9th Ward: History, Yes, but a Future?

Steven and Jacqueline Robinson react to the sight of their home in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward. Some are saying that the storied but flood-prone area should not be rebuilt.
Steven and Jacqueline Robinson react to the sight of their home in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward. Some are saying that the storied but flood-prone area should not be rebuilt. (By Michel Ducille -- The Washington Post)
By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 3, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Oct. 2 -- No one here wants to say it aloud, but one day soon the bulldozers will come, shoving away big hunks of a neighborhood known for its poverty and its artists, its bad luck and its bounce-back resilience.

It is likely to be the largest demolition of a community in modern U.S. history -- destruction begun by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and finished by heavy machinery. On Saturday, firefighters put red tags on hundreds of homes deemed "unsafe," the first step in a wrenching debate over whether the Lower Ninth Ward should be rebuilt or whether, as some suggest, it should revert to its natural state: swamp.

A neighborhood tucked into a deep depression between two canals, railroad tracks and the Mississippi River, New Orleans's Lower Ninth has spent more of the past five weeks underwater than dry. Entire houses knocked off foundations. Barbershops and corner groceries flattened. Cars tossed inside living rooms. What remains is coated in muck -- a crusty layer of canal water, sewage and dirt. Mold is rapidly devouring interiors.

The question now is whether the Lower Ninth Ward, which was devastated 40 years ago by Hurricane Betsy, should be resuscitated again. The debate, as fervent as any facing post-hurricane New Orleans, will test this city's mettle and is sure to expose tensions over race, poverty and political power. The people willing to let the Lower Ninth fade away hew to a pragmatist's bottom line; the ones who want it to stay talk of culture and tradition.

The flooded sections "should not be put back in the real estate market," said Craig E. Colten, a geography professor at Louisiana State University. "I realize it will be an insult [to former residents], but it would be a far bigger insult to put them back in harm's way."

The notion is not without precedent. In the 1800s, cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago rebuilt on filled-in marsh. More recently, the federal government has paid to relocate homes destroyed by the Mississippi River floods of 1993; the Northridge, Calif., earthquake; and the Love Canal environmental disaster in Upstate New York.

But never on the scale being contemplated here. And never in a predominantly black, low-income community already smarting from previous wrongs, perceived or real.

"This is a natural disaster; it's nobody's fault," said Lolita Reed Glass, who grew up in the Lower Ninth with her parents and 10 siblings. "My daddy worked. He did not sit on his bottom. You're not giving us anything. What we rightfully deserve as citizens of this country is the same protection we give to other countries."

Of the 160,000 buildings in Louisiana declared "uninhabitable" after Katrina, a majority are in the New Orleans neighborhoods that suffered extensive flooding. Mayor C. Ray Nagin, an African American who worked in the private sector before entering politics, has spelled out plans to reopen every section of the city -- except the Lower Ninth. His director of homeland security, Col. Terry Ebbert, said in an interview that most homes in the Lower Ninth "will not be able to be restored." Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson told the Houston Chronicle he has advised Nagin that "it would be a mistake to rebuild the Ninth Ward."

The mayor himself has spoken ominously about the need for residents to come in, "take a peek," retrieve a few valuables and move on. Historic preservation advocates fear that the city will capitalize on a program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that pays to tear down damaged buildings but not to repair historic private properties.

"There is a built-in incentive to demolish," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "The first instinct after natural disasters is almost always to demolish buildings. It is almost always wrong."

New Orleans, with 20 districts on the National Register of Historic Places covering half the city, has the highest concentration of historic structures in the nation, Moe said. That includes the Lower Ninth's Holy Cross section, with its shotgun houses and gems such as the Jackson Barracks, the Doullut Steamboat Houses and St. Maurice Church.

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