I AM HOME! A sign planted at a memorial in the Lower Ninth Ward
To see Part 1, click here.
To see Part 2, click here.
To see Part 3, click here.
Shortly before Noon on Friday October 10, 2008, my wife and I flew into the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, disembarked, grabbed our luggage and wandered over to our car rental service, where I lucked into receiving a small, bright red SUV for the same price as a mid-size sedan.
We were headed for the Fifth Annual Voice of the Wetlands Festival in Houma, southern Louisiana, which was scheduled to start at 4:00 PM this day. However, I figured we might be a little late. I had something else to do first.
In the Spring of 2007, I had sojourned several times to New Orleans, in particular both to the Lower Ninth Ward as well as Orleans Avenue off of the French Quarter, to investigate the aftermath of Katrina there, and ended up doing several photo-journalism articles on what I saw and learned. The Lower Ninth was still horrifically devastated, blasted almost like a war zone, some 22 months after Katrina struck. The Industrial Canal Levee had, of course, been breached in three places, flooding the Ward, trapping many in their houses and attics and drowning as many as a thousand people, or perhaps even much higher. We will likely never know the exact number. The flooding, by the way, was directly attributable to the loss of Louisiana's wetlands.
Up on Orleans Avenue near the French Quarter, the exact opposite was true in one specific respect. Although this area also suffered heavy damage, the central landmark on the avenue, the massive Lafitte Housing Project, solid, three-story, red-brick apartment complexes that extended for block after block, was largely unscathed, yet, ironically in a city in the grip of a severe housing shortage, unoccupied, and on purpose. The city of New Orleans, in cahoots with HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was trying to get rid of, to borrow some old Marxist terms, the lumpen-proletariat for the sake of the bourgeoisie; that is to say, the realtors and developers wanted to displace all those "bad Black people hanging out in the projects selling drugs", to flaunt a standard racist stereotype , so that they could go in there and, with visions of sugar-plums dancing through their heads, put up condos and shopping malls under the rubric of "mixed-income remodeling".
The Lafitte Housing Project was under assault in April 2007.
And this had been the controversy when last I visited here. Real people, some of them now homeless, who desperately wanted to return to their boarded-up homes, were locked in struggle with a faceless, callous system that wanted to demolish the same, no matter the human cost.
Into the Lower Ninth Again
So we drove from the airport, which is actually in Kenner on the outskirts of NOLA, on into downtown New Orleans, where I pulled onto enduring Claiborne Avenue and started heading North, recognizing certain landmarks from my 2007 trip while noting the disappearance of certain others. Eventually we were driving over the rust-covered Industrial Canal drawbridge and down into the Lower Ninth Ward, taking the first left I could, then zigzagging due west toward the levee. I was looking for Common Ground Relief, the central nexus of restoration in the Ward.As soon as I entered the Ward I felt a different vibration, a different energy from my last trip. It was as if the place was a little brighter, a little lighter, as if someone had opened a hidden cosmic window and let in some fresh prana, aether, spirit, not merely fresh air. And then as I turned down Tennessee Street, I started to notice a proclivity of both house repairs and new construction, pickups and dump trucks, a backhoe excavator, workers. Wow! This is different I told my wife. Something good is happening.
After stopping to show the Industrial Canal Levee to my wife up close, I soon found my way to the street corner where Common Ground used to be located, but it was now abandoned, but driving a block farther north, I immediately ran right into their new headquarters at the corner of Deslonde and N. Roman:
Common Ground Relief, 1800 Deslonde St, Lower Ninth Ward
Parking just down the street, my wife and I hopped out. There were a few Common Ground volunteers (I quickly learned) standing about conversing, another sitting on a picnic table bench reading, all of whom I nodded to while we began exploring, first, the active garden areas surrounding the house. I was quite amazed. They were growing bulrushes for their Wetlands Restoration Project (more on that later) and had just sown new seed beds of peas, radishes, beets, onions, lettuce and more, with a banana tree hovering in the background and an herbal garden around the back of the house. Further in the distance was what look like tall grasses that I assumed were also meant for their Wetlands Restoration Project.