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A City Tries to Rebuild Itself

Note: This is part of a week-long series on New Orleans, five years after Katrina, based in part on my recent trip there.

In the months after Hurricane Katrina, Patricia Jones lived with her family in Atlanta, waiting for authorities to let people return to the Lower Ninth Ward. But she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to come back. And even when she did return, she had no grand notions of becoming a community leader. It would be quite enough to rebuild her home, restart her small bookkeeping business, and tend to her family.

Then Jones started attending regular meetings, convened by an activist group, of Katrina survivors. The point of the meetings was to share stories of storm and its aftermath--and to build support for the right of displaced people to return to their homes. All of which was just fine, Jones thought, but she had some more immediate concerns. Her neighborhood needed water, lights, and passable streets. “I don’t want to spend every week discussing philosophy,” Jones recalls thinking. “I want my house. My kids need a school.”

Eventually a group of Lower Ninth residents started their own meetings, focusing on those practical problems--and how to solve them. Prior to starting the bookkeeping business, Jones worked as a paralegal, so she was familiar with both the legal system and govenrment bureacracies. She tells me that she started dispensing advice and, when necessary, offering direct help: When the state announced it was taking applications for its “Road Home” program online, Jones knew many people (particularly seniors) either didn’t know how to use the internet or lacked access. She offered to fill out the applications for them.

But fixing up the neighborhood was going to require more than filling out applications. It was going to involve organizing--and dealing with public officials as a group, rather than individual residents. Jones and her neighbors decided the best way to do this was to start a non-profit organization, the Lower Ninth Ward Neighbor Empowerment Network Association. And today community advocacy has become her full-time job.

It’s not easy work, given the huge challenges facing neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward: “If God had told me this is what I was going to be doing,” she says, laughing, “I would have run away--this is not for the faint of heart.” But she says she’s found strength in the resilience of her community: “We cry when we need to cry, cuss when we need to cuss, fuss when we need to fuss--we do what we need to do.”

I don't know enough about Jones and her group to tell you much more about what they actually do. But I can tell you that stories like Jones' seem pretty common these days. And it’s one reason that experts like Amy Liu, from the Brookings Institute's New Orleans project, is (relatively) optimistic about the city’s future.

Liu says the rise in community engagement--or "social capital," as the political scientists and sociologists call it--is a citywide phenomenon. And it is the product, Liu says, of the city’s plight after Katrina and inability of government officials to deal with it.

I tend to be skeptical about these things, but this is the real story. People felt the need to become stakeholders in their neighborhoods, to make sure they survived and were rebuilt. ... You see this not just in the number of people who have gone to a public meeting. You see this in the fact that people have actually become smarter. This has to be one of the most sophisticated populations anywhere ... everybody has become a technocrat. People have become meaningfully engaged, not just in advocacy but also implementation.

Jones agrees:

Lower ninth folks have been very civic minded for a long time. They let you know what they feel. But there weren’t as many engaged on the policy level as they are now. Folks can tell you how to redevelop ... the average person can tell you about code enforcement and how it affects zoning. Who used to have these conversations about coffee?

Of course, social capital is not enough to rebuild a neighborhood, let alone a city. When I wrap up this series*, I’ll talk about what else New Orleans needs. And whether it’s likely to get it.

*It'll have to be Monday, I guess, since I've run out of days.