Last of the Ninth

New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward was a historic black neighborhood, home to Fats Domino, abandoned by government, and the "murder capital of the murder capital." Now that it has been destroyed by Katrina, will its loyal inhabitants be able to return?

Published September 13, 2005 9:25PM (EDT)

Michael Knight lived on Flood Street.

An auto mechanic, Knight, 44, made a home for himself in the neighborhood he was raised in, the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Bounded by water on three sides -- the Industrial Canal to the west, Bayou Bienvenue to the east and the Mississippi River to the south -- his impoverished neighborhood has long suffered from isolation and neglect. Yet, the Lower Ninth Ward was violently thrust into the national spotlight when it flooded after the first levee breach in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. America watched as a break in the Industrial Canal levee allowed water, death and destruction to flow into the neighborhood. The damage that occurred -- especially in the lower part of the Ninth Ward -- was so extensive that the head of homeland security for New Orleans, Col. Terry Ebbert, told the New York Times Sunday that "there's nothing out there that can be saved at all."

The night before Katrina struck, Knight secured his pirogue -- pronounced pee-row, these small, flat-bottom boats are omnipresent in south Louisiana, popular for a design ideal for navigating the area's canals and bayous -- by tying it to his house. After the rain slowed Tuesday morning, Knight went outside to survey the damage. That's when he saw the water rising. Fast.

"I've never seen water come up that fast," Knight recalls a week later. "It was collecting at the curb when I came out. By the time I finished smoking a cigarette, it was in the yard."

That's when Knight sprang to action. He untied his pirogue and recruited his brother Reginald Jackson and cousin Freddie Hicks to begin rescue efforts in the neighborhood. "It was a nightmare, just the noise," Knight says. "You never heard nothing like that. Wind howling, people hollering for help. Just scary."

Knight stopped counting at 200 the number of people he rescued -- from rooftops, from treetops -- but estimates he brought at least 400 people to safety. He worked nonstop for the first two days with no sleep, and then only took quick naps in his pirogue for the remaining three days of rescue efforts. Knight slept in his boat, securing it by fastening it to an antennae on the roof of his house, which was by Tuesday afternoon completely submerged in water.

"He's the neighborhood hero," says Democratic state Rep. Charmaine Marchand, a lifelong neighbor of Knight's who represents the area in the Louisiana Legislature.

"I must have been crazy; I must have gotten possessed," Knight says, speaking from Atlanta, where he's living post-Katrina.

Knight had been taking his neighbors to safety on the nearby rooftop of Krantz Elementary on Caffin Avenue. But after the Coast Guard arrived, he was ordered to stop using the school, directed instead to take everyone to the St. Claude Avenue bridge over the Industrial Canal, where they were instructed to walk three miles to the Superdome.

"I told them I could be making double time, saving double the people, if I could drop them off at the school," Knight says. "The trip to the bridge took twice as long. I asked them for gas. They said no. I had to siphon off gas from boats I saw floating around to keep going."

"People like Michael Knight came out in droves when the water started to come up," says Marchand. "Neighbors with boats helped other neighbors. We had a lot of effort, but just not enough manpower. No question the Coast Guard should have arrived sooner. The levee broke Tuesday morning. They didn't come until Wednesday."

Marchand sums up the delay with the same cause and effect that has contributed to the many problems her neighborhood faces: "We're the area everyone forgets about."

Hurricane Betsy in 1965, a catastrophic storm in human deaths and property damage but one wreaking far less havoc than Katrina, still informs much of her community's mindset, Marchand says. "They blew the locks in the levees to save Uptown, to save the French Quarter, the richer upriver areas, in Betsy, at the expense of us," she says. "Katrina brings back those old fears. Was this intentional? Did they do this to us again? We're still the dumping grounds for the city of New Orleans. That's what's going through people's minds in the community right now."

Representing a 98 percent African-American area with a 25 percent unemployment rate and an average annual income of $16,000, Marchand says economics were the largest factor in determining who survived Katrina, but that racism will be the storm's legacy.

"People want to push race aside in this, but those aren't the people that have to deal with race like poor African-Americans do," Marchand says. "If it were affluent whites who were flooded out and stranded on the side of the highway, I don't think America would have let them starve."

Like the rest of Louisiana, New Orleans is divided into numbered wards for purposes of municipal districting. Geographic descriptions in the city are as nebulous as its morality: The West Bank of the river is to the south; north or south names for crosstown streets are determined on an east-west border; upper means upriver and lower means downriver.

The Lower Ninth Ward, or the "lower Nines" as it's called by most who live there, is the farthest neighborhood downriver in New Orleans, bordered to the east by the white-flight boom area of St. Bernard Parish. The historic neighborhood, constructed primarily in the years following the Civil War as European immigrants poured into the city, carries a unique set of burdens and glories.

It's the lifelong home of R&B legend Antoine "Fats" Domino (who was safely rescued during Katrina from his Caffin Avenue home, though the famously private 77-year-old was evacuated to parts unknown) and late folk-art icon Sister Gertrude Morgan, who spent her life walking the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward in the traditional custom of evangelical African-American women, dressed in all white, playing tambourines, singing hymns and looking for souls to save.

It's where New Orleans first attempted to integrate its schools when 6-year-old Ruby Bridges entered kindergarten in 1960 -- at Frantz Elementary, where Knight took his rescued neighbors -- with the protection of a U.S. marshal escort, past rows of neighborhood ladies self-dubbed "The Cheerleaders" who hurled racial slurs, threats and tomatoes. The ugly scene was famously captured in Norman Rockwell's painting "The Problem We All Live With" and by John Steinbeck in his travelogue "Travels With Charley," in which he described a revelation of human nature so repellent he left the city in disgust.

Populated for its first century with working-class Irish, Italian and German immigrants, the racial makeup of the Lower Ninth Ward changed dramatically following the failed integration of Frantz Elementary. Rather than send their children to school with little Ruby, white families responded in droves to St. Bernard Parish president and land baron Leander Perez's invitation to white Lower Ninth Ward residents to move to the neighboring parish on the promise of all-white schools and neighborhoods.

The Lower Ninth Ward has witnessed some specific horrors that have become the stuff of local legend. In the late '60s and early '70s, shootouts occurred between police and Black Panthers locally headquartered in the Desire housing development, so named for its location on the street made famous by Tennessee Williams. Racial tensions following the clashes between Black Panthers and police were further inflamed during name changes at the formerly all-white Nicholls High School -- named for a slave-owning Confederate general and Louisiana governor. In 1973, the school was renamed Douglass in honor of freed slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. Students then wanted a mascot change from Rebels -- illustrated by a sword-wielding Confederate -- to Panthers in support of the Black Panthers. An enraged school board rejected the idea; the name Douglass Bobcats came about as a compromise. The community was shocked last year to read the story of a Lower Ninth Ward street gang that used a mentally disabled teen from the neighborhood as target practice, in broad daylight and on a bloody path stretching for blocks.

Sadly, the dominating legacy of the Lower Ninth Ward in recent decades is crime, specifically homicide.

"It's the murder capital of the murder capital," says criminologist Peter Scharf, co-director of the University of New Orleans' Center for Society, Law and Justice, referring to statistics revealing a per capita homicide rate in the Lower Ninth Ward over the last 10 years of 120 people per 100,000 residents, a rate six times higher than that of New York City, at 12.1 per 100,000. Overall, New Orleans has a rate of 62.5 murders per 100,000 residents, according to Scharf.

"Why are we so different in New Orleans?" Scharf asks in explaining an increase in New Orleans' homicide rate in recent years despite a national downward trend in murder. "A primary factor is the lack of interaction between the system and the lower-class subculture, a problem compounded in the isolated Lower Ninth Ward."

"We've developed an intensely isolated lower class in New Orleans," Scharf says. "The structure of our service-industry-dependent economy offers no jobs, or ones with low pay and no future. This has created a youth culture with kids who live armed, live high on drugs and with no contact with the legitimate system."

Scharf points to a sizable reduction in the homicide rate for police districts covering the Lower Ninth Ward in the late '90s as proof that change in policing tactics can produce positive results. After the area suffered from an all-time-high homicide rate in 1993 and 1994 (625 combined), police engaged "in a very people-oriented strategy, with cops interacting on a friendly, pedestrian level with the community," Scharf says, adding that the shift in tactic was led by then Lt. Eddie Compass, now New Orleans' police chief.

"Plus, they got rid of the corrupt cops," he says, referring to a New Orleans Police Department notoriously filled with corruption throughout its history, and specifically to convicted murderer Len Davis, who patrolled the Lower Ninth Ward in the early 1990s and was both a cop with a reputation for brutality and a drug kingpin. Davis' murder conviction in 1996 stemmed from the slaying of Kim Groves, killed after filing a police brutality complaint against Davis.

As a result of the cleanup, in 1999 the homicide rate dropped to a 10-year low of just 35. Yet, by 2003, the murder rate had nearly doubled, back up to 61 killings for that year. Scharf says much of the increase in violence stems from prosecution problems. "Stats show that in New Orleans, if you kill somebody, you have anywhere from a 6 to 19 percent rate of going to jail for murder," Scharf says. "You have to either kill the Virgin Mary or kill someone in bed and then stay in that bed until the police come to get convicted for murder in New Orleans."

Scharf says explanations for the recent increase in violence could be due to many key leadership changes -- New Orleans has seen a new sheriff, police chief, district attorney and mayor since 1999. He also cites the lack of programs that address the root causes of crime, such as a probation system that better tracks and guides convicts and sustainable economic development.

"The wheels were coming off in New Orleans, and that was before the flood," Scharf says of the city's violence. "Before Katrina, we didn't really have an effective governance to think this crime problem through. What it's going to take as we rebuild is leadership. Leadership, and a lot of healing."

"What's the Lower Ninth Ward going to be like when they open the city back up?" Scharf asks. "Is it going to be more culturally and economically integrated? Or is it going to become even more racially polarized following Katrina, when you have the perception that the white establishment in New Orleans left its black citizens to die?"

Scharf and Rep. Marchand both agree that much of the Lower Ninth Ward's future lies in the physical reconstruction of the neighborhood. "The whole neighborhood is going to have to be rebuilt," Marchand says. "The houses are all just devastated. Even if they're still standing, they've been soaking in toxins for weeks."

Unlike the Lower Ninth, the upriver section of the Ninth Ward, the Bywater, was relatively untouched by the flooding that inundated the lower section on the other side of the river. In the past decade, according to Scharf and Marchand, Bywater has benefited from investment and integration.

"We had a real hodgepodge of people that was really cool: black and white, musicians, artists, a lot of gay people, the working class and corporate executives," says Bywater resident Robert Nelson, who has been one of the investors renovating and reselling the 19th century houses in the neighborhood, buying his first property in the area four years ago for less than $7,500.

Before Katrina, Nelson was involved in the real estate market in the Lower Ninth Ward, figuring it was a prime area for investment. But now?

"What if I invest in a [new] property, and there's no industry or economy to support people enough to pay rent or buy the house?" Nelson asks from a friend's house in Minneapolis where he took refuge.

Nelson says part of the process he enjoys in renovating the historic neighborhood is the mixing of class and race. "New Orleans has traditionally had the separatist mentality: Separate the rich and poor, the black and white," he says. "In the Bywater the last few years, you saw individuals fighting that old mentality. The divide America saw with Katrina and the Lower Ninth Ward, with poor and black left behind, I think that was a real eye-opener for everybody to that kind of divide we have down here."

Marchand's primary concern now is to make sure the Lower Ninth Ward residents are included in the Federal Emergency Management Agency windfall following Katrina. "The pie is being sliced up now," she says, adding that environmental concerns are likely to require the majority -- perhaps all -- of the houses in the area to be bulldozed. But she wonders who will live in the new properties: her constituents, or those reflecting the profits of developers?

"I just ask that they put my people to work, rebuilding the houses they live in. We are the poorest neighborhood, but we have the highest homeownership rate in the city [62 percent, vs. a 41 percent homeownership rate citywide]. Why is that? Because people were born, raised and want to live here. Give the people here a chance for jobs, to make an income. People in this area have long been sacrificed. Poverty. Crime. Betsy. Katrina. Are they about to be sacrificed again during the rebuilding, in terms of jobs and money? I'm worried about that."

Following his heroism in saving his neighbors, Michael Knight had to beg for gas through Mississippi and Alabama as he and his girlfriend drove to Atlanta, where they now are staying with her extended family. "Neighborhood? What neighborhood?" Knight asks incredulously about the future of the Lower Ninth Ward. "It's gone, man."

"I don't want to be here," he says. "I don't want to make new friends. I don't want to look for a new job. I want to be home. I want to be back in my raggedy-ass house."

By Frank Etheridge

Frank Etheridge is a New Orleans-based freelance writer.

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