A City of 10,000 Blocks

New Orleans is a city of 10,000 blocks. 73 officially recognized neighborhoods, an estimated 200+ unofficial neighborhoods, a growing population of ~260,000 (~60% of the pre-storm pop!) – all these numbers, I’ve heard before. But 10,000 blocks? That’s a new stat for me, and one that leaves me with a useful comparison to offer all my fellow Northeastern “do-gooders” who might be looking for a way to better relate the situation in the Gulf Coast to their urban and development experiences in our Great White North.

The NY Times borrows on this familiar imagery in its latest series on neighborhood recovery in New Orleans. They begin with Gentilly, the same neighborhood in which I work and spent most of last week focusing on in my latest trip to the Gulf. The Times coverage is fairly accurate, echoing the voice of some of the community activists I know who credited individual citizens with the recovery to date. Nonetheless, we should resist the hint of optimism implicit in the article’s use of words like “pioneers.” Washing our hands of any expectations of government leadership and resources would be the worst response to coverage like this that reasonably gives overdue credit to residents who have persevered through the worst of odds to fight for their homes and futures.

It’s important to keep in mind what a neighborhood of essentially street after street of gutted homes actually looks like. As the Times points out, “a renovated home does not mean an inhabited one.” Gutted homes are empty, structural shells. No windows, no insides. It’s a relief to have the debris removed from the city, but rows of skeletal buildings is not necessarily the Welcome mat one hopes to see when they return to the old neighborhood. In fact, this reminds me of one Saturday in August 2003 when my dad and stepmom and I drove around Dorchester on a combined tour of where my current employer was trying to build relationships with community-based organizations along with where they grew up. My dad was pretty disturbed by the end of the tour to discover how many places he’d known as a youth were now vacant lots.

When I was driving around Gentilly last week with one resident who has a lone worker employed in rebuilding her house, I was shocked at how little progress had been made since my last drive through in February. Sure, there are trailers in some driveways, and plot-by-plot re-construction is highly varied, but the houses that appeared re-occupied were so few and far between that they stood out, not unlike the shiny model home that first rises during the construction of a new subdivision. As this woman smartly pointed out, estimates of re-population should be broken down by flood damage, such that those populated neighborhoods where flooding was minimal are distinguished from those where most houses got six to eight feet of water and residents are single-handedly trying to rebuild their homes, brick by brick, payment by payment.

As far as proceeds go to fund housing reconstruction, I also learned that one gap in insurance coverage is due to FEMA’s new flood guidelines for neighborhoods. If households are lucky, they receive the full amount from their insurer required to rebuild their house as it was prior to the 2005 hurricane season. However, for those homes in Gentilly that have to be raised up, then homeowners must come up with the funds themselves to cover the cost of raising their homes. Hence the slow-going by disparate one-man armies trying to bring one house after the next back to life, as Blakely’s Office of Recovery Management and city staff argue over who will “oversee” this recovery process.

Finally, and this may seem like a small point unless you’re the one in the car twice a day commuting between your gutted home and your temporary outpost in Baton Rouge, but the drive along “Cancer Alley” between the two cities is not one hour, as the Times suggests, but 75 minutes without traffic, a situation that is exceedingly rare given how many people are now shuttling between the two places.


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