Where I’m walking: On Tennessee Street in the Lower 9th Ward, in the area targeted by Make It Right. I am on a long, continuous block with house numbers in the 1900s and 2000s. On the north is North Galvez Street; on the south, North Prieur Street. I walk the even numbered (west) side of the street, where the morning sun is illuminating facades.
I’m just a few blocks away from the site where the poorly designed and built floodwall on the east bank of the Industrial Canal collapsed 10 years ago, unleashing a tidal wave into the Lower 9th Ward, and carrying with it a stray barge that flattened houses and a school bus. The force of the water scraped two or three blocks closest to the canal clean of houses and cars, piling them up on top of one another so violently that it gave rise to a mistaken theory that the floodwall had been dynamited.
Why I’m here: It’s simple: I want to see how the Lower 9th Ward is faring 10 years after Hurricane Katrina. It may not be fair to other neighborhoods that flooded just as badly, but the Lower 9th Ward became synonymous worldwide with the storm’s devastation, an international icon for the death, damage, and utter destruction loosed on New Orleans.
The neighborhood also figured prominently in debates about rebuilding and whether it would be safe to rebuild in an area below sea level (until everyone figured out that if the levees are right, we’re all safe, and if they aren’t, none of us are).
Unlike residents of other flood-ruined neighborhoods, those in the Lower 9th Ward were under a “look and leave” order until May 2006. That fact alone put its recovery nine months behind every other neighborhood.
Many questions were raised in conversations, in the press, in planning meetings. Would there be a “land grab” that would make it impossible for people to return? Would the city provide services? Would enough former residents come back from Atlanta or Houston or Dallas to make it a neighborhood again?
Some of those questions are still being answered. In the area closest to the river, south of St. Claude Avenue, the Holy Cross neighborhood has regained a good bit of its population, which has been supplemented with newcomers. In its favor: Holy Cross sits on high ground, the downtown “sliver by the river,” just like Faubourg Marigny and Bywater. The tidal wave that filled the area with water receded in less than two days.
Results are less certain in the midsection of the Lower Nine, between North Claiborne and St. Claude avenues.
Many original homes have been repaired, others are still vacant, and plenty have been demolished.
Although St. David Catholic Church has built a new school, an important civil rights landmark — the former McDonogh 19/Louis D. Armstrong Elementary School on St. Claude — remains boarded.
Then there is the northern segment, the area between Florida and North Claiborne avenues, where it is a story of feast and famine. A stunning new fire station, NORDC recreation center and two schools (one still under construction) serve as important outposts. The 100 or so homes built by Make It Right serve as tangible harbingers of what is possible. But there are still many vacant lots, and too many squares that seem to be devolving as nature reasserts control.
The Lower 9th Ward’s story isn’t finished, though, not by a long shot. It will take another decade or more before most of the questions are answered.
Seen on the street: I choose the long block on Tennessee Street because it feels optimistic to me, a collection of new and old-style houses shaded by trees with almost all vacant lots cared for. All the houses are raised, of course, but most seem content to conform to base flood elevation requirements and nothing more.
I note two sets of identical twins on the block — exactly the same except for color schemes. Intriguing rooflines and color applications give the block character.
Homing in: I begin my walk at the south end of the block, where Tennessee intersects North Prieur. One of the first houses is a traditional bungalow raised just a few feet off the ground with a driveway and garage on the right. It sits between an unruly vacant lot on the left and a blue house with an exuberant roofline on the right.
A little farther along is another house, this one higher off the ground. Both are shaded by some of the block’s surviving oak trees.
I continue past a mown vacant lot until I reached a house with a façade that seems almost two-dimensional because no roofline is visible (the roof slopes to the rear of the house, creating the illusion). I face a square divided horizontally into a first and second floor. The color scheme and materials make an appealing composition: red weatherboards on the first floor, then horizontal brown slats on the second. The slats allow just a peek at the red extending upward, somewhat reminiscent of a Mondrian block painting. Is there a porch behind the slats on the second floor? I bet there is.
To the right is a blue house — this one with a front-facing gable — where the slats are employed again, this time as railing and privacy screen on the front porch. I count at least two single-sloped rooflines intersecting the gable-ended one.
I’m starting to understand that it’s the repetition of elements on the block — the single slopes, the slats, the cheery colors — that makes it a success.
I pass a mown lot where the piers remain of a washed-away house. It reminds me that the gains I witness today come after deep losses.
Vertical stripes of color distinguish the next house with its panels of deep red and off-white. I notice the slats again, here used as sliding screens to cover openings. I am intrigued by the wooden trellis, fitted with cross-hatched wire, that makes a screen at one end of the front porch before wrapping overhead to provide shade. I can just imagine it planted with jasmine or another fragrant vine.
I skip the next house (I passed its twin already) and end at the house on the corner of North Galvez Street. It bears a striking resemblance to an old-fashioned Craftsman double and serves as a perfect counterpoint to the more adventurous houses on the block.
Heard on the street: I am almost finished with my walk when a man pulls into his driveway. As he exits his car, we begin to talk and I realize I know him. He is Keith Johnson, a longtime city employee who lived on St. Maurice Avenue before his home flooded to the roofline in the levee failure.
“My mother was ailing, so we got her out of town on Saturday two days before the flood,” he tells me. “We went to Baton Rouge and had to stay put there because of her health.”
It took years for Johnson to fully move back to the city, returning “in stages” and commuting to Baton Rouge until everything came together. About three years ago, he bought his home through Make It Right.
“I chose the color for the exterior — it’s Moroccan red,” he points out. “I have great neighbors: a school teacher across the street, his principal around the corner, and someone with the RTA right next door. One house over on the corner is an elderly man who has been in the neighborhood forever.”
Out back, Johnson has a “Square Foot” garden, installed by Greenlight New Orleans, and on his front porch, a tabletop herb garden. But the neighbors and greenspaces aren’t the only things he likes about his new community and contemporary home.
“Every month, my Entergy bill is almost nothing compared to what it used to be,” he says. “My water bill runs $60, but my power bill is just $30.”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about houses and gardens. Contact her at email@example.com