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Memories fill the void on a block in New Orleans

December 25, 2006|Kevin Sack and Ann Simmons | Times Staff Writers

NEW ORLEANS — For blacks in New Orleans at the height of Jim Crow, there were few aspirations higher than owning one of the modest brick bungalows in Pontchartrain Park.

When postal workers and teachers and longshoremen wrote their last rent checks and moved into the newly developed subdivision, they crossed a portal directly into the middle class.

"It was something special," said Cherrylane Johnson, whose father, Thomas, bought a new four-bedroom house on Athis Court in 1962 for $18,000. "I remember as a child going to school, when another kid asked where you lived and you said, 'Pontchartrain Park,' that meant something."

Today, nearly 16 months after Hurricane Katrina submerged the neighborhood up to its rooflines, the Johnsons are the only residents back on their once-bustling block. As they wait for federal grants and rebuilding loans, 80-year-old Thomas, 56-year-old Cherrylane and her 22-year-old daughter, Taiese, reside in a pair of claustrophobic Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers in the frontyard on a now-darkened cul-de-sac.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday January 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Pontchartrain Park: An article in Section A on Dec. 25 about the New Orleans neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park included a photo of Donna Johnigan sitting on a porch, with a caption saying that she had returned home. The home Johnigan had returned to, and which was pictured, is not in Pontchartrain Park but in the B.W. Cooper housing project in New Orleans and should not have accompanied that story.

The squeals of bike-riding children are gone. There is no one to gossip with over the fence. Thomas Johnson, a retired postal worker, wards off isolation by maintaining his pre-Katrina routine, rising at 4:30 a.m., reading the newspaper over coffee, heading out for his morning walk, then returning to watch "Sanford and Son" reruns. Cherrylane Johnson, a third-grade teacher, has voluntarily taken on extra duties at school because they require her to stay late -- and away from Athis Court.

"You try to spend as much time as you can away from here," she said. "It's really pretty isolating, and rather scary."

This is how New Orleans' most devastated neighborhoods are being reclaimed -- one house at a time, a few on this block, perhaps none on the next, the resettlement driven by market forces with little government intervention. Despite the risk of future flooding, those returning to Pontchartrain Park want it this way. They didn't put their life's work and savings into this neighborhood only to have the city tell them they couldn't come home.

"People have a stake in the places where they lived," Cherrylane Johnson said. "If you owned your home, and this is where you lived and what you worked for, I don't think anyone should discourage you from living where you want."

Though the thwack of hammers suggests a neighborhood stirring to life, the revitalization of Pontchartrain Park has been halting. In the city planning district that includes the area, one-fourth of the pre-Katrina population had returned as of summer, according to the city's most recent estimates. That was the third-lowest rate among the 13 districts.

Cherrylane Johnson and the others who have trickled back, usually to the purgatory of trailer life, recognize that their neighborhood may never be the same. Many neighbors -- often original owners now in their 70s and 80s -- have left town with no intention of returning. Their once-tidy houses are turning to blight. With yards unmowed and littered with sodden belongings, the rodents roam where they please.

Urban planners assert that the cash-strapped city cannot possibly provide basic services to a population that, though half its pre-Katrina size, is scattered across a large area.

In Pontchartrain Park, as in other neighborhoods, schools have closed and students must travel long distances to others. Garbage pickup has been cut in half to once a week. The ball fields in the neighborhood's namesake park are choked with weeds, the backstops toppled and rusting. Makeshift street signs, painted on plywood in drippy letters, are propped up in medians.

This is the inevitable consequence, the planners say, of Mayor C. Ray Nagin's "laissez faire" approach to the city's recovery.

Earlier this year, a commission established by Nagin proposed that the city abandon some low-lying areas to green space, and identified Pontchartrain Park and other vulnerable neighborhoods as possible targets. Residents of those areas stormed City Hall meetings to voice their objections, and Nagin, who was facing reelection, sided with them.

He has since embraced as his guiding principle the idea "that everyone should be allowed to come home." Nagin has pushed the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild and improve the city's levees and floodgates, while acknowledging that New Orleans may not be adequately protected from flooding until 2010.

"He wants to repopulate the city," said Nagin spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett. "The mayor has been consistent in saying that residents should be able to come back and rebuild."

In fits and starts, Nagin has overseen an unwieldy planning process aimed at producing a detailed roadmap for neighborhood recovery by early in the new year. That plan may include a variety of financial incentives to encourage residents to cluster on higher ground. New federal regulations already require that some heavily damaged houses be elevated several feet when rebuilt.

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