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News Media Missed This New Orleans

By Clarence Page

NEW ORLEANS - Compared to other New Orleans neighborhoods, the Lower Ninth Ward is Pluto -remote, disrespected and feeling devalued.

Yet, unlike the recently re-designated "dwarf planet," the Lower Ninth still has advocates fighting to prevent its further demotion as a place worth saving, despite its being almost completely depopulated a year ago by Hurricane Katrina.

As I visited the city known as "the Big Easy" in the run-up to the August 29 anniversary of Katrina's landfall, the hard-hit Lower Ninth looks cleaned-up, but not by much. A vast tableau of battered houses, cars and trucks swept like toys up against or on top of one another can still snatch your breath away. Here the floodwaters from nearby broken levees ran 12 feet deep or more. Prairie grasses now grow on lots that once held wood-frame bungalows with neatly-trimmed yards.

Of the ward's former 20,000 residents only a few dozen remain in nicely refurbished houses with well-manicured lawns dotted here and there in the devastation. Cast in news accounts as a near-lost cause, saving the Lower Ninth has become a citywide rallying cry against a perceived tide of big rich developers eager to snatch valuable land out from under what's left of New Orleans' black community.

Black New Orleans has fought back. "We had Bill Cosby here," the Rev. Leonard Lucas of Light City International Ministries, said as he drove me around the ward in his SUV. "We had Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton here, too. There are people who want to wipe out the black presence in this city. The decision was made before Katrina to buy it (the land) all up. What they (the developers and their political cronies) did not foresee was the power of the black community coming together and fighting back."

Such is the legacy of decades of racial fears and resentments just beneath the surface of New Orleans' widely lauded multi-ethnic tranquility.

But Lucas wasn't satisfied with the city's black leaders, either. "I tried calling (Mayor Ray) Nagin's office the other day. They told me they were busy. I said, Hey, we put you back in office; now where are you?"

I met Lucas after he had just finished showing Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu some of the Lower Ninth Ward's unusual landmarks, including the home of rhythm-and-blues legend Fats Domino.

Lucas showed me a Lower Ninth Ward that defied the usual media stereotypes. Contrary to its media image as a den of poverty and crime, the ward was mostly a middle-class and working-class bungalow community with a 65-percent home ownership rate - one of the highest in the region. We visited some homeowners who have repaired their house and moved back in. Reinvestment is happening slowly, despite the city's sluggish political process.

His church, church school and the Subway sandwich franchise he operated were under 10-and-a-half feet of water after the storm. When I visited last week, the church was getting cleaned, the Subway was in mid-rehab and volunteers were handing out free food to the needy. The church's school is set to reopen in September in mobile classrooms.

Lucas was one of many New Orleaneans I met, black and white, who were upset with the failure of the Nagin administration to come up with an acceptable master plan for redevelopment. That delay has prevented the city, unlike the rest of the state's storm-damaged parishes, from receiving up to $7 billion in federal redevelopment funds.

New Orleans Council President Oliver Thomas told me he expects a final master plan early next year. Some homeowners aren't waiting. Those with the means are proceeding with their own repairs and rehabilitation, creating new realities on the ground before any new rules or plans are imposed upon them. Lucas is leading that charge.

"We have already gutted out more than a thousand houses in March," he said. "Now it is time to rebuild. Instead of depending on government, I am saying that you have to do it yourself. Like in the pioneer days, pull together with your neighbors."

With New Orleans now shrunk to less than half its pre-Katrina 450,000 population, neighborhoods already are competing for attention and resources in whatever development plan the city produces. Everybody wants to matter. Nobody wants to be like Pluto. The tenacity of those who are the first to return and rebuild is a sign that the city's future did not drown in Katrina. If the city harnesses the energy and ideas of those loyal neighborhood investors, old New Orleans may yet be replaced by a better one.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail: cptime@aol.com

(c) By The Chicago Tribune | Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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