New Orleans' razing craze aims to clear way for post-Katrina recovery
New Orleans is on a mission to raze thousands of properties abandoned after hurricane Katrina. Many are in neighborhoods, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, where poor and minority residents were concentrated.
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"Families should come home, but you can't come home to something that's not there," says Perrie Duplessis, an aspiring carpenter working on a home in the Upper Ninth Ward.Skip to next paragraph
While most agree that the sheer scope of blight is retarding the city's recovery, not everyone sees the bulldozer as the answer.
"The fact that New Orleans still has so many intact historic neighborhoods is a testament to the fact that we haven't had much good government, that we're not terribly efficient at tearing things down, and that there are huge proponents of preservation who say, 'Whoa, let's not just go crazy and tear everything down,' " says architecture historian Jane Brooks, chairwoman of urban planning at the University of New Orleans. "But you do have this particular problem since Katrina, where people are trying to rebuild next door to an abandoned property with weeds waist-high and rats, and it's not conducive for those putting sweat and money" into redevelopment.
But weeds and decrepit homes are not the main challenge for city planners, some experts argue. Rather, it's that the old social order has exploded, leaving a Katrina diaspora that is reluctant to return to darkened streets where commerce, social scenes, and property values have yet to revive.
"In the Ninth Ward especially, we're talking about a total collapse of a market, where all different aspects – socioeconomic, demographic, infrastructure, business – every system, including the social system, collapsed" as a result of Katrina, says Michelle Thompson, a demographer at the University of New Orleans. "It's a system that needed to be rebuilt, and all of it was not done in a comprehensive way. The unified planning process ... was great, but the implementation has not happened."
In the Lower Ninth Ward, empty lots now outnumber those with houses on them, according to a University of New Orleans website that tracks property data, and Professor Olshansky expects that some of that vacant land eventually will be reconfigured into parks.
To pursue his blight fight, Landrieu has stepped up code enforcement and increased tax lien foreclosures. Moreover, last month one of his top insiders, "blight czar" Jeff Hebert, a planner trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was appointed to lead the state-chartered New Orleans Redevelopment Authority – a sign that two entities that have butted heads in the past will be working more collaboratively. In another dramatic move, the city is taking possession of 3,600 properties handed over to the state as part of the Road Home recovery program.
As street resurfacing projects pick up, new schools and playgrounds open, and visible progress is made to eradicate blight, a sense of momentum is building in the Big Easy, city officials insist.
"Everybody has been waiting for this kind of work in New Orleans, and I think you're going to see great success," says Mr. Hebert.
Staff photographer Ann Hermes contributed reporting for this story.