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The Nation

Rebuilding after Katrina, one memory at a time

March 28, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Today, the Lower 9th Ward is a dreary landscape of deserted brick and wood-frame structures, concrete slabs where homes once stood, unshaded streets and sidewalks buckled by uprooted live oaks and weeks of standing water. At night, a graveyard silence is broken only by the skittering of rats.

It is about as inhospitable a place as exists in post-Katrina New Orleans.

And yet sisters Tanya Harris and Tracy Flores are moving back.

To them, the "Lower 9" is still beautiful. In her mind's eye, Harris is fishing with her grandfather in Bayou Bienvenue at the end of the street where his house stood. She and her sister are sitting on his front porch "door-popping," their grandfather's term for playful gossip and people-watching.

Harris and Flores, whose feisty, stubborn devotion to their neighborhood has become well known to City Hall since the storm, are determined to reclaim the neighborhood that nurtured five generations of their family.

Their efforts may seem quixotic to people who know the Lower 9th Ward only from TV news: block after block of houses flooded to their rooflines, and people waving frantically for rescue atop their homes. After the waters receded, crumpled houses had been ripped off their foundations by the wall of water that burst the levee, and lay strewn about, some on top of one another.

Almost entirely African American and working class, the neighborhood became symbolic of an economic divide, in which the have-nots were stranded, overlooked by their own government to the point that foreign nations offered their help.

But to many people who lived there, the Lower 9th is not a symbol. It is a 22-block neighborhood, once home to 19,000 people. It had a significant percentage of owner-occupied homes, a core of closely knit longtime residents and even its own celebrity: pioneering rock-'n'-roller Fats Domino. (Domino, who remained in his home during Katrina until being rescued, is rebuilding and expects to move back by summer.)

And it had families like Harris' and Flores'.

Before Katrina, Harris, 31, and Flores, 34, were next-door neighbors in lookalike reddish brown and tan brick ranch homes. Their cousin Vernine Veasley owned the house on the corner, and another cousin, Inez Ellis, lived one block over. Josephine Butler, their grandmother, was less than two blocks away in a wood-frame Craftsman bungalow that her husband built in 1949. At least a dozen more relatives lived throughout the Lower 9th, which spans two square miles.

Flores finished renovating her flood-ravaged house in December and moved back in with her two children. They're the only family currently living on her block. "I hope to serve as a beacon of hope to my neighbors," Flores said. "I want them to see it can be done."

Harris is the midst of repairs to her home. And last month, Butler, their grandmother, moved into one of the first new houses to be built in the Lower 9th Ward since Katrina.

Butler and Gwendolyn Guice, her neighbor of 25 years, were given keys to houses designed by architecture students from Louisiana State University, mold and termite-resistant elevated wood-frame structures built to withstand 160-mph winds.

Volunteers and paid laborers built the homes, for which a housing advocacy group secured financing through Countrywide Bank.

The houses -- one painted beige, the other powder green -- stand against the Katrina-scarred terrain: abandoned skeletons of buildings, missing street signs and pockmarked pavement.

But none of the surrounding blight deterred Butler from returning to the neighborhood she has called home for almost 60 years. "I've been here for so long, I just enjoy being here," said the 84-year-old woman whose quick step and nearly smooth skin belie her age.

A close community

What is now a stark ruin was once a scene of promise.

Originally a cypress swamp with plantations running along the Mississippi River, by the early 1900s the Lower 9th was settled by working poor African Americans and immigrants from Italy, Ireland and Germany.

Separated from New Orleans proper by the Industrial Canal and completed in 1923, "it was always looked at as not as important as the rest of the city," said Nilima Mwendo , a researcher and community activist who is also a former Lower 9th resident. "I call it the stepchild of New Orleans."

Out of that isolation and neglect grew resilience and a particular community closeness, Mwendo said. "There was still that rural feel," she recalled. "It was almost like when you crossed the Industrial Canal, you were coming into another country."

Harris and Flores' maternal great-grandmother moved to the then-sparsely populated Lower 9th in the 1940s, after the death of her husband. Ophelia Hugle Short worked cleaning stately homes along prestigious St. Charles Avenue for $3 a week.

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