New Orleans: One year on

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Over 1,500 people were killed. One year on, amid fierce fighting over the city's regeneration, widespread disillusionment with the state and federal authorities and with hundreds of thousands of residents still displaced, New Orleans is gearing up to commemorate the storm.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The sound of progress

If you’re keen on mood swings, emotional rollercoasters and violent surges from languid cynicism to breathless optimism, then there’s no city quite like New Orleans. A positive outlook can evaporate in seconds when you come across a rotting and abandoned house in the middle of a vibrant neighbourhood, and the weight of depression can be lifted in an instant when you encounter someone quietly rebuilding their life against all the odds. In the upper 9th yesterday, every emotional extremity was up for grabs.

I went over to take a look at Musicians’ Village, an eight-acre site being developed by a Christian non-profit organisation called Habitat for Humanity. After cycling through battered houses and crumbling roads for so long, through once populous neighbourhoods that are now devoid of almost any human presence, it’s hard to describe how amazing it is to turn a corner and be confronted with the whirr of drills, scraping of saws and banging of hammers. There were scores of people milling around, cementing pathways, tiling roofs and barking orders at each other, all clad in white volunteer t-shirts and scurrying between rows of brightly coloured wooden houses in various stages of construction. Once work here is complete there will be 81 new homes and a sparkling new music center in the middle of them. It was a refreshing sight.

The project relies on volunteer labour and the plight of New Orleans has attracted a vast cross-section of American society to the site. “You’re meeting all sorts of people from the United States working here, from all walks of life,” one woman told me. She and her friend had driven from Colorado after being sponsored by friends and family; working with her were two Californian students, an insurance agent from New Jersey who was in Louisiana for a conference and the former publisher of Esquire Magazine. People sign up for as long as they can spare, creating an interesting (and often troublesome) mix of old-timers and those, like the insurance agent, who were doing a single morning shift then heading home. But, almost without exception, they were touchingly vivacious whilst throwing themselves into their tasks; clearly there is something pretty powerful about raising a house quite literally from scratch.

There is some legitimate concern about the way in which voluntary work here can be a convenient way of assuaging guilt; the motivation and practical contribution of technically-challenged accountants and corporate directors who come for a few hours then disappear was questioned by many people I spoke to, and the appearance earlier this year of Nagin, Bush and Blanco donning tool belts at the village in front of the cameras was stomach-churningly hypocritical. But that doesn't take anything away from those who are genuinely putting their all into bringing these houses to life.

The idea behind the village is that the future owners of the new homes have to put in a minimum of 350 hours of ‘sweat equity’ into the project – in other words they have to contribute their own labour to the residences they will eventually move into. Then they get a low-interest mortgage with which to buy the house (the cost of which is a heavily-subsidised $70,000). The principle is that by allowing people to work on their own homes and the immediate community in which they are situated, the new owners will feel they have a real stake in the neighbourhood, generating the kind of civic pride which in many ways was lacking in the pre-Katrina 9th ward. So many people felt excluded and abandoned by the government and society that crime and unemployment were the inevitable byproducts; this way residents will hopefully be better motivated to respect and nurture their community. It’s a scheme for those seeking to become homeowners – the mortgage is too expensive for the very poor – but as a model it could be a long-term solution to the problem of the public housing projects.

At 4007 N Roman St, Linda Nunnery was running her fingers approvingly along the newly-painted porch whilst volunteers finished off the pathway down below. The 51 year old mother of two has been living in a trailer since Katrina flooded her home in Gentilly. She is still shaken by the memories of being trapped in the Convention Center for four days after the hurricane, watching the world around her descend into anarchy. Now though, her job has restarted (she was a patient escort worker at the now defunct Charity Hospital, but the University Hospital needs her services) and she is getting a new home. “Oh good, it feels so good,” she grins. “I got to build my own house, choose what’s going in where, it feels like home. And it makes you feel proud, knowing I built that.” Linda put in 440 hours of sweat equity and will move in later this month – one of the first occupants of Musicians’ Village. “You learn so much. You’re building a house from the ground up, putting in the foundation, then the wiring, and you really find out how a house is built.” The gaudy purple exterior wouldn’t have been my choice, but the fact it was Linda’s means a lot to her. “I picked that colour myself,” gazing above the doorway. “And that’s important.”

It’s not a magic wand, but the idea of getting those that can’t put up a lot of money to put in their labour instead could play an important role in post-Katrina regeneration, doing what mixed-income developments have failed to do, and help preserve a real sense of community in the rebuilt Big Easy.

Photos (from the top): Children from other states welcome the residents of Musicians' Village; some of the newly-built houses; a bumch of volunteers pose for the camera; Linda Nunnery's new home; she poses in her new kitchen


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