Residents of One New Orleans Neighborhood Allowed to Return

With Hurricane Rita having passed, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin wants to encourage business people and residents to come back to the city. For now, he's urging no children and no elderly, and he only wants to allow people into the neighborhood of Algiers.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has announced that residents of one city neighborhood can return to their homes today. That neighborhood is Algiers, which is located across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. Algiers has working power, water and sewer services. It was the first area of the city to reopen to residents after Hurricane Katrina, but the repopulation had to be suspended last week as another hurricane drew near. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports this morning that dozens of people are already trying to bring life back to their neighborhood.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

The grassy medians in Algiers are bright green. That's what distinguishes the parts of New Orleans that were not flooded. But the streets are like a ghost town. Silent houses, a bus stop caved in, a jungle gym and swing set that sit empty. At one corner, it's jarring to walk inside the Tout de Suite coffee house and cafe.

(Soundbite of cafe sounds and laughter)

LUDDEN: It's packed. Under the whir of ceiling fans, patrons sip Frappuccinos and check e-mail on laptops hooked up to Wi-Fi.

Unidentified Woman #1: I could do...

Unidentified Man: I did.

Unidentified Woman #2: Aye yi, yi.

LUDDEN: Owner Jill Marshall talks as she moves, filling orders for hash browns and bacon.

Ms. JILL MARSHALL (Owner, Tout de Suite): I'm short-staffed. Everyone who's working here is a volunteer from the community, because I have no staff. Everyone's evacuated. Out of seven or eight employees that I had, only one came back, and she evacuated for Rita. So everybody's pitching in.

(Soundbite of water being poured)

Ms. MARSHALL: People are learning how to fry eggs over easy and over medium.

LUDDEN: Marshall's employees are staying away. They've already landed other jobs and enrolled their children in schools in Houston and Dallas.

Ms. MARSHALL: ...morning. Thank you, baby. I'm sorry it took so long.

LUDDEN: Marshall hopes she'll soon have a larger pool of people to hire from, but she's worried that this Bohemian oasis won't be the same. Already rents are spiking as people flooded out elsewhere come searching for a place to live.

Ms. MARSHALL: I'm worried about the cost of living for people who are from here and what it's going to be like for them. I'm concerned that our old neighborhood is not going to be here, you know.

(Soundbite of wind chimes)

LUDDEN: Graceful, tree-lined Opelousas Avenue is a socioeconomic dividing line here. On the other side of it, Glendell Stevenson(ph) and her mother, Shirley Hicks(ph), stand outside a green bungalow, wind chimes blowing on the porch. There's no bustling cafe here. The concrete block Algiers meat market across the corner has been picked clean.

Ms. SHIRLEY HICKS: (New Orleans Resident): They tored it down. They've...

Ms. GLENDELL STEVENSON (New Orleans Resident): They tore...

Ms. HICKS: ...torn it down.

Ms. STEVENSON: From....

Ms. HICKS: Every store in the Algiers General Mart, General De Gaulle, they robbed all them stores.

Ms. STEVENSON: There's no--people think the hurricane destroyed the city. The hurricane didn't. It was looters that destroyed the city. Now we don't have any stores. No stores. We have to go way to Baton Rouge to make groceries. And it's sad. And traveling back and forth to Baton Rouge, you can see my car. I'm not going to be able to keep doing it.

LUDDEN: Stevenson's a bartender. The place she worked has been destroyed, and she hasn't heard one word from her boss. Her mother, Hicks, keeps house for two upscale families. She hopes they're coming back but doesn't know when. They'll both be happy to see more people in New Orleans, but they don't know what to say when the landlord shows up, and word is he's coming this week.

Ms. HICKS: Nothing. Can't pay no rent, no lights, no gas, no nothing, everything. Everything that came to a stop.

LUDDEN: Back on shady Opelousas Avenue, David Giglio has come to re-open his looted picture frame and gift shop. He says he and his friends, now scattered across the country, have talked a lot about how their beloved city might change.

Mr. DAVID GIGLIO (New Orleans Resident): It hurts me and it pains me to see that we're losing the families. As a businessman, I need people. I need a population, and when you tell me that you're going to reduce--that your recommendation is that we try to maintain a population half of what we had, I'm extremely disappointed because it's the other half that I miss. It really is. It's the other half that I miss tremendously.

LUDDEN: Such larger concerns aside, Giglio says these past two weeks have been lonely. He's read a lot and played Scrabble with a few friends. His entertainment options may soon improve. This past weekend, a band called the Thirsty Lizard, played its first post-Katrina gig at a bar in Algiers. They hope to do it again if they can convince their evacuated drummer to come back to town. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, New Orleans.

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