white woman pushing a baby carriage,” one said. “And I’m pretty sure she wasn’t lost.”

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