Searching for Hope on a Street Named Desire

The ruined home of Marguerite Doyle Johnston i i

The ruined home of Marguerite Doyle Johnston -- the unofficial "Mayor of Desire Street" -- stands next to the FEMA trailer where she currently lives. Johnston says she's determined to rebuild her community. Devin Robins, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Devin Robins, NPR
The ruined home of Marguerite Doyle Johnston

The ruined home of Marguerite Doyle Johnston -- the unofficial "Mayor of Desire Street" -- stands next to the FEMA trailer where she currently lives. Johnston says she's determined to rebuild her community.

Devin Robins, NPR

Katrina: One Year Later

'Miss Marguerite' at the door of her Desire Street home

"Miss Marguerite" at the door of her Desire Street home -- the only thing left standing as wood is salvaged for a rebuilding. "Our community is coming back, and we're coming back with a vengeance." Devin Robins, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Devin Robins, NPR

In the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, along a famous street named Desire, there are shining examples of a city on the rebound — a star-studded Habitat for Humanity effort to raise a house, for example. But just beyond the photo opportunities is a more complex and unexpected saga of loss, survival and hope.

Only a few of the residents have come back to their former neighborhood, and many of those that have live in mobile homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) while they slowly pick apart homes that, one year ago, were under eight feet of floodwater.

Within earshot of one Habitat for Humanity house-raising event, a group of young men find shelter from the oppressive heat under a shade tree. Six of them share a single FEMA trailer — six fully grown men in a place the size of a typical suburban master bedroom.

"It's not a good living situation for six people," says Willie Ellis, who was born and raised in the Ninth Ward. "But we got to make do with what we can — seeing as we ain't got nowhere else to go."

Ellis says he and his friends deal with the painful memories of the day the levees broke all the time — moments of sheer desperation, trying to stay above the rising flood.

"We didn't have to live through the storm," he says. "We watched one of our friends drown in front of our faces, and couldn't do anything about it."

Each of the men have stories of their families scattered and relocated by the storm. They stay in the city, supporting themselves by cutting lawns or doing construction. But they say undocumented immigrants often take potential jobs by agreeing to work for less than minimum wage. And without a car, work is hard to come by.

One shining light on their side is Miss Marguerite, the unofficial "Mayor of Desire Street." Marguerite Doyle Johnston lives in a FEMA trailer next door to the young men. Her family, going back several generations, literally built this particular block of the city.

Johnston says her neighborhood has seen better days — but it's also seen worse. "If somebody don't stand up and fight for it, the drug dealers and everybody will take over — and I didn't want that."

She's using a legal technique called a three-year acquisitive prescription plan to seize abandoned properties on the block, and even donated the land where the Habitat for Humanity photo-op was taking place. She says she intends to stay and fight.

"Our community is coming back, and we're coming back with a vengeance," she says. "Nothing will stop us."

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