NEW ORLEANS — An outsider might look at the Lakeview neighborhood and see only collapsed homes, waterlogged living rooms, and moldy drywall and collapsed furniture stacked at curbsides.
Greg Jeanfreau, a native son of Lakeview, stands in the front doorway of his flood-damaged brick ranch house and sees opportunity.
"Yep, Lakeview is coming back -- and I want to be part of it," Jeanfreau said last week, stepping over storm debris in his front yard, where an abandoned pleasure boat lay rotting at the curb.
Jeanfreau, a voluble, cigarette-smoking entrepreneur born here 28 years ago, is a professional optimist -- a real estate agent in a market that has nowhere to go but up. He spends his nights on friends' sofas outside town, but spends his days trolling the ravaged neighborhood, scouting for bargains.
The outside world has heard a lot about the Lower 9th Ward, devastated when the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal levee collapsed during Hurricane Katrina six months ago.
Lakeview has remained relatively obscure, though it was hammered by walls of water unleashed by the breach of the 17th Street Canal levee.
The contrasts do not end there. The Lower 9th Ward remains a virtual ghost town, its homes in ruins and its future uncertain. Parts of Lakeview, by comparison, are humming with rebuilding, led by returning residents like Jeanfreau.
Before Katrina, the Lower 9th Ward was 98% black. Most of its 14,000 residents were evacuated to locations across the country, as many lacked the means -- such as cars and savings accounts -- to stay and rebuild.
Lakeview was 94% white and almost exclusively middle to upper class, with more residents who could afford to stay close. They had cars, could pay for hotel rooms or apartments, or had friends and relatives with enough room to take them in. The average household income in Lakeview is $63,000, compared with $27,000 in the Lower 9th Ward.
An estimated 400 to 500 families have moved back to Lakeview, home to about 9,800 people in 4,500 households before the storm. Most are living in government-issued trailers while gutting their homes. Among them is an elderly woman with "a baseball bat and a little dog that barks a lot," Jeanfreau said.
Lance Broussard, a genial special events planner, is living comfortably with his wife and daughter in his century-old Arts and Crafts home on Rosemary Place, where a handmade sign down the block reads "Rosemary Place -- Be Nice or Leave."
The collapse of the levee five blocks to the west flooded his basement, but did not reach living areas on his top two floors -- built 10 feet off the ground to withstand a 100-year flood, Broussard said. He moved back into his house a month ago, after persuading the city to reconnect his electricity.
Broussard is so confident of Lakeview's rebirth that he bought the damaged house behind his lot. He said he paid less than $100,000 for the house and lot, which would have sold for about $230,000 before Katrina. He plans to spend $30,000 on repairs, then rent the house for $1,100 a month.
"This neighborhood is coming back, count on it," Broussard said, relaxing on his raised porch, above an American flag and a banner that read "Rebirth." "These people don't quit. They're going to rebuild."
He said he believed his home, which he said was worth about $625,000 before Katrina and about $300,000 now, would gain in value as Lakeview was rebuilt. He and his wife, Amy, are on the lookout for a double lot in Lakeview where they can build their "ultimate dream house," he said.
Down the street, Steve Vicknair, 52, who grew up on Rosemary Place, has returned from Houston to rip out sodden walls and ceilings in the bungalow owned by his aunt Virgie Vicknair, 87. She wants to move back in as soon as he strips the interior, remodels and gets the utilities turned on.
"I'm not quitting -- and there's a lot more like me out here," Steve Vicknair said, choking on dust and mold as he tore out sheetrock with his bare hands.
Lakeview enjoys a prime location on New Orleans' western shoulder, along Lake Pontchartrain. It offers diverse housing, from cozy bungalows and shotgun houses, to stately double-storied homes with porches, to ostentatious "McMansions" near the lakefront. It's known for its canopies of live oaks, most of which survived the storm (though many magnolias did not).
Lakeview is more than a century old, but it boomed after World War II, when returning soldiers and their families used the GI Bill to buy starter homes on tree-lined streets in an area that has always felt more suburban than urban. Among them was a grandmother of Jeanfreau, the real estate agent.
Before Katrina, he rented the ranch-style home at Orleans Avenue and Polk Street in Lakeview, saving to buy a home in the neighborhood. Now he's sleeping on a sofa at the home of his girlfriend's parents in Baton Rouge, while trying to sell the gutted property for his landlady.