It's a better day in the Neighborhood

5 areas on rebound

Harrison Avenue, the de facto “heart” of Lakeview is getting repaved, but many side streets, in dire need of repair before Katrina, have continued to deteriorate.

BRIAN GAUVIN

Locals learned patience the hard way these last four-and-a-half years. Everybody knew it would take a long time for the city to recover from the events of August 2005, so those who made the decision to stay simply hunkered down for the long haul.

Lately, for some of those intrepid New Orleans residents, the load has begun to feel a little lighter. People in neighborhoods that suffered greatly in the flood after Hurricane Katrina are seeing more signs of progress around them and thinking that maybe the “road home” won’t be quite as long as they feared. At the same time, a few neighborhoods that received little damage in the flood but had other problems to overcome also have shown progress.

In these pages we highlight the indicators that some local neighborhoods are making headway in their efforts to continue the comeback. Progress varies, depending on the depth of the problems and the inherent capabilities of neighbors to help themselves. But overall, despite many hurdles along the way, these neighborhoods are moving forward.

Broadmoor

The neighborhood: A densely populated residential area with some commercial establishments along major thoroughfares, Broadmoor stretches, roughly, from Claiborne Avenue to Martin Luther King Boulevard, between Washington Avenue and Toledano Street on the east, and Jefferson and Nashville avenues on the west. The area is racially and ethnically diverse, and has a history of civic activism. Residents tend to be politically aware and single-minded when it comes to neighborhood improvements.

How it’s going: The Broadmoor Improvement Association, led by LaToya Cantrell, became a comeback dynamo after the flood, marshalling neighbors to develop a blueprint for the neighborhood’s rebound long before the city’s own plan got off the ground. Today, some Broadmoor residents say that the recovery is ahead of their expectations.

About 85 percent of damaged homes in the area are either re-inhabited or under renovation, and the number of blighted homes is declining.

Cantrell says another crucial step is at hand: the renovation and expansion of Andrew Wilson Charter School. “Our school is the center of our community, and not having it was a barrier that kept families and children from returning home,” she says.

Similarly vital, she says, is the reopening of the Rosa F. Keller Library. Closed since Katrina, the library has operated from a temporary modular building on the original site. Work will begin soon on renovation and construction to create a new library and community center called the Rosa F. Keller Library and Center. Cantrell says it will include a coffee shop, meeting space equipped for video conferencing, computer classrooms for adult education and a children’s area.

Cantrell says construction of both the school and the library will comply with high standards of energy efficiency.

Residents raised $2.3 million from within the community to provide enhanced services and amenities that were not covered by recovery funding from federal and state sources.

Still needed: Some 470 properties in the Broadmoor neighborhood remain in the blighted category, Cantrell says. The complicated legal procedures necessary to deal with these homes move slowly, and many uninhabitable homes have not yet gone through the process.

Residents say street improvements also are lagging. While work has proceeded on some major thoroughfares, many side streets are still in need of substantial repair or a total revamp.

Lakeview

The neighborhood: Stretching from City Park Avenue north to Lake Pontchartrain, between the 17th Street Canal and City Park, this traditionally middle class neighborhood has long enjoyed relative prosperity. Its population runs the gamut from young families and single professionals to retirees. After suffering near-total property devastation in the flood after Katrina, groups of Lakeview residents banded together to plan a recovery. Neighbors helped neighbors clean up and gut flooded homes. Some formed investment companies to buy properties whose owners decided not to come back and to work on getting the structures repaired and sold to new owners.

How it’s going: Lakeview today sports hundreds of renovated and brand-new homes where wrecked housing once stood. The number of unrepaired homes still standing has been sharply reduced. Damaged private and parochial schools reopened relatively quickly after the storm. Repairs and upgrades to some major streets have helped to keep the recovery moving.

Brad Fortier, president of the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association, says demand for properties in Lakeview has been surprisingly strong. “I never would have thought four years ago that up to 60 percent of the people would be back in the neighborhood, but we’ve passed that half-full mark,” he says.

The quick return of commercial establishments helped. Harrison Avenue, the de facto “heart” of Lakeview by virtue of being the neighborhood’s largest commercial strip, is busy and vibrant. Several bank branches quickly reopened in temporary quarters and began renovations after the storm. Today, a new denizen, First NBC Bank, is nearing completion of a large office on Harrison Avenue. Anchor merchants from the popular Steak Knife and Lakeview Harbor restaurants to coffee shops and retailers are regularly packed with patrons, and a few new restaurants have opened along the street. Fortier notes that construction finally is beginning on the new Edward Hynes Charter School on Harrison, returning another important anchor to Lakeview.

The large commercial space vacated by Lakeview Fine Foods grocery after the storm also is getting new life. Local grocery magnate Marc Robert has begun building out a new supermarket on the Harrison Avenue spot. Robert earlier gave Lakeview a boost by renovating and reopening his popular Robert Fresh Market in the Robert E. Lee Shopping Center near Lake Pontchartrain. The return of that grocery helped draw a new Walgreen’s store to the center. The recent demolition of a long-vacant movie theater in the center has opened an opportunity to bring still more business to the area.

Still needed: Many Lakeview side streets, some of which were in dire need of repair before Katrina, have continued to deteriorate. “Some of the streets are almost impassable – they’re village roads, not streets, and they’re going to cost a lot of money to fix” says Fortier.

He worries about how the city will respond to the need.
“Whatever federal money we’ve been given is going to be coming to an end, and everybody is waiting to see what still needs to be done when the money runs out,” he says. “What takes place in the next four years in city government is going to tell us a lot about what the future holds.”

Holy Cross Neighborhood Lower 9th Ward

The neighborhood: The section of the Lower 9th Ward bounded by St. Claude Avenue and the Mississippi River, the Industrial Canal and the St. Bernard Parish line, is home to many residents whose families have lived in the neighborhood for generations. Residents are predominantly black and more than half are renters, though home ownership is on the rise. A break in the floodwall on the Industrial Canal after Hurricane Katrina devastated most of the area.

How it’s going: National foundations and celebrities, including movie star Brad Pitt, focused their charitable energies on the Holy Cross neighborhood after Katrina. Residents here have shown resilience, and they’ve embraced the eco-friendly building standards encouraged by Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, Global Green and others that have built homes in the area as models for “green” construction practices. The Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development was formed to advance these goals.

The center’s director, Charles Allen, who also chairs the board of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, says several thousand displaced residents have returned to the area, and he’s encouraged by their determination and interest in better building practices.

Allen says Lower 9th Ward residents also have gathered behind efforts to restore nearby Bayou Bienvenue, because they understand that reinvigorated wetlands in that area could help protect them from a future storm. “We all realize that we have to do what we can – much like pioneers on a frontier,” he says.

A bright spot on the horizon is the possible construction of a grocery store in the neighborhood. Allen says a Chicago investor who has a history of investing in economically disadvantaged areas has shown interest in putting a grocery at the corner of Caffin and St. Claude avenues, at the upper edge of Holy Cross. “That would be huge,” Allen says. “We haven’t had a quality grocery store in the neighborhood for years.”

Still needed: Many blighted properties remain in Holy Cross and in the larger area of the Lower 9th Ward. Some of the most important assets that would help draw people back are still lacking, including more schools (only a single elementary school is open in the area).

An area that could become an anchor for new development is the former site of Holy Cross School. The school was badly damaged by the Katrina flood, and the board of directors decided to relocate the school in Gentilly. While proposals for re-use of the original site have surfaced, plans have yet to gel.

Filmore Neighborhood, Gentilly

The neighborhood: This neighborhood of single-family homes has long featured a racially mixed population and a history of homes being handed down through generations. Bounded by Robert E. Lee Boulevard and Harrison Avenue on the north and south, the Filmore area lies between the London Avenue Canal and Bayou St. John. Like much of Gentilly, this neighborhood took a heavy hit from the flood after Katrina, when a floodwall breached the London Avenue Canal.

How it’s going: The mixed economic circumstances of residents throughout Gentilly has contributed to sluggish progress, but in Filmore, the action is picking up. Two brand-new schools have arisen within blocks of one another on Paris Avenue. The new Holy Cross School, which relocated from the Lower 9th Ward, recently opened its beautiful new campus, and just up the street stands the brand-new Greater Gentilly High School.

“It’s certainly an asset to have two new state-of-the-art, high-quality schools,” says Vera Triplett, president and co-founder of the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association. “People generally want to live near where their children can go to school, so this means a lot to the neighborhood. Just having the new buildings there is bringing a fresh look to Paris Avenue.”

Triplett says three other schools in Gentilly – charter schools operated by the University of New Orleans – “have shown tremendous progress over the past few years” and have helped to draw residents back to the area.

Still needed: Triplett says a shortage of basic retail offerings and services continues to hamper the recovery. “It’s very difficult when you have to drive to Metairie or Uptown to find a variety of restaurants or to shop for basic items,” she says.

Also lacking are spaces for children’s activities and community groups. “We don’t have anything other than a couple of parks where children or families can gather together,” she says.

Triplett estimates that less than half of the Gentilly population has returned to the area since Katrina.

Oak Street, Leonidas Neighborhood

The neighborhood: A part of the Uptown/Carrollton area that escaped serious Katrina-related damage, the Oak Street commercial corridor is staging a comeback from problems that had begun to accumulate well before 2005. The stretch of Oak Street between S. Carrollton and Leake avenues has long been home to some stalwarts of the Uptown business community, such as Jacques-Imo’s restaurant. But deteriorating street conditions were contributing to a general malaise, particularly along the portion of the street nearest the river.

How it’s going: Six months of major street repair and utility construction created new pedestrian-friendly amenities along a half-mile of Oak Street, between S. Carrollton and Leake avenues. The $5.4 million project extended sidewalks at intersections to afford more pedestrian space and safety. The project included replacement of the asphalt pavement roadway, driveways and concrete sidewalks, replacement of sewer lines, water lines and drainpipes and installation of sidewalk ramps at intersections to accommodate persons with mobility limitations. The city reused cobblestone from old rail tracks to create decorative patterns at each intersection. New sidewalk benches and bike racks encourage increased foot traffic and use of non-motorized vehicles.

Oak Street merchant Bill Laine says the street work, which wrapped up last fall, is producing results. His shop, Wallingford Bicycle Parts, lies near the Leake Avenue end of the commercial corridor. “There’s more activity down here now, and people feel good about the change. It’s made a big difference at this end of the street,” he says.

Because Laine’s business doesn’t depend heavily on foot traffic, he wasn’t troubled as much as some other merchants by the inconvenience caused by the street repairs. He says his main concern was to see the overall neighborhood improved. “I want it to be an interesting place that’s worth going to work in. I don’t want it to be an industrial park. I live in the neighborhood, too.”

Becky Cierpich, a co-owner of C-4 Tech & Design, located closer to the Carrollton end of Oak Street, says her company moved to that spot last year from a location on the other side of the street. “We wanted to stay on Oak Street because we like the community a lot,” she says. She believes the improved appearance of the corridor will help entice other businesses as well.

Still needed: While activity is picking up, merchants say they would still like to have more neighbors along the Oak Street corridor. Laine says a few more cafés and maybe a bakery would encourage increased foot traffic and give the street a true neighborhood feel.

Cierpich agrees. She also thinks more events, such as the annual Po-Boy Festival that has been held on the street in the past few years, would help draw in people who don’t ordinarily come to the corridor. “The Po-Boy Festival has done a lot for Oak Street,” she says.
 

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