AUDIE CORNISH, Host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
As I mentioned at the top of the show, it's been almost five years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. We're going back to New Orleans now, where I caught up with actor Wendell Pierce on a rainy day earlier this month.
You might recognize Pierce's name from the HBO series "The Wire." But these days, he's got meaty new roles right here in the city where he grew up, first as a community activist and second on the current HBO show called "Treme" based in the New Orleans neighborhood of the same name. There, Pierce plays the struggling trombone player Antoine Batiste.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TREME")
WENDELL PIERCE: (As Antoine Batiste) You may have noticed I'm playing my old trombone. So I gave the one you bought me to my teacher, Danny Nelson.
CORNISH: (As character) I was very sorry to hear of Mr. Nelson's passing.
PIERCE: So anyway, passed on to his grandson. So you see, that's how we do it in New Orleans, how tradition lives on.
CORNISH: Across town from the Treme is Pontchartrain Park, which is a historically black neighborhood in the city. And prior to the storm, it was about 90 percent black and mostly homeowners. But right now, it's suffering one of the slower rates of return, even five years after the storm.
I'm standing right next to two new homes that have been built, and then right across the street are homes that are still boarded up, still bits and pieces of broken wood leaning against the front doors, broken lights and boarded-up windows.
And then, every couple of streets, you might see a brand new development. I'm on the corner of Press Drive and Prentiss Street right next door to a model home for Wendell Pierce's community development corporation. It's called The Pontchartrain Park CDC, and he's the president.
PIERCE: There you go. Thanks.
Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible).
CORNISH: Wendell Pierce exchanges warm greetings with realtors and prospective home buyers. He commands the room in a smart pinstriped suit and sunglasses despite the clouds outside. It's a stark contrast to the down-on-his-heels character he plays on "Treme."
Pierce and I sneak away from the tour, and he tells me why this neighborhood's history needs to be preserved.
PIERCE: In New Orleans at the height of segregation, African-Americans could not go to the parks except on one day, Wednesdays, and there was a great outcry. It was a part of the civil rights advocacy and demonstration to break down those Jim Crow laws.
And the city government at the time thought, let's find a way to appease this political movement. And so they had a set aside of 200 acres here. It was for blacks, separate but equal. It was actually appeasing the segregationists by making it separate but equal.
We were developed by the same company that developed the white neighborhood that was adjacent to it, Gentilly Woods. But this was the only place where blacks could purchase a home in what was post-World War II suburbia.
CORNISH: And by 2005, it still had over 90 percent home ownership and black...
CORNISH: ...specifically home ownership.
PIERCE: It was 92 percent home ownership, 97 percent African-American. This is one of the most stable neighborhoods in America, less than 10 percent poverty, and the city rate of poverty is at 28, 29 percent.
CORNISH: Wendell Pierce, I want you to give us a sense then, why after Katrina, there would be such difficulty for folks returning to this neighborhood when you had such level of stability compared to other parts of the city.
PIERCE: That was the thing that surprised me. I couldn't understand why we were the second-lowest rate of return in the city, second only to the Lower Ninth Ward, which was completely devastated.
And then I realized that most of the people, almost 70 percent of the neighborhood, were elderly, you know?
CORNISH: Your parents included.
PIERCE: My parents included, you know? And I realized that it was going to take a long time to get back. They didn't have the wherewithal. And so I put out a call to action to all those men and women of my generation who reaped the benefits of coming from such a, you know, strong foundation of Pontchartrain Park, that it was on us.
CORNISH: Now, right across the street from here is a home that looks like it's still not getting there yet.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PIERCE: Definitely (unintelligible).
CORNISH: It's looking abandoned. And tell me, what are the difficulties - now that you've been in this position as president of the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation, what is the issue that makes it so difficult for actual development to happen?
PIERCE: Plans haven't been executed that were laid out. That's the one thing I've learned in this whole journey from actor to developer. You have to run the traps, as they say, of the conflict in policy.
Perfect example: there was an appropriation for a grant to raise your home to the basic flood elevation level but not for new homes. We're in the deepest part of the disaster. People have a demolished home that was sitting in water for three months.
The only way that they can actually access some assistance to come back is if they raise that destroyed home. If they demolish the home and then build a new home to the new basic flood elevation, no assistance.
You know, so it's that sort of thing. These homes, meeting the new basic flood elevation, we come up to the ceiling of the zoning ordinance of we can't be above a certain height. So you have to go and get a waiver. I'm like, fine, that's good. That works it all out. But the conflict is we can't get a waiver for the whole neighborhood.
CORNISH: Right. You're talking about up to 300 houses, aren't you?
PIERCE: We have 500 homes. So we're actually going to have to go through the process of getting a waiver for every home individually, going to, you know, a city zoning meeting and ask for a waiver, apply for and then get the vote on each house...
PIERCE: ...where we've been trying to get the city to give a blanket waiver for the area since we have all the properties in this area.
CORNISH: So there are lots of little mousetraps, as you describe them like this.
PIERCE: Little mousetraps, yes. So it's that sort of logistical focus that has to happen. It's the infrastructure of policy that has been difficult.
CORNISH: What have you learned from this experience about your city?
PIERCE: That's a really good question. It's like loving a parent who has some issues, you know? I love you, Daddy, but I wish you'd stop drinking, you know, that sort of thing. I love this city. We have to get away from the political football that is being kicked around.
Five years since the beginning of this storm, we're still in it because at times, we don't set aside the agendas for the greater good. There are those who do not have our best interests at heart. There are those who are happy with the way things are because it didn't affect them in a certain way.
Some people saw it a great way to reshape the city. They have no problem with thousands and thousands of New Orleanians who are from here who don't have an opportunity to come back, that a way hasn't been made for them to come back.
And disasters, it brings out the best in people and the worst in people. And I wish that - the thing that I've learned about my city is the fact that we're resilient in spite of all of that.
CORNISH: Wendell Pierce, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk with us.
PIERCE: Thank you.
CORNISH: Wendell Pierce plays Antoine Batiste in the HBO program "Treme." He's also the president of the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation in New Orleans.
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