In New Orleans, Versailles Resurfaces

In one corner of New Orleans, a neighborhood came to life very quickly after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. A year and a half after Hurricane Katrina, some New Orleans neighborhoods still look much as the same as they did right after the storm, but a few are thriving. NPR's Greg Allen visited one of the New Orleans neighborhoods that has rebuilt quickly to see if he could find out why it has done so well.

GREG ALLEN: City officials call it Village de l'Est, but to the many Vietnamese-Americans who live in New Orleans it's Versailles, named after an old apartment building, now closed, that served as housing for newcomers and senior citizens.

To get here from downtown New Orleans, you have to drive past block after block of once-lively neighborhoods that are now vacant except for some scattered FEMA trailers. Versailles, though, is back.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

ALLEN: If you get to Versailles early on Saturday, shortly after the sun comes up, you'll find a bustling farmer's market. Little English is spoken here. There are baked goods, produce and seafood.

Unidentified Man #1: Five dollars a pound.

ALLEN: Really, $5 a pound? You can't beat that. Is that snapper? Is that what that is?

Unidentified Man #2: We've got shrimp, red mullet, catfish, a whole cooler full of eels.

ALLEN: Vietnamese began settling in this neighborhood in the far northeast corner of New Orleans in the late 1970s. They built their own Catholic Church, Mary Queen of Vietnam. Many worked as shrimpers and fishermen. When Katrina hit, like the rest of New Orleans, this community disbursed. But it came back quickly. Susan Doe(ph) with a community development group says one reason was the church.

Ms. SUSAN DOE: It was the first week of October when they hosted the first mass, and about 200 people showed up. And the next week, about 800, and the following, over 2,000 people showed up.

ALLEN: Doe stands across the street from one of the communities' accomplishments, a FEMA trailer park. After asking for weeks for trailers with no success, the community set up a tent city outside the church and invited the media. Within weeks, they had 109 trailers set up on church land with insurance covered by the New Orleans Archdiocese.

Ms. DOE: We kind of told ourselves, you know, we can't depend on anyone but ourselves, and that's what we're going to push forward for. And that's how we even got this FEMA trailer park to begin with, because we did it ourselves. You know, we set up the tent city campaign, raising visibility, like, hey we really need this and asking for the government to work with us on that.

ALLEN: A strong sense of community quickly drew people back to Versailles. Once here, it's the streak of determination that's gotten things done. Looking around the neighborhood, nearly every house is either occupied or has a FEMA trailer parked out front. The community is now discussing plans to build housing for senior citizens, plus a charter school and a community center.

Doe says while New Orleans works on a plan for how it will rebuild citywide, the Versailles neighborhood is already doing it.

Ms. DOE: Well, we just hope that they don't forget about us. We are far east. In the beginning, whenever the Bring Back New Orleans Commission developed their plans, New Orleans East wasn't even on the map. So we're just kind of shouting hey, we're still here. We've recovered. We need your services, as well.

ALLEN: It's called the Big Easy, but in the new New Orleans, the residents who are back and whose homes are rebuilt are people who have resources, construction skills or, like people in Versailles, just plain gumption.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

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