While New Orleans was still submerged in water, business developer Pres Kabacoff suggested remaking the city into an “Afro-Caribbean Paris.” One city official told reporters that New Orleans would now be the Hollywood of the South, a hotspot for filmmakers and tourists. In all this chatter, however, one spot of New Orleans quickly rose to the top of the debate: the Lower Ninth Ward.
Squeezed between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, the Lower Ninth Ward was home to 14,000 people, 98 percent of whom were Black. More than a third of them lived in poverty, but nearly 59 percent of residents owned homes that had been in their families for generations—at least since the end of World War II, when Black veterans settled there. The houses were built on the most vulnerable of lands, what was originally swamp land.
Today, the Lower Ninth Ward has become symbolic of whether New Orleans will be turned from a black majority city into a white one. In January, the city’s rebuilding commission recommended giving residents a year to rebuild any neighborhood regardless of safety concerns. This move would leave political officials unaccountable. Since the city won’t promise financial assistance or even open schools and health care, it would basically say: if you have the money to rebuild, then go ahead. The proposal was a slap in the face since many poor residents had not even been able to afford to leave the city on their own, let alone now return to it.
Activists in the Ninth Ward claim that the bulldozing has actually already begun, but that is difficult to prove since the Lower Ninth was officially closed to the public for three months. But many buildings have been tagged by the city as uninhabitable, and in nearby St. Bernard Parish, 320 buildings have officially been slated for demolition.
In the Ninth Ward itself, the issue of rebuilding has become controversial even among organizers, who can’t agree on what would be best for the Black neighborhood. Some are calling to bring poor, Black folks home from the many cities where the government has scattered them. Other activists, however, insist the city isn’t safe enough. Some are even questioning what, exactly, anyone would be coming home to.
Is It Safe?
Bringing people back to the Lower Ninth Ward is nihilistic, according to Russell Henderson, an organizer with the Rebuilding Louisiana Coalition, a grouping of small businesses and neighborhood associations. Henderson says that the same edict goes for Lakeview, another neighborhood that was devastated by the hurricane but which is home to middle-class whites. Both neighborhoods should be converted into wetlands, says Henderson, a white social policy professor at Dillard University.
Henderson takes issue with activists who want to bring people back to the Lower Ninth. “All of this discussion about bringing people back to the death zone is closing off discussion about what the real issue is—which is getting people to secure and safe ground,” he says.
Other organizers wonder what there is left to come home to. The Lower Ninth Ward had failing schools. Twenty-nine percent of residents didn’t have a high school diploma. “We fight to hold onto stuff that’s no longer working,” says Barbara Major, a Black community organizer who has been appointed to the mayor’s rebuilding committee and whose own home in New Orleans East was destroyed by the flooding.
Fear of future flooding isn’t the only issue. Environmental advocates warn that it’s hard to tell how safe the city is for people to be cleaning up their homes and rebuilding. For three months, city officials refused to open the Lower Ninth Ward to the public, citing safety concerns, including that buildings might be in danger of collapsing. For Tanya Harris, a Black organizer with ACORN and resident of the Ninth Ward, these concerns for safety have been used as tactics to keep poor, Black folks out of their neighborhoods. The wealthy Lakeview area was open to homeowners much sooner, and “they’re not being told that they’re contaminated,” she says.
Harris readily acknowledges that Lower Ninth residents need to know about environmental hazards, but she wonders why city officials aren’t concerned with other neighborhoods. “The floodwaters that washed over them are the same flood waters that washed over us,” she says.
Organizers like Harris attribute their suspicion of city officials in part to historical precedents. In 1927, city officials had two parishes agree to be flooded so that the rest of city could be saved. The parishes were promised compensation that never arrived. The Lower Ninth also flooded with Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Although the city was not found responsible for the flooding as it was in 1927, city officials did very little to help revitalize the area. As a result, businesses fled the Lower Ninth, worsening an already dismal situation.
For some activists, gentrification is what’s making rebuilding a topic for debate. The discussion today is not what it was after Hurricane Betsy, according to Brandon Darby, a white organizer with Common Ground Collective, a grassroots group of volunteers from across the country. “The difference is that now people in power want this area,” he says. “They didn’t want this area in 1965.”
Rebuilding for Whom?
Henderson believes that the real issue is getting people to secure ground. His group has identified vacant parking lots in the city that could be converted into land for trailer parks. There, he believes, residents from the Lower Ninth and from Lakeview can live side-by-side during the rebuilding process—an idea that seems to many to be idealistic, or naïve.
But Henderson insists that “the only way we’re going to build a new New Orleans is to be idealistic.”
Officially, there are two rebuilding commissions, one led by the mayor of New Orleans and the other by the governor; it remains to be seen how they will collaborate. Activists have charged that the city commission, Bring New Orleans Back, is not representative of the city. It is made up of business developers, with the exception of Major, who was the founder and director of St. Thomas Health Services, a nonprofit clinic that served 14,000 uninsured patients in some of the areas most affected by Katrina.
Major points out that some people are not going to return to New Orleans. Many may have found better conditions elsewhere. When it comes specifically to the Ninth Ward, she has mixed feelings about how to move ahead.
“People love the Ninth Ward,” Major says, “but the reason that we built there is because we couldn’t build any place else.” She bought her home there 20 years ago for $42,000. “That’s the only place I could afford a house. I couldn’t afford a house Uptown.”
By contrast, Harris has no mixed feelings about rebuilding the Ninth Ward. She notes that ACORN has already been helping their organization’s members access their homes and clean them out. The plan is to clear the land of debris so that FEMA trailers can be put there, she says.
She agrees that the Lower Ninth Ward was where Blacks were allowed to live in a segregated South, but she points out that this doesn’t mean the land is uninhabitable. “Before Blacks lived here, whites lived here,” she says. “When my grandmother moved into the neighborhood in 1950, the neighborhood was almost exclusively white.”
For Darby with Common Ground, the first steps to rebuilding are already taking place. He claims that between 100 and 150 people come by the organization’s center every day for supplies to clean their homes. They have set up a tool lending library in addition to a distribution point for food, water and cleaning supplies, including bleach and gloves.
Ultimately, the Lower Ninth will be rebuilt, whether as a flood basin, housing for poor Black families or something else. But if progressive forces don’t cooperate across their different visions, the moneyed class is sure to win.