In the context of disasters, the word “recovery” takes on a dizzying array of meanings. It encompasses the physical reconstruction of the built environment. It is an emotional and psychological ordeal undertaken by each survivor. It also applies to institutions—businesses, schools, police and fire departments, houses of worship—that must reopen their doors, resuming and perhaps redefining their work. Recovery in the wake of a disaster means nothing less than the restoration of every aspect of life in the affected place. It presents a profound and deeply fascinating challenge.
We Shall Not Be Moved is a story of recovery in New Orleans, and as such, it is a story of neighborhoods. True to life, it tells a tale that is at once inspiring, quirky, and troubling. Inspiring, because the resident leaders it portrays have gone to unprecedented lengths to restore life to their city, and their triumphs speak volumes about the power of community solidarity. Quirky, because New Orleanians are people who throw birthday parties for potholes, celebrate roller-skating duck girls, and seek joy and beauty in all that is unconventional; a recovery led by New Orleanians must by nature be audacious and inventive. Troubling, because the rise of New Orleans neighborhoods has occurred against the backdrop of massive government failures, which no degree of community initiative can overcome.
My stake in this story is personal. I grew up in New Orleans, and like most New Orleanians, I love the city passionately. My childhood home is a raised West Indian cottage on Napoleon Avenue in Broadmoor, one of the neighborhoods profiled in this book. My brother still lives there. It has a wonderful porch shaded by live oak trees and a yard that played host to many a childhood adventure. Broadmoor was and still is a diverse neighborhood—an economic, racial, and cultural crossroads in the heart of the city. As we grew up, my brother and I had both white and black friends, and my parents set few bounds on where we could roam and ride our bikes.
The wider world’s call drew me out of New Orleans, but my connection to the city remained strong. In the shock and heartbreak of Katrina’s aftermath, I was left deeply worried for the city’s future. Some people in other parts of the country doubted that New Orleans would rebuild. I knew it would, but I wondered whether the spirit and soul of the place would reemerge. In a piece I wrote for Time the day after the levees broke, I recalled a collection of New Orleans memoirs by Lillian Hellman titled Pentimento. “Pentimento” refers to the texture of old brush strokes on a repainted canvas. The notion that a new image could simultaneously bear the imprint of its predecessor captures an essential aspect of life in New Orleans, where music, food, architecture, and culture have slowly evolved against a rich historical tapestry. A recovery that hurriedly replaced New Orleans’ trademark shotgun houses with soulless tract housing, or neglected its vibrant residential neighborhoods to focus on tourism and the French Quarter, would sap the city’s essential magic. “Saving New Orleans will require not merely re-creating the French Quarter,” I wrote. “It will involve nurturing back to health the genuine and distinctive neighborhoods that serve as an incubator for the city’s music and food and funkiness.”
In September of 2005, I was offered the vice chairmanship of the newly created Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA), a state board that would oversee the allocation of recovery funds and coordinate with local officials as rebuilding proceeded. I jumped at the opportunity. The post would let me contribute directly to my state’s rebirth, and allow me a hand in rekindling life in New Orleans. I served on the LRA for three years. It was from this vantage point, as a New Orleanian who had played a role in the recovery, that I read with interest the book you now hold in your hands.
We Shall Not Be Moved offers a moving portrait of a city’s struggle to rebuild. It is not an account of Katrina per se. Several books have already vividly captured the experience of the storm and the days and months thereafter, notably Chris Rose’s One Dead in Attic and Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun. Rather, it is a story of the arduous endeavor residents have undertaken in New Orleans since the news crews packed up and the nation’s attention moved on. The stories it tells are every bit as gripping and important as tales from the storm itself.
I believe that these stories offer profoundly important insights for our still-young century, a century in which large disasters will remain a fact of life and cities will only continue to grow. New Orleans’ neighborhoods show us the vast creative potential latent within urban communities. Under the right circumstances, residents can seize control of their collective destinies, envisioning bright futures for their neighborhoods and then delivering those neighborhoods from the depths of destruction and hopelessness. However, their stories also reveal the limits and pitfalls of a recovery in which, all too often, higher levels of government have left residents to fend for themselves.
The neighborhood mobilization this book narrates is part of a broad decentralizing trend sweeping New Orleans. It is a grand experiment in governance, informed by the decaying institutions that served New Orleans prior to Katrina and motivated by the tremendous destruction and opportunity the flood left in its wake. The city’s schools are now almost entirely charters, operated by independent boards that the state holds accountable for their students’ academic performance. The New Orleans healthcare system is being overhauled, its historical reliance on large hospitals shifting to a network of community clinics focused on preventive care. That the most successful recovering neighborhoods have become a “fourth tier” of government, below the city administration, is a particularly intriguing and important manifestation of this decentralizing trend.
The neighborhood-driven recovery under way in New Orleans underscores the importance of placing residents first when planning and carrying out the work of recovery or any sort of urban development. One cannot read We Shall Not Be Moved without being struck by the vision, optimism, and tenacity of the residents who have taken the lead in the city’s neighborhoods. They know their communities better than any outside official or planner, and they have by far the most at stake in the outcome of the rebuilding. Their post-Katrina work confirms what many activists and urban scholars have long argued: that the best kinds of urban development are neighborhood-centric, empowering residents to guide changes to the places they live. Hal Roark, whose flooded house sat a few blocks from my childhood home, is on to something when he says, “We are the world’s leading experts on Broadmoor.”
New Orleans’ neighborhood recovery efforts also offer a vital reminder of the difference between utopian dreaming and actionable planning. The stories Tom Wooten tells show that residents in the city’s most successful rebuilding neighborhoods were not simply focused on what they wanted but on how they would turn their visions into reality. Residents in these communities have become tremendously savvy, crafting recovery plans that focus on implementation and then following through. In Broadmoor, residents secured a $2 million grant from the Carnegie Foundation to renovate their historical library; founded a school board that operates a 550-student charter school; oversaw a $30 million green renovation of the historical building the school now occupies; founded a successful community development corporation; approved annual parcel fees to fund the residents association; and more. In neighborhoods across the city, such accomplishments became possible through partnerships that residents formed with foundations, corporations, faith communities, and universities.
Post-Katrina New Orleans proves beyond a doubt that through purposeful organizing, planning, and partnering, communities can take charge of their destinies in the wake of disaster. San Francisco, which lives under the constant threat of a devastating earthquake, has taken note of the neighborhood-centric recovery under way in New Orleans. The mayor’s office has founded a neighborhood empowerment network to engender the community solidarity and leadership the city will need after a quake. Moreover, as We Shall Not Be Moved makes clear, neighborhood-driven development shows tremendous potential outside the realm of disasters. Even as some New Orleans residents run out of recovery work to undertake, their initiative remains as strong as ever. In Hollygrove and Village de l’Est they are mounting innovative urban agricultural programs. Broadmoor residents, whose mantra is “better than before,” are developing an array of neighborhood day care, after-school, and tutoring initiatives to support their charter school. In the Lower Ninth Ward, though much recovery work remains to be done, residents are thinking beyond short-term reconstruction. They aim to rebuild their neighborhood in the most energy-efficient and flood resistant way possible. These are powerful examples not only for the survivors of future disasters, but for urban residents everywhere, especially in blighted rust-belt cities like St. Louis and Detroit.
Uplifting stories of community-driven recovery in New Orleans come with an asterisk. For all of the hope present in these pages, for all the promise that neighborhood recovery efforts hold, We Shall Not Be Moved remains a collection of cautionary tales. Neighborhood mobilization in New Orleans has taken place against the backdrop of profound government failures. After the faulty federal levees gave way, residents were forced to mobilize because they perceived government institutions to be absent and incompetent. The first of many citywide recovery plans left residents of flooded neighborhoods terrified that their houses would be bulldozed. As the city rebuilt, the allocation and dispersal of recovery funds proceeded painfully slowly. Neighborhood leaders faced mountains of red tape at every turn.
Wooten highlights the toll that these failures took on the leaders and communities he profiles. For the recovery leaders, going it alone meant tremendous frustration, burnout, and even premature death. For the neighborhoods, it meant the stagnation of individual rebuilding and community development projects that should have been moving full speed ahead. It is tantalizing to think how much these community efforts could have accomplished with the consistent, willing, and competent partnership of the agencies tasked with rebuilding the city. Neighborhood-driven efforts should exist in partnership with government, not in place of government.
We Shall Not Be Moved offers a number of lessons for the coming years, but its greatest contribution lies in the gripping nature of the stories it tells. Wooten has crafted a work of narrative nonfiction, rather than taking an academic approach. This was the right choice. The people driving the city’s recovery are New Orleans characters whose stories beg to be told and celebrated. Their accomplishments and courage are every bit as worthy of written commemoration as Dr. John’s or Tuti Montana’s.
For me, seventy-eight-year-old Phil Harris is the book’s defining character. Beginning in November of 2005, Phil hitchhiked daily from an Uptown apartment to his flooded Hollygrove home to gut and repair the property—the very same home in which his wife had been born nearly eight decades before. Through his steady, unfailing effort, Phil embodied the humble determination and resilience that has brought New Orleans back to life. “It was heartbreaking,” Phil said of the work, “but we couldn’t give up. I just said, ‘Well, I’ve got to get in and do it.’”
Pam Dashiell, a black woman in her fifties with short hair and sharp eyes, sat in the Lower Ninth Ward house she rented at the corner of Dauphine and Tupelo streets, taking in the beautiful Saturday morning. She felt thoroughly at home in New Orleans, a city that had drawn her in ever since her childhood days in Boston. According to family lore, her great-grandmother was the daughter of an enslaved black man and a Native American woman. She worked as a nanny for a rich white New Orleans family during the Civil War. “My grandmother would tell stories all day and all night about her mother’s adventures here in New Orleans,” Pam said. “It really got to me. Everything I could read about New Orleans, I did. And any movie that had New Orleans in it, that’s what I was going to see.”
As light streamed in through the windows, Pam marveled to herself at yet another idyllic weekend day. Life in the Lower Ninth felt worlds apart from Boston; indeed, it even felt removed from life in the rest of New Orleans. Many who lived in the neighborhood described it to outsiders as being “like the country.”
This assertion would strike an Iowa farmer as laughable, but in New Orleans, the distinction made sense. Though the Lower Ninthwas as densely populated as any other part of New Orleans, it lay downriver of the rest of the city, cut off by a waterway known officially as the Inter-Harbor Navigational Canal and informally as the Industrial Canal. It was a world unto itself. Few in the rest of New Orleans crossed into the Lower Ninth Ward with any regularity, and many Lower Ninth residents returned the favor, eating, sleeping, working, and attending school on their side of the canal.
Pam loved the way the Lower Ninth Ward felt self-contained; it retained and attracted particular kinds of people, who were “drawn by the way this place is.” The people, in turn, made the place. Ms. Leblanc, an elderly lady who had lived in her house on Tennessee Street for nearly forty years, sat on her porch every morning, telling her neighbors about the newspaper stories she was reading. Steve, a janitor who had grown up in the neighborhood, recounted childhood memories of catching snakes and fishing in the bayou down the street from his house. Ms. Johnson, who lived with her grandchildren in an airy clapboard house on Jourdan Avenue, raised chickens. She was not alone; roosters throughout the Lower Ninth began to crow every morning shortly before dawn.
As Pam walked out the door for Saturday errands, she hoped that the hurricane churning out in the gulf would get her a long weekend. Pam was a subcontractor for Shell Oil, which maintained an extensive array of oil rigs off the Louisiana shore. Twice before that year, threatening hurricanes had forced Shell to shut down production in the gulf and evacuate its offshore workers. As of Friday, though, chatter at the company suggested that this hurricane was not a significant threat. With luck, Pam thought, she might get Monday off of work, but that would be it.
As she rounded a block, Pam looked out at a smattering of derelict houses. Like anyone who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward, she knew that her neighborhood had its problems. On her first visit to the Lower Ninthduring the mid-1980s, she stopped her car to read directions and was approached by four separate drug dealers peddling their wares. Her friend, who lived near the Mississippi levee, told stories of groups of men driving up to the levee at night to quietly dispose of bodies in the river. Some of the neighborhood’s pettier criminals were revered. “This was the capital of dogfighting,” Pam recalled, “and the cockfighting king of New Orleans lived on Deslonde Street.”
The Lower NinthWard had another problem: It consisted of two distinct neighborhoods whose residents did not always see eye to eye. A busy commercial thoroughfare called St. Claude Avenue divided the neighborhood of Holy Cross from the neighborhood known, confusingly, as the Lower Ninth Ward. (This distinction worked much the same way as the nomenclature separating New York City’s Queens and Brooklyn from the area called “Long Island,” even though the two boroughs are on Long Island.) Holy Cross was located south of St. Claude Avenue; it had historical architecture, a large private high school, and a visible, offbeat white minority. The Lower Ninth Ward, north of St. Claude, had newer houses, lower land, and an almost entirely black population. Some did not buy into the distinction between the two neighborhoods, but it was quite real for others. As one resident recalled: “[My mother] would send me to the store, and she would say . . . ‘Don’t cross St. Claude.’ And I couldn’t never understand that until I was older. It was a line that separated the communities.”
Problems aside, Holy Cross had been an ideal place for Pam to raise her daughter. A single mother, Pam had moved around the country when her daughter was young. The two lived in Denver, Philadelphia, Tulsa, and in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans, but none had been as good a fit as Holy Cross. There, Pam found a community of single parents with children her daughter’s age. As Pam later explained, “[We] shared the work and raised our kids together.”
Pam also found a group of people, white and black, who were concerned about the community’s future. The Holy Cross Neighborhood Association (HCNA) was a small but active group of residents, and Pam became involved with its work soon after moving to the neighborhood. HCNA meetings had their fair share of petty squabbles, with the organization moderating disputes between residents over zoning compliance or garbage removal. But the association also had a more serious task: protecting the neighborhood from a proposed expansion of a lock along the Industrial Canal.
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers first proposed an expansion of the lock during the 1980s, the plan called for the demolition of roughly two hundred homes in the Lower Ninth Ward to make room for the new structure. HCNA rose up in arms. Along with members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)—the iconic community organizing group that had a strong presence in the Lower Ninth Ward—HCNA managed to delay the project. The fight was still hot when Pam moved to the neighborhood in 1989, and soon thereafter, she threw herself headfirst into the struggle. 3
Community work was in Pam’s blood. She grew up in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, home to some of the nation’s most egregious cases of disinvestment and misguided urban renewal, but also to some of its most promising nascent community organizing movements. In her twenties, Pam was hired as a youth worker in the nearby Bromley-Heath projects. In one of the first instances of resident management in the country, residents of Bromley-Heath wrested control of the apartments away from the Boston Housing Authority, which had mismanaged and neglected the projects.
“It was stimulating,” Pam remembered, because “there was a real push to get community control and to determine [the community’s] own destiny.” Pam’s heart was in the fight; cousins and friends of hers lived in the projects. She watched conditions at the apartment complex improve, and was amazed at how much Bromley Heath’s residents, once organized, were able to accomplish. The tenants association not only maintained the buildings and the grounds, but it also provided extensive community programming, maintained its own security service, and ran a radio station. To Pam, it was a shining example of the potential of organized communities.
So far, Pam’s own organized community had managed to keep the Corps of Engineers at bay. Pam was now president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, and kept her finger to the wind with regard to the lock expansion. Though there were frequent rumblings, the project had not gone ahead. Lower Ninth residents would stay on guard and hope that their luck held. For now, there was a more immediate concern.
The day’s tasks had kept Pam away from the TV, but it sounded like people in the city were beginning to take the hurricane seriously. Many were planning to evacuate, and Pam was beginning to think that she would too. A worried phone call from her daughter—who never left for hurricanes—sealed the deal. Saturday evening, Pam packed her bags and drove over the Industrial Canal and out of the Lower Ninth Ward.
After Father Jerry Kramer attended the BIA’s meeting in the big tent, he vowed to stay involved with the neighborhood. He was impressed with the organization and determination he saw, and hoped to get to know people in the neighborhood better. When the BIA organized residents to distribute flyers to every home in the neighborhood, Father Jerry invited the flyer team back to the church’s trailer for lunch.
Two things struck him that day, he said. First, those who came to the church for lunch were effusive in their thanks. “Thank you,” Father Jerry paraphrased. “We have no place to sit in air conditioning—or heat, at the time—and with power, and visit with friends we haven’t seen since the storm. Thank you.
“The number two thing that I heard from all 180 people [was] . . . ‘We never knew what these buildings were. We didn’t even know you were a church.’” As Father Jerry explained, “That was the seminal moment. I knew intuitively that for the recovery, for this church to be viable, that we had to be intimately involved with the neighborhood, which we never were before. . . . I used to do church consulting work [and] my relevancy test was very simple. ‘If your church went away, would anybody miss you, other than your members?’ And we failed it miserably. Nobody in Broadmoor would have missed this church for any reason whatsoever. None. We were an island.”
Soon after hosting neighborhood volunteers for lunch, Father Jerry extended an offer to LaToya Cantrell and the rest of the BIA. Knowing that they were without a space to meet and work, he implored them to move into the church’s trailer, pledging to give them half of the space for as long as they needed. “We’ll give you everything you want and need,” he said. “Anything you want, we’ll find for you. Just move in.” LaToya took him up on his request.
Planning had been moving quickly in Broadmoor after the big meeting in the tent, with three or four meetings taking place every week. LaToya, whose flooded house was not yet renovated, moved into a downtown hotel to facilitate the planning process full time. Like LaToya, most Broadmoorians had not yet returned to their homes, but many made a point of driving back into the neighborhood to attend the meetings. The committee cochairs worked furiously to keep one step ahead of developments, compiling their notes from previous meetings while preparing agendas for subsequent ones.
In the first week of planning, Hal Roark advocated for the neighborhood to be divided into three roughly equal geographic sections, so that smaller and more-intimate planning meetings could take place among neighbors in each area. The subsections, as LaToya later explained, were “naturally defined.” Three main roads transected Broadmoor and met at its center, which created the geographic boundaries for the subsections. The subsections were divided by more than just geography, however. Though a great deal of racial and socioeconomic diversity existed within each subgroup, the neighborhood’s southwestern subsection had been gentrifying, its northern subsection was predominantly working class, and many families in its southeastern subsection were impoverished.
LaToya saw the merits of the idea to subdivide Broadmoor during the planning process, but also perceived risks. She later explained that because of demographic differences, “factions” already existed among the subgroups. “This was not an opportunity for a certain section to feel like they were much stronger, or like they needed to be saved versus another section.”
If the neighborhood was to be subdivided, she later explained, “There was a way we’d have to handle that. It wasn’t just have a meeting in a subdivision, because that’s not building community.” The subsection meetings could proceed, she decided, but only if all of the subsections regularly “came back as a community” to decide on a path forward for the entire neighborhood. This process—subgroup meetings followed by neighborhood-wide meetings in which subgroup plans were synthesized and voted upon—became Broadmoor’s standard planning procedure.
Residents involved with the planning process quickly became well versed in the jargon used to designate each subsection. The subsections were given letters, with A referring to Broadmoor’s working-class northern section, B to its impoverished eastern section, and C to its gentrifying western section. Sentences like “She’s from up in A” or “B had a great meeting last night” became commonplace.
It soon became clear that the subsections were a helpful innovation. Early on in the planning process, LaToya noticed a tendency for white middle-class residents and poor black residents to articulate their needs and priorities in markedly different ways. For example, discussion at early subgroup meetings in Subsection B revolved around reducing crime, as a crime wave was sweeping through that part of the neighborhood. By contrast, residents in Section C were eagerly discussing plans for bike paths. With all of the residents in one room at the same time, she reflected, there was a danger they would “talk past one another.”
“There’s some tension there,” LaToya noted, “and you have to make sure that people feel like they have a vested interest, that they are a part of these talks. And if you don’t do that, things can go to the far left real fast. Real fast. And that would have shut down everything that this neighborhood was doing.”
The job of reconciling differences in priorities and outlook among the subsections fell to planning facilitators—residents who had signed up for the job of attending every meeting to guide discussion and take notes on what the residents had to say. JC Carroll was one such resident. An architect who had been active in the BIA even before the storm, JC was a member of the urban planning subcommittee of the revitalization committee. “There were a lot of arguments” at these meetings, he said. “It’s hard to get that many people to agree on stuff.”
As time passed, though, consensus began to emerge—in part as a result of creative problem solving by the facilitators. As residents of Subsection C eagerly discussed bike paths in their meetings, for example, and residents of Subsection B continued to worry about crime in theirs, the BIA facilitators realized that a common theme underlay both priorities: Residents across Broadmoor wanted to feel safe on the neighborhood’s streets. At the next neighborhood-wide meeting, the facilitators proposed a “safe streets” initiative, which included plans both for a neighborhood crime watch and for bike paths. The proposal was overwhelmingly approved.
Safety was just one of hundreds of issues addressed as residents discussed how to put their flooded neighborhood back together. Subgroup meetings had themes such as Security and Housing, or Education and Culture. Hal often facilitated these meetings, writing residents’ ideas on an easel, resolving disputes, and keeping everyone on task. When residents expressed particular interest in one facet of the discussion, Hal encouraged them to form a committee to better address the issue. As a result, Hal’s revitalization committee quickly sprouted a number of subcommittees, which focused on issues including urban planning, flood mitigation, housing, education, legal affairs, economic development, transportation, and emergency preparedness. A few subcommittees were short-lived—Hal would later recall the brief existence of Broadmoor’s monorail committee with a chuckle—but many found firm footing and began to take on significant amounts of work.
Indeed, as residents continued to plan, they grew surprised at the breadth of issues they needed to address. As JC Carroll said, “We started realizing, ‘You know, revitalization covers so many things!’” Restoring Broadmoor would mean much more than fixing houses and sprucing up yards; Katrina had disrupted every facet of life in the neighborhood, and each would have to recover in its own way.
Compounding the difficulty was the fact that many aspects of neighborhood life were interdependent. Everywhere residents turned, they encountered “chicken and egg” problems. The school could not reopen without students, but families with school-aged children could not return if their children had no school to attend. The best way to reduce looting and property crime would be to repopulate vacant blocks, but residents would not move back to blocks they perceived to be unsafe. The city would patch potholes and fix streetlights in fast-repopulating areas, but the need for these repairs were themselves a disincentive to Broadmoor’s repopulation. Where to begin?