Calling Residents Back to the Lower Ninth Ward

Patricia Jones i i

hide captionAfter Hurricane Katrina, Patricia Jones and her neighbors figured that if they could persuade just a few people to return, they could save the Lower Ninth Ward from the bulldozer.

Greg Miles for NPR
Patricia Jones

After Hurricane Katrina, Patricia Jones and her neighbors figured that if they could persuade just a few people to return, they could save the Lower Ninth Ward from the bulldozer.

Greg Miles for NPR
Map i i

hide captionTo get the Lower Ninth Ward humming again, Jones sketched the area on a piece of poster board and had neighbors dot their houses with pushpins to signify whether they planned to return.

Larry Abramson, NPR
Map

To get the Lower Ninth Ward humming again, Jones sketched the area on a piece of poster board and had neighbors dot their houses with pushpins to signify whether they planned to return.

Larry Abramson, NPR

Many residents of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward felt like they got hit twice — first by Katrina, then by a wave of bad publicity, as policymakers wondered whether the area needed to be abandoned.

For Patricia Jones, a Lower Ninth Ward resident and now a community activist, it was what came after the storm that spurred her and her neighbors into action to rebuild.

"We were basically pissed off into action," Jones says.

Jones and her neighbors were infuriated that officials kept them from returning to the Lower Ninth for months after the storm, long after other areas had begun rebuilding. The area was depicted as a lost cause, too vulnerable to be worth salvaging.

Jones and her neighbors figured that if they could persuade just a few people to return, they could save the Lower Ninth from the bulldozer.

Stopping Bulldozers with Poster Board

To get the neighborhood humming again, Jones sketched the Lower Ninth Ward on a piece of poster board and had neighbors dot their houses with pushpins: Houses where residents planned to return are marked with a green pin; residents who weren't sure whether they'd come back used a yellow pin.

It worked. For an area that has long been held together by shared information, it didn't take long for news of the map to spread and create a sense of community.

"Here in Lower Nine, there's a culture of families living close to each another. So if you've found one family member, if you find Grandma, you've probably found all the sisters and brothers and the cousins," Jones says. "So the key is: You know somebody, call 'em."

Watching the Boats Pass

The map effort, which started out as a kind of party line for information, has grown into the Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association (NENA), which Jones heads. NENA is based out of a former church on Lamanche Street, and it's where residents can find Jones' map.

NENA has been helping people come back to the Lower Ninth Ward by providing assistance on issues such as securing loans and hiring contractors. Only 1,200 of the 14,000 residents who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward before Hurricane Katrina have returned. NENA hopes that 4,000 residents will come back by September 2008.

Strolling down Lamanche Street, Jones greets the few people who have returned and inspects the work being done on some homes. There's still a lot of empty space in the Lower Ninth. It feels almost rural now. This area used to be hopping, she says.

There used to be an elementary school, a pre-K program and a nail salon on the street, but all that is gone now. To keep the area from turning into a ghost town, Jones and other members of NENA have been mowing lawns and keeping the place clean to persuade people to rebuild.

But no matter how much work they do, the area will always be surrounded by water on three sides.

That doesn't scare Jones. It helps makes the Lower Ninth Ward what it is: a place where you can have breakfast on the levee and watch the boats pass.

Jones doesn't want to see the working-class neighborhood raked clean and gentrified. She remembers what happened to her grandfather decades ago, after the government bought his house to put in railroad tracks.

"Another generation passed before he was able to buy a home. But that's how I understood and was introduced to the value of homeownership," Jones says.

Coming Back Home

Jones lives just a few blocks away from where NENA is located. Her home was flooded, too. It's the first home for her, her husband and her daughters. They've been living in hotels and an apartment since the storm.

Her two-story home has a lot of promise, but it still needs plenty of work. A cinderblock serves as her front step. There are beautiful new cabinets in the kitchen, but other rooms still have no flooring. Jones says she and her husband bicker over decorating choices just like any other couple doing a renovation.

Jones says she's going to return home soon, no matter what. But she says that it's just as important that her neighbors see she's back home, so word will spread that her street and the Lower Ninth are on the rebound.

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