Carpeting the filled-in swampland of Bayou Sauvage, New Orleans East, also known as Planning District 9, was, until 2005, a 20-square-mile area of mainly middle-class, suburban-style African-American neighborhoods. Since the summer of 2006, when I began working in the district as a landscape consultant, I have been looking in on America Street, in the Plum Orchard section. The day I arrived the ground appeared to be brutally churned and compacted — wrinkled from the weight and movement of the floodwaters that followed Hurricane Katrina. The few remaining residents, living mostly in trailers, and the families that had returned to check on their property, traversed a scrubland still choked with the ripped-up pieces of homes, sheds, fences, uprooted plants and trash. Rebuilding efforts were sporadic; a few people I spoke with were still waiting for financing to pay for materials and specialized labor.
By the following summer, the situation seemed to have changed; opportunistic plants were breaking through the hard soil and lush weed colonies were taking over vacant lots. A closer look revealed that human re-inhabitation remained sparse. On nearby Ray Avenue, an elderly man, one of the few people about on a weekday, worked on his house and tended squash plants growing up against the foundation. Trash had been gathered and someone had been hauling some of it away — though this didn’t seem to be a municipal activity. Electric service was back on. Some homeowners were working on their gutted houses — clearly the projects would be long-term and do-it-yourself. A couple of people sitting out on their front stoop talked about neighbors returning and their hopes for life getting back to New Orleans normal.
As an outsider with a distanced, big-picture sense of the looming threat of another catastrophic storm submerging the slowly sinking ground of New Orleans East, this regeneration seemed both a blessing and a curse. Residents were struggling to reclaim their homes, but the the public spaces of the neighborhood — sidewalks, streets, parks and commercial corners — were being neglected. No larger municipal entities were taking responsibility for rebuilding the public domain. Yet civic character and cohesion grow and flourish in common spaces. The problem was already clear: “rebuilding” was happening mostly at the scale of individual houses; it wasn’t happening at the larger scale of the city.
The team of planners and architects that I was collaborating with proposed not only to rebuild houses but also to reconstruct buildings and landscapes in a comprehensive design process. 1 Our design strategies evolved out of our analysis and understanding of Plum Orchard’s multiscale environmental and social systems. To entice homeowners into land-swaps, which would relocate them away from the most flood-prone areas, we developed a neighborhood plan that included new public parks and community-enabling infrastructures: pedestrian friendly streets, playgrounds, raised community gardens (to get above contaminated soil) and integrated backyard water management.
Before Katrina, about 55 percent of Plum Orchard households were owner-occupied — a fairly even split with working class renters. And since many of the rental homes were owned by neighborhood families, Plum Orchard was a good model for low-density, affordable housing. We sought to amplify the sense of community through common space, in order to renew the power of the fragmented post-Katrina community to act collectively. We emphasized that aggregations of individual properties do not in themselves make a neighborhood, and that rebuilding discrete structures is not the same as rebuilding a community. Unfortunately, the visions for a “new” New Orleans — the plans that have dominated the mainstream and professional press, that have been the subject of competitions and studios, that have been funded by organizations like Brad Pitt’s Make It Right — have consisted almost entirely of novel reconfigurations of local housing types. Larger and more complex questions — about the planned abandonment of unsafe districts, about the relocation of residents, about reinvestment in civic-scale infrastructures — have receded from view.
The ongoing struggles of New Orleans East are in contrast to some other districts of the city. The French Quarter — epicenter of the tourist economy — is back in full swing, and in many of the central neighborhoods construction is ongoing and the post-Katrina sense of desolation is gone. The Vietnamese community of Village l’Est, or District 10, also in New Orleans East, moved back and rebuilt quickly; today its community gardens are becoming a national model. In these instances local networks provided an organizational foundation for rebuilding. It was the commercial community of the French Quarter and the leadership of the religious community of Village de l’Est that spurred and supported the reinvigoration of those areas. But in Plum Orchard, the diversity of aid has been geared largely to private initiatives, with all to predictable results — piecemeal rebuilding, scattershot reoccupation.
In 2007 I interviewed an 87-year-old woman living alone in a trailer on the lot where her home had once stood. She was grateful that Catholic Charities had paid to remove the destroyed structure, and she was waiting to see if any organization would step forward to help her rebuild it. When I asked if she would consider moving to higher ground, she replied that she owned that land and she would not leave what she owned. She had no near neighbors — the nearest rebuilding activity was a block and a half away, where a Habitat for Humanity house was nearing completion. When I asked if she wasn’t afraid to live there alone, she asked: what else she could do?
As I walked down America Street this past summer — three years after my first visit — I was struck by the quiet. The patchy concrete sidewalk still sprouted grass; but no one was walking on it anyway. Around the block, near what was once a busy corner with a mom-and-pop store, the sidewalk just ended. Welded-wire mesh in formed-out, but now debris-filled trenches had rusted, maybe awaiting the arrival of a concrete truck that never came. As I continued my walk, a new addition to the neighborhood landscape captured my attention: since my last visit a series of high fences had been built around most of the newly renovated homes. The security fences — some of which completely obstruct the view from sidewalk to house and house to sidewalk — shatter any possibility of the neighborhood recovering the social life, the life of the front stoop, that animated it before the storm. The way we shape landscape not only reveals our culture; it in turn shapes our culture. The fences demarcate personal property, and more: they underscore a pioneer attitude that prioritizes the protection of individual property over the encouragement of community life. It was by intruding on one of those fences — walking right up to it to look through at the newly rebuilt house beyond — that I met Mrs. Fair.
Mrs. Fair owns her home, a white ranch. As she explained it, when Katrina hit, she left New Orleans with three pieces of clothing, and nothing else. Recently retired with a pension, she relocated to Houston, where she could afford a comfortable life; some of her children were nearby. And she still had her house on America Street. Unlike some of her neighbors, Mrs. Fair was diligent in clearing and maintaining her property to prevent it from becoming weedy and overgrown, a breeding ground for rats and other vermin. As she told me: “I knew I was responsible for the property, and I had to make a decision about where I wanted to be.” That sense of responsibility, as much as homesickness, led her back to Plum Orchard. She rebuilt her home and her yard: new concrete walks, new lawn . . . and new six-foot steel-picket fence to protect it all. It wasn’t easy, and it’s an understatement to say that she is suffering some buyer’s remorse after reinvesting her savings in the home. “What I should have done,” she said, “was move to another neighborhood — not this neighborhood at all.”
America Street doesn’t have a lot of local color. The mix of brick ranches and vinyl-sided houses could be anywhere. The few Creole cottages add a dash of delta style, but they seem to have been very badly damaged by the storm and are now haunting in their decay. In its quiet desolation, America Street reveals the gnawing social and environmental conflicts that trouble New Orleans. Across the street from Mrs. Fair is a broken-down and abandoned double shotgun; next to that one is another double shotgun — this one renovated. On the abandoned house you can still see the hand-painted signs of post-disaster relief surveys; the symbol for “no dead” and a note saying “gas is shut off.” The yard, a deep mat of invasive weed, is lush enough to conceal the rats’ nests but not the damaged foundation.
Next door, a single-family ranch is in much the same condition. A double shotgun further down the street is being rebuilt as rental apartments and its new five-foot-high chain-link fence glistens in the sun. Most of the renovated properties on the block are for rent; Mrs. Fair says that only three families that she knew before Katrina have moved back. Two doors down and across the street at the corner, boarded-up single-family homes managed by the Housing Authority of New Orleans remain vacant. The Housing Authority mows the lawns, but the small brick houses are blights on the block, with white signs out front warning people off the property. Mrs. Fair commented that she should have put up a wood fence — like some of her neighbors — so she wouldn’t be able to see beyond her yard. Instead she keeps her curtains closed.
America Street is increasingly a zone of lost opportunity. The French Quarter may have revived, but in effectively abandoning neighborhoods like Plum Orchard, the city risks losing the dynamic urban culture that sustains the tourist economy. 2 In neighborhoods like Plum Orchard, the chance to rebuild the urban landscape — to encourage strong community, sensitivity to ecological systems and environmental justice — appears to have been missed. Mrs. Fair rebuilt her house; she could not rebuild her neighborhood. When great cities successfully rebuild after disaster, they do so through common cause and collective action — there are limits to individual will and personal capital. After the great fire of 1871, the city of Chicago enacted policies that prohibited rebuilding with flammable materials. Hurricane Katrina and the floods that followed devastated New Orleans; but they opened up an opportunity to re-plan the city with the goal of building more resilient neighborhoods and stronger communities. Strategies for re-inhabitation that both respect private property rights and improve the public realm are not impossible. To develop a far-reaching plan, one that would redistribute the inevitably smaller population onto higher and ultimately safer ground, was not an unattainable civic ideal. Now, residents like Mrs. Fair live with rats and fear leaving their houses after nine o’clock. On America Street, the loss goes deeper than just the abandoned houses. Citizens like Mrs. Fair returned, ready to commit to rebuilding their lives in their city; but their city has neglected them. They have been left adrift to restake their claims in a dangerous land.