Fate Uncertain for New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
As of today, just about all of the neighborhoods in New Orleans are open for people to return to their homes, except one. The Lower 9th Ward, a mostly black and mainly poor community, took the brunt of Katrina's force. Then, weeks later, Hurricane Rita flooded it once again. Some areas are still underwater. There's talk of bulldozing the Lower 9th Ward, but many families who trace their roots to the neighborhood reaching back generations desperately want to rebuild. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:
In a cramped apartment in Baton Rouge, Gaye Fulton(ph) and her family are camped out. It's her son's bachelor pad. Seven people and a dog in a one-bedroom, and most of the living room's taken up by a pool table. It's the first time they've lived anywhere but New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, and it's been especially hard for Gaye's mother-in-law, Vera(ph).
Ms. VERA FULTON: (Gaye Fulton's Mother-in-law): My life, 81 years, I've lived--I was born on Lozada Street(ph) in the 900 block, and later moved back into the 1600 block. And I've been in that area 81 years.
Ms. GAYE FULTON (Housing Authority Employee): You hear from the city? Oh, that's all right.
LUDDEN: Gaye is a longtime activist in the Lower 9th, an employee of the Housing Authority, and she's been burning through the minutes on her cell phone.
Ms. G. FULTON: I'm in touch with anybody who has a cell phone; housing officials, city officials, any kind of officials that I had cell numbers for.
LUDDEN: And what about your neighbors?
Ms. G. FULTON: I didn't have cell numbers on them.
LUDDEN: Gaye and her mother-in-law say they're isolated, lonely and anxious to go back. A cousin has managed to get into the 9th Ward and drive by their house. It wasn't good news.
Ms. G. FULTON: The front porch had separated from the house, the roof had caved in and a side of the house was falling.
LUDDEN: If Gaye Fulton could go back, she'd find some homes in even worse shape. She'd find streets littered with debris, oak trees stripped of leaves. Kenneth Ferdinand and his wife Melba are getting a peek. They also grew up in this neighborhood. They own a few cafes and are part of a small middle class that has been moving just outside, so they're able to drive back over the canal.
Mr. KENNETH FERDINAND: Look at the barge, Melba.
Mrs. MELBA FERDINAND: Oh!
Mr. FERDINAND: This used to be a canal. This is Jordan Avenue(ph), the Jordan Avenue Canal(ph). They closed it, and...
Mrs. FERDINAND: It's right in somebody's yard.
Mr. FERDINAND: Yeah. It's where you used to live.
Mrs. FERDINAND: Yeah.
LUDDEN: The Ferdinands park, climb out of their minivan and stand near a powerboat beached on a sidewalk. As dump trucks and National Guard Humvees rattle by, I ask Kenneth what will be lost if these streets are not rebuilt. He remembers how his father, as a GI, was encouraged to settle here after World War II.
Mr. FERDINAND: Originally, the opportunity here was to have a single-family home. If you were a black, this was the only area of the city where you could come in, untouched, get a large piece of land and build a home. That's what the Lower 9th Ward, I think, represents.
LUDDEN: The Lower 9th is only part of the larger 9th Ward, and the area wasn't always majority African-American.
Mr. DAVID WARE (Attorney): The 9th Ward was originally settled by Irish and German immigrants. And you can see that very, very clearly in the--and also French. You can see that very clearly in the churches that were there.
LUDDEN: David Ware is an attorney who lived in the 9th Ward for a decade.
Mr. WARE: The Catholic Church had a German church, an Irish church and a French church, and these surrounded my house. So you had these three cultures mingling there, and they lived in little white shotgun houses with green shutters. All the houses were white and they all had green shutters.
LUDDEN: School desegregation in the '60s gave rise to white flight, dispersing people from the 9th Ward all over the New Orleans area. Ware says they're now known as `yats,' as in `Where you at?'
Mr. WARE: They talk like they're from Brooklyn. You know, `Where you at? Where you at, darlin'?' And people who come to town think, `What are all these people from Brooklyn doing running around New Orleans?'
LUDDEN: As whites left the Lower 9th, new public housing projects went up. A number of homes were abandoned, and in more recent years, the neighborhood became known for its violent crime. Alongside the jazz and swing that had come from its streets in earlier decades, rappers emerged to tell their stories of the Lower 9th, rappers like Lil' Wayne.
(Soundbite of "Respect Us")
LIL' WAYNE: (Rapping) It's bang bang. I hustle and slang slang. My block, I hang hang. Who am I? Lil' Wayne, man.
LUDDEN: And the `bang bang' wasn't just in song. In the weeks before Katrina, the local paper reported a series of gruesome shootings. One young mother was killed while running with her two-year-old.
Some evacuees relocated halfway across the country have told reporters they're happy to be out of the Lower 9th and never want to go back. Cynthia Willard-Lewis hates to hear that. She's the city councilwoman for the 9th Ward, and on a cloudy afternoon, she's come to inspect the patched-up breach in the levee here. She stands between the Industrial Canal and rows of broken wood, the rubble of homes she vows to rebuild.
Ms. CYNTHIA WILLARD-LEWIS (New Orleans City Council): We understand that crime was rampant. It was rampant all over New Orleans. It was not confined to any one neighborhood nor any one group of people; it was everywhere. And we will fight. Those of us who've stayed, we will fight, that at whatever point they want to come back, they will have the opportunity to come back in dignity and with opportunities available to them. We want them to come back.
LUDDEN: Eighty-one-year-old Vera Fulton is ready. In that crowded Baton Rouge apartment, she takes solace in the handwritten prayer books she saved from her house in the Lower 9th. She keeps them in a large Ziploc freezer bag.
Ms. V. FULTON: The Lord is blessing me right now. Woke me up this morning and he started me on my way. I don't have anything, but he's still blessing me. I'm here. See? And I will lift mine eyes unto the hill where cometh my (unintelligible); just a ritual of things that I do.
LUDDEN: But Fulton still misses the senior center she went to nearly every day, the neighbors who'd greet her from their front porches, the comforting routines of daily life.
Ms. V. FULTON: Every night of our life until this storm, my family, we would all eat supper together. I did the cooking; they did the working, after--and every night, we'd all be together. And we have Sunday and our Wednesday guest, Ms. Williams(ph). She would come eat every Wednesday. And the boy across the street, when he felt like it, he'd come over. Then my neighbor--and if we're cooking a barbecue and if they're barbecuing in the back, he'll look over the fence, he'll say, `I'd like that, too.' (Laughs) So really I miss all of that, and I don't know how anybody felt, but I felt like it was good living to me.
LUDDEN: Vera Fulton doesn't know if she'll ever again see those neighbors or cook a meal in that house, but she's hoping to at least move back as close as possible to the only place she'll ever call home. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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