Bouncing Back: The Struggle for Rebirth
New Orleans Residents Resolve to Return Despite Challenges
April 25, 2007 7:20 PM
On the Easter Holiday, nearly 18 months after Hurricane Katrina-induced flooding devastated New Orleans, hundreds of local residents came to party Big Easy style in the uptown neighborhood known as Pigeon Town as they've done for decades.
Although Second Line parades happen on most Sundays, this was the first one on Easter since Katrina.
The parade, a generations-old black community tradition originally formed by people who would follow the city's renowned jazz funerals to hear infectious brass band rhythms without knowing the deceased person personally to form a "second line," preceded under tenuous pressure.
Many New Orleanians that came out to parade still live in Houston, Dallas and Atlanta while those that have returned are likely living with relatives, in FEMA trailers or in other temporary housing.
Unlike most Second Lines before Katrina, revelers danced and sang amid the hundreds of damaged homes left standing, still crumbling and shifted from their foundations. The Original Pigeon Town Steppers, a social aid and pleasure club, along with The Hot 8 Brass Band performed.
Most people-whether at the parade-in their damaged homes, while volunteering for community organizations or on the job-voiced a devout determination to return to and rebuild the city, to improve their living conditions, and to demand that officials cut the red tape they say slows aid to their communities.
While New Orleans is still a broken city, the residents seemed anything but resigned to a broken fate.
The parade, as in most aspects of daily life in post-Katrina New Orleans, continued despite a backdrop of serious concerns: will the bulk of middle and low income residents be able to return in the face of the slow recovery and will the spike in the murder rate, one of the nations highest, continue to plague the city?
The problems hit close to the Second Line. The Hot 8 Brass Band lost 25-year-old drummer Dinerral Shavers in December to gunfire and The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported over 55 people were murdered thus far in 2007 with the current population at about half pre-Katrina levels.
In addition, the New Orleans Police Department recently increased the parade's escort fees from $1200 in 2005 to $2143 due to past shootings at Second Lines.
NOPD first demanded a whopping $7560 until a federal judge approved a deal between the club and NOPD negotiated by American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, according to “Rollin’” Joe Henry, president of the club.
Henry, who has been "second-lining" with the Steppers for 13 years, said the club would have had to cancel if NOPD didn't relent on the higher fees.
"You look at the people here and you think everybody’s back but they’re not all back, they just really miss this," Henry said.
Henry said that last year’s Easter Second Line was cancelled due to raised fees and that in the last year the Second Line Sunday parades go down almost every week and attendance has picked up. He refused to miss this Easter.
“Every Sunday shows a sign that New Orleans is coming back,” Henry said.
"It’s hard but it coulda never been better, basically just everyone’s tryin’ to find somewhere to live," Yolanda Brown, 30 said while taking a break from dancing in the street. “That’s what it’s about,” said Henry’s partner, Sylvester Harry, clad in full baby blue and cream colored tux. “Keeping our culture alive.”
The principal of the only high school open in the Ninth Ward, formerly New Orleans’ most populated district, works each day to foster a sense of stability for his students.
“There is always a need to come back when you’re taken out in the middle of the night, this whole city is kinda in that mold,” Allen T. Woods, principal of Fredrick Douglass Senior High said.
Woods, a jovial man of large stature and warm voice, evacuated to Atlanta just after the floods engulfed his house. There he taught until he learned the Louisiana- administered Recovery School District needed a principal at Fredrick Douglass.
Coming home is one thing, but the basic realities and challenges of revitalizing an education system in what many call a ghost town persist.
Buses now bring students to Fredrick Douglass from across the Mississippi River, and from the Uptown and Gentilly districts where before the majority lived in the neighborhood.
New Orleans lost many teachers after the storms and for about 60 percent of the school’s current faculty, this is their teaching crash course. Six high schools are currently open compared to 20 before the catastrophe.
“We’re starting at minus zero, trying to get to 200 and it’s a task,” he said.
Woods estimated that since the school opened last September at least 30 percent of all his students call home “some form of other situation” such as lumped with aunties and friends or living in hotels and FEMA trailers, often without adult supervision.
Woods said the city needs federal Road Home money to reach residents, which would allow recipients to get back on their feet and would stimulate more people to return.
The Road Home program includes $7.5 billion in federal aid designed to give eligible homeowners up to $150,000 each. The federal government appointed Louisiana to handle applications and deliver the funds. It is the largest single housing program in U.S. history, according to its Web site.
“It (Road Home) has over 120,000 applicants and they’ve awarded less than 5,000 checks in almost two years. That’s ridiculous, we’d never get back at that rate,” Woods said.
Woods said the program is too arduous because recipients were required to show proof of home ownership often lost in the floods and to turn in repair receipts rather than receive one lump sum in aid.
Hoping to speed up the process, Road Home officials approved of one-lump payments earlier this month, according to a recent Road Home press release.
“They treat you like a child and that’s the main thing holding us back,” he said.
Woods noted the recovery’s leadership continually disappoints his community, citing a lack of political pressure from the American public, overspending on the Iraq War, and leaders from President Bush's now famous fly-over the Gulf Coast on down to Mayor Ray Nagin's slips of the tongue. Yet he remained optimistic.
“We feel good to be here with all our problems. This is our city,” he smiled.
Volunteers worked with the organization Replant New Orleans, planting new grass seeds on the front lawn of Fredrick Douglass High, where workers dumped debris for the better part of the last 18 months.
The organization, headed by executive director and SF State alumna, Hillary Strobel, strives to not only detoxify the soil, trees, and plants, but also to be a link in rebuilding the community.
After completing her Masters of Arts in Social Science: Interdisciplinary Studies at SF State, Strobel, 29, literally replanted herself in New Orleans where she teamed with Theo Eliezer, who has been a resident of New Orleans for eight years.
Strobel and Eliezer work throughout the city at no charge, using plants to gradually remove heavy metals from the soil, a process called phytomremediation. The organization partnered with principal Allen T. Woods to add a component to the curriculum to teach how the process works, they said.
"We are basically died hard fruit cake environmentalists," said Eliezer, 24, an Interdisciplinary graduate of International Traditions of Healing at Warren Wilson College in Asheville North Carolina.
The pair, who live off donations, organize plantings in private yards, medians, and parks. They often ride bikes to meet more residents and community leaders or sometimes just to lend an ear.
"There's a huge sense of community in New Orleans and people really come together," Strobel said.
Seventh Generation, the eco-friendly household product company, offered Replant New Orleans a $25,000 grant to continue their work, including the Earth Day unveiling of "Peace Park," which will have 20 food-producing trees, new soil and will employ one local young person to take care of the park for a year.
They plan to continuously organize volunteers from all over the nation, while encouraging locals to care for each planting they undertake.
"It looks like we're going to be here working on the grass roots level for the long haul," Eliezer said.
As the flood waters receded much of New Orleans was left a chaotic wreck of debris. In garbage piles along the streets people began to scavenge "flood bikes" for residents and volunteers often out of necessity.
These were piecemealed together to provide transportation in the post-Katrina nightmare, now they've evolved into something else: a way for kids in the Upper Ninth Ward to be a kid.
As many neighborhood families that have returned are trying to get back to square one, there's little for young kids do to in the area. "We try to be an outlet for their creativity without pressure," Lani Bemak, a volunteer said.
Rusted Up Beyond All Recognition Bikes (RUBARB) is now a volunteer-run bike shop where local kids come to build their own bike, work on art projects or just hang out.
The shop, decorated with colorful how-to-fix graphics and murals along with children’s art projects, has a four-step process where participants must first patch a bike tire, overhaul a wheel, then take apart and resemble an entire bike from scratch and finally "beautify" the shop. In the end it allows a kid to pedal off with their own bike for free, sort of.
"We don't like to just give stuff away. We really want the kids to be engaged," Bemak said.
Normally after the kids go through the process they become return visitors so the volunteers try to have something they can do every time they come around.
Kids tinkered with greasy cogs and chains while a ragga style dirty south song kept a few heads moving.
"OK now do you wanna water the plants before you go home," Bemak said as two little girls with dirty hands eagerly volunteered. They scooted outside looking for a bucket and some plants to douse.
As 6-year-old D'lani Wilson watered flowers outside she proudly pointed at her new bike. She later said her family's evacuation was "fun" due to an exciting helicopter ride.
RUBARB runs from donations and it's main volunteers keep side jobs to stay afloat. Volunteer Elizibeth Lichtman talked of the next big project: getting a water cooler in anticipation of the hot summer with lots of people hanging out, working on bikes.
Bemak, 25, who came to New Orleans to volunteer about a year ago from San Francisco said RUBARB's volunteers take the kids to the zoo or Jean Lafitte National Park for fieldtrips and plan more outings.
"It's discouraging to see the way New Orleans has been neglected on a mass scale by the government but it's really inspiring the way the people are coming together," Bemak said.
Projections for New Orleans’ full recovery range from 15 to 30 years but by most accounts the city will not be the same. While the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the city’s black population was 67.3 percent in 2000 The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that number was down to 22 percent by the end of 2006. In addition The Times-Picayune reported the city is becoming more affluent and older.
Just up Gallier Street from RUBARB Helen and John Legier, with their son Keven Legier came from outside the city to work on their house for a few hours one afternoon. A line of dirt across the front door about 8 feet off the ground revealed where the floodwaters had settled for over two weeks.
The Legiers were resting on the front stoop of the house they bought 35 years ago, looking through old photos they found. Each time they returned to mow the lawn and survey some belongings (many of their appliances were stolen) they checked to see who came back to the block.
They said it helps to see more people come back as neighbors walked and drove by, often stopping for a quick chat that was likely a first reunion since Katrina.
"I'll give it one more hurricane, after that I'm gonna leave New Orleans," Helen, 65, said, I can't do this again."
She recalled when they evacuated to Salt Lake City, then on to Oklahoma, and Lancaster, Calif. after days without water crammed in a sweltering hotel downtown near the now infamous New Orleans Convention Center.
"You saw bodies in the water, it felt like the world was gonna end."
Mr. Legier, 67, said the city requires all homeowners in the Upper Ninth Ward to raise their homes on stilts by 6 feet to avoid future floods. He said the city offered to pay the $50,000 for the lift but his wife doesen't want to climb the steps.
"Why don't they fix that levee enough? They fixed Florida right up after their hurricanes. Then Mrs. Bush said we might of never lived better than when we were evacuated, Helen said. "Well I couldn't believe she had the nerve to say that."
Inside their gutted and ransacked home Kevin, 38, found a framed photo as his mother detailed the renovations they did the summer before it would all be destroyed. Their insurance company offered them $20,000 while they had just spent $10,000 on improvements, she said.
The photo was of Mr. Legier and his seven brothers at a family reunion.
"We all grew up together around the corner and they are still there. I don't know if she wants to stay but I hope we do," John said.
“Oh yes I’m one of the Superdome people,” Cynthia Barrow introduced herself. Barrow grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest hit sections of the city where entire blocks are left without a trace of the life before.
Barrow, 56, returned to her neighborhood last November after staying in Texas shelters to find her previous house, which she rented for $350, completely destroyed. She now rents a tattered and warped Shotgun style house a few blocks away for $750 with her husband.
“Around the corner they’re renting a house like this for $1500, nobody here makes that kind of money.”
She explained that reliable employment for her two sons is hard to come by since Katrina along with grocery stores and hospitals.
“We're both disabled and we used to be able to take the bus around to get where we need but now you gotta have a car.”
Barrow said her mother was buried in the area and she wouldn't feel at home somewhere else. She contemplated her disdain for seeing her children struggle to make ends meet.
"I'm sorry for them but some things are made better when you got to struggle," she said.
Visit The Hot 8 Brass Band @ http://www.tipsevents.com/foundation/coop/hot8/
Learn more about the Rome Home Program @ http://www.road2la.org/
Visit Replant New Orleans @ www.replantneworleans.org
Visit RUBARB @ www.rubarbike.org/
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