Imagining a New City in New Orleans

The rebuilding of the landmark Louisiana city will require more than just bricks, mortar and sweat. Many hope that along with new buildings will come a new way of life and business.

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What if the city of New Orleans came back, say five years from now, better than it was before Hurricane Katrina? What if the city were able to use its brush with death like a dying man who gets a second chance? Well, New Orleans was drowning before the storm - bad schools, crumbling housing, dysfunctional criminal justice, casual corruption. Today, nearly a year after the storm, there are many people who believe that New Orleans can and must return as a more livable city. NPR's John Burnett reports on their efforts to reinvent their city.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

Let's start where New Orleanians begin their day, in a noisy café over a plate of food with way too much butter and fat.

Unidentified Male: Call for bacon, call for grits.

BURNETT: As horrific as the storm was, a lot of people believe that Katrina can be an agent for change, that this is the city's last chance to save itself. Wayne Dakkay(ph) is owner of Little Dizzy's Café on Esplanade Avenue.

Mr. WAYNE DAKKAY (Owner, Little Dizzy's Café): So we got a chance to start all over. If we screw this up this time, it's only our own fault. I think this is a tremendously unique opportunity to change the way we do business in this city.

BURNETT: Everybody has heard how bad it was before the storm. The murder rate was one of the highest in the nation and the public school system was one of the lowest performing. Nearly 30 percent of the city lived below the poverty line. Sprawling public housing complexes were hubs of drugs and hopelessness. The public healthcare system was in decay, as was the sewage and water network. And then came the tempest.

Michael Cowen, a theology professor at Loyola University, heads up a new organization called Common Good that seeks to give a voice to civic-spirited non-profits.

Dr. MICHAEL COWEN (Professor, Loyola University): Every aspect of life in the city has been disrupted by the storm and needs to be put back together again - as it should be, not as it was.

BURNETT: Pick just one area, criminal justice. A pre-storm study by the Metropolitan Crime Commission confirmed what people already knew, that New Orleans' criminal district courts failed to put violent and habitual offenders behind bars. They are back on the streets in no time. Mayor Ray Nagin has appointed former Louisiana Attorney General Richard Ieyoub to help rebuild and recreate the dysfunctional court system.

Mr. RICHARD IEYOUB (Former Louisiana Attorney General): Unless we have a criminal justice system that functions as effectively and efficiently as possible, we're not going to be able to have any type of recovery - economic, social or otherwise - because businesses won't want to move here, families won't want to repopulate New Orleans, tourists won't come to New Orleans.

BURNETT: In short, if the powers that be don't reconstruct the city's infrastructure and institutions better than they were before, then a lot of people think New Orleans is doomed. Enter the optimists.

Mr. SCOTT COWEN (President, Tulane University): To me it's an exciting time to be in New Orleans, because no other major city that I know of in the United States in well over 100 years has the opportunities to redo themselves, to reinvent themselves, the way New Orleans has.

BURNETT: Tulane University president Scott Cowen, no relation to Michael Cowen, is one who stepped forward as a community leader after the storm. He points to the billions of dollars in federal aid that will pour into the city.

Mr. S. COWEN: We're going to have the money to do it. Money is not going to be the issue. The issue is, is do we have the will, the determination, the focus to do it?

BURNETT: What follows are snapshots of three insurgents fighting to overturn the old order. The Samuel J. Green School, in the Freret neighborhood, was until recently a Dickensian building whose classrooms were condemned by the Health Department and whose campus had all the warmth of a Supermax prison. After the state took over the disastrous New Orleans school system, before Katrina, schools like Green were put up for adoption, like orphans.

Tony Recasner, an experienced school reformer, reopened Green as a non-profit charter school two weeks before Katrina hit. But he expected it to be a long road of fundraising to make the school first class. The lanky principal with the wide grin sits in the school's gleaming cafeteria.

Mr. TONY RECASNER (Principal, Samuel J. Green School): What happened post-Katrina, because of the level of interest in New Orleans, and because of the level of interest of personal citizens across the country, we are already two to three years ahead of schedule in that I couldn't imagine a school that served little kids that didn't have a playground, and yet we did not have the means to do that. And a playground exists.

BURNETT: So the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina has been a blessing in disguise for this school?

Mr. RECASNER: It has been.

BURNETT: Donors have given not just a spiffy new playground, but lighting, textbooks, kitchen equipment and landscaping. Most exciting, Alice Waters, the famous organic chef, is donating an edible garden to teach students at Green how to grow their own food. Recasner stands on the front steps, looking out at the shotgun houses surrounding his old brick schoolhouse.

Mr. RECASNER: And so now all of the kids in the neighborhood are going to be coming to this school, which did not happen. This school, which did not serve this community well in the past, is now really going to be a beacon of light in this community.

BURNETT: From Green School, go down Vallent Street. Take a ride on Saint Charles Avenue and head up toward the Brahim mansions of uptown. There you'll find the home of Ruthie Frierson, real estate broker, wife of a past King of Carnival and founder of Citizens for One Greater New Orleans. Their battle is to consolidate the eight separate levee boards in southeast Louisiana. These are appointed government bodies that are supposed to ensure the structural integrity of the levees, but they're better known for other far-flung interests.

Ms. RUTHIE FRIERSON (Citizens for a Greater New Orleans): For example, in Orleans Parish they were involved with the marina. They were involved with the casino. They were involved with the police force. They also - and airport. And the different eight boards were competing really for money and influence.

BURNETT: After the levees burst during Katrina outraged citizens demanded professional levee boards. No more politics and patronage. Hundreds of volunteers gathered 53,000 signatures on petitions, marched on the state legislature and lobbied for change.

Ms. FRIERSON: Sometimes they would come to the house and ring the bell and hand me a signed petition, one name, the power of one citizen voice. It just constantly brought tears to our eyes.

BURNETT: Next month for the first time the citizens of Louisiana will be able to vote on whether to consolidate the levee boards. The group's next battle is to consolidate New Orleans seven tax assessor districts whose property assessors are known to lower property valuations for a pair of tickets to a Saints game. Once again, after Katrina nothing is the same, says Frierson, sitting at the table in her elegant dining room.

Ms. FRIERSON: There's a new sense of citizenship. You know, we're reaching out to each other like never before. They say this mutual support that has emerged after the storm crosses racial lines. This in a city where race seems to polarize and paralyze many public debates. Despite the mayor's comment that New Orleans will always be a, quote, chocolate city, there are hopeful signs that the black/white divide may be blurring, if only slightly.

(Soundbite of church music)

Unidentified Female: (Singing) Only you can touch my heart like you do. I have searched throughout eternity.

BURNETT: The black congregation of Living Witness Church of God in Christ in Central City and the white congregation of Trinity Episcopal Church in the Garden District are collaborating to build housing for inner city Katrina victims. Called the Gherico Road Project, it is a first for both churches. Pastor John Pierre of Living Witness makes essentially the same observation that Ruthie Frierson did.

Reverend JOHN PIERRE (Living Witness Church): Any time you're faced with any type of disaster like this, just the same with war, it tends to make people's heart soft and make them bound together. And I think this is what happened here with Katrina. It makes people just want to come together and help one another, because we see that we all are vulnerable.

BURNETT: Five years from now, when Katrina is not the only thing on the front page of the newspaper day after day, it's anyone's guess how much of New Orleans will be reinvented. Will the levees be higher, the sewage system replaced, the courts revamped, the schools higher performing? Will the members of Trinity Episcopal and Living Witness be visiting each other's Sunday morning services?

With their shattered city barely on its feet today, most of the people interviewed for this report are afraid to look too far into the future. In terms of expectations, there's only one hope, and they say it does not reside within the administration of the recently re-elected mayor.

Mr. KENNETH FERDINAND (Business Owner): Government has failed us. It failed us before the storm, it failed us during the storm, and in many ways it's going to fail us after the storm.

BURNETT: Kenneth Ferdinand is well-known in New Orleans. As a teenager he helped integrate high schools and department stores. As a businessman he owns a popular coffee shop, where this interview took place.

Mr. FERDINAND: Having gone through Betsy, it was just us in the Lower Nine during '65, during Betsy, and I know what it takes of your gut and your heart and your soul to rebuild your house from scratch. Now we've got people of all economic strata doing that, so I see a lot of hope in people who want to come back, go through the muck and mire and rebuild their homes and stay in New Orleans.

BURNETT: Perhaps it's time to bury the civic sobriquet about the Big Easy. Nothing about rebuilding New Orleans is easy. For the strength to accomplish that, the citizens of the city are turning to each other. John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

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