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Hurricane Katrina anniversary: Can New Orleans' new mayor revive the city?

Mitch Landrieu wasn't mayor of New Orleans when hurricane Katrina hit. But he is now, and at the five-year Katrina anniversary, residents are looking to him to move the city forward.

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Yet 50,076 homes remain "blighted" – 23 percent of the city's residential addresses, according to "The New Orleans Index at Five," a Brookings Institution report. That's down from one-third of the city's residences being deemed blighted in 2008, but it still puts New Orleans far behind other economically troubled cities such as Flint, Mich.; and Detroit.

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Blight was a problem even before the storm, but Katrina accelerated it, says Sam Rykels, assistant secretary of the Louisiana State Museum. New Orleans' historic character is now "in precipitous decline," and it will take considerable "political will" to change the city's property rights laws so decaying buildings can be reclaimed, says Mr. Rykels.

Resident Ms. Taylor of the Lower Ninth Ward has her home back thanks to Make It Right, the foundation created by actor Brad Pitt – and for that she is grateful. But sitting in her home directly across the street from the portion of the levee that broke in 2005, she feels almost as though she is living on a remote Midwestern homestead, not the middle of the Big Easy. The house sits amid silent plots of untamed grass.

"It's hard to have faith in politicians here," says Taylor. "I have no neighbors. My kids have no kids to play with. You can't even get the city to cut the grass."

It's now Landrieu's job to cut the grass, find neighbors, and rejuvenate the Lower Ninth. In short, he has to win the hearts and minds of residents like Taylor.

Says John Frye, a Bourbon Street Lucky Dog vendor, "[Landrieu's] got a big mess to clean up."

The mayor started by targeting a New Orleans staple: corruption. Landrieu slashed the salaries of city council members, oversaw the auditing of the city's budget, created stricter rules for use of city-owned vehicles, and redrafted the system for dealing with outside contractors. He also announced 138 projects to upgrade fire departments, libraries, recreation centers, and health clinics.

Moreover, he's named a reform-minded police chief, and he says he is investigating how and when governance of the city's public schools should be transferred back to local officials. State officials have run the school system since Katrina, with students showing dramatic improvement.

But his grander plans involve hopes of broadly recasting New Orleans' economy. And he is blunt about what needs to happen to make that a reality: better schools and lower crime.

"Everybody comes down and says, 'I love the people, it's real, there's nothing false about that place … but the crime is high, the schools are no good, and you can't make a living,' " he says. "No matter how many tax incentives I give away, if the city's not safe and the city doesn't produce smart people that can [fill] the jobs, I could give them away and [businesses] still wouldn't come."

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