Went to New Orleans a few weeks ago to The NeighborWorks Training Institute which is a week of classes/workshops basically about the “How to’s” of building Communities. I go as a Community Organizer and they have lots of classes about how to organize, evaluate and focus residents energies to accomplish goals for their communities; but lets face it this job is a lot like herding cats and the best way to do that is to just “get on your pony and ride”. I lean toward the classes that take you into actual neighborhoods where you can visually inspect what’s going on, walk the streets, talk to residents and the mailman to get a feel of what the place is like or how its changed.
Being an outsider you view things through the eyes of an investor or potential resident looking for a deal on real estate. That creates a different viewing of things. You know all those signs about “eyes on the neighborhood” and “guard dogs with gun tot’in mamas”, they might move the trouble makers onto the next block and make you feel better but they also tell a potential home buyer that “there is a problem here – move on” and without new investments in our neighborhoods, without change, without new people moving in our neighborhoods become stagnate and start to wilt.
Change is healthy for our communities and its really the only constant in the life of a neighborhood. What causes the demise of a neighborhood is not change but rather structure or lack of. Neighborhoods need diversity. Diversity in housing stock-large homes, medium size homes, small homes and some apartment space or rental homes. Residents should have the opportunity, in their life time, to have mobility within their own neighborhood. Think about it, when you are single you may only need an apartment or a small starter home. If you marry and start a family, or get a dog, you may need something else. If you are retired or an empty nester you may not need the same house you raised your kids in. Having diversity in housing stock allows you to live within the same community, allows new people to move in at different income levels and that helps provide stability. Now back to New Orleans and the signs.
New Orleans is an amazing city, diverse in almost very category, in food, housing stock, and certainly humanity. They have a great cable car system, things to see and an influx of tourist to see them. It also has a storied history and buildings older then most cities. I have been to New Orleans five times in 30 years and very time it is different but its also the same. It is a petri dish of urban planning and social engineering. It has seen many changes but probably none as rapid or as devastating as the arrival of Hurricane Katrina some 7 years ago.
Two of the neighborhoods I visited had 10 to 14 feet of standing water when Katrina passed through driving thousands of people from their homes, neighborhoods and in some cases from their city and even the state – some never to return again. Katrina, like most energized natural disasters, totally changed parts of New Orleans forever. Uprooting trees, washing homes off their foundations, driving varmints and creators of the night into surrounding communities and worst of all taking human life. An awful, awful event for any populated area.
Katrina created a change, a very rapid change in several neighborhoods, some with their roots dating back to the French and Spanish occupation of the “Big Easy” but it also created opportunity. Opportunity for some current residents and opportunity for new potential residents to pick up housing stock at a reduced price, using low interest federal money, private investment funds and the support of a whole world wanting to help rehab from top to bottom. Architecturally diverse housing stock from grand Colonial style homes, to Southern Shotgun style and French Creole homes. These old neighborhoods are being remade, given new life – they are changing. There is fresh paint on most houses. There is new landscaping, flowers and trees. There are small pocket parks popping up where homes have been abandoned. Retail shops and restaurants are opening up in old buildings that were vacant before Katrina.
Streets have been cleaned up, trash hauled off and new lighting installed. Those same neighborhood watch signs bring a whole new feel to these neighborhoods now. When they are seen within an environment that sparkles with bright new paint, fresh landscaping, well maintained housing these same signs shout out “this is a neighborhood that cares”. A neighborhood that is proud of who they are and where they are. A neighborhood that recognizes how important it is to watch out for each other, to help one another, to work together to build community. A neighborhood that invites new people to invest, to buy a house and become part of a great place to live.
Katrina was awful, it drove thousands from their homes and took others from their families forever. Katrina has changed New Orleans but there have been a lot of changes in this 300 year old city and there will be more. New Orleans is always different but at the same time it is always the same. A city of diversity, culture, food, architecture, music, humanity and evolving neighborhoods.