Drive through the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an unoccupied home, save for a few straggling properties being fixed up for sale in a super-hot real estate market.
But just across the Industrial Canal, it’s a different story in many places. There, you’ll find a scattering of houses looking like the teeth of a jack-o’-lantern on broken streets lined with weed-choked lots.
While the region as a whole has emerged from the decade since the 2005 flood with an impressive 94 percent of the population it had before the storm, a closer look at the recovery shows an uneven picture.
Core neighborhoods are booming, having lured both returning New Orleanians and newcomers alike, while some parts of the city still seem barely unchanged since late 2005.
While the changes are far less severe than they might have been had city leaders heeded calls to abandon some neighborhoods altogether in the months after the storm, they still point to a challenging road ahead for some areas.
Almost all neighborhoods in the city west of the Industrial Canal had regained more than 70 percent of their pre-Hurricane Katrina households by 2015, with the main exceptions being the sites of the largely demolished former public housing complexes, according to a report from The Data Center, which tracks addresses receiving residential mail.
More than half of the neighborhoods were above 90 percent, and some actually had more households than before the storm.
At the same time, there has been far less activity in the Lower 9th Ward, though it has seen signs of improvement in recent years. New Orleans East has struggled as well, though not as badly as Lower 9.
That’s meant a stronger recovery along the high ground near the Mississippi River that saw little or no flooding.
The debate over the future shape of New Orleans was perhaps the most contentious issue facing the city in the months after the levees failed.
The fight over the physical size of the city came almost immediately after Katrina, centered around plans proposed by Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission. Four months after the storm, the commission publicly mulled abandoning huge portions of the city — represented by infamous “green dots” on the map — including much of New Orleans East, the Lower 9th Ward, parts of Gentilly and Broadmoor.
The reasoning was twofold: to concentrate residents so that neighborhoods were not left with only a handful of occupied houses and to move the city’s population away from the lowest-lying areas, while adding green spaces that could store water.
But many of the areas targeted for abandonment were poor and working-class black neighborhoods, and the plan prompted an immediate backlash. In the end, people were allowed to determine for themselves where to live. Some, however, argue that the early uncertainty continues to have ripple effects to this day.
Residents of areas hit hardest by the storm found themselves wondering whether any work they put in would be wiped away with the stroke of a pen that declared their homes off-limits.
“I think the green space discussion was harmful,” City Councilman James Gray says. “I guess intelligent people ought to be able to discuss anything, but when your leaders appear to be locked in a debate about whether you’re going to come back at all, it’s very difficult for a private citizen to rebuild. And it’s impossible for a businessman to invest millions of dollars if he doesn’t know if it’s going to be a swamp.”
Clustering by the river
Statistics on how the recovery has played out at the neighborhood level can be difficult to pin down. The last U.S. Census Bureau head count, the most reliable method, was in 2010. Many researchers extrapolate from those figures though other methods, such as The Data Center’s use of mailing addresses to calculate the number of households.
The post-flood era has seen more people cluster into areas near the river, while the city’s population more generally has shifted to the south and the west.
It’s less a function of people choosing those neighborhoods on their merits; rather, they simply moved to places that could accommodate them in the immediate aftermath of the storm, said Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella.
But some neighborhoods, especially those along the dry “sliver by the river,” have seen major demographic changes.
Bywater, for instance — a focus of post-storm gentrification — was a working-class neighborhood before the storm, when more than six in 10 of its residents were black. After the flood — whose waters stopped at St. Claude Avenue — the neighborhood’s makeup flipped, and Bywater soon became intrinsically identified with residents who had moved to the New Orleans area after the storm.
Now, white residents make up about 56 percent of its population. And incomes are up, too, with even low-end census estimates showing a 17 percent rise in earnings.
Gentrification, which has mostly run its course in Bywater, is starting to push toward the lake into areas such as St. Roch, which is beginning to fill up with newer residents.
The ‘white teapot’
Campanella has famously described the demographic patterns in New Orleans as a “white teapot,” with its kettle surrounding the universities uptown and its spout following the curves of the river through the Garden District, Central Business District, French Quarter and into Faubourg Marigny. As its name implies, the teapot is a majority-white area, and its residents tend to be wealthier than the rest of the city.
The pot has grown bigger since Katrina, with an expanding kettle and a spout that now stretches through the converted shotgun houses of a gentrified Bywater clear across the Industrial Canal and into the Holy Cross section of the Lower 9th Ward, Campanella said.
The lack of damage in those higher areas was key to the speed of their recovery. They were among the areas that most quickly regained large portions of their population by the time of the 2010 census, and they now represent most of the areas at full occupancy. They also fit neatly into national trends that have seen more young people moving into historic city neighborhoods.
“In general, the more financially empowered demographic that is here or wants to be here tends to gravitate to certain spaces,” Campanella said.
It may, in fact, stretch even further, though the traditional markers of gentrification are more difficult to discern in St. Bernard Parish.
Gentrification is typically a clash of both race and class; in its textbook version, wealthy white newcomers push poorer black residents from their neighborhoods. But race isn’t a strictly necessary component, as shown by a recent push of richer residents into suburban tracts of the white, working-class community of Arabi, at the very tip of the teapot’s spout, Campanella said.
Outside the white teapot and away from the city’s highest ground, other neighborhoods have succeeded in tougher environments.
Broadmoor, for instance, now has about 85 percent as many households as it did pre-Katrina, even though it was once seen as a candidate for parkland.
“I think we’ve answered that question decisively,” said Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who was head of the Broadmoor Improvement Association after the storm.
The association galvanized residents to return, working with volunteer groups who came to town to aid the recovery and pushing for projects like the rebuilt Rosa Keller Public Library and the new Arts and Wellness Center, in the former St. Matthias School, which includes community spaces and counseling services and will rent space to holistic healers.
The library, complete with the cheekily named Green Dot Cafe, bustles with activity, even on weekdays, a far cry from the temporary trailer set up on the site after the storm. Nearby, residents are fixing up homes on blocks that have already seen many of their neighbors return.
The process was guided by community plans made in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
Broadmoor has seen changes that are more subtle than in other areas. Mirroring the city as a whole, the neighborhood’s African-American population declined from 68 percent to 61 percent by 2010. Meanwhile, income levels increased — but not the dramatic increases tied to displacement seen in other areas.
“We’re focused on being better than before,” Cantrell said. “In no way can we be satisfied or are we giving up.”
The hardest-hit areas are not as far along in the process of recovery, though there have been some gains.
New Orleans East, for example, has been picking up residents more quickly of late. The Data Center’s analysis of residences receiving mail found that between 2010 and 2015, the area gained more than 3,710 households, an increase of nearly 18 percent. The city as a whole grew by just 12 percent during that time.
Many areas within the vast neighborhood saw growth of more than 20 percent in those years. Now the East has about 79 percent as many addresses receiving mail as it did before Katrina — almost as high a proportion as Broadmoor.
Gray, who represents New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward, credited both government and market forces for the recent gains, citing the opening of the New Orleans East Hospital and a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Bullard Avenue last year as signs of the recovery.
The Lower 9th Ward remains in a more embryonic stage, though Gray said he’s optimistic about its future.
By 2010, fewer than 5,600 people had returned to the Lower 9, or about 28 percent of the pre-storm population. The section on the lake side of St. Claude Avenue has suffered the most, with only about a third as many households receiving mail in that area in 2015 as before the storm.
That’s left many blocks that appear to be little more than prairie. North Galvez Street, a major artery that is set to be repaired, is cracked and pitted with huge potholes and dotted with mounds of asphalt that would dwarf a speed bump.
Around it, tall weeds have overtaken the lots, waving around the empty foundations of homes washed away. The view in many areas is uninterrupted for blocks; even the blighted buildings that remain as scars in other areas are absent, accentuating the haunting emptiness.
Even in more populated sections of Lower 9, the combination of overgrown vegetation and roads treacherously broken even by New Orleans standards gives an impression of desolation rather than recovery.
Some of the factors that made the Lower 9th Ward appear on paper to be a strong neighborhood have proven to be its greatest challenges after the storm.
For instance, it had a high homeownership rate, with many residents living in houses that their families had owned for generations.
But because the homes were paid off, there was no requirement they be insured. And the tangled heirship behind many of the houses meant that if insurance or Road Home money did come through, title problems could arise.
“It was a close-knit community that functioned really well, but all of a sudden the things that made it close-knit, mainly that those houses had been in the families for generations, made it hard to come back,” Gray said.
Kim Ford, a neighborhood activist, said a lack of rebuilding help and a dearth of jobs kept many members of the community from returning. City agencies haven’t done enough either, Ford said, adding that the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority needs to be more aggressive and that the streets are a disgrace.
“We’re still suffering and fighting to recover,” Ford said.
Which comes first?
As in other struggling areas, development in the Lower 9th Ward is something of a chicken-and-egg problem. Residents are understandably reluctant to move to an area that lacks businesses and amenities, but businesses won’t open until there’s a larger customer base.
Gray said the rebuilding of government infrastructure will help by providing amenities that encourage residents to come back. He pointed specifically to the Sanchez Recreation Center, which opened earlier this year; the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School; and other projects, such as road paving and the construction of a new fire station.
“The infrastructure spending per capita in the Lower 9 equals or exceeds anywhere in the city,” he said.
In addition, Gray said, there have been discussions about commercial developments, including a possible grocery store, something the area has lacked since long before Katrina. While he said he couldn’t go into details, he said the next two years could see real growth.
“If you were studying the map of New Orleans trying to figure out what’s a good place to be, you’d think the Lower 9 would be high on your list,” Gray said, noting that it’s cheaper than options on the other side of the Industrial Canal. “I think people are going to look at it that way going forward.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.