As city officials Friday morning turned a ceremonial pile of dirt on the asphalt apron that will be the home of a new CVS pharmacy in the Lower 9th Ward, freshly laid sod covered the nearby North Claiborne Avenue neutral ground, framing the bright, nearly untouched concrete of brand-new sidewalks.
But spiffing up some parts of the Lower 9th Ward days before the 10th anniversary of the levee failures and flooding that all but wiped out the neighborhood in 2005 strikes some as less a sign of widespread improvement in the neighborhood and more an attempt to put the city’s best foot forward for visiting national media.
The problems of the Lower 9 can be seen even from that neutral ground: lots abandoned for a decade that remain home only to weeds, though ones that have been cropped down under a city program aimed at reducing blight in the neighborhood, which is separated from the rest of the city by the Industrial Canal and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
“It kind of makes you wonder why they’re doing it now,” said M.A. Sheehan, of the Lower 9th Ward Homeownership Association.
It’s not that improvements — the streetscaping on North Claiborne and the rebuilding of other public facilities — are unwelcome, neighborhood advocates say. It’s just that they are not enough.
“All the infrastructure in the world isn’t worth anything unless there are people here to take advantage of it,” Sheehan said.
It’s a challenge for a neighborhood that city officials admit is still struggling, even as most of the rest of the city has bounced back over the past decade.
A report from The Data Center this summer found that for the city as a whole, the number of households receiving mail had recovered to about 89 percent of the level before Hurricane Katrina. But in the section of the Lower 9th Ward north of St. Claude Avenue, which had the highest rate of black homeownership in the city before Katrina, the number was just over 39 percent.
“Not every neighborhood is back as quickly as we want it to be,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at the CVS groundbreaking. But he promised, “We’re going to make sure that every neighborhood comes back.”
The 13,225-square-foot CVS, due to be completed early next year on a site that now houses the shell of a metal-frame building and little else, was hailed by officials as a sign of progress for the neighborhood — a national retailer willing to become one of the first to return to the Lower 9.
“They chose to come here because of the people here,” said City Councilman James Gray, who represents the area. And the strength of the neighborhood “is what is going to make the community come back,” he said.
A retailer seeing the potential for customers in the area is a positive sign, said Lowernine.org Executive Director Laura Paul, though more systematic problems remain a significant barrier to residents still hoping to return.
“I think that retailers showing this kind of support for our recovery is a nice thing,” Paul said. “I think it’s very unfortunate that the whole citywide recovery is not being seen with equal force by our community.”
Friday’s groundbreaking comes as workers are completing improvements to the neutral ground, work that began months ago as part of a package of aesthetic and infrastructure improvements to the neighborhood.
Sprucing up for the national spotlight, or even just getting the city ship-shape for an important guest, is nothing new in New Orleans. The city scrubbed up in advance of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1987 and embarked on major public works projects in advance of the Republican National Convention in 1988 and the Super Bowl in 2013. The latter included timing a $305 million refreshing of Louis Armstrong International Airport’s terminal and more than $11 million in French Quarter street improvements to the big game.
The pre-Super Bowl improvements also stretched to the Lower 9th Ward, where several blocks of the St. Claude Avenue neutral ground were cleaned up and new palm trees were planted. Within months, however, the palms had wilted, with the dead trees remaining for a significant length of time, said Paul, whose Lowernine.org nonprofit has built 75 homes in the neighborhood.
“It was a nice visual for a few weeks, and then it was very much over,” she said.
The streetscaping on North Claiborne began earlier this summer and is set to wrap up this fall. The $656,000 project, which includes sidewalks, landscaping and wheelchair-accessible curb cuts, is one of three ongoing city public works projects in the neighborhood. Another $7.1 million project is focused on sidewalks, utilities and road paving throughout the Lower 9th Ward.
Perhaps more significant for many residents trying to drive through the area is a $9.3 million reconstruction of North Galvez Street, which began last month and is slated to take about a year.
City officials also point to significant investments made in public buildings in the area: the $19 million Andrew P. Sanchez Community Center, the $806,000 in renovations to the Martin Luther King Jr. School and the $32.5 million in construction underway at Lawless High School.
“The Lower 9th Ward continues to rise and is the true definition of resilience,” according to an email from the Landrieu administration responding to questions about the street improvements. “Earlier this month, we had a community meeting at the new Sanchez Center, and we listened to many residents who are grateful for the progress so far but frustrated that it has not happened more quickly. We must and will do more to ensure the Lower 9th Ward continues in our city’s ongoing recovery, growth and prosperity.”
Those improvements help. The numerous remaining cracked and cratered roads and wildly overgrown lots are hardly an invitation to returning residents. But advocates say the issue of restoring the Lower 9 is simpler and more structural: Many residents who want to return simply lack the money to rebuild.
That comes largely as a result of the structure of the Road Home Program, which paid residents based on the value of their homes rather than the cost to rebuild them. A lawsuit found that practice discriminatory, but the gap between the money they received and what it will take to return home remains a problem for many former residents.
About 700 families took Road Home money with the intention of returning to the Lower 9th Ward, but that money was not enough to cover the cost of rebuilding, Sheehan said. Those families need help, averaging about $40,000, to close that gap — something the city should step up to assist with, Sheehan said.
“The Lower 9th Ward was kind of left behind while we focused on the rest of the city,” she said. “It’s our time to be the focus of the attention now.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.