In a small, quiet neighborhood just beyond the St. Claude Avenue Bridge, sparks of activity have slowly but steadily triggered a nascent recovery that residents there describe as positively electric. Sidney Davis, 67, recently tapped into it. A lifelong Holy Cross neighborhood resident, Davis, like several elderly homeowners in the area, has partnered with the Preservation Resource Center (PRC) to renovate and restore his home in the Lower Ninth Ward. —I have one of those shotgun-style houses where the house is set on the corner. It's painted green and white now," Davis says proudly. —The house has been in our family 150 years — that's a long time."
Davis' house was brought back through the PRC's Rebuilding Together New Orleans program, which is very active in the Holy Cross neighborhood. He chose the house's colors himself, but a Rebuilding Together team of volunteers applied the paint, renovated the entire house and soon will add the finishing touches, enabling Davis to return home two-and-a-half years after flooding from the levee failure destroyed it.
Davis returned to New Orleans in early 2006 after evacuating to Houston and then Baton Rouge; he's been living in a FEMA trailer on his property ever since. He had a tough time finding help to restore the home that once had belonged to his grandparents. After asking around for recommendations, neighbors and friends told Davis about the Rebuilding Together program.
Rebuilding Together New Orleans (RTNO) is the local affiliate of a national nonprofit organization that works to rebuild the homes of elderly or disabled low-income homeowners. It is one of two PRC programs aimed at bringing back the Holy Cross community through the restoration and preservation of the area's historic homes. Operation Comeback, another PRC program, is working to revitalize the neighborhood by promoting the purchase and renovation of vacant and blighted historic properties.
In partnership with many other public and private efforts, these two programs have catalyzed the growing revitalization of the Holy Cross neighborhood by helping existing homeowners move back into their houses and getting new homebuyers into renovated historic properties. What began as a sprinkling of inhabited houses here and there — in a neighborhood forced to endure the city's —look-and-leave" policy for months longer than other areas after Katrina — is now a full-blown wave of beautifully restored, high-quality homes, built and remodeled with care, throughout Holy Cross.
The neighborhood appears well on its way back. Many of Davis' old neighbors have returned, he says. —I'm happy, you know, and I'm glad to be back home in the neighborhood. Everything is peaceful and quiet and I really do enjoy that. The program is helping out a lot of people, I know that much."
Founded in New Orleans in 1988, RTNO has not only served residents of Holy Cross but also those in the Broadmoor, Esplanade Ridge, Treme, Faubourg St. Roch and Hollygrove neighborhoods. Volunteer efforts and contributions by local and national groups, individuals and corporate sponsors make the free assistance possible.
'This program used to be called Christmas in October, and it focused on low-income elderly and disabled homeowners, but all the work was done in October," says Kristin Palmer, RTNO director. Palmer, who served as director of the program in its infancy and later returned as director after Katrina, says prior to the storm the organization renovated roughly 75 houses a year, but all of them were completed in one month.
'Katrina basically compromised that model," she says, —because if all the work is done by local volunteers, and all your local volunteers are in the same boat as your clients, it's a very difficult situation." Luckily, the New Orleans program is one of 235 affiliates nationwide, so it was able to recruit volunteers from across the country to help renovate and morph the program into a year-round rebuilding effort that doesn't rely on local volunteers only once a year.
RTNO still holds its annual Christmas in October program and continually seeks more volunteers to help renovate homes. In October 2007, the first time the project was undertaken since Katrina, nearly 600 local volunteers worked on 19 houses. This year, Palmer hopes to take on even more homes in October — and throughout the year.
Since Katrina, RTNO has completed nine houses in the Holy Cross neighborhood, with 10 more underway. More than 29,000 volunteer hours have been logged, and RTNO's total investment in the neighborhood exceeds $944,000. Citywide, the program has completed nearly 80 homes with the help of more than 4,000 volunteers at an estimated market value of more than $2 million.
In the past, RTNO focused primarily on helping elderly clients remain in their homes — doing quality-of-life repairs such as building handicap ramps and handrails, painting, minor electrical work and plumbing, and some light roof and gutter work. Now the program does total renovations, trying to get residents back into their homes as soon as possible.
The primary goal of the program is neighborhood revitalization. Palmer and her team of staff and volunteers base their work on what she calls —the cluster model."
'You're not improving any elderly person's quality of life if we put them on a block with no neighbors," she says. Thus, RTNO works with the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association to identify clusters of houses in the area that all need work, then it renovates several of them at the same time. —Take Lizardi (Street) — we actually worked on nine houses on this one street, and we found a good, strong pocket of homeownership," says Palmer, —so you'll see what a tremendous difference that makes when you have more of a holistic approach. And it's also a smart way of leveraging limited resources."
The program's success reflects its relationships with community partners and neighborhood associations. RTNO only enters a neighborhood after it has been invited by area residents, and only after the local neighborhood association agrees to support RTNO's work in a mutually cooperative relationship. Once this relationship has formed, the program forms site selection committees and works with the neighborhood to identify homes eligible for restoration. Palmer says a big part of that process involves identifying individuals who are committed to the neighborhood. Because the organization invests so many resources in each house, it's important to be sure that homeowners will return as members of the community who will continue to help it grow, Palmer says.
'The great thing is, because our program has been around for 20 years rehabbing, and our specialty is utilizing volunteer labor, we can morph to the needs of the houses," she says. —It's not something where we're formulaic and we only do one thing. We always go to what the needs of the individual homeowners are. As you know, in New Orleans no two houses are the same."
The relationship between the PRC's programs and the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association has been a good one, says Charles Allen III, president of the HCNA and a Holy Cross resident. —They've been instrumental, even before the storm, in helping us with rehabbing homes and putting homes back into commerce and so forth. We now, post-Katrina, have a very close working relationship as we're trying to recover our neighborhood in a historic and in a green manner, too."
In addition to facilitating the flow of information between residents and the PRC, the HCNA also promotes the redevelopment of the Holy Cross neighborhood by focusing on new zoning standards for the area, the restoration of Bayou Bienvenue (at the northern end of the Lower Ninth Ward), long-term educational planning and reviving the area's economy. —It's a whole host of things we're trying to do all at the same time," Allen says. —We've got various committees and people charged with leading those committees that are trying to tackle all of these things — and striking up all of these various academic and nonprofit, and even some governmental partners, is a balancing act, too."
Like Davis, many Holy Cross residents rely on HCNA's weekly meetings to learn what's happening with the PRC and other community partners. —Without the show of support from the PRC and all of our many volunteers — nonprofit, academic, the whole nine yards — I don't think this entire area would be on the path of recovery that it's on right now," Allen says. —It's basically been the PRC and numerous friends that have helped carry us. And also the will of the people. The will of the people has just been tremendous. It all starts with the people."
Pam Bryan, director of PRC's Operation Comeback, believes that Katrina — and even the threat of future storms — is no reason to forego rebuilding in Holy Cross. —We think that progress is being made, and by working together, we will come back stronger and better. Holy Cross neighborhood survived Hurricane Betsy and it is surviving Katrina." She adds that most buildings in the Holy Cross neighborhood survived the hurricane and will do so again — particularly with the rebuilding work currently in progress in the area.
Also founded in 1988, Operation Comeback promotes the purchase and renovation of vacant historic properties with the goal of revitalizing historic neighborhoods. It, too, follows the —cluster model." The program began working in the Holy Cross neighborhood more than 10 years ago and now works primarily in that area. Prior to the storm, Operation Comeback had renovated five homes and built two more.
Since Katrina, the program has sold a total of eight housing units and has acquired 26 more properties, of which 19 will be renovations or restorations and seven will be new construction projects. Of the new construction projects, Operation Comeback hopes four will be Katrina Cottages, the first to be built in the city. Its total investment in the neighborhood has topped $1.5 million thus far.
'We're really looking to double our inventory in 2008 with properties from NORA (New Orleans Redevelopment Authority)," Bryan says. —We really want to position ourselves to take on as much blighted property and vacant lots as we can, expanding into different neighborhoods."
Operation Comeback's success depends on donations to its revolving fund and on an infusion of volunteer labor to make the homes affordable to low- and middle-income, first-time homebuyers. The program also partners with local contractors and architects, such as Hal Collums Construction and Waggoner and Ball Architects, whereas RTNO renovations are done completely in-house.
'By utilizing volunteers, we're able to keep our labor costs down," Bryan says. —We try to renovate at about $110 a square foot, so a 1,000-square-foot property would be about $110,000. [We also] combine soft second mortgages with a lot of those houses in order to make them as affordable as possible to individuals."
Holy Cross' community and architectural sustainability form the core of Operation Comeback's mission. The program strives to incorporate as many green building features into its renovations as possible, as does RTNO. All this month, for example, more than 300 volunteers are working on projects in Holy Cross in conjunction with the Historic Green conference, a gathering of emerging green builders interested in preserving historic properties. Likewise, Bryan says, the PRC's renovations will inspire future growth in Holy Cross as more and more homeowners see their neighbors return and rebuild.
'You have this ripple effect," Bryan says. —Individuals will begin to take care of their houses, and the property values will increase because of eliminating the blight, so the neighborhood is able to step up and be able to survive on its own."
The program also offers a variety of other services, including free house calls and site visits to discuss property and renovation concerns, scope-of-work plans for renovations, architectural design, marketing for Holy Cross property owners looking to sell, and monthly workshops on the sites of renovations currently in progress, with commentary from architects, contractors and other homeowners.
For all of these reasons and many more, Ken Foster, a local writer and animal rights advocate who previously rented in Bywater, decided to purchase one of Operation Comeback's renovated homes. —People had been suggesting Holy Cross to me all along, but I knew nothing about the area," Foster says. —Then I went to a neighborhood association meeting and that was it. I think what is unique about Holy Cross is that it is really being rebuilt as a neighborhood, where other areas in the city seem to be pawns in developers' interests."
The fact that decisions on big projects such as Global Green and Make It Right, and the PRC's work, are being discussed openly with the neighborhood rather than with a select group of people played a big part in Foster's choice to move to Holy Cross.
'So, I found a house with a yard — and I get to see these amazing projects take shape all around me," he says. —Now I'm learning how to plant in my yard. I've got an orange tree, a loquat, a pomegranate, blueberry bushes, tomatoes. I never would have guessed this is where I'd be a year ago, but it's great."