By Lisa G. Stafford
The following is a collection of excerpts from conversations and meetings with residents of eastern New Orleans. It was originally submitted in September 2009 to the Neighborhoods Partnership Network’s Trumpet Magazine for its Neighborhood Spotlight column, and has been updated. While it may seem negative at times, it is meant to instill hope in our future and challenge each of you to do your part in bringing our area up to its full potential. These issues are not new to any of us who live in the area, but we should begin to view these issues differently. Instead of repeating them over and over in our meetings, we should try to develop a solution to at least one of these issues. It doesn’t matter how small the solution may seem—it could be as small as writing a letter—but bring it to a meeting, and be ready to galvanize the support of your neighbors in completing that particular task.
About 15 minutes east of downtown New Orleans lies a community of approximately 40 neighborhoods, devastated by flooding associated with breached levees in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans East, or “the East”, as it is commonly called, the majority of the homes in the area received four to six feet of water from the storm surge and broken levees. The immediate cry of some politicians was for the area–roughly 100 square miles, and before Katrina, about 40% of the city’s tax base–to become green space. The area, politicians argued, was too far gone, and at too great of a risk for future damage from storms, to rebuild.
Today, that community has largely rebuilt itself. Residents in the area initially received few of the Road Home grants that were made available, so with insurance money, savings and/or personal loans, these residents rebuilt their lives. Although the politicians no longer publicly speak of turning the area into green space, one has to wonder if that still isn’t the plan. It is estimated that the majority of the previous 90,000 residents have returned, but there are still few signs of economic recovery.
While other parts of the city bask in the shadows of cranes rebuilding damaged buildings, or assembling entirely new structures, there is little development in the East. There is only one major grocery store to service the entire area, and only recently, a Lowe’s home improvement store joined the lone Home Depot store that existed prior to Katrina. A plethora of granite, cabinet and flooring stores abound in the area. Methodist and Lakeland hospitals sit desolate, though it is believed that they could be operational with minimal effort.
Lack of economic development is frustrating enough, but that frustration is compounded by the fact that residents are frequently told that feasibility studies must be completed before change can take place. Residents find it hard to understand why millions of dollars should be spent for someone to say that we need services when it is obvious that they are needed because none exist.
Although New Orleans East is lagging in disaster recovery, many of its problems began long before Katrina. In the seventies, developers had a vision of creating a middle class suburban area east of downtown New Orleans. This fresh, new territory would be called Orlandia, though the effort was later abandoned. In spite of this, upscale homes sprang up around seven lake communities in the area, and a large mall, complete with a skating rink and posh stores served the residents of this new suburbia. Several local businesses provided jobs to inhabitants of the East, which offered convenient places to live for highly skilled workers like engineers and computer programmers at locations such as NASA, Martin Marietta and the USDA’s National Finance Center.
But this tide of prosperity began to recede. The eighties brought a double blow to the East in the form of a slowing economy related to the oil slump, and a disproportionate amount of subsidized rentals in the area, relative to the rest of the city. Unfortunately, the high concentration of subsidized housing lowered the economic base of the area, and additionally, many of the originally beautiful apartments, became poorly maintained eyesores. Businesses began to leave the area in droves. The Plaza mall lost its edge as a unique shopping center when the skating rink shut down. Soon, the majority of the businesses in the mall seemed to cater solely to young urban shoppers. Upscale clothing stores were replaced with large numbers of hip hop urban wear and athletic shoe stores, which were of little interest to middle-aged shoppers.
For years, residents sat helplessly by while businesses left the area and slum lords neglected many of the massive apartment complexes. These complexes were reduced to ruins right before the eyes of its powerless neighbors, and said to all who passed through the area on Interstate 10 that New Orleans East was a community of widespread blight.
Then Katrina Hit
Although no one believes that Katrina was good for the area, there was a widely held belief that it provided the opportunity to correct some past mistakes. Maybe now those neglected and crumbling apartment complexes could be removed once and for all. Maybe now we could enforce building codes so that the owners of those complexes still in existence could be required to maintain those properties. Maybe now economic development could be planned instead of thrown together in a haphazard manner. Maybe multi-family housing density could be reduced.
That hope was dashed as again, residents sat by powerless while other communities, some that were not even damaged by the ravaging winds of Katrina or the rushing flood waters that followed, received recovery dollars that should have gone to the areas most devastated. Over three years after Katrina, some New Orleans East streets still sit dark after nightfall. There is no library*, an unfinished park*, no fire stations*, and few restaurants. In meeting after meeting with city representatives, inadequate explanations are given for the slow pace of rebuilding in New Orleans East, and the paltry amount of dollars that have been spent on our projects.
Community groups must constantly be on guard for unscrupulous developers, many of whom live outside Louisiana, who build housing that does not fit the fabric of the neighborhoods in which they build. Some feel that developers should be required to live in areas in which they build–that way they could experience what residents experience. Although the city has drafted a Master Plan, there seems to be no overall plan for development in the East. This is evident when outside developers continue to build apartments for which there is no demand, based on the significant number of vacancies in existing complexes. These developers, driven by government tax credits, continue to build high concentrations of “affordable” multi-family housing in one area, instead of disbursing such housing throughout the metropolitan area. Although other parishes, and even communities in Orleans Parish, have openly stated that they do not want subsidized housing, Eastern New Orleans groups who make the same arguments against such housing are criticized and labeled as “elitists”.
Eastern New Orleans is often seen as the area’s dumping ground – for proposed projects like crowded, poorly maintained apartments; landfills and garbage dumps, a juvenile prison, and most recently, a halfway house for rehabilitating substance abusers and drug dealers. Waterfront properties are prized throughout the country, yet those in the East go virtually ignored.
Eastern New Orleanians are not whiners and complainers, as many believe. But when, after almost four years, the public library, hospitals, police stations, fire stations, the park, the mall, the schools, major retail centers, and apartments are in need of major repairs or demolition, while other parts of the city are thriving, residents of the East understandably feel left out and neglected.
What Residents Are Doing
Residents have not given up, though. Rather than walk away from beautifully renovated homes, many of whom have no mortgages, residents have chosen to stay and fight. In an effort to support those businesses that have returned to or established themselves in the area, organizers have coordinated a campaign to shop in the East, and only in the East, on the fourth weekend of every month. This can be a major sacrifice for residents when clothing is needed, or a meal from a popular restaurant chain is desired.
Neighborhoods have organized homeowner associations, and groups like the East New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission meet regularly to learn of resident issues and work to find solutions. Groups are working together to dispel the ill-conceived notion that New Orleans East is a crime-ridden, low-income slum area.
We hope that you will do your part also. Let’s not make the same mistakes. If you do not live in the East, learn about the area and tell others about the treasures found here. Take a detour from your normal route and drive through the area. What you see along I-10 is not all there is to the East. New Orleans East has:
- Enviable real estate–from newly built or refurbished apartment complexes, to quiet family-friendly subdivisions with modest yet beautiful homes, to gated subdivisions filled with palatial mansions—many nestled among the largest number of lakes of any other community in the metropolitan area.
- Recreation and entertainment venues in the form of Bally’s Casino, Six Flags and Lincoln Beach, certainly in need of work to get them to their full potential, but capable of attracting locals and tourists alike, just the same.
- Forty percent of the city’s tax base and 60% of the city’s land mass.
- Neighborhoods with some of the highest per capita incomes in the New Orleans metropolitan area.
- Joe Brown Park, one of the largest suburban parks in the nation, complete with tennis courts and an AAU-sized swimming pool.
- Historical sites, such as Fort Pike and Fort Macomb, integral to the area’s rich history.
- The Louisiana Nature Center and Bayou Sauvage, large nature refuges teeming with exotic wildlife.
- The most culturally diverse area in the city, with one of the nation’s largest Vietnamese communities.
- A 7,000-acre industrial park, Fortune 500 employers, and ample retail space.
- Multiple modes of transporting people and goods–from an airport, to major roadways, railways and waterways.
It is understandable that the French Quarter and all of its tourist attractions are considered New Orleans’ crown jewel, but New Orleans East is most certainly the city’s diamond in the rough, and with so much unrealized potential, it definitely deserves to be renewed.
As of 2013, the library, schools, the area’s major park, police station, fire stations have been beautifully renovated. Major retail in the form of a Walmart, and an 80-bed hospital, and more schools are under development. Residents still await more restaurants.
As of 2019, more restaurants and the redevelopment of the former Jazzland / Six Flags amusement park site are still wish list items for residents.