New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward stirs and rebuilds
Three years after Katrina obliterated the community, a coterie of volunteers, including actor Brad Pitt, begins to repopulate these modest streets.
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"There's still a ton of work to do, but it's a huge success that the Lower Ninth is still the Lower Ninth – that the people who lived there before are coming home to live there again," says Brandon Darby, a cofounder of Common Ground, which set up free kitchens, a legal clinic, a health clinic, and a homeless shelter, and helped residents gut their houses in the months after Katrina.Skip to next paragraph
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In November 2005, Mr. Darby became perhaps the first person to return to the Lower Ninth after the flood. While the area was still under martial law and still closed to residents, he signed a lease on a flooded-out home a block from the massive levee breach and set up a headquarters for Common Ground.
"At the time, the authorities were not letting residents return, and there was talk that the Lower Ninth would not be allowed to rebuild," says Darby. "Now, most of that property is back in the hands of private owners, and eminent domain has not been used on a large scale. Common Ground's concept was that it could be rebuilt regardless of how much help the government offered, with the idea that volunteers and community groups could adopt a block, a street, a family."
That kind of decentralized redevelopment is exactly what has happened, notes Darby, an outcome that has critics.
As patchwork redevelopment continues across New Orleans, Dr. Colten believes an opportunity was missed to rebuild a smaller but safer city. He notes, however, that the Lower Ninth will be protected by a surge protection barrier being built by the Army Corps of Engineers at the juncture of the Intercoastal Waterway and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet canal, while the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is undertaking efforts to rebuild the wetlands east of the city that will serve as a natural defense against hurricanes.
From the beginning, Lower Ninth residents insisted to Make It Right planners that they should be part of rebuilding their community and have given their input during monthly meetings throughout the process. A job-training program in construction skills will put some of them to work building the houses.
Pitt attended nearly all of the early meetings, Guy says. "He was there – sometimes him and his old lady [Angelina Jolie], too, and all their kids," she recalls.
Guy's new two-story home, which stands on her original lot on Tennessee Street, resembles a traditional New Orleans shotgun house, but stands eight feet off the ground for flood protection and incorporates such "green" building technology as rooftop solar panels and energy-efficient appliances. To be eligible for Make It Right, residents must have owned their own home in the neighborhood before Katrina made landfall. With the average house costing between $100,000 and $174,000, most homeowners are contributing insurance payments on their previous homes, federal grants received through the Road Home program, and savings. Make It Right also offers forgivable loans of as much as $100,000 for residents whose own funds fall short.
Guy looks forward to spending the holidays in her own home for the first time since Katrina and is already planning her vegetable garden. "I used to have okra, squash, cauliflower, sweet potatoes – you name it. And next spring I'll be planting them again."