Planning students assist a blighted New Orleans 9th Ward, still slow to rebuild

News
May 9, 2008

NEW ORLEANS -- In some neighborhoods, New Orleans looks like it has bounced back from Hurricane Katrina. Much of the city's once-vital Lower 9th Ward, however, still resembles a ghost town.

A few homes are occupied, but many are empty and damaged amid vacant, overgrown lots. Entire housing projects with hundreds of apartments stand abandoned, 33 months after they were evacuated. The nearest grocery is miles away, and public transportation is sporadic at best.  

It was in this blighted neighborhood that 14 city and regional planning students spent eight days in March as part of an ongoing Cornell planning initiative. Their course, City Planning Design Studio: Imagining the Sustainable 9th Ward, was led by visiting lecturer George Frantz '80, MRP '91.  

"It was a tight, dense neighborhood. It's been characterized as a poor African-American neighborhood, but it was a culturally rich neighborhood," Steve Dominick of the city's Office of Recovery and Development Administration told the students.  

Working with ACORN Housing Corp., a national nonprofit organization assisting homeowners and homebuyers, the students conducted a detailed property survey in the 9th Ward and met with residents and local officials.  

"We met a man who's trying to keep his neighbors' houses up, just to keep crime away," said Hannah Engel-Rebitzer '10.  

Student teams focused on such issues as transportation, zoning and economic recovery, and are presenting their work May 9 in Sibley Hall. Course goals included recognizing and complementing the existing social, cultural and institutional assets of the 9th Ward and creating a model for making the neighborhood more disaster-resistant, livable and environmentally sustainable.  

"The students have a far better grasp of the situation, having been there and having met so many people. Now they can really go back and produce a planning document that will indeed be useful to the community," Frantz said in March.  

Their research and fieldwork, including a survey map, will be incorporated into an implementation plan for recovery and will help ACORN -- which has 150 properties to develop in the 9th Ward -- match existing properties with owner and tax data and identify which properties are being rehabilitated.  

"That's what really rocked me," said Kendra Chatburn '10. "Contributing to [the ACORN effort] was building on top of a foundation. I didn't see that there were deeper or broader ways to do service to a community. Each part has a definite kind of ripple effect."  

Cornell's service effort was in response to residents' desires to rebuild their neighborhoods despite earlier opposition from the city.  

"Since the hurricane, there's been a resurgence of community activism like this city's never seen," Dominick told the students.  

But getting retail stores and other services back to support those who are rebuilding has also been a slow process. "Politicians reached out to Walgreens and the larger chains to go back online, and they refused," Wade Rathke, chief organizer of ACORN, told the Cornell group.  

"[A] store owner may have funds to rebuild, but do you sink $1 million in a McDonald's if no one is here to work there?" Frantz said.  

In addition to helping property owners move back and rebuild, ACORN has built two energy-efficient homes in the 9th Ward and plans to build many more, enough to potentially stimulate more resettlement, retail development and support for further revitalization.  

"There is money that will come into New Orleans if we can prove that people will move into these houses," Rathke said. "I think 10 years from now, we're going to see a vibrant community again. Three years from now, maybe not. It takes a long time."  

By Dan Aloi