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Aug 28, 2011 12:03 PM by Chris Welty

6 Years After Katrina, Lower 9th Ward Still Bleak

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - In New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, the grasses
grow taller than people and street after street is scarred by empty
decaying houses, the lives that once played out inside their walls
hardly imaginable now.
St. Claude Avenue, the once moderately busy commercial
thoroughfare, looks like the main street of a railroad town
bypassed long ago by the interstate. Most buildings are shuttered,
"For Sale" signs stuck on their sides. There aren't many buyers.
And the businesses that are open are mostly corner stores where
folks buy pricey cigarettes, liquor and packaged food.
Six years after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast,
the New Orleans neighborhood that was hardest hit still looks like
a ghost town. Redevelopment has been slow in coming, and the
neighborhood has just 5,500 residents - one-third its pre-Katrina
population.
But politicians, investors and celebrities continue to promise a
better future. City leaders recently announced plans to rebuild a
high school and pave the neighborhood's roads. And actor Wendell
Pierce, who stars in an HBO series about New Orleans, is backing a
new supermarket for an area that hasn't had one in 20 years.
While residents welcome the news, they remain skeptical.
Promises have been dashed too many times.
"Look around you at the Katrina houses!" said Robert Stark, a
54-year-old disabled veteran, sweating in stifling August heat on a
porch looking onto Flood Street. He waved at two vacant crumbling
houses, like so many that dot the Lower 9th Ward.
He shook his head and added: "Look at the grass." In many
lots, fields of high grass grow in place of houses. "There ain't
nothing new down here. Nothing new ... nothing new."
That's not completely true.
Since Katrina, the predominantly black neighborhood has been the
site of rebuilding by environmental groups and thousands of
volunteers. There's now an eco-friendly community center and a
cluster of more than 50 modernistic houses, built with the help of
actor Brad Pitt. It sits near where the floodwall toppled on Aug.
29, 2005, killing dozens of people and swamping thousands of homes
with floodwaters that reached rooftops.
Also, a charter school has been rebuilt and many of the
shotgun-style homes and Creole cottages in the older part of the
neighborhood, Holy Cross, are a display of bright New Orleans
colors and cheery yards.
But residents of the Lower 9th Ward, downriver from the French
Quarter, nevertheless feel left behind.
Other parts of New Orleans have flourished thanks to federal
recovery dollars that have brought new businesses, schools and
streets.
Entrepreneurship and civic engagement is up, city schools have
shown test-score gains and the middle class is growing, according
to a new report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, a
group tracking the city's recovery. Even crime - still nearly twice
the national average - is being held in check and falling, the
report said. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers is getting
closer to finishing $14 billion in work to better shield the city
from future hurricanes.
"Some of the data shows that New Orleans is rebuilding better
than before," said Allison Plyer, deputy director of the Greater
New Orleans Community Data Center.
Still, Plyer said the Lower 9th Ward is among a number of
low-income communities that have had difficulty rebuilding since
Katrina's flooding.
In the Lower 9th Ward, the fire station for Engine 39 hasn't
been rebuilt. Instead, the firefighters use a trailer. Schools and
churches are boarded up. Scores of houses still bear the markings
of search-and-rescue crews - the now familiar "X" spray painted
on doors and the front of houses to designate whether a building
had been searched, by whom and whether any bodies had been found
inside. The only difference is they are faded now.
The lack of people makes those who've come back feel that their
neighborhood has been forgotten, even though a steady stream of
politicians came to promise to help after Katrina and millions of
dollars flowed in.
Now there's a new push to revive the neighborhood.
In recent days, city leaders have put forward plans to rebuild
the Alfred Lawless High School and spend $45 million repaving most
of the streets where the heaviest damage took place.
A group of investors that includes Pierce, a New Orleans native
starring on the HBO show "Treme," has announced plans to build a
full-scale grocery store on the grounds of a former baseball field
by 2013. Developers hope to get federal hurricane recovery
low-interest and forgivable loans. If built, the 25,000-square-foot
store would represent one of the first pioneering commercial
investments for the Lower 9th Ward since Katrina.
Pierce said big-chain supermarkets are unable to see the
potential for profit in a place like the Lower 9th Ward, where his
parents lived before he was born.
"Corporate America only sees the risk side of the ledger," he
said. "I'm tired of industry standing on the sidelines. There is
value here, there is wealth here... It's pent-up demand and I feel
as though it is something that can be mined."
Not everyone is convinced.
David J. Livingston, a Wisconsin-based grocery consultant who's
studied the New Orleans market, said the Lower 9th Ward is too
depopulated to support a supermarket. He questioned whether the
Lower 9th Ward, cut off by an industrial canal from the rest of New
Orleans, can ever be a lively spot for commerce despite the best
efforts of actors Pitt and Pierce.
"All the work that Brad Pitt has done, has it really made a
significant difference? Glad he did it, better than it was. But
it's still not the garden spot of New Orleans," Livingston said,
referring to the cluster of eco-friendly homes built by the
Pitt-backed foundation Make It Right.
But local residents and merchants hold out hope the supermarket
can help turn things around.
"Maybe some of the folks going to the supermarket would come
here," said April Lawrence, the owner of a beauty salon who took a
chance and opened in 2009 on Dauphine Street. "Today, I have just
one client," she said glumly. Unless business picks up, she said,
she will have to close.
Down the street, regulars sat outside on the sidewalk in front
of Mercedes' Place, a bar and video poker spot, chatting, drinking
and smoking. For them, anything would be better than the options
they have now: Drive miles to get something decent to cook up at
home.
"It's needed!" Lynette Gibson said emphatically and loudly.
She helps her 72-year-old mother, Mercedes, run the bar.
She shook her head at the thought of the handful of gas stations
and convenience stores on the main streets. "It's limited," she
said. "They only satisfy neighborhood people who drink."
Roosevelt Johnson Sr., a 51-year-old disabled veteran, stood
outside his house and looked at the empty grass field where the
grocery store would be built.
"With them bringing a supermarket, it might increase property
values," he reasoned. "It might bring some normalcy back here.
Make it like any other neighborhood where you go 10 minutes to the
supermarket."

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