Friday June 11, 2010

I told my neighbor that I was going to New Orleans for a couple days last week, and she said, "Oh, you have to take lots of pictures!"

And I thought, "Nah, not for this trip."

Anyway, one of the reasons I went down was to see my old pal Stanley Stewart and his family. And they're great. The house that 25 Berkshire contractors rebuilt looks really, really nice, especially with furniture in it. (One aside to my friends who went down with me in 2007, the odorous abandoned meat plant is still there, just down the street. It's boarded up, so you can't smell anything, or see the rats. But it's still there.)

It was a little disappointing to see that not much else had changed, in that part of town. The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans in 2010 doesn't look a heck of a lot different than the Lower Ninth Ward did in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

This is in sharp contrast to the rest of town. The French Quarter is hopping these days, as is the downtown business district. The casino and the Riverwalk look terrific. There are tourists all over the place on that side of town.

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A drive down St. Charles Street, which is the main street that cuts through the Lower Ninth from the river to St. Bernard's Parish on the other side of the ward, reveals some progress. There are open businesses, such as gas stations, liquor stores, convenience stores, small restaurants and the like, on both sides of the road.

That is certainly an improvement over 2007. These businesses, however, are spaced out along the street. A lot of the larger buildings are still empty, many with "For Rent" signs on them.

One new thing is a large building on St. Charles that has a big sign "Future Home of the Katrina Museum!" emblazoned along the front. I thought, "Really. How ironic that the museum would probably be completed before the Lower Ninth is cleaned up."

And the New Orleans police are back, patrolling the neighborhoods. I saw two police cars at a fender-bender on St. Charles last weekend. It was the first time I ever saw police in the Lower Ninth.

Once you go down one of the side streets, however, the picture gets a little bleaker. I would say anywhere from 65 to 70 percent of the houses are still abandoned. Most, but not all, of the debris is cleaned up. About 45 percent of the lawns are mowed.

Interestingly, I saw, in several places, handmade signs advertising the names of contractors who cut brush. That's because a lot of the lots are overgrown, and the city has begun cracking down on landowners to at least keep their lots mowed.

The houses being built by actor Brad Pitt's nonprofit organization are easy to find. Say what you will about the guy as an actor, as a human being, he's doing the right thing. There are several blocks of his houses smack in the center of the ward. And there are still more being built, so cheers to Pitt.

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They're easy to find, by the way, because Pitt has made sure the homes are sustainable with huge solar panels on the roofs. Some of the local folk, while appreciative of the construction, concede that the houses look "a little funny." Well, I'm sure they do. A lot of these people have been living in shotgun shacks for most of their lives, so houses with solar panels do look a little odd.

There are some lovely homes in the Lower Ninth, including the Stewart household at 1133 Tricou St. And I understand that many of the homeowners here have just up and left, leaving behind dwellings they could never afford to repair. It's far too late to blame the federal, state or local government. They're not going to help.

But what's happened is a tregedy. A neighborhood is gone, and it's never coming back. I had, in 2007, what I realize now was an uninformed vision of the neighborhood repopulating and at least partially rebuilding itself. And it is, to an extent, thanks to many people who have come from the outside to help. But mother nature's power to decimate is great indeed, greater, I now know, than man's power to repair.