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Where the Soul of the City Flourishes

Times Staff Writer

New Orleans evacuee Yolanda Keeler was glued to the TV in Dallas on Friday, watching the water rush back into the Lower 9th Ward, the little riverside neighborhood where she grew up.

Hurricane Katrina already had battered or flattened most everything there. But to Keeler, 52, who ran a dress shop in the Lower 9th until Katrina struck, it still hurt to see water again claiming the streets -- home to some of the city’s worst trouble, and some of its most spontaneous expressions of joy.

“It was devastating,” Keeler said, “to see the water come back in again a second time.”

Before Katrina, the Lower 9th Ward was one of New Orleans’ toughest and most insular neighborhoods. Wedged between an industrial waterway and the parish line on the eastern end of town, it was a place rarely visited by tourists -- or even by many who called other parts of the city home.

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But the “Lower Nine,” as locals call it, was also one of those crucial pockets of a city where, amid crushing poverty, a vibrant culture breathed and evolved beyond the cliched brackets of the tourist industry.

In the party days preceding Lent, impromptu “second line” revelers used to fill neighborhood streets, as did the Mardi Gras Indians -- working-class blacks who dressed in Native American-inspired costume.

R&B; artist Antoine “Fats” Domino proudly kept his home in the Lower 9th -- until he was rescued from the floodwaters.

And a new generation of musicians gained national fame as they detailed the pride, poverty and defiance that flourished “ ‘cross the canal” in their rap songs.

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“I’m from the 9th Ward, been there since the day I was born,” the rapper named Magic sang on a recent hit. “We improvised on my block/Never had a ball, we played football wit’ a concrete rock/Now picture that.”

As the name implies, the Lower 9th is one sliver of the broader 9th Ward, which hugs the eastern banks of the Mississippi downriver from the famous French Quarter. But to many locals, it is not the Quarter, but the 9th -- with its narrow streets and narrower houses -- where New Orleans’ quirky soul truly flourishes.

“It is a neighborhood where 99-year-old ladies wearing housecoats and hairnets sit on their stoops, making sure that everyone else’s business is their business,” author Bunny Matthews wrote in the local music magazine OffBeat.

“They own Chihuahuas because, pound for pound, they’re the meanest of canines.... There is no Uptown seersucker-suit pretension around here, no ponytailed joggers with glistening tans and personal CD players, nobody eating free-range chickens or Light ‘n Fit yogurt.”

But Matthews added: “The 9th Ward has always been the part of New Orleans that was mired in last place. Its residents, the poorest of the poor -- black and white, had no political clout, no drainage, no sewerage, and in some places, no sidewalks.”

The 9th Ward began to coalesce as a neighborhood by the mid-19th century, but the low-lying cypress swamps to the east were always the slowest to develop. Eventually, the poor -- black, Irish, German and Italian -- braved poor drainage and disease to settle in the area, which eventually became known as the Lower 9th.

In 1923, engineers completed the Industrial Canal, the waterway that is spilling its contents into the neighborhood through breaches in the levee wall. The canal was built to connect the Mississippi with Lake Pontchartrain, and it was a boon for commerce.

But it further isolated the Lower 9th from the rest of the city.

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City officials often overlooked the place, one of the last in New Orleans to have streets paved. Yet the isolation bred a small-town atmosphere that was intensified by the proximity of rows of shotgun houses.

“Everybody knew each other, because the houses was real close, and the churches was close,” said Keeler, the dress shop owner who is now in Dallas. “It was nothing spacious, but a whole lot of love.”

In the 1960s, love was in short supply among working-class whites who were angry about integrating the local school system. A Lower 9th elementary school -- since renamed for trumpeter Louis Armstrong -- was one of the first in New Orleans to be integrated. And many whites reacted by moving east into suburban St. Bernard Parish, another area devastated by flooding.

In recent years, some sections of the 9th Ward have seen an influx of bohemians, artists and even a few yuppies. They fixed up old shotguns, braved the vicious Chihuahuas and bolstered the tenuous neighborhood economy. But these pioneers mostly stayed in the areas closest to the French Quarter.

The Lower 9th, mostly all black, saw little gentrification.

“There’s just a major difference when you cross that canal,” said Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, the New Orleans City councilwoman who represents the Upper 9th.

The Lower 9th found itself stuck with a classic case of inner-city stagnation.

Natural disasters had long stymied its development, starting with a disastrous 1927 flood of the Mississippi. And in September 1965, the area struggled to recover from Hurricane Betsy, which inundated 80% of the neighborhood.

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In the wake of Betsy, the federal government established more subsidized housing and programs for the poor, but the neighborhood continued to struggle. When Katrina struck, more than 36% of its residents were living below the poverty line. Drugs and violent crime flourished.

And yet the months before Katrina were a period of great hope. The nearby Desire housing project -- long run-down and plagued by violence -- had been mostly razed, replaced with more attractive buildings and townhouses. Mayor C. Ray Nagin had proposed tearing down other blighted parts of the area as part of a citywide revitalization project.

The city’s leading preservation group, the Preservation Resource Center, had even turned its attention to the Lower 9th, renovating old homes and building new ones.

The area has long been a hotbed of political activism, and residents jumped into the planning process with relish, said City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who represents the neighborhood.

“There was great hope in the Lower 9th Ward,” Willard-Lewis said.

In Katrina’s aftermath, a number of observers have wondered if the area should be rebuilt at all.

Willard-Lewis bristles at the suggestion.

The people have left, she said, but the pride in the neighborhood never left. She bolstered the point with a report she received from rescue workers:

Amid the violence and chaos and looting that followed Katrina, it appeared that no one had laid a hand on Fats Domino’s place.


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