Saving New Orleans, One House at a Time

Steve Wishnia Jun 25, 2006

NEW ORLEANS—In front of 1639 Deslonde St. in the Lower Ninth Ward, a small white wood house about two blocks in and three blocks down from where the levee broke, is a stack of a couple dozen old vinyl albums, their cover art washed away to mud-colored cardboard. The one on top is Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain.

Inside is a montage of family photos, also washed out except for one picture of a smiling middle-aged couple. The watermark on the outside of the house is a fecal-tan stripe, vague and dusty like spray paint, about eye level. 1639’s owner, an elderly woman who’s lived there since 1955, is one of the lucky ones. Her house is still standing, in good enough shape to be gutted and renovated by volunteer crews from the Common Ground Collective activist group. Much of the neighborhood, especially the blocks closest to the breach, is a wasteland, with houses knocked off their foundations, piles of splintered boards and broken telephone poles, smashed and overturned cars, and grass growing where there were once blocks and blocks of homes.

You don’t realize the scale and the intensity of the destruction until you see it. The wind damage is worst in the St. Bernard Parish suburbs to the east, where the road through Arabi and Chalmette is strip-mall apocalypse, miles of smashed gas stations and fast-food franchises. Much of the Treme and Upper Ninth Ward neighborhoods are ghost towns, as houses that look intact on the outside are too moldy to reoccupy, and there’s not a whole lot of electricity, let alone public schools or health clinics. And the Lower Ninth Ward looks like a cross between the lightning destruction of Ground Zero and the mass devastation of the South Bronx of 1978. The ruins are of bungalows instead of six-story tenements, but the sociopolitical overtones are similar.

In the 1970s, when huge swaths of New York (and other American cities) were abandoned – blocks and blocks of rubble and boarded-up or burned-out buildings – some in the city’s power elite called for a policy of “planned shrinkage,” of letting neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Bushwick and the Lower East Side wither away, getting rid of the problems of poverty by getting rid of the poor. And since the hurricane, many in the New Orleans power elite have called for a smaller, more “manageable” and whiter city. In the Lower Ninth Ward, residents were not allowed to do anything more than “look and leave” until May. Eight months after the hurricane, there are no traffic lights. The only electricity comes from generators, and the limited running water is considered unfit even for bathing.

Uptown in the Warehouse District it might as well be a universe away. This is an old light industrial area now full of clubs, like the meatpacking district in Manhattan. The beats and basslines boom out when the doors open, and the sidewalks are packed with young whites gleaming with affluence.

This could be George Bush’s vision of New Orleans’ Future, a “frat-tastic” theme-park party. The black musicians bringing the funk – George Clinton and locals Papa Grows Funk – are among the finest in the nation, but the only dark faces in the crowds at the doors are the bouncers.

The purpose of fixing up Deslonde Street, the one block close to the levee break that has several relatively intact homes, is to create a seed community for people to move back in, to create a critical mass that will stymie the city’s current plans to raze the entire neighborhood if it isn’t significantly reoccupied by the end of August. 1639 Deslonde has already been gutted, the sodden sheetrock removed and the inside sprayed with bleach to kill the pervasive and toxic mold. Our crew – mostly ex-squatters from the Lower East Side – is redoing the house’s electrical system, ripping out the rotted cloth wiring and rusted circuit boxes, stringing thick ribbons of yellow Romex wire over the rafters and between the beams, and nailing in blue plastic switchboxes and GFCIreceptacle outlets.

Out front people are spading up the ground, shoveling off the top layer of poisonous sludge and planting sunflowers to extract the toxic heavy metals and revivify the soil. Others are in nearby houses, snaking out the toilets and drains, boarding up broken windows and holes in the walls, nailing blue plastic tarpaulins to the roofs and eaves. Displaced homeowners drop by periodically, driving minivans and Toyota Corollas with Tuskegee Institute stickers on the back window.

They are a parade of Southern lower-middle-class types, an elderly woman with glasses and navy-blue churchgoing clothes, a thick-set man in his late forties with a mustache and Jheri curls, and a lean, dark man in a black tank top and gold chains who needs help repairing his roof. The Lower Ninth had a rough reputation – “one thing we had was crime and violence,” says a young man booming hip-hop from a scarlet Chevy, a cement mixer who says he’s not coming back – but many people had deep roots there. One man says he moved to the neighborhood in 1960, “when I was a little kid.” Another says he was born here, in 1957.

Even before the hurricane New Orleans was the United States’ most Third World city. The groceries in the Upper Ninth Ward, with barred windows and peeling teal or salmon paintjobs, could be in Guayaquil, Ecuador or Limon, Costa Rica. And the city had intense extremes of race and class, from the shaded mansions of the Garden District to the barren Iberville projects, from the chain coffeehouses on the Magazine Street hipster strip to the ghetto rib joints on Claiborne Avenue. The hurricane exploded them into exponentiality.

Hurricane Katrina was the worst disaster to hit an American city ever, worse than the San Francisco earthquake. The Gulf Coast situation should be a national emergency. It’s screaming for a 21st-century version of the New Deal to rebuild the houses, restore the levees, regenerate the wetlands, and get the schools and healthcare system back up – and give local people jobs, stimulating local businesses. Instead, the Bush administration has handled it with incompetence, callousness and rapaciousness. With crony capitalism and ethnic cleansing. And we have a media that devotes more space to Britney Spears putting her baby in the car seat the wrong way than it does to the Ninth Ward remaining in ruins.

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