I Wanna Walk You Home: Race, Place, And How The Road Home Program Banished New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward
Tom was a fellow volunteer at the Auberge New Orleans hostel where we both lived through Workaway in the summer of 2019. He’d watched Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke and told me the New Orleans neighborhood named the Lower Ninth Ward flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 because the city blew up that poor and almost entirely black neighborhood’s levees to save the wealthier districts. In 1927 during a river flood the city of New Orleans had in fact blown the levees of St. Bernard Parish (parish is the equivalent of county) to save its own wealthy business district. St. Bernard borders New Orleans’ Lower ninth Ward to the east, separated only by the Jackson Army National Guard Barracks. The second time I heard this claim was from Laura Paul, who assured me it was a prevalent but false belief.
Laura Paul is the Executive Director of Lowernine.org, a nonprofit whose volunteers work exclusively with original pre-Katrina residents of the Lower Ninth Ward who are still rebuilding their homes or need repairs. Being white, college educated, and a Canadian transplant who has lived in the Lower Ninth since she arrived to volunteer in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she’s happy to remind you that she too is among the ranks of this neighborhood’s post-Katrina gentrifiers.
Laura Paul met with me during two of my visits to the Lower Ninth Ward, once allowing me to join with some of her volunteers on a personal tour around the neighborhood. For an introduction she was impressively thorough, acquainting me with the ward’s physical layout, the areas of higher and lower elevation, and the story behind specific houses- including one which still bears a stained line from the floodwaters that nearly submerged it. One home looked completely unlivable, but she explained that the original occupant is actually back in there and refuses any help for repairs. “And for those who like irony,” she directed us, pointing to a sign reading “Flood Street.”
The Lower Ninth Ward is the most downriver neighborhood of New Orleans that touches the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. It actually looks like the north bank, depending on your orientation. The Mississippi here contorts itself so severely, as if determined to take the longest possible route to the Gulf, that cardinal directions are seldom used in the city. Uptown and downtown, upriver and downriver, or the proper names of neighborhoods are used instead.
The Ninth Ward was bisected by the Industrial Canal (which was first used in 1923) into the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards, named as the upriver and downriver portions, respectively. In the 15 years since Hurricane Katrina, most properties south of Claiborne Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward, an area called Holy Cross, have been redeveloped, though some blighted houses bearing spray painted Katrina Crosses remain. Formally known as X-codes, Katrina Crosses identify the rescue squad that visited the structure, the date of visitation, and what was found within the home, including the number of bodies.
The further north of Claiborne Avenue one goes, the houses become as sparse as nature’s reclamation is frequent. Brad Pitt’s generous but structurally problematic Make It Right houses, in a section closest to the Industrial Canal levee and floodwall, are a reminder of former outside commitment to the most destroyed section of the city. Rebuilt houses are often separated by blighted ones or properties that are empty as a cemetery of all but cement stairs or rectangular foundations that sit like headstones; the only reminder of a home that contained whole lives within it like a book. Some properties are completely grown over with trees, grass, and bushes, just like the roadways that the municipality won’t keep clear.
The neighborhood was depopulated and denied the right to return home after Hurricane Katrina. The Federally funded Road Home Program provided low-income and mostly black homeowners with a false choice: Try to rebuild their home with a grant that was salaries away from sufficient, or sell their property to the state. The program was found to be racially discriminatory in federal court because grant amounts were based on property value rather than the cost of rebuilding, and property values in urban neighborhoods vary by racial composition. Through this program 541 properties in the still mostly depopulated Lower Ninth Ward currently remain under state ownership.
Thousands of low-income renters were also banished from New Orleans in the recovery period after Hurricane Katrina by the demolition of public housing projects, notably the Big Four projects, named C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, Lafitte, and St. Bernard. Their flooding during Katrina was minimal and they were determined by the government to be structurally sound.
Today there are about 90,000 less black New Orleanians than before the 2005 flood. Demolished public housing, the exorbitant rise of housing costs post-flood, and the Road Home Program are the principal explanations for the loss of low income black renters and homeowners, but in a city that is mostly black and extremely poor, one must ask, how did this happen? If, as Salman Rushdie wrote in Midnight’s Children, “to understand just one life you have to swallow the world,” then to understand just one city you have to swallow a history.
La Nouvelle-Orléans, to use its French name, was founded in 1718 near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Privileged settlement consumed land along the banks of this serpentine waterway because elevation is highest along its banks as a result of sediment deposition that occurs during river floods. This process actually constructs natural levees- one reason flood suppression on the river has increased the risk of damage by flood. Attracting settlers by truth or blatant lies to this humid, mosquito-bitten swampland was a difficulty partially resolved by importing West Africans as slaves in the largest human trafficking market ever created. New Orleans would later boast the largest market for human bodies of any city on the North American continent.
Wealthy and well connected whites had access to surveyor maps and political power that together allowed them to settle on the land of highest elevation. Necessarily, the lower-lying, more flood-prone, swampy, and therefore less desirable land was where poor whites, and with time more and more free people of color, could afford to live. Residential racial segregation was neither legally mandated nor very common through New Orleans’ antebellum expansion. Enslaved African Americans were required to live on the land of the person who owned them, and what free people of color there were lived in most of the city’s wards, which are geographic voting blocks.
This changed like all of southern race relations after the American Civil War when scores of African Americans moved from plantations to New Orleans to find homes and paid work. New Orleans responded by burying itself in the racist laws of Jim Crow to control black life, labor, and voting while protecting white political power and feelings of purity and superiority. Housing laws and policies have always been paramount to these efforts.
Zoning laws in the first quarter of the twentieth century began relegating to predominantly black neighborhoods toxic and ugly forms of land use deemed unacceptable for white and especially wealthy ones. For example, businesses that predictably bred rats, noise pollution, toxic waste, and were unsavory to the eyes were permitted in black neighborhoods. Through this, predominantly white neighborhoods cemented their commercial image as clean regions for desirable investment.
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established in 1934 when a housing shortage led to New Deal programs that created public housing. These segregated housing projects sheltered primarily lower-middle and working class Americans. The Federal Housing Administration also adopted policies to direct federally insured home loans so that white Americans could buy single family houses. After the Second World War and through most of the 1960s these federally insured, low interest loans prompted the suburbanization of America by its white population.
Home loans were expressly denied to almost all black Americans by a federal policy named “redlining”. Maps of every metropolitan area in the country were drawn up and color coded to denote which areas were “safe” to insure home loans in. Any resident of a neighborhood marked in red was denied a loan. Poor immigrants could turn a neighborhood yellow and even red, but the number of black residents was always the single greatest condemning factor. The FHA’s Underwriting Manual stated its stance on integration, that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities”. In fact the manual recommended highway construction as a useful barrier of separation between white and black neighborhoods.
These neighborhoods weren’t actually more likely to default on loans and often were willing to pay higher prices because of the scarcity of available houses. But property values would fall if black and brown people moved into white areas. Because of both racial animosity and perceived neighborhood decline- a stigma American minorities have almost always found themselves shackled to- whites would leave the neighborhood if non-whites managed to move in. White people comprised nearly all of the American housing market’s demand side, which couldn’t be replaced by black home buyers, necessarily resulting in depressed property values in minority dominated neighborhoods across American metropolises. It bears repeating too that most black Americans could not acquire the necessary loans to buy a house in the first place, leaving the suburbs to be populated by whites. Even when a loan could be acquired, homeowner covenants prevented the sale of homes by whites to black people.
One exception exists to prove the rule in New Orleans. The neighborhood called Ponchartrain Park was created specifically to meet the growing demand of middle class blacks, but it was the only such neighborhood. The National Associations For The Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) understandably opposed this because it was segregated, reinforcing the idea that blacks can’t be allowed to pollute white communities.
The Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 (Slum Clearance and Urban Renewal, respectively) reduced available housing in the private market by authorizing the removal, with federal monies, of African Americans from areas near downtown or other spaces under the eyes of developers. Their home’s stolen and the neighborhood ethnically cleansed, these residents were relocated to more racially segregated and lower-lying areas in New Orleans. This loss of property also increased the demand for public housing units by black residents with low incomes. This undertaking acquired the name “negro clearance” because by 1960 almost ninety percent of families forced to move and compelled to turn to public housing were black and brown.
Today the income of black Americans nationally is about 60% that of whites. The median level of wealth, however, was $117,000 in 2016 for white Americans, but a paltry $17,000 for blacks. Median income means half of black households possess more and the other half less than $17,000. This is one tenth the wealth of white households. Most wealth in American families is accumulated through homeownership, and this racial disparity exists because of red lining. Homes that cost twice the national median income in the decades following the Second World War, but which were affordable with federally insured home loans, are now often six to eight times the national median income. When interviewed by Terry gross on NPR, Richard Rothstein, author of Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, explained that “in 1968 we passed the Fair Housing Act that said, in effect, “OK, African-Americans, you’re now free to buy homes in Daly City or Levittown” … but it’s an empty promise because those homes are no longer affordable to the families that could’ve afforded them when whites were buying into those suburbs and gaining the equity and the wealth that followed from that.”
Neighborhoods in New Orleans tended to be segregated by race as well as class. The Lower Ninth Ward was an exception to the rule of racial segregation until the 1960s. It had been mostly swampland until it was drained to allow further settlement. About half of the neighborhood is below sea level and it is far from the city center. Free black Americans and poor European immigrants found it was the only affordable place to live, and built it into a mixed race working class neighborhood in which blacks were surely not equals but where all races suffered classist neglect together by the rest of the city.
Unforgivable to whites in the Lower Ninth was the endorsement of school desegregation by wealthy Uptowners. The Uptowners weren’t having black children enter their own schools after all, yet in 1960 two schools were desegregated in New Orleans. William Frantz Elementary School, in the Upper Ninth, was desegregated by a single black kindergartner named Ruby Bridges. Parents made haste and a show of pulling their white children from school and for the entire year Ruby was taught, alone, by the only teacher who agreed to. A group of bleating white women called The Cheerleaders gathered every day to threaten the kindergartner’s life. One woman brought a black baby doll in a coffin with her every day. Ruby had to pack her lunch to avoid the credible threat of having her food poisoned at the school. She is 65 years old today, younger than our sitting president.
McDonough №19, in the Lower Ninth Ward, was the other school, desegregated by three children. This was intolerable to most of their unmelanated neighbors. The Lower Ninth Ward’s black population rose from 31% to 73% between 1940 and 1970 as whites moved to a segregated and better life in the suburbs on federally insured loans. Most moved to neighboring St. Bernard Parish, which is separated from the Lower Ninth Ward’s eastern edge only by the Jackson Army National Guard barracks. Surely that parish wouldn’t cave to desegregation like Orleans Parish did. Whites had confidence in the protection of St. Bernard Parish’s then-political boss Judge Leander Perez, who claimed the leaders of NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were “all those Jews who were supposed to have been cremated at Buchenwald and Dachau but weren’t.” In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina St. Bernard Parish legally banned anyone from renting housing there if they were not related by blood to one of its almost exclusively white parish residents.
St. Bernard Parish had one black town and no desire to keep it. Fazendeville was established after the Civil War by a black American who was given the land and sold properties exclusively to other black people. Ostensibly and perhaps with a degree of sincerity, the St. Bernard Parish needed to remove Fazendeville from its map to expand a historic park, restoring the land roughly to its 1812 appearance during the Battle of New Orleans. Through Eminent Domain in 1964 the National Park Service cleared the town and St. Bernard Parish was rid of its only significant concentration of black citizens. They took their church, the Battleground Baptist Church, and moved to the Lower Ninth Ward, providing St. Bernard with a dual role in the darkening of the Lower Ninth’s racial demographics. It accepted the fleeing whites and sent its banished blacks to the other side of the barracks.
The other encouragement to move was Hurricane Betsy in 1965, leaving the Lower ninth Ward under water when levees failed. Racial animus and insecurity from school integration combined with damaged homes and affordable mortgages offered almost exclusively to whites, creating every social and economic incentive needed to leave. Some white former residents did sincerely claim that their primary motivation to move wasn’t racial, but economic. It wasn’t their fault that affordable homes in the suburbs weren’t available to their black friends and neighbors, but how could they turn away from it themselves?
On August 29th, 2005 the Lower Ninth Ward’s level of homeownership was one of the city’s highest, with some properties passed down form the area’s first freed African Americans, and over half of the homes were owned outright without mortgage. Renters often rented from neighbors who were themselves homeowners- thus keeping money from the community within the community- and half of the 14,000 residents lived on less than $20,000 a year, frequently managing by systems of favor exchanges between neighbors for services like plumbing or electrical work. Being poor was trouble enough, but white flight and the arrival of Fazendville had a vital result. On the eve of Hurricane Katrina the Lower Ninth Ward was also 98% black and had the property values to show for it.
Economically fragile and politically weak, it has the bad luck of laying on uniquely vulnerable geography. Water surrounds the former swampland on three sides: the Mississippi to the south, the Industrial Canal to the west, and the Instracoastal Highway canal to the north. The levees surrounding New Orleans were built below standard in multiple places and in general poorly maintained, but nobody in the city knew this yet. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO, colloquially abbreviated to Mr. Go) that connects the Intracoastal Highway to the Gulf of Mexico allowed salty water into Lake Ponchartrain. Years of increased salinity killed the freshwater wetlands and Cyprus swamps that were natural barriers to Hurricane winds and storm surge. Confident in their levees and flood barriers built by the praised Army Corps of Engineers, lacking money and vehicles, and less likely to have a place to stay outside of the city let alone having spent more than a weekend away from it, the people of the Lower Ninth Ward were uniquely situated to suffer from a disastrous storm.
The storied Hurricane Katrina destroyed Buras, Louisiana as it spun back toward the continent after passing through Florida. Its most direct hit on the Gulf Coast was in Mississippi, allowing evacuated New Orleanians to celebrate what television newscasters told them was a near miss on their city. The winds and rains had caused expected but minimal damage. The celebration was premature. Storm surge, that potentially massive upswell of ocean water from a hurricane’s winds and pressure, arrived after rather than with the hurricane. Nearly eighteen foot tall, this storm surge was pummeling its way from the gulf into lakes Borgne and Ponchartrain and through the shipping canals toward New Orleans.
The Lower Ninth Ward was the first and worst flooded part of the city. The MRGO funneled the eighteen foot storm surge into the Intracoastal highway (now unofficially rechristened Hurricane Highway) where it moved with increasing pressure toward the Industrial Canal. More surge entered the Industrial canal from Lake Ponchartrain to the north.
Laura Paul was the first to tell me Tom’s accusation of a dynamited levee was false but widely believed. The largest breach in the Industrial Canal’s eastern levee must have come from the rude shipping barge that the water carried through the canal, its floodwall, and into the Lower Ninth Ward. A massive burst through a levee and concrete floodwall would make a noise to be sure, but this behemoth battering ram accounts for the explosive “boom” that came before the floodwaters stampeded in. There was no evidence of explosives either.
When the waters of the newborn Lake New Orleans equalized with those of Lake Ponchartrain, eighty percent of the city was flooded. Every home in the Lower Ninth Ward was rendered uninhabitable.
Almost a week after the storm the rest of the city was finally evacuated. Evacuees were sent with one way tickets to cities like Houston, Texas, Baton Rouge in Louisiana, and Atlanta, Georgia. (One man found himself in Anchorage, Alaska.) An evacuated city mostly beyond habitation was an opportunity to change city demographics. Massive public housing projects had long been coveted by developers for transformation into something more remunerative. Tenants being victims of crime and their own poverty provided a rhetorically benevolent mask for developers and government officials who wanted to demolish the projects.
The Big Four remained structurally sound, barely damaged by the hurricane, and historic products of the New Deal era. After futile public opposition the city demolished them anyway. The replacements are mixed income units, meaning only some of the limited units are for subsidized housing of low income people and the rest are for those who can pay market rates. Since the low-income public housing units weren’t replaced, scores of people were left with nowhere to live, or, for those still sheltered in other cities, nowhere to return to. Religion offered some consolation because, after all, does Jesus not favor the downtrodden? Then-Republican congressman Richard H. Baker from Baton Rouge knew otherwise. He proclaimed that “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it. But God did.”
To heed the plight of homeowners after Katrina, the state’s Louisiana Recovery Authority created the Road Home Program, which was approved by the attentive eyes of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under George W. Bush and funded by about $10 billion in federal tax dollars. The program provided two options; (1) take a grant and agree to rebuild and reoccupy your home within a specified period of time; (2) sell your property to the state and move elsewhere. Grant amounts were determined by choosing the lower of two values: the pre-storm value of one’s property, or the actual cost of repairs. Grants were capped at $150,000, with an extra grant for low income residents that maxed at $50,000 and which few received. A $30,000 grant was available to raise one’s home off the ground, though it was rarely enough to cover the cost. (Often in the Lower Ninth Ward most of these funds were lost to mortgage lenders demanding full payment after the flood, contractor fraud, and the cost of interim housing, sometimes for multiple years, while attempting to rebuild.)
Would any foreseeable unfairness arise from this formula? A house in the Lower Ninth Ward was worth a fraction of an identical counterpart in the wealthier and whiter areas like Lakeview and especially City Park. Centuries of housing laws and policies created black neighborhoods with less market value than comparable white ones. Basing grants on property value destined even poor whites to be harmed. But, in this majority black and very poor city, the history of residential segregation and its relation to property value meant that poor black homeowners bore the majority of the injustice. By nearly always calculating grants based upon pre-storm property values, those who received the most federally funded aid were those who least needed it. An ostensibly race-neutral program, it fit neatly into the history of U.S. policies and programs that oppress black citizens. The Road Home Program perfectly exemplifies the covert nature systemic racism often takes in the modern age when it is generally deemed improper to openly advocate for unhooded oppression. Instead, it sits behind the curtain of the race-neutral vocabulary of a program whose design targeted black homeowners for the forced acquisition of their property. (I say it is forced because the financial reality of these homeowners usually left them with no choice to return to their homes and rebuild.)
In the Lower Ninth Ward, grants were frequently too dismal to rebuild a house, although many tried and some succeeded. Allison Plyer of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center provided the relevant data to a congressional hearing:
“Because grant awards were based on pre-storm home values rather than total repair costs, the average gap between damage estimates and rebuilding funds was $36,000. More than 46 percent of all applicants who planned to rebuild had damages that were greater than their pre-storm home value. New Orleans applicants were more likely to have a gap in funding than applicants statewide. Across New Orleans the average gap was $55,000. Gaps were larger in lower income and African American neighborhoods. For example, in New Orleans East the average gap was $69,000, in the Lower Ninth Ward the average gap was $75,000, while in Lakeview the average gap was $44,000.”
Gaps were lower and less likely to exist at all in wealthier areas where insurance was more common and savings meant residents didn’t depend entirely upon the grants. If a house in the Lower Ninth was valued at $60,000 but its cost of repairs were $150,000, the extra $50,000 grant (if fortunate enough to acquire it) still left a $40,000 gap. That same home could be valued at $150,000 or much more in a different neighborhood.
For this the federal government was sued on grounds of racial discrimination, alleging that the program violated the Fair Housing Act of 1974. In 2010 the suit ended in a settlement because U.S. District Court Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. found the plaintiffs were going to prove their case. Remaining funds were frozen so that yet-uncalculated grants could be calculated on the cost to rebuild. Louisiana is immune to mass tort cases however, so retroactive payments couldn’t be made to those whose grants were unfairly calculated and already received. Some additional funds were later distributed during the Obama administration but too few received them and it was years too late to reverse the damage.
Incentivized to leave through a grant offer that was far too little to rebuild their homes, around 900 Lower Ninth Ward properties were sold to the state, which for many who then became renters meant losing the most significant form of wealth accumulation in the country. With property values already depressed and often appraised below their value, they now lost a form of financial security they may never regain in their lifetimes.
Of the properties sold to the state of Louisiana, 841 of those were north of Claiborne Avenue, the area usually referred to as the Lower Ninth. 541 of those are yet unsold to new buyers and are under the control of a self-described quazi-governmental agency called the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. The neighborhood today has over 35% of its antediluvian population level but Laura Paul estimates that the number is 25% if only counting pre-Katrina residents. Mostly white, young, and fairly well off, these gentrifiers are generally welcomed. Newcomers are needed since original residents won’t be returning. But, they couldn’t have arrived to change the demographics from less than 1% to 5.1% white if black residents had been given a fair opportunity to come home.
Any student of history knows existing urban segregation and wealth disparities are primarily the legacies of racist housing laws and policies in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Surely this includes the government officials tasked with accounting for that reality when devising the Road Home Program. What does it mean that a classist and systemically racist program could be implemented by the state of Louisiana and approved by the federal government in the 21st century? Are those paid by taxpayers for the responsibility of professional knowledge completely inept and unqualified for their positions? A confession of that sort is unlikely and would anyway be untrue. The harm was intentional; a feature rather than a flaw in the program’s design.
This assertion might seem bold or even strident, but only without context. The Road Home Program is one of multiple decisions made with the intention of keeping low-income and almost entirely black New Orleanians from coming home.
New Orleans is as poor as it is vibrant but poverty breeds crime, not a substantial tax base. Changing the demographics of wealth has long been a goal for many parties with money to gain from such a shift. One successful measure to deny the right of return to what the United Nations calls Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs, was demolishing thousands of public housing units and replacing them with mixed-income apartments.
On the national level, as the country glued eyes and ears to pornographic newsreels of an apocalyptic New Orleans under water, some citizens and politicians demanded that the city be left to sink into an American Atlantis. The editorial board of the Times Picayune summarized the sentiment in two examples.
“In 2005, before the water could be pumped out, before the dead bodies could be recovered, even before survivors could be rescued from their rooftops, then Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois, recommended bulldozing much of New Orleans. Rebuilding the city, he said, “doesn’t make sense to me.”
Last week Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio, offered similar words of discouragement. In a discussion on the House floor she argued against rebuilding the Lower 9th Ward because that’s “where all the damage had occurred.”
Eighty percent of the city was flooded, adding inaccuracy to Kaptur’s callousness. Disastrous flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward had only ever occurred when levees built by the Army Corp of Engineers failed. (This is why the flood is called a manmade disaster in New Orleans.) These levees that protect the entire city were supposed to be built to a higher standard and indeed could have been in Katrina’s aftermath. The Netherlands’ almost science fictional investment in flood prevention after their own mid-twentieth century catastrophe could have been followed. With over $100 billion in losses from Katrina, it’d be worth every dollar to protect this irreplaceable mecca of culture that is one of the few places to embody America’s favorite self-praising designation as a melting pot.
Frugality won and the new levees, built only to resist a one-in-one-hundred-year storm (the standard they were supposed to be built to in the first place) are now threatened by subsidence, rising seas and worsening storms. By 2023 they may no longer offer sufficient protection from a storm worse than Hurricane Katrina. In time, a disaster that could’ve been prevented will present itself again.
Some local forces were intent on putting Kaptur’s sentiment into policy. The rebuilding commission under then-mayor Ray Nagin released a map that identified residential neighborhoods they intended to turn into parks and wetlands by marking them with green dots. The parks would be scenic and might provide future land for developers, but people already lived there. Neighborhoods slated to be razed were generally low lying, poor, largely black, and included the Lower Ninth- an unveiled attempt to engineer the city’s returning population.
The poor wouldn’t have to be banished per se because they hadn’t yet returned. Still living in the cities they evacuated to, they saw that they weren’t wanted back. It was another example of a common theme. A city’s most oppressed people were historically corralled into the most vulnerable areas and then punished for inhabiting those positions of vulnerability. The Times Picayune published the Green Dot Map and broke the story, garnering enough public opposition to get the plan scrapped. “At least Nagin didn’t let the Lower Ninth get turned into the French Quarter” I was told as a backhanded compliment to the former mayor.
New Orleans and Louisiana generally would have brought back its citizens if it wanted to. The architects and approvers of the Road Home Program were the ones best suited to recognize the cruelty in its formula. Though the Lower Ninth has tried to rebuild its community, the neighborhood remains mired in neglect to this day. They are, as Dr. Juliet Landphair wrote, “the forgotten people of New Orleans.”
The city still leaves storm drains in the Lower Ninth uncovered, welcoming any oblivious strolling adult or child on a bicycle to tumble in. There are over 170 open storm drains according to Laura Paul. “I know because I had my volunteers count every one” she said to me after pointing them out. The city refuses to keep public roads clear of overgrowth to such severity that my car almost didn’t fit down some of the streets. In some cases this was compounded by the illegally dumped trash that people leave and the municipality won’t take away. Overgrowth is so thick that even fire hydrants are sometimes obscured to invisibility.
In a 15 June 2016 email to Jeff Ebert, then-director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, Laura Paul of Lowernine.org and Thom Pepper of Common Ground Relief offered other examples of neglect that has mired the Lower Ninth’s attempted recovery.
“Pleas for work to be done were being ignored by city officials. In December and May of 2008, a three-year-old boy and a law enforcement officer were involved in accidents that were a direct result of poor infrastructure and safety measures on the Judge Seeber and St. Claude Bridges. The officer drowned. Two years later, a young girl was raped in a blighted, city-owned property. All three events served to galvanize repairs to the Seeber Bridge (funded by the DOTD at the State level) but these improvements were reactive, not proactive, and followed years of neglect reported multiple times by Lower Ninth Ward residents and community leaders….”
In 2013 letters were sent to many Lower Ninth residents informing them they’d been paid too much in their grants and would have to return the money. No effort has ever been made by the program to track down people paid too little. On this their letter continues,
“the letters sent to “out of compliance” Road Home Program participants in August of 2013 seemed designed to thwart recovery, humiliate, and attack those working hardest to recover. Letters were very threatening in tone, and made no mention of additional recovery funds that were being made available — they also arrived in the mail on the 29th of August — a real slap in the face to those still mourning the loss of their community, and in many cases, friends and family. As it turned out, very few of those who fell victim to contractor and mortgage fraud, suffered theft or vandalism, or had tainted Chinese drywall installed in their homes (much of which was actually distributed by Habitat for Humanity) were able to qualify for additional funding, as the program shared an unwieldiness and restrictiveness redolent of the original discriminatory Road Home Program….”
Municipal callousness sometimes takes on a depressingly poignant poetry. Once again I defer to Laura Paula and Thom Pepper who expressed it with an assertiveness of the neighborhood’s dignity.
“In observance of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and just days before the Presidential convoy arrived, flags were finally flown to replace those which had fallen to tatters on the Katrina Memorial at the base of the Judge Seeber Bridge on Claiborne Avenue. Appropriately, those flags were flown at half-mast in commemoration of the lives lost to Katrina and the levee breaches a decade before. Four months later, those flags remained at half-mast. Fitting as this might be for a neighborhood that is still ensconced in grieving and loss for its residents, homes, and citizens, it was a clear and present reminder that our city forgot us once again.”
I tried to make sense of what I heard former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu tell PBS News Hour in 2015 after being asked the Lower Ninth Ward would be doing better if it was wealthier and whiter. He acknowledged that wealthier areas were simply better able to recover (without recognizing what this reveals about their recovery programs). Startlingly he also claimed that “every part of the city got fair treatment. Every part of this city got investments that they deserved and that they needed.” Was this a diversion through the politic-speak of vagueness and inaccuracy? Did he in fact believe that people in the Lower Ninth got what they deserved and needed? If Fats Domino hadn’t needed to be rescued from his own Lower Ninth home and apparently been delirious upon arrival at the Superdome, his lovingly gentle tune I Want To Walk You Home might’ve been the anthem of recovery. Instead his neighbors heard their city sing, I wanna see you gone.