What the Locals Of New Orleans Can Teach Us About How Rebuild From Devastation

The following is an excerpt from the new book  We're Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City  by  Roberta Brandes Gratz (Nation Books, 2015): 


It is almost ten years since the levees failed and flooded the city. I am sitting in Café Dauphine in the heart of the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower Nine. This small, white-cloth restaurant in a onetime corner store is the perfect symbol of the Lower Nine’s gradual comeback, particularly the more robust rebirth of the historic Holy Cross. Restored and reoccupied architectural gems are visible in all directions, but so, too, are empty deteriorated dwellings. The work that still needs to be done is apparent, but as I sit in this restaurant and watch a lunch crowd fill all twenty tables, the question is no longer “Will this get done?”but “When,” “By whom” and “How.” I think back to Josephine

Butler, who said, “They may not come today, they may not come tomorrow, but they will come.” And they have. I am waiting to have lunch with Tanya Harris, the granddaughter of Mrs. Butler. But first I am talking to Tia Moore-Henry who with her husband, Fred Henry Jr., and sister-in-law, Keisha Henry, opened this restaurant in June 2012 to instant success. The former storeowner was not coming back after the hurricanes, so the Henry trio bought the site with the idea that it was a nice place for a coffee shop. Like a classic Lower Nine family: grandma Henry lived across the street until she died. Other family members live either on the block or around the corner. Tia, petite and charmingly personable with a big smile, is from Lake Charles, about three hours north. That is where the Henry family went to escape Katrina. Fred, who had been an environmental health specialist for the school board, is also a skilled carpenter. After Katrina, he set about restoring family dwellings house by house. Only after four years did he have the time to design and build out the restaurant.

“That gave us time to think about this place,” Tia recalled. “I thought the neighborhood would benefit more and draw from a wider audience, if we did a restaurant.” And so they created “the first full-service, sit-down restaurant in this community ever.” No one in this partnership trio “had any experience in the restaurant business.” They were undaunted. “It took off from the beginning,” Tia said, almost in disbelief. “Blessedly, everything just came together.”

The modestly designed white-columned interior with simple moldings reflects Fred’s polished craft. Tia’s prediction was correct. The wider audience has come from both within and outside the neighborhood. Politicians, tourists, all sorts of people, she said. Most of the people from the neighborhood who could come back, she added, have returned. On this particular block, “almost the whole block was older people, many of whom couldn’t come back” or have since died. But, she said, new young people are coming in—white, Hispanic, African-American.

To Tanya Harris, Café Dauphine is the next phase of the rebuilding she always knew would happen. “It signals a new era, actually an old era,” she said, looking around with a big smile as she joined me for lunch. “We’re coming back to where we started,” she said of the Lower Nine. Tanya is not surprised at how things have evolved, nor that the area has changed, with diversity returning.

“We’re getting policemen, firemen, teachers. For the community to survive, you have to have diversity of income and race like we had. This is what we were prepared for. It’s not what the

experts expected. Their minds are fixed on run-of-the-mill expectations. New Orleans has its own unique character. It’s like no other place and can’t be measured by the same standards.”

We laughed together and spoke fondly of Mrs. Butler. “She never hesitated, so I didn’t hesitate,” Tanya said. “Her prediction that others will come became my prediction.” Sadly, Mrs. Butler now has Alzheimer’s and lives with Tanya’s sister, Tracy, who with her husband moved to Florida to follow a job after Katrina. Tracy still owns the house next to Tanya but rents it out. Mrs. Butler’s house sits empty, filled with the problems that came with the discovery of defective Chinese dry wall that was used in the construction.2

Shawn Holahan remains in New Orleans but is currently living across town from her flooded Lakeview home in an uptown  neighborhood within walking distance of Magazine Street. Her kids, all three now college graduates, are scattered. But they love to come home for Mardi Gras and other occasions, always bringing friends who are delighted to visit New Orleans. “I never thought I’d be back but I got the clarion call,” Shawn told me. “I’m here but my kids are not. But my whole construct has changed. The advantage of Katrina was that it cleaned out my life closet and changed my perspective on things. It was a huge leveling event.” She loves the vibrancy of her new neighborhood, “but I remain ready to leave, if any of my kids start having grandchildren I want to be near.”

Living uptown is a world of difference from Lakeview. “Make-believe land is all around me,” she said. “Uptown was always an isle of denial. It always felt separated from the rest of the city.” Her neighborhood is above sea level, and during hurricane season she intends to stay unless there is no power. She never dealt with rebuilding the Lakeview house and sold it to a speculator instead. She has a positive view of the city, even with a few cautions. “I see it as a place of possibilities more than before but I also know I can get out. I worry the FEMA money is drying up and the wound is bigger than money allows to be repaired.” She may be right. Learning from disaster is elusive.

Denise Thornton and her colleagues in Beacon of Hope shared their Katrina experiences with the post-disaster communities of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after a flood; Minot, North Dakota, after a dam burst flooding the town; Staten Island, New York, after Hurricane Sandy; and LaPlace, Louisiana, after Hurricane Isaac. In each case, Beacon advised the local groups “doing the work” how to set up the tool lending library—a central information site, as they had done after Katrina. For each place, they showed how to create the local maps of who was back or not coming back, the condition of each dwelling, and other vital information. “We got more sophisticated about how to do this as we went along, adding infrastructure conditions like streets, street lights, sewer problems,” Denise said. “We knew this was important to do immediately after a disaster but, of course, we could never get funding to do it. For Lakeview, not long ago, we created an iPhone app to track blighted properties and determine if the people who got money to fix up their home actually did the work. Accountability is essential.”

Denise found a post-disaster story similar to New Orleans in each of those other places. “Local groups did the work but middle men got the money,” she said. “I think FEMA tried to improve things but it can’t figure out how to fund the ones doing the work, the ones actually gutting houses, making repairs. In New York, they handed out half a million dollars’ worth of Home Depot credit cards—but what good is that if your house is not gutted? The ones who did the gutting didn’t get funded.” Of New Orleans, Denise said: “I don’t think the city learned anything from how things really worked after Katrina or how to engage with the real people involved in recovery. That is never going to happen. People will still learn from each other and depend on each other in the future.” Most frustrating, and perhaps most telling, Denise reported in the fall of 2014 that the city put out a request for proposals for a $250,000 contract to map the city, much like Beacon of Hope had done with volunteers after Katrina. This was exactly the kind of work that neither Beacon nor any other local group could get funding for after Katrina.

The solution to immediate post-disaster needs is not complicated, Denise said, and could be established ahead of time. “In at-risk communities, the Beacon-style organizations should be set up in advance of disasters. Map the community now, know where the elderly are and things like that. Update it periodically. Designate a place for food and water drop-off, where volunteers can be deployed and information learned. It could be a certified FEMA point to give money for gutting, or where United Way and others could donate, where tools could be borrowed, where a list could be kept of local contractors that are not fly-by-night out-of-towners.” Sensible enough.

The essential thing is “disaster management,” Denise said. It’s a matter of supporting the locals who know the community and who are engaged in the aftermath of a disaster. That should be the singular lesson of this disaster. Understandably, Denise doesn’t have much faith that this support will be provided. Government has a hard time putting faith and money behind locals; it is more suspicious of them than of the middle-men and well-connected big contractors who wind up with the lion’s share of funding. Surely that is one of the unfortunate lessons of New Orleans’s recovery.

***

It’s surprising how many new people came to New Orleans after the storms to live. Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella explained that there were two waves of newcomers: professionals working on post-storm projects(planners, environmentalists, educators, social workers, civil rights activists, contractors, and criminal justice reformers), many of whom left after their projects finished or funding ran out; and skilled professionals who were drawn to New Orleans to live and work. The latter group included Teach For America people and others drawn to the charter schools, as well as film industry and new-media entrepreneurs. New entrepreneurs, especially web-based ones, started coming early.3 Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and other business publications hailed New Orleans as a great turnaround story for new businesses. The chance for a more diversified economy seemed to improve each year.

Not surprisingly, many of the newcomers snapped up the recently rehabbed historic dwellings. Others bought fixer-uppers that they planned to rebuild themselves. Many of those formerly deteriorated houses could easily have made the demolition list— an observation that should be of particular interest to the many challenged cities across the country, such as Buffalo, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and others that are drawing newcomers as part of the more than two-decades-long return-to-cities movement. The new, mostly young people who are being drawn to these challenged cities often seek great bargains in architecturally rich houses5 in cities where they can make a difference and live inexpensively (i.e., not have to have a high-salary job that is difficult to come by). New Orleans has all that plus an appealingly rich and legendary culture, so it is no surprise that it is drawing new residents. In New Orleans, in contrast to many of the other challenged cities, citizen efforts successfully averted a more aggressive effort to demolish even more than has been already been destroyed. Federally funded efforts continue to result in the demolition of empty or damaged homes here, despite the fact that the free market is solving this problem without any stimulus from government.

Now, ten years since the storms, no one seems to be worried that the city’s population—378,715 as of 2013—will not fully recover to its pre-Katrina 452,170. But three lamentable circumstances remain. First, too many low-income, blue-collar New Orleanians have not come back owing to the demise of public housing, the considerable increase in rents, and the lack of living-wage jobs. Second, there is too much emphasis on boosting the tourist economy with more hotels and other low-wage businesses, instead of focusing on diversifying the economy. And, finally, many neighborhoods of great appeal to newcomers and first-time homebuyers have become “gentrified.” The first two circumstances, which are thoroughly covered in this book, have clearly not been addressed by the top tiers of the city’s civic and business pyramids. The third, gentrification, is a much more complex issue than is usually discussed and deserves serious attention. Gentrification is not solely a New Orleans phenomenon alone, nor is it a new one nationally; in fact, it is a phenomenon visible since the slow beginning of the return to cities. What’s particularly interesting is that it is now occurring in a post-disaster city that a great many people thought would not recover.

The term gentrification initially gained currency when middle- class people began supplanting working-class residents in England in the late 1970s and ’80s. In Canada, the process has been called “white painting”; in the United States, gentrification and displacement are used interchangeably.6 By the 1980s, the phenomenon of newcomers moving into a neighborhood and old-timers moving out(some willingly, others not)—and of the newcomers’ lifestyle dramatically changing the area’s essential character—had become one of the most controversial aspects of urban revitalization.

Now, a decade after Katrina, gentrification is the biggest fear in some New Orleans neighborhoods.

The problem is that some newcomers object to long-standing neighborhood traditions, such as local music venues or street musicians. This becomes a cultural clash, and tensions inevitably rise. Conversely, some old-timers view new residents as a threat to their stability. But neither outcome is inevitable. The arrival of new residents does not have to have a negative impact on old residents or the culture. Without a constant flow of new blood and new businesses, any community will stagnate. Indeed, when the new arrivals inhabit and improve abandoned property, purchase property from a homeowner looking to move and cash in on the change, or bring new trade to local businesses, the impact is positive. At the same time, new political strength reinforces local demands for services from City Hall. Clearly, then, new residents are often an asset. Some would argue that they are a necessary ingredient of any revitalization effort. But when a neighborhood experiences inflated property values, major reassessments, and the increased tax bills that often follow—making it too expensive for residents of modest means to continue to own their property—the impact of gentrification becomes negative.

Solutions to this kind of dilemma are possible, if the political will to avert excessive displacement is present. For example, tax increases based on increased assessments can be imposed gradually, with a reasonable yearly maximum, such that the balance— if there is one—is deferred until the sale of the property. In this case, long-term residents would pay the increase if they cash in on the property value upswing, but are not penalized if instead they remain. Unfortunately, municipalities eager for increased revenue and insensitive to any human cost tend to resist such solutions.

Politicians prefer to give tax breaks to affordable housing developers than provide a break directly to a low- or middle-income homeowners.

Tax breaks for the increased value could also be offered to owners of rental properties willing to resist increasing rent beyond a modest amount. Cumulatively, such programs cost less than subsidies for developers—campaign contributors—of so-called affordable housing, but they don’t offer the same political appeal. Of course, the assumption here is that official concern exists to cool the gentrification momentum. But that is not an automatic assumption. Government assistance of this nature is the hardest to come by.

The gentrification dilemma is not easy. There are no simple answers. Unqualified opposition to gentrification puts critics in the curious position of advocating for the “preservation” or protection of the status quo of the neighborhood that they profess to help. If a neighborhood is pockmarked by decay, that condition can only worsen in the absence of new investment by current or new owners. If all change is mislabeled as gentrification without distinctions, the real problem of gentrification is not addressed and its avoidance becomes improbable.

Consider, for instance, the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower Nine, which was gentrifying in an organic, gradual, and overall positive way since the storms. With the help of thousands of volunteers and dozens of foundations, this remarkable working- class community struggled to rebuild itself one restored house at a time. Confidence had grown and communal life was returning. A small grocery store opened in November 2014—a major boost for the community. It is owned by a local Army vet, Burnell Cotlon, who took four years to renovate a badly damaged building in the community—a community he believes in.  A CVS pharmacy had recently opened on Claiborne, and the new high school and fire station were up and running. It took a lot of aggressive protesting and organizing by community leaders to even get these facilities and two parks open. Holy Cross was leading the way for the whole beleaguered Lower Nine. But letting that kind of positive change and genuine community involvement run its course was not to be.

What unfolded in Holy Cross is a cautionary tale for the city’s future, raising the question of whether once again hot-wired political connections and political horse trading will prevail over honest public process and substantive community input. Holy Cross is as much a small village as a city neighborhood—primarily a collection of shotgun houses and modest-scale cottages. It is a most inappropriate place for a sixty-foot-tall upscale condominium tower and complex with parking and retail on the ground floor—a virtual gated community. This is a project guaranteed to do nothing for Holy Cross but flood the streets with traffic and raise property values, rents, and taxes beyond the ability of many local residents to afford. But just that kind of project was approved by the City Council in May 2014, after a bitter fight, an ugly campaign waged by the developer (Perez Architects, APC), and a perverted public process that had the familiar feel of the old days of back-room dealing.8

The development site is the old Holy Cross school behind the natural levee at the Mississippi. After Katrina, the school moved to Gentilly and built a new facility, leaving fourteen grass-filled acres with an historic 1895 red brick administration building with clock tower empty and for sale. If the developer had proposed what was offered here—two towers (first at 135 feet, then 75 feet, lowered to 60), several hundred condo units, plus retail and the parking to match—in any upscale, politically potent neighborhood on the uptown side of the canal, community opposition would surely have prevailed. But this is the Lower Ninth Ward.

Another example is the Marigny, a neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter, where in 2012 vigorous community opposition killed a proposed 75-foot tower—50 percent higher than the zoning allowed.9 In the upscale Warehouse District, just at the edge of the Central Business District, residents defeated an out-oftown developer’s request for a variance from the City Council to build a 75-foot hotel, 10 feet above the 65-foot limit. A 65-foot tower in the dense Warehouse District in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers and a 60-foot height in the shotgun village of Holy Cross? How is only a 5-foot height difference justified between a somewhat remote village-like neighborhood and a downtown warehouse district adjacent to the central business district?

Nowhere during the long public process did anyone forewarn the Holy Cross neighborhood that the city’s Master Plan could be totally distorted by the revised Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO) that would follow. Density and use were the focus of public debate, not height. Height does not automatically equate to density.  Residents assumed that the pre-Katrina height limit would remain unchanged because Holy Cross is an historic district. But the “revised” CZO redefined the “medium density” of the Master Plan as up to 60 feet. That is a 50 percent increase and surely higher than the prevailing two-story standard. This is the kind of surprise that reinforces skepticism over any so-called planning process. As with many development projects of this type, there always seems to be a way to subvert the public will.

So many egregious offenses occurred here that there is cause to wonder whether the old pattern of “the New Orleans way” will selectively reemerge. When the proposal for the new condo development was first unveiled, community leaders voiced strong objections to the new local councilman, James Gray.He challenged the community to come up with an alternative. It did. Seven Lower Nine community groups met for six months, working with urban designer Maurice Cox, head of the Tulane City Center. The Center works with communities around the city on planning and design projects and is perfectly suited to help resolve this kind of conflict. The community meetings attracted between thirty and seventy-five residents for each brainstorming session and produced three alternative plans for the site (all at the same density and with no tower), including the names of experienced developers willing to build them.16 In the “new” New Orleans, such community engagement is supposed to mean something. It didn’t in this case. The community’s objections were loud, clear, reasonable—and ignored.

In contrast, the proposal’s developer, Perez Architects, APC, created favorable petitions with more than four hundred signatures, of which only twenty-one have been verified as authentic by community groups who tracked every signature on the petitions. They allege the petitions “contained unauthorized signatures of residents, duplicate addresses, addresses to vacant or abandoned properties, and false residency claims.”

Evidently, logic and fairness are easily lost in development politics. On October 27, 2014, the Lower Ninth Ward Vision Coalition sent a request to the state attorney general, James D. Caldwell, for a “formal investigation into allegations of public fraud.”

In the end, the developer dropped the height from 75 to 60 feet—but one should never call it a compromise when a developer drops from overwhelmingly too big to still too big and out of scale. And one should never call neighborhood resistance a form of NIMBY-ism (short for “not in my backyard”) when, as in this case, a community complies faithfully with public process and offers a reasonable alternative, only to see the process subverted. None of these offenses swayed the City Council.18 (One of the newest members, Jason Williams, bravely cast a “no” vote.)

Holy Cross dared to dream that the cynicism and corruption of the old, failed city had been washed away in the retreating floodwaters. Whether that is a dream deferred, and what it foreshadows for the next decade, remains to be seen.

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