NEW ORLEANS – Six weeks after Hurricane Katrina scattered them far and wide, the weary residents of New Orleans’ worst-hit neighborhood got a chance to glimpse their storm-ravaged homes for the first time on Wednesday.
Wearing boots, rubber gloves and paper dust masks, homeowners trickled back into the city’s lower Ninth Ward vowing to rebuild a community some have proposed bulldozing.
What they saw bore no resemblance to what they had left. Some houses had floated down the street and crumpled like matchsticks. Others stood intact, but exhaled a fetid breath of mold and decay when their doors were opened and residents cautiously peered inside.
But as they sifted through the chaos of toppled furniture and sodden mattresses to retrieve whatever valuables they could, many residents were simply happy to be home. And they chafed at media characterizations of the mostly-black Ninth Ward as a drug-ridden, irredeemable slum.
“Everybody paints the picture of all black people as wanting drugs and welfare,” said Joyce Hagan, who raised five children in the neighborhood on a cook’s salary. “The only drugs I’m on is blood pressure medicine.”
Stereotypes are damaging enough in the best of times. But they are dangerous when a community is competing with others for the resources to rebuild. While the lower Ninth Ward is, indeed, a low-income district with crime and drug problems, it is also a strong community where most people own their modest homes, have jobs and live responsible lives. They’ve done so for generations.
“They open the bars on Bourbon Street, but they can’t get the people in here,” said 47-year-old Larry Baham, whose house on Tennessee Street landed five lots away from its foundation. “Businesses talk about needing revenue. The people are the revenue.”
The Ninth Ward poses many of the Crescent City’s thorniest questions. Businesses badly need the workers who live in the area both as employees and as consumers. And many are hoping to move their families home so they can begin to rebuild their lives. But with no housing, there’s no place to put them if they choose to return. And with the Ninth Ward utterly destroyed in many areas, it’s not even clear where to start to rebuild.
“I know it’s difficult to be patient,” said Alberta Pate, Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s housing chief. “But we’re working on it.”
Driving through the worst-hit part of the neighborhood on Tuesday, Roland Doucette, the police department’s community liaison officer, explained that rebuilding this community has to start with bringing residents back to clean up their own city. Having worked as a patrolman in the worst New Orleans public housing projects for years, he’s convinced Nagin’s campaign to turn poor neighborhoods into middle-class enclaves will require encouraging those communities to take care of themselves.
“I’ve always believed that the way you fix things is you get inclusion,” Doucette said. “You gotta make them understand, this is not a giveaway – I don’t believe in giveaways. You have to help people but they have to have some buy in.”