In New Orleans, Progress at Last in the Lower Ninth Ward

Date Published: 
February 23, 2007

The first new houses built in the Lower Ninth Ward since Hurricane Katrina were turned over to their owners on Thursday, creating a small island of hope in a sea of ruin.

Side by side, sparkling and bright on Delery Street at the neighborhood's eastern edge, the two houses unveiled at a ceremony on Thursday stand out in a landscape grimly frozen since the storm. The twin pastel variants on traditional New Orleans architecture sit incongruously whole amid block after block of ruined shells with doors swinging open and windows gaping wide.

Empty during the day and dark at night, this area is a long way from being a neighborhood again, even though it has been the focus of intensive volunteer efforts and organizing since the storm. The destruction of the Lower Ninth Ward, which was working-class and black before the hurricane, and its subsequent failure to begin recovering, have become symbols for what some see as inequities in this city's halting revival.

That symbolism was much in evidence at the ceremony, a gathering of the homeowners and the varied volunteer forces that built the $125,000 solid pine houses, which officials said are elevated five feet and designed to resist hurricane-force winds. It was an occasion to look past the catastrophe that sent a wall of water rushing into the Lower Ninth Ward 18 months ago, at least for the moment. If the levees fail again and a similar volume of water comes through, the new houses will take only two feet of water, the contractor said.

There were promises on Thursday to bring the neighborhood back, particularly from Acorn, the nonprofit neighborhood group that organized the construction and helped finance the two houses. There was cheering, there were plaques for the volunteers, and there were speeches by politicians and preachers.

And there were the two sturdy women who had been next-door neighbors for 25 years until Hurricane Katrina blew their houses away, the owners Gwendolyn Guice and Josephine Butler, who received the keys to the new houses on Thursday.

Acorn and the volunteers built the houses on the same spot as the women's original ones, and both women seemed overcome at being back.

''I'm all over hoops,'' Ms. Guice said, switching between tears and smiles as she happily showed off her trim little green house, a subtle modification of the classic New Orleans front-to-back-hall style.

Looking out the back at a nearby school building with a collapsed roof and a muddy vacant lot where there was once a house, Ms. Guice was adamant that Thursday represented a hopeful beginning on a street that once sheltered many solid homeowners.

''A lot of people are just sitting back, waiting and seeing,'' Ms. Guice said.

Her re-installment and Ms. Butler's, she insisted, would help draw people back. And given the privations of her long exile, much of it spent in Houston, she would not be fazed by living in the ward's darkness and isolation, she suggested.

She showed no regrets about the fate of her old house.

''I never did find the den,'' Ms. Guice said. ''It just shoved straight off. It might be floating in the gulf.''

Still, the complications of the demonstration project on Delery Street raise questions about its usefulness as a prototype. The two houses were financed by Acorn and a California bank, and the two women are planning to repay their loans using their insurance proceeds and money they hope will be forthcoming from Louisiana's Road Home housing aid program. Louisiana State University's School of Architecture helped design the houses, students from the school helped build them, young people from Covenant House did odd jobs, a church provided landscaping, and even the novelist Richard Ford, who recently moved back to the city, pitched in.

How often this process could be replicated is unclear, though Acorn has money for more loans. Some believe that a neighborhood as destitute as this one cannot come back without large-scale intervention.

''I think we have a problem of quantity, and anything that can't be delivered in quantity is not a suitable prototype, regardless of the fantastic intentions,'' said Andrés Duany, the Miami architect and planner who has played a leading role in this city's efforts at rebuilding. ''The verification is not aesthetics, not the degree of good will; it's quantity.''

But under Thursday's bright sun, the focus was not on the hurdles.

''If you try not to focus on how bad everything is, you can focus on what is good,'' Allan Jones, an electrician who worked on the two houses, said as he surveyed the bleak landscape. ''There is potential.''

Mr. Ford spoke at the ceremony of the ''valiant and hopeful house-raising,'' and those words captured the spirit of an enterprise that seemed as much a challenge to the future as a foundation for something new.

When Ms. Butler moved to the area nearly 60 years ago, it was still a semi-wilderness, recalled Tanya Harris, her granddaughter and an Acorn official.

''This was a shot in the dark,'' Ms. Harris said. ''This was a leap of faith.''