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From Afterthought to Civic Center

Algiers was a bit player in New Orleans before the hurricane. Largely intact, it's now a hub.

November 11, 2005|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — There are still refrigerators lining the curbs, waiting to be picked up, their doors taped shut to conceal festering messes. There are piles of shingles and insulation, and houses sealed with painted plywood that says "FRONT DOOR" where the front doors used to be.

But every evening in Algiers -- a sprawling, working-class district of bungalows, starter homes, churches and industry across the Mississippi River from the rest of New Orleans -- a fond and familiar portrait of a living city emerges.

Neighbors chat on their porches -- even, on occasion, about something that has nothing to do with Hurricane Katrina. There are joggers, people edging their lawns and, on one recent day, a 14-year-old girl sitting in front of her grandmother's house on a wooden swing that has hung from an oak tree for as long as she can remember.

"Except for all the trees that are down and the blue tarps on everybody's roofs, everything feels pretty normal," Catherine Heindel said, almost apologetically, as she swung her bobby-socked feet beneath her.

About 2 1/2 months after Katrina hit, much of greater New Orleans remains caked in mud. About 40% of the city is without power, and officials said this week that it could take another eight months to provide sewer service to a significant portion of the city.

Algiers, however, looks as if it were merely struck by a major hurricane -- which by local standards means that things here are pretty good.

For years, Algiers was a forgotten stepchild of New Orleans, so much so that many residents across the river didn't realize it was part of their city. Today, the district is the largest section of New Orleans that is relatively intact, and it has become a bustling nucleus of reconstruction, with a far loftier position in the civic structure.

"By the grace of God, Algiers was spared," said Evans Thibodeaux, 54, as he walked his German shepherd, Max, through the streets of a neighborhood called Old Aurora.

"People want to believe that New Orleans is going to come back right away and be what it was," said Thibodeaux, an offshore electrician for Chevron. "I've been over there. I have seen the miles and miles of devastation. There is nothing to come home to over there. This is one of the only places where you can come home. This is the only tax base New Orleans has."

After Katrina, this was the first district to reopen to residents. Algerines, as they are known, are coming home in droves.

At a recent town meeting in a church cafeteria, returning residents thanked those who had stayed behind. Their words sounded quaint against the backdrop of devastation across the river.

"Warren Muenster came by my house every other day and watered my plants!" one elderly woman told the crowd, eliciting a smattering of applause. Another man stood when she was finished: "I want to thank Vinny for crawling in my kitchen window and saving my goldfish."

Meanwhile, many whose homes elsewhere in New Orleans were destroyed are looking to start over here.

By mid-December, officials expect to open four public schools in Algiers. The first to open in the entire city since Katrina, they will be for any families that have returned to New Orleans, regardless of what district they live in.

There are an estimated 45,000 residents in Algiers, about half of the current population of New Orleans. Officials say the district soon will surpass its pre-Katrina population of 60,000 and likely will have 70,000 residents by January.

In a sense, Katrina returned New Orleans to its 18th and 19th century roots. Back then, the French Quarter -- the oldest neighborhood in the city -- was home to its aristocracy. Algiers was populated by the working class: carpenters and longshoremen and railroad engineers.

That dynamic, lost to time and growth and suburban sprawl, exists again because those two districts survived the storm better than others, said City Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, an Algiers resident.

"We built this city," she said. "And now we're going to build it again."

Algiers is as hemmed in by water, as is the rest of New Orleans. But the levee on the bank of the Mississippi held. The district also benefited from 2003 improvements made to levees containing the nearby Intracoastal Waterway and a canal that lines a primary thoroughfare, General DeGaulle Drive.

The district has its own power grid and only briefly lost electricity. It is also served by its own water and sewage system, which never failed.

In Algiers, Katrina's impact was limited largely to wind damage such as stripped shingles, toppled trees and collapsed brick walls.

As a result, Algiers immediately became the epicenter of the rescue and recovery effort.

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