The Persistence of Memory
In a lot of ways, New Orleans is a city that’s hard to forget.
The neverending debauchery and excess of Bourbon Street in the touristy French Quarter…Historic cemeteries filled with above-ground tombs for lineages dating back to the 1800s…The preoccupation and commercialization of all things voodoo, vampire, and witchcraft.
New York has it quirks, but as I learned during a weeklong trip, New Orleans is on a whole other level.
But strip away the cheap plastic beads and glittery masks and you’ll find a city that is neither ‘big’ nor ‘easy.’ In fact, the city is home to less than half a million residents–a population that’s been shrinking since before Hurricane Katrina and increasingly reliant on tourism, where labor needs are seasonal and hourly workers struggle to stay in the middle class.
In 2013, the median New Orleans household took in $37,000 annually (less than the $44,000 statewide) and more than a quarter of residents lived in poverty (compared to 19 percent statewide). While New Orleans is Louisiana’s biggest city and home to the fifth busiest U.S. port, it was recently ranked second nationwide in income inequality. New York, home of the “Occupy” movement, ranked 13th.
Last week, I witnessed firsthand what that gap looks like when I toured the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans with the director of a local non-profit called Lower Nine, which is continuing to rebuild homes Post-Katrina. The Lower Ninth Ward is an area far east of the gaudy French Quarter that sustained perhaps some of the worst damage in the city as a result of flooding from a nearby canal. It was made TV-famous in 2005 when the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina, which never made landfall in the city. Flooding was still so extensive that an estimated 80 percent of the city took on water at some point(see this flood map interactive by The Times-Picayune).
Today, 10 years later, the area is still a far cry from what it once was. Many homes are still vacant with windows boarded up and “Katrina crosses” spraypainted by relief responders still visible on their front entrances (see photo above for detailed explanation of a “Katrina cross”).
At first glance, entire streets look like vast grassy fields, but underneath the overgrown vegetation you’ll see a rectangular concrete slab indicating where a house once stood. On one block, many more slabs than actual standing homes. On another, a set of stairs leading to a porch and a house that is no longer there.
By the looks of it, you’d think the residents of the Lower Ninth had collectively given up–moved on to something or somewhere else. And in many instances, that is the case. Lower Nine estimates that only about a third of the original population in the area has returned permanently as of 2014. A look at census figures by the New Orleans-based The Data Center shows a pre-storm population in 2000 of roughly 14,000, and a 2010 figure just shy of 3,000.
During my trip, I stayed in nearby Bywater in the Upper Ninth Ward, home to a bohemian and up-and-coming (read: gentrifying) neighborhood of artists and assorted moonlighters. It was only a few bus stops from the Lower Ninth, but it might as well have been years away.
For those working and living in the region, the racial and socioeconomic divides of the Lower Ninth are impossible to ignore. Pre-Katrina, the ward was home to densely-populated communities of mostly black residents, including the historic Holy Cross neighborhood, with high rates of black home ownership. Today, the ward is still home to a predominantly black neighborhood, though much smaller than before.
Also in the ward are the Jackson Barracks, the walled-off section home to Louisiana’s National Guard. The barracks were rebuilt almost entirely from scratch using federal dollars totaling more than $300 million. The result is a pretty stately-looking base located right next to remnants of destruction from a decade earlier.
But it’s not to say that the area is all doom-and-gloom. On the day of my visit, we encounter a man mowing an overgrown lawn in front of two homes, one still boarded up. It is hot and humid and the man’s back is glistening with sweat as his mower struggles against towering weeds.
My guide rolls down her window and asks if the man has been cited–the city has been known to condemn or seize derelict properties and a few of the properties I saw that day did have demolition orders. The man explained that he was trying to move back home and had just finished restoring plumbing to the house and was planning to start electrical work. He also asked my guide for an application to apply for their rebuilding program, which uses volunteers to drastically cut labor costs.
The biggest logistical barrier to rebuilding, it turns out, is money. And for many of the Lower Ninth homes that are historic, including the distinctive shotgun-style buildings, rebuilding can be extra tricky because homes must be rebuilt based on preservation specifications.
And as my guide pointed out, the neighborhood is a food desert of sorts and lacks a grocery store where residents can easily and affordably purchase fresh produce. Some neighborhood schools have yet to reopen, and the demographics of the rebounding neighborhood are slowly morphing as developers gain interest in flipping properties or constructing complexes in the area on the cheap.
But Hurricane Katrina wasn’t the first storm to devastate the area, and some postulate it won’t be the last. The levees have been rebuilt and the area deemed safe by those in the community, but the growing prevalence of stronger storms and storm surges still lingers in the background of any low-lying area with a history of flooding. It’s possible those who have left and don’t intend on coming back saw the barriers to rebuilding as too high, the devastation too great, or simply found themselves better off somewhere else.
Rising sea levels due to climate change will also play a role in the larger future of coastal areas in southeastern Louisiana. A 2014 joint-report by The Lens and ProPublica found that a baseball field of land in areas outside of levees are lost to rising waters less than every hour. Many of these prone areas are also home to oil refineries.