One small bright spot in Katrina's aftermath: neighborhood loyalty

The commitment of residents to rebuilding has extended not just to a given city or region, but more narrowly to a neighborhood block.

Today's second anniversary of hurricane Katrina is an occasion to remember an enduring lesson from the storm's aftermath: Neighborhoods matter more than we had thought.

In the two years since the storm, residents of New Orleans and the broader Gulf Coast region have struggled, against formidable odds, to rebuild neighborhoods battered by the worst natural disaster in American history. In many cases, the loyalty of residents to the rebuilding effort has extended not just to a given city or region, but more narrowly to a neighborhood block.

Such geographical bonds, at so intimate a level, must come as a surprise to sociologists who have emphasized for decades the great mobility of the modern age. In the contemporary landscape of rapid transportation and global connectivity, or so we've assumed, people are willing to change their addresses almost as casually as they change their clothes, routinely moving thousands of miles in the bargain.

But the post-Katrina recovery, though still very much a work in progress, has affirmed the degree to which many storm survivors want to keep geographical roots intact, despite huge challenges in doing so.

Two years after the storm, more than 200,000 Louisiana residents are still displaced, according to Raymond Jetson of the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps, a nonprofit group assisting survivors.

But in the New Orleans neighborhood of Lakeview, directly in the path of flood waters when the Crescent City's levees failed after Katrina, signs of renewal have emerged, often driven by longtime residents who cannot think of living anywhere else.

This past spring's survey of the neighborhood by local civic groups concluded that some 40 percent of Lakeview's 7,000-plus homes are either occupied or under repair, a boost of 15 percent from last autumn's numbers.

What motivates the indomitable drive of many storm survivors to reclaim ground once widely written off as unsalvageable?

Economics has no doubt played a role. With so much equity invested in property compromised by Katrina, many homeowners may feel that staying put is their best financial option for now. Older neighborhoods of historic significance also create special rationales for rebuilding.

The homebody culture of Louisiana is another factor in the diehard nature of the recovery. As William Frey of the Brookings Institution noted after Katrina, 77 percent of New Orleans area residents are Louisiana natives, a native-born rate that far surpasses other Southern cities.

But beyond Louisiana, there appears to be a growing recognition that neighborhoods are the soul of vibrant communities – and that restoring troubled neighborhoods can be better than fleeing them.

In his recently published "The Great Neighborhood Book," author and social activist Jay Walljasper embraces a vision of neighborhoods as unique terrains rather than disposable commodities. He offers the vocation of neighborhood renewal, or "placemaking," as a source of spiritual and emotional renewal as well.

"The neighborhood is the basic unit of human civilization," Mr. Walljasper tells readers. "Unlike cities, counties, wards, townships, zones, and other artificial entities, the neighborhood is easily recognizable as a real place. It's the spot on earth we call home."

For many survivors of Katrina, home will always be a patch of ground touched by tragedy, yet bearing the promise of better days. Which is why Katrina's veterans continue rebuilding, block by beloved block.

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