Saving the neighborhood

Hundreds of New Orleans residents are coaxing their exiled neighbors to return and convince City Hall to spare their homes from the wrecking ball. But will saving their neighborhood mean losing the city?

By Michelle Goldberg
Published February 24, 2006 12:35PM (EST)

A 15-foot banner hangs outside Virginia Saussy Bairnsfather's house in New Orleans' Broadmoor neighborhood, proclaiming, "Broadmoor Lives." The words are bracketed by a fleur-de-lis, symbol of the crescent city. Just before Hurricane Katrina, Bairnsfather, vice president of a local jewelry company, and her husband, Christopher, an artist and musician, finished a two-and-a-half-year renovation of their Mediterranean-style house, which was built in 1915 and is filled with Mardi Gras paraphernalia and canvases by local painters.

When the levees broke, their home flooded with 7 feet of water, yet they never thought of giving it up and starting over somewhere else. The couple returned the moment they were allowed back into the city and used wheelbarrows to cart out their destroyed possessions: 15,000 records, 1,000 books, and the ruined equipment from Bairnsfather's home music studio. In November, they moved back in, living for over three months without gas -- meaning no cooking or hot showers -- or phone service. They are now the only people living on their block, but Bairnsfather talks about the future of Broadmoor with an infectious confidence that makes it impossible to believe that the neighborhood's destruction will be permanent.

"We're going to bring the neighborhood back," says Bairnsfather, as she drives through Broadmoor's darkened streets on a recent evening. She points out the few houses on each block to which people may have returned, her ears peeled for the hum of generators, a sign of life.

A 39-year-old with long blond hair and black-framed hipster glasses, Bairnsfather is a die-hard partisan of her native city. The great granddaughter of John Parker, a former governor of Louisiana, she's one of the founders of Muses, the city's first all-women Mardi Gras Krewe. So passionate is Bairnsfather about the parade that before Katrina she traveled to the Canton Trade Fair in China to find the most interesting trinkets to toss from the Muses floats. Now she's bringing that same dedication to her quest to restore Broadmoor. Determined to reinvest in their neighborhood, she and her husband had just signed a contract to buy a nearby apartment building whose owner had lost hope and decided not to return.

Yet if the city of New Orleans follows through on its reconstruction plan, hatched by Mayor Ray Nagin and his Bring New Orleans Back Commission, Broadmoor, like many city neighborhoods, may never be coming back, and all the money and energy its most committed residents are pouring into it will amount to nothing.

Broadmoor, a national historic district, is charming and diverse, exemplifying much of what makes the city magical. Just north of the Garden District, its architecture is distinctively New Orleanian -- there are shotgun houses, Mediterranean dwellings, and mission revivals. Home to just over 7,000 people before Katrina, Broadmoor mirrors the demographics of New Orleans as a whole; according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, its pre-storm population was just over 68 percent African-American and just under 26 percent white.

Residents, black and white alike, speak lovingly of the sense of community. "This is the best neighborhood I've ever lived in in my life," says Lesley Smith, a bearded black man who works as a relief captain on a tugboat and wears two small hoop earrings in one ear. "I've been in this neighborhood over 27 years. The neighbors are superb. When I leave [for work], I never have too much of a worry about my wife being taken care of. Everybody looks out for everybody."

For all its soul, Broadmoor is also at the bottom of the geographic bowl of New Orleans. In the early 1800s, it was a 12-acre lake, and the commission's urban planning report -- widely accepted as the blueprint for the city's future -- envisions much of Broadmoor returning to nature as parkland or drainage canals. On the commission's map, Bairnsfather's house sits in the dead center of a circle indicating future green space.

Now a battle is being fought for Broadmoor, one replicated in damaged neighborhoods all over New Orleans, including parts of Gentilly, the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East. Suffering a steady population decline since the 1960s, New Orleans now has less than a third of its pre-storm population of 485,000, and there's a broadly shared sense that the entire city cannot be rebuilt as it was. Yet New Orleans is a place where people are ardently attached to their neighborhoods and many are unwilling to cede the dream of resuscitating their homes. Throughout the city, groups of citizens are organizing, hoping to restore enough of their areas to make it politically impossible for urban planners to force them out.

A few days after the Bring New Orleans Back Commission plan was announced in January, about 100 people gathered on Broadmoor's Napoleon Avenue to protest. Hundreds of angry residents from other neighborhoods packed a public meeting at City Hall; the New Orleans Times-Picayune quoted one saying, "I will sit in my front door with my shotgun." Some angrily denounced Joe Canizaro, the millionaire developer and Bush "pioneer" fundraiser who was one of the plan's primary authors. As the Times-Picayune reported, one neighborhood activist shouted, "The question that we have for ourselves is: Are we going to allow some developers, some hustlers, some land thieves to grab our land, grab our homes, to make this a Disney World version of our homes, our lives?"

The 17-member Bring New Orleans Back Commission, assembled by Nagin in autumn 2005, has issued plans for rebuilding the city's education system, cultural life, infrastructure and economy. But none of these has proven as contentious as the commission's urban planning report, which calls for shrinking New Orleans' "footprint," or geographic area, in part by turning some of the city's most-damaged and lowest-lying areas into green space. Most observers expect that the report will soon be adopted by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, making it the official blueprint for post-Katrina New Orleans.

By most accounts, Canizaro, chairman of the commission's urban planning committee, dominated the creation of the report. His relationship with President Bush no doubt helped bolster the commission's influence. "He's one of the few people in Louisiana who has the president's ear, that has resulted for us in significant access that we would not have had," says Reed Kroloff, dean of the architecture school at Tulane University and chair of the urban planning committee's urban design subcommittee.

The report was written with input from a Washington, D.C., think tank called the Urban Land Institute, which Canizaro formerly chaired. At the Jan. 11 public meeting where the plan was presented, one New Orleans East resident stood up and said, "Joe Canizaro, I don't know you, but I hate you."

Bairnsfather was horrified when she opened the newspaper in January and saw what the commission was proposing. "It's a little distressing that they would consider this," she says. But she soon learned that the plan contains a loophole, stating that if neighborhoods can attract back at least half of their former residents within four months, they can remain part of the new New Orleans. Otherwise, damaged neighborhoods will be consolidated, with buildings in sparsely populated areas razed and new, higher-density housing erected on the city's higher elevations.

For people who have lived in Broadmoor and other areas hard hit by Katrina, this presents both a chance at salvation and a terrible Catch-22. To show that their neighborhoods are viable and should be saved, they have to spend thousands of dollars -- sometimes tens of thousands -- rebuilding their houses and coaxing their neighbors to do the same. Still, at the end of the process, the city could bulldoze their homes if the neighborhood fails to regain enough of its population, because it cannot afford to provide services for blocks on which only a few people live. To further complicate things, New Orleans' levees seem unlikely to be repaired by the start of 2006's hurricane season, forecasted to be worse than 2005's, making rebuilding even riskier.

Months after Katrina, those who lived in New Orleans' damaged neighborhoods are trapped in limbo. Nearly everyone complains about a lack of leadership, and there's an almost surreal sense of stasis and confusion. In early December, Nagin gave a series of speeches to exiled New Orleanians urging them to come home. "I want y'all back in the city of New Orleans. Red beans and rice just ain't the same without you," he told a crowd of over 2,000 in Georgia. A month later, his Bring New Orleans Back Commission suggested a four-month moratorium on building permits in the hardest-hit areas, including Broadmoor, which would have largely frozen reconstruction, making it impossible for people to return. (There was a public outcry, and the moratorium never happened.)

Hal Roark, a real estate investor active in Broadmoor's neighborhood association, describes the effect of the confusion as "learned helplessness." As Roark explains, learned helplessness is a theory developed by the psychologist Martin Seligman to explain the apathy, submission and depression that overcome people deprived of control over their situations. "Every day the information changes," he says. "The misinformation or some would suggest disinformation really slows down the recovery process."

Kroloff complains of the same thing, despite his leadership role in the rebuilding plan. "Every time you turn around someone's telling you something different," he says. "You never know from day to day what they're gong to tell you. It wears you out and wears you down, and for some people I think it becomes dispiriting and perhaps disabling. They say, 'To hell with all of you, I'm going to build what I know, and there's nothing you can do to change my mind.'"

However, many residents refuse to be defeated. In the face of risks and uncertainty, groups of citizens are banding together and taking giant leaps of faith. The Broadmoor Improvement Association -- a neighborhood group founded in 1969 -- formed a repopulation committee to track down the neighborhood's post-Katrina diaspora. The group's president, LaToya Cantrell, arranged to gut the houses of neighbors too old to return and do it themselves.

On the last Saturday in January, Bairnsfather joined Cantrell and other neighborhood activists to pass out fliers alerting people to the issues at stake. Afterward, a few dozen people, including Roark, gathered for lunch in a double-wide trailer on the grounds of a local church. (The sign inside called it "Annunciation in Exile.") Most of the neighbors hadn't known each other before Katrina. Inside, the optimism was bracing. For Broadmoor, says Roark, viability is a "non-issue."

"It's going to have to come from the community," says Cantrell, a 33-year-old who manages the Greater New Orleans Education Foundation. At the time, she was living at the Marriott -- at her own expense -- while she repaired her house, which took 5 feet of water. Once the second floor is livable, she'll move back. Like many in New Orleans, she is still waiting for the FEMA trailer she'd been promised.

Cantrell estimates that about 1,500 people have returned to Broadmoor -- less than a quarter. But, Roark insists, "The neighborhood is viable. People are coming back, they've going to live here. We're not in danger of becoming a rural area." Like Bairnsfather, he was planning on buying more property nearby, confident that the city would never demolish the neighborhood.

That confidence is misplaced, says John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, the think tank that worked with the Bring New Orleans Back Commission to develop the plan. Told how assured Broadmoor residents seem about the neighborhood's future, he says, "That is not an accurate assessment of the situation."

The people who've moved back, he says, "are the pioneers. They're very invested in an outcome that would bring the neighborhood back, because if it does not come back, all of their time, effort and money have been lost. They have an emotional attachment and a definite financial attachment to convincing all of us that their neighborhood is coming back. But there's just no way of knowing."

One wild card is the new FEMA flood maps, which are expected to be out by this summer. The maps, last updated in 1984, determine how high houses must be built in order to be eligible for federal flood insurance, which is required for mortgage-holders in flood-prone areas. The maps, says McIlwain, are going to have "a profound effect on the ability to get mortgages and insurance. Without the ability to get mortgages, that neighborhood's not coming back. And that's just one piece of it."

Kroloff expresses enormous frustration with how long it is taking for the maps to be finished, noting that Mississippi's maps have already been completed. "I myself would not start to rebuild until I knew what the FEMA flood maps were going to say," he says. "I'm fortunate, I am in economic circumstances where I can find alternative housing, so it's easier for me to say that." Yet FEMA, he says, "is moving so terribly slow with these maps, with no explanation as to why. The entire city is being held hostage by this."

Residents of neighborhoods like Broadmoor find themselves in an enormously difficult situation. There is pressure to prove that the areas are coming back and countervailing pressure to wait and see how things shake out. McIlwain says the Urban Land Institute opposed the idea of asking neighborhoods to prove themselves viable. "That's the mayor's approach and it puts people in a Catch-22," he says. "It's an unfair Catch-22 because it requires some people to take a huge risk, and they'll either be successful or not. But that's a hell of a way to plan a city."

If the residents of Broadmoor are not successful, New Orleans could ultimately use eminent domain, which allows the government to purchase private property for public use. "Ideally, what should happen is they should be offered the opportunity to sell at their pre-Katrina value," McIlwain says. "That may be less than they've invested in rebuilding, but so be it. But they get bought out." And if they refuse to sell? "Ultimately, the right answer is that you do use eminent domain to buy them out, but that's the last resort."

One final prospect, says McIlwain, is neither side will prevail. "It's also possible that all of this planning will fail and we're just going to have a hodgepodge with a few houses here and a few there," he says. "Maybe 50 percent of Broadmoor is coming back and the other 50 percent is not."

He continues, "There's a strong possibility that all of this will fail partly because of the efforts of people in Broadmoor. Rather than pull together to say how do we design a city that we can all live in that's better and safer for everyone, they're simply saying, 'I want my neighborhood back, the hell with you, I want my neighborhood back.' And they're pulling against a concerted, cooperative citywide effort, and it is possible that their efforts will cause the concerted citywide efforts to fail, and that each of these little neighborhoods will Balkanize the city, and they'll win, and be left with a city that can't support them."

To imagine such a city, says McIlwain, think of Detroit. "Miles and miles of vacant housing, a few people living here or there, an unsupportable city," he says.

Yet the residents of Broadmoor refuse to accept that their only options are moving elsewhere in the city or watching their neighborhood morph into a sea of blight. "We worked so hard on this house for two years," says Bairnsfather. She's drinking a glass of wine in her airy kitchen. The walls are marigold and teal, the dining table chairs upholstered in a leopard print. High-heeled shoes decorated with glitter -- symbol of the Muses Krewe -- are everywhere. Two long-haired cats curl up by the window frames. She's at home, and she's not leaving. "We poured so much of our hearts into this house," she says. "We're not letting it go."

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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