A Slow Rebirth, Across Town From 'Treme'

A Slow Rebirth, Across Town From 'Treme'
August 22, 2010

Though it's been almost five years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, many areas across the region are still struggling to recover.

Among them is Pontchartrain Park, a historically black neighborhood in New Orleans. Before the hurricane, it was a thriving district that counted more than 90 percent of its residents as homeowners. Now, bits and pieces of broken wood lean against front doors; broken lights and overgrown lawns crowd its landscape. But in the middle of all that blight stands a shiny new model home — part of an effort Wendell Pierce is making to lure black families back to the neighborhood

Pierce, who plays trombone player Antoine Batiste on HBO's Treme, grew up in Ponchartrain Park, and he has a deep appreciation for its historical importance. During the height of segregation, New Orleans' local government was looking for a way to placate both civil rights advocates and civil rights opponents. Their solution was to set aside the 200 acres that would become Pontchartrain Park.

"It was actually appeasing the segregationists by making it separate but equal," Pierce tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "We were developed by the same company that developed the white neighborhood that was adjacent to it, Gentilly Woods. But this was the only place where blacks could purchase a home in ... post-World War II suburbia."

Now Pierce is president of the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation. He remembers how in 2005, the neighborhood had a 92 percent homeownership rate, as well as a poverty rate below 10 percent — a far cry from New Orleans' overall poverty rate of nearly 30 percent.

Since Katrina ravaged the area, though, Pontchartrain Park has had the second-lowest rate of return in all of New Orleans. It's "second only to the Lower Ninth Ward, which was completely devastated," Pierce says.

At first, Pierce was confused by this phenomenon. Then he realized that most of his neighborhood's residents, almost 70 percent of them, were elderly — "my parents included." They simply didn't have the wherewithal to begin rebuilding their lives.

So Pierce put out "a call to action to all those men and women of my generation," asking them to give back to the neighborhood that had given them their start.

The actor turned developer is finding this leadership position to be one of his most challenging roles. "Plans haven't been executed that were laid out," he says, largely because it's been difficult for his group to get actual funding, even after securing appropriations on paper. And, Pierce has had to deal with some frustrating policy hurdles — "little mousetraps," he calls them.
Wendell Pierce, model home
Enlarge Audie Cornish/NPR

Pierce, who's serving as president of a community-redevelopment nonprofit, stands in the kitchen of a model home in Pontchartrain Park.
Wendell Pierce, model home
Audie Cornish/NPR

Pierce, who's serving as president of a community-redevelopment nonprofit, stands in the kitchen of a model home in Pontchartrain Park.

"Perfect example: There was an appropriation for a grant to raise your home to the basic flood elevation level," he says. "But not for new homes."

The upshot: If residents demolish their flood-damaged homes and build houses that comply with new basic flood-elevation codes, they'll receive no governmental assistance.

"I'm like, 'So, wait a minute. We're in the deepest part of the disaster. People have a demolished home that was sitting in water for three months. And the only way that they can actually access some assistance to come back is if they raise that destroyed home?' "

Pierce's group has also found that while they are meeting the flood elevation laws by raising homes to a certain level, they're simultaneously "breaking the law by breaking the 'ceiling' of the neighborhood" — building homes taller than local zoning allows. The Pontchartrain Park CDC can get around this by using government-issued waivers — but the city won't give them one blanket waiver for the neighborhood as a whole.

"We have 500 homes. So we're actually going to have to go through the process of getting a waiver for every home individually — going to a city zoning meeting and ask for a waiver, apply for [it], and then get the vote on each house," Pierce explains.

Though the task at hand is a daunting one, Pierce still feels passionately about his city.

"It's like loving a parent who has some issues," he says. "You know? 'I love you, Daddy, but I wish you'd stop drinking' — that sort of thing. I love this city, and I have friends and family who tell me when I speak ill of it that, 'Oh, you don't love it.' And I said, 'No, opposite of love is not hating. So if you hear me complain, it's because I love it so much."

Some residents of New Orleans, though, don't have the city's best interests at heart, according to Pierce. "There are those who are happy with the way things are because it didn't affect them in a certain way," he says. "Some people saw it a great way to reshape the city, and they have no problem with thousands and thousands of New Orleanians who are from here who don't have an opportunity to come back."

Still, he does his best to remain optimistic. Disasters "bring out the best in people and the worst in people," he says. To Pierce, the lesson of Katrina is a simple one: The people of his hometown are "resilient, in spite of all of that."
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