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Are newcomers a mixed blessing for the Lower Ninth Ward?

With so many residents gone since Hurricane Katrina, can the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans ever bounce back? William Brangham reports on the historically black neighborhood’s struggle to sustain and rebuild community while lacking sources of economic development and facing signs of gentrification.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The sight of New Orleans residents perched on rooftops signaling for help as floodwaters rose became one of the iconic images of Hurricane Katrina. Many of those stranded lived in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

    After the storm, as people waded through the wreckage, the Lower Ninth Ward became more than a disaster area. It also became a symbol of societal failure, including persistent poverty, crumbling homes and streets, and racial tension.

    Ten years later, we went back to the Lower Ninth Ward, where the recovery that has boosted much of the city has been slow to arrive.

    William Brangham has our report.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Every morning, Burnell Cotlon sets up tables outside his Lower Ninth Ward market to provide a gathering place for the customers he hopes will come. His small corner grocery is one of the few businesses that have opened in this heavily damaged neighborhood of New Orleans.

  • BURNELL COTLON, Grocery Store Owner:

    When we first purchased the building, believe it or not, this is what it looked like.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So you looked at that building in that condition and thought, I'm going to buy that and I'm going to build a business there?

  • BURNELL COTLON:

    As crazy as it may sound, yes sir.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • BURNELL COTLON:

    I'm a visionary.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Cotlon and his wife, Keasha, invested their entire life's savings five years ago to start this business, even though the population of the Lower Ninth Ward is just half of what it was before Hurricane Katrina.

  • BURNELL COTLON:

    The major box stores said they're not coming back to the Lower Ninth Ward because there's not enough people. And the people that want to come back to the Lower Ninth Ward say they're not coming back because there's no stores.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    It's the classic chicken-and-egg problem that affects virtually every aspect of life here in the Lower Ninth Ward. With so many residents still gone, can this neighborhood ever bounce back?

  • REV. WILLIE CALHOUN, Baptist Minister:

    Look around you and you see, there's no economic development. There's no way to sustain this community whatsoever if you don't generate business back here.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Reverend Willie Calhoun showed me what once had been a major commercial thoroughfare.

  • REV. WILLIE CALHOUN:

    This used to actually be a drug store. On the corner, we had a cleaners. Next to the cleaners, we had the church.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Right here, boom, boom, boom?

  • REV. WILLIE CALHOUN:

    Right.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    He says, even as the city touts its economic revival downtown and in other neighborhoods, officials just haven't done enough to create jobs here.

  • REV. WILLIE CALHOUN:

    You come back here, and you're trying to figure out, how can you survive if you don't have any work? You can't.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Ten years after the storm, the Lower Ninth Ward is a checkerboard of development. New and rebuilt homes stand right next to boarded-up ones. There are over 100 of Brad Pitt's Make It Right houses, and some 30 community gardens.

    But on many blocks, the only thing that's returned in full are the weeds. Many roads are filled with potholes. Abandoned cars and trash still litter the landscape. There is a brand-new $20 million rec center, a new firehouse and a rebuilt K-12 public charter school.

    Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who, earlier this month held one of his many community forums, this one in the Lower Ninth Ward, says more than $500 million of public and private money has been spent on the neighborhood.

    MITCH LANDRIEU (D), Mayor of New Orleans, Louisiana: What we want to do in Lower Nine and in every neighborhood is to build strong foundations and institutions that can lift people up and begin to create great opportunity and generational wealth. It takes a long — it takes a lot of time and a lot of money. And the Lower Ninth Ward is wanting in both of those areas.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, what do you say to the residents who say that, if that neighborhood had been whiter and wealthier, that it wouldn't look the way it does today?

  • MITCH LANDRIEU:

    Well, there's really no answer to that. If a neighborhood that got hit was wealthier and had insurance and had the resources to stand itself back up, it would be doing better. There's no — there's no question about that.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    But there are some people who do believe that the city just didn't — that the political will from the city, the state, wherever…

  • MITCH LANDRIEU:

    Well, that's not — that's not — that's not accurate. Every part of this city got fair treatment. Every part of the city got investments that they deserved and that they needed.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    One thing the city is doing is providing tax breaks to developers who are willing to build in the Lower Ninth. But even that exposed tensions.

  • KIM FORD, Community Organizer:

    This is another aspect of gentrification. Developers, they're marketing these to people who are not from this community, white people primarily.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Kim Ford is a Lower Ninth Ward resident and community organizer. She says the new development projects will drastically change the neighborhood, which, prior to Katrina, was comprised mostly of African-American working-class residents.

    So, this used to be a school before Katrina?

    She took me to a particularly contentious site, the old Holy Cross school grounds. Since Katrina, they have been sitting abandoned and unused, but they were recently purchased by a New Orleans condo developer.

  • KIM FORD:

    Two high-rise condo complexes between this building and the levee right here towering six stories above the single one-story homes that exist in this neighborhood.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    And isn't that a good thing? Don't you need people moving into this neighborhood?

  • KIM FORD:

    We want people that are vested into our community, single-family homes, just like what has historically been in this community. We don't want to increase the taxes on our community that we can't afford to live here anymore.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Wow. That's how high the water came in here.

    Just around the corner, still in the Holy Cross section of the Lower Ninth Ward, Kiff Magor and his girlfriend, Mary Aaroe, are in the midst of renovating a small brick house they bought three years ago. Originally from Indiana and North Carolina, the two met when they were volunteers with Common Ground, a non-profit group that has rebuilt homes in the Lower Nine. The two fell in love with each other, and the neighborhood, and decided to make it their home.

  • KIFF MAGOR, Lower Ninth Ward Resident:

    I have met people who lived in the neighborhood. I have connected with them.

  • MARY AAROE, Lower Ninth Ward Resident:

    There's just a ton of folks that came down and recognized this area as what the people who have lived here for generations and generations have always known, that it's a beautiful space. And there's strong people here, super resilient. Everybody that's here wants to be here in this neighborhood. We love it.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    There are some people in this community who feel that it should stay a historically black neighborhood.

  • KIFF MAGOR:

    I can totally understand where those people are coming from. I just think it's a matter of respecting what it was and not coming in to try and radically change anything. But in order to get the things the neighborhood needs, we need people to move in.

  • KEISHA HENRY, Co-Owner, Cafe Dauphine:

    We have a shrimp and a grilled chicken.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Keisha Henry certainly agrees with that. Three years ago, she and some family members opened Cafe Dauphine, the only upscale restaurant in the Lower Ninth Ward. They serve traditional New Orleans fare. She says business has been up and down. She hopes they will soon see a profit.

  • KEISHA HENRY:

    The ultimate goal is to have people who will come down here and see how nice the neighborhood is. And they can enjoy it and they could be like, boy, I never thought of this neighborhood in this light. Maybe I will consider moving over here.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, you would like this place to be a magnet to bring people to the neighborhood, not just to eat, but to live?

  • KEISHA HENRY:

    To live, yes. And our neighbors next door who are from Canada, they came to the restaurant and talked to me. And it was like, Keisha, you know you're one of the reasons why we bought the — bought the house.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    But Henry, who's a single mom, and who lives just across the street from her restaurant, is quick to say what she doesn't like to hear.

  • KEISHA HENRY:

    It's offensive to people who lived here a long time when they say, "I'm here to save this neighborhood."

    My family has been in this neighborhood almost 90 years, and it is offensive to hear people, "Oh, I bought because I want to save you all."

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Have you heard that from people?

  • KEISHA HENRY:

    Oh, I have heard it.

  • RICHARD CAMPANELLA, Tulane University:

    Depending on what your baseline is, you could describe New Orleans as either the fastest shrinking or the fastest growing city in America.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella says New Orleans is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, in large part because of the influx of newcomers. Campanella says he knows the Lower Ninth Ward is still struggling. And while he appreciates the deep historical ties longtime residents feel for the place, he hopes those feelings don't block new migrants from coming.

  • RICHARD CAMPANELLA:

    It flies against not only most of the human story, but most of the New Orleans story. Newcomers have arrived here in various waves for 300 years.

    And the Lower Ninth Ward itself was populated by people who moved from the areas on the other side of the canal. So to artificially draw a line in the chronology of the city and declare everyone before that line to be the true denizens or residents and everyone out after that line to be kind of this unnatural and artificial intrusion is to ignore all of history.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Some residents, like Reverend Willie Calhoun, say they know change is inevitable, but they don't think enough was done to bring the original residents of the Lower Ninth Ward back.

  • REV. WILLIE CALHOUN:

    The design of this was never to bring this neighborhood or this community back all the way. The political will to do things and to make sure that this community thrives and prospers wasn't there, is not there.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Grocer Burnell Cotlon says people like him, people who, despite the challenges, have made this their home, it's up to them to build a new community.

  • BURNELL COTLON:

    New Orleans is changing, and you have to move forward. You have to move forward. So, I know some people want to keep the same old New Orleans. But Katrina changed that. You have to embrace the change. You have to move forward. You have to move forward. You can't stay in the past.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    From the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, I'm William Brangham for the PBS NewsHour.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And tune in again tomorrow night, as a new state-of-the-art hospital opens. We look at the new opportunities and the challenges facing health care in New Orleans. You can follow our series, "Katrina: 10 Years Later" online at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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