P!Nterview: Work to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward continues, six years later

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PLAN!T NOW joined with Rebuilding Together in August 2010 to rebuild homes in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans during the Fifty for Five event.

One year ago this month, the nonprofit Rebuilding Together led an effort to rebuild 50 homes in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood, which had been badly damaged during Hurricane  Katrina in 2005. The event, Fifty for Five, assembled a dynamic array of businesses, individuals and nonprofits to continue a rebuilding effort that is now into its sixth year.

The years since 2005 have seen many efforts to revitalize a city that saw a 29-percent population drop between 2001-2011. Rebuilding Together New Orleans (RTNO) is one of the organizations that continues to lead the charge in rebuilding efforts. RTNO is a branch of the national Rebuilding Together organization. Started in 1988, RTNO works to improve the quality of life of low-income homeowners, particularly those who are elderly, disabled or single heads of households with minor children, through repair and revitalization of New Orleans’ neighborhoods.

Rebuilding Together New Orleans is a program of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans that focuses on the residents in Orleans Parish using a combination of volunteer and professional labor. After Hurricane Katrina, RTNO modified its mission to focus on people displaced by the storm. Their projects focus on the urban poor, who have been most affected by Katrina.
PLAN!T NOW spoke to Jon Skvarka of RTNO about the progress that has been made in the rebuilding of the city.

Q: Based on the information you have and your observations, how far along are the rebuilding efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward? What percentage of the destroyed homes have been repaired?

A: The last figure I saw about the Lower Ninth Ward was that it was at 35 percent of its population pre-storm [in 2005]. Organizations like Rebuilding Together and Make it Right have aided recovery in the area, but many residents still aren’t back due to numerous reasons: the sheer size of the devastation, not receiving enough funding assistance, contractor fraud and lack of infrastructure.

Q: As of last year, news articles quote original Lower Ninth Ward residents speaking of slow progress, many blighted homes and a landscape without stores or other economic engines. Is this fair and has it changed since last year?

A: The residents’ views are accurate. Although there is progress on homes, blight is still rampant in the neighborhood. It’s hard for elderly and long-time residents to come back because hospitals and stores aren’t close by. There are few economic engines in the neighborhood, but there are signs of change, such as the Sankofa Farmers Market. It’s become an established place for residents to purchase local produce and come together every Saturday. In addition, Holy Cross, a sub-neighborhood of the Lower Ninth, was named one of the best historic neighborhoods to live in by “This Old House”. I think you’ll see more small businesses in the coming years in the Lower Ninth, but it depends on whether or not more residents decide to live there.

Q: What is Rebuilding Together New Orleans’ relationship to the Lower Ninth? How many homes has RTNO participated in rehabbing or rebuilding there?

A: RTNO has completed more than 40 homes since the storm in the Lower Ninth Ward, more specifically the Holy Cross sub-neighborhood. Along with our parent organization, the Preservation Resource Center, we have rehabilitated more than 70 homes in Holy Cross alone. We have made a commitment to the neighborhood and you can see the ripple effect of our work on streets like Lizardi [Street], in which we worked on 10 homes within the 700 – 900 blocks. More people saw the work we were doing and decided to move back as well.

For more information on the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, visit www.rtno.org.