Memories fill the void on a block in New Orleans

Times Staff Writers

For blacks in New Orleans at the height of Jim Crow, there were few aspirations higher than owning one of the modest brick bungalows in Pontchartrain Park.

When postal workers and teachers and longshoremen wrote their last rent checks and moved into the newly developed subdivision, they crossed a portal directly into the middle class.

“It was something special,” said Cherrylane Johnson, whose father, Thomas, bought a new four-bedroom house on Athis Court in 1962 for $18,000. “I remember as a child going to school, when another kid asked where you lived and you said, ‘Pontchartrain Park,’ that meant something.”


Today, nearly 16 months after Hurricane Katrina submerged the neighborhood up to its rooflines, the Johnsons are the only residents back on their once-bustling block. As they wait for federal grants and rebuilding loans, 80-year-old Thomas, 56-year-old Cherrylane and her 22-year-old daughter, Taiese, reside in a pair of claustrophobic Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers in the frontyard on a now-darkened cul-de-sac.

The squeals of bike-riding children are gone. There is no one to gossip with over the fence. Thomas Johnson, a retired postal worker, wards off isolation by maintaining his pre-Katrina routine, rising at 4:30 a.m., reading the newspaper over coffee, heading out for his morning walk, then returning to watch “Sanford and Son” reruns. Cherrylane Johnson, a third-grade teacher, has voluntarily taken on extra duties at school because they require her to stay late -- and away from Athis Court.

“You try to spend as much time as you can away from here,” she said. “It’s really pretty isolating, and rather scary.”

This is how New Orleans’ most devastated neighborhoods are being reclaimed -- one house at a time, a few on this block, perhaps none on the next, the resettlement driven by market forces with little government intervention. Despite the risk of future flooding, those returning to Pontchartrain Park want it this way. They didn’t put their life’s work and savings into this neighborhood only to have the city tell them they couldn’t come home.

“People have a stake in the places where they lived,” Cherrylane Johnson said. “If you owned your home, and this is where you lived and what you worked for, I don’t think anyone should discourage you from living where you want.”

Though the thwack of hammers suggests a neighborhood stirring to life, the revitalization of Pontchartrain Park has been halting. In the city planning district that includes the area, one-fourth of the pre-Katrina population had returned as of summer, according to the city’s most recent estimates. That was the third-lowest rate among the 13 districts.


Cherrylane Johnson and the others who have trickled back, usually to the purgatory of trailer life, recognize that their neighborhood may never be the same. Many neighbors -- often original owners now in their 70s and 80s -- have left town with no intention of returning. Their once-tidy houses are turning to blight. With yards unmowed and littered with sodden belongings, the rodents roam where they please.

Urban planners assert that the cash-strapped city cannot possibly provide basic services to a population that, though half its pre-Katrina size, is scattered across a large area.

In Pontchartrain Park, as in other neighborhoods, schools have closed and students must travel long distances to others. Garbage pickup has been cut in half to once a week. The ball fields in the neighborhood’s namesake park are choked with weeds, the backstops toppled and rusting. Makeshift street signs, painted on plywood in drippy letters, are propped up in medians.

This is the inevitable consequence, the planners say, of Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s “laissez faire” approach to the city’s recovery.

Earlier this year, a commission established by Nagin proposed that the city abandon some low-lying areas to green space, and identified Pontchartrain Park and other vulnerable neighborhoods as possible targets. Residents of those areas stormed City Hall meetings to voice their objections, and Nagin, who was facing reelection, sided with them.

He has since embraced as his guiding principle the idea “that everyone should be allowed to come home.” Nagin has pushed the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild and improve the city’s levees and floodgates, while acknowledging that New Orleans may not be adequately protected from flooding until 2010.


“He wants to repopulate the city,” said Nagin spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett. “The mayor has been consistent in saying that residents should be able to come back and rebuild.”

In fits and starts, Nagin has overseen an unwieldy planning process aimed at producing a detailed roadmap for neighborhood recovery by early in the new year. That plan may include a variety of financial incentives to encourage residents to cluster on higher ground. New federal regulations already require that some heavily damaged houses be elevated several feet when rebuilt.

But the more essential debate of whether the city should shrink its footprint by declaring entire neighborhoods off-limits has for all purposes been decided by the free market. Residents are returning and rebuilding at their own risk, and once back they are not likely to be dislodged.

“It’s much more complicated to get people to leave once they have moved back,” said Janet R. Howard, president of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that studies public policy in the city. The mayor’s approach, she said, “is no plan at all.”

John K. McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a Washington-based group that proposed a form of neighborhood triage for New Orleans, said that Nagin, by encouraging unrestricted repopulation, had created an “illusion” that vital repairs and services could be provided in all parts of the city.

“You have family after family putting their blood, sweat, tears and last dimes into rebuilding their homes without a hope in so many cases of the city being able to provide the infrastructure necessary for them to live in that neighborhood,” McIlwain said. “Because the mayor didn’t have the political courage, he’s allowed this endless planning process to go on, and it’s just prolonging the pain.”


Situated just south of Lake Pontchartrain and just west of the Industrial Canal levee, Pontchartrain Park is as susceptible to a killer storm as most any neighborhood in New Orleans. When the levee breached during the hurricane, 8-foot-high floodwaters coursed through the neighborhood.

Built in the mid-1950s on dredged swampland, Pontchartrain Park became an emblem of racial pride as the city’s first self-contained subdivision for African Americans. Prefabricated houses were shipped to the new plots from Baton Rouge, none larger than 1,500 square feet or more expensive than $20,000.

“It was very exciting for a lot of people,” said David Greenup, former sales manager for the development. “It gave them an opportunity for good housing when there was no other opportunity available.”

The neighborhood was built around a 190-acre park and public golf course that also were initially constructed for blacks. Schools, churches, shops, playgrounds and the main campus of Southern University at New Orleans, a historically black college, were all within walking distance. Neighbors kept watch over one another’s children, and crime was uncommon enough that kids ditched their bikes on the curb after nightfall.

“It was a close-knit neighborhood, a well-kept neighborhood,” Cherrylane Johnson said. “Everybody had pride in their homes and looked after their houses.”

Before Katrina struck, Pontchartrain Park was 97% black, according to 2000 census data analyzed by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Nearly a third of its residents were 65 or older, triple the overall city proportion. In a city where more than half of all housing units are rentals, nine-tenths of those in Pontchartrain Park were owner-occupied. Only one in 10 households did not have a vehicle, meaning that almost all residents were able to evacuate well ahead of the storm.


Those who have returned realize they are rolling the dice, but the risks have been subsumed by their longing to go home.

Elmore C. Desvigne, an 84-year-old retired baker, said he was rebuilding his place on Vienna Court because he wanted his independence back. Despite suffering a stroke a decade ago, he was laying sheetrock one recent morning with his grandson.

“I don’t like living with people,” the widower said of the months spent with his son’s family in Marrero, 20 miles away. “I like doing what I want to do. If I want to jump out of the bathtub naked, that’s my business. If I live with them, I have to eat what they cook. So I thought, ‘If I can repair the house, I’m going to do it.’ ”

The storm destroyed Desvigne’s canna lilies and gladioluses, but one of his rose bushes is starting to come back. “I said when I bought this house that I’m going to live here until I die,” he said, “and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

Augustus C. Robertson, one of the few homesteaders who is truly home, moved his wife of 52 years back into their house of 45 years some two months ago. She has Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

“We looked at some property in Atlanta and in Baton Rouge,” Robertson said, “but my wife was atrophying and we just decided we were coming home. It was the only place I thought she could find solace.”


The retired physical education teacher and principal said he and his wife were the only residents of Prentiss Avenue when they moved into a FEMA trailer late last December and began hiring contractors. Now six of the 22 other houses on the street are being repaired.

Robertson, 74, received $78,000 from his homeowners and flood insurance policies and spent an additional $38,000 from savings. Like thousands of other displaced Louisianans, he is now awaiting reimbursement from the $7.5-billion Road Home program, the federally funded and state administered program that provides grants of up to $150,000 to cover uninsured losses of homeowners who plan to rebuild or relocate. As of Dec. 18, benefits had been calculated for only one of every six applicants.

Dale W. Scott, a 46-year-old clerk who bought a house on Campus Boulevard a month before Katrina, is one of the many whose repairs remain at a standstill for lack of funds.

She used insurance payments to repair the roof, the plumbing and much of the wiring. But she can’t afford drywall and insulation or windows and doors until her Road Home grant comes through.

In the meantime, she shares two tiny trailers with her grown son and daughter and three grandchildren. One recent night found her doing laundry out in the December chill, lighting her way with a lamp that she carried from the washer in an exposed utility room to the dryer in the carport. A rat scampered past as she spoke, making her jump.

“This is a primitive way of living,” she said. “I’m so sick of it, you have no idea. We’re ready to rebuild our home. I don’t understand why everything’s such a waiting game.”


Like others who have moved back, Cherrylane Johnson does not know what to expect but is determined to forge a future for her family by reclaiming its past. She first moved to Pontchartrain Park when she was 10, left after marrying at 22, then returned as a 35-year-old divorcee to care for her recently widowed father.

The Johnsons evacuated to Lafayette, La., three days before Katrina’s landfall, and then to an apartment in Austin, Texas, where they had relatives. While there, Cherrylane had to apply for food stamps for the first time. It gnawed at her pride, and when she sensed that homesickness was aging her father by the day, she decided to move them back to Athis Court.

“I could see him getting kind of depressed,” Johnson said, her eyes welling.

Without enough insurance to cover their losses, the Johnsons are waiting for Road Home money and a Small Business Administration loan that has been stymied by red tape. They have repaired the house’s roof and the wiring, but not the plumbing or air conditioning. They hope to be in the house in January.

It may be a while before they have neighbors. There are few signs of life elsewhere on their street. Down the block, Lucille R. Gaston has planted a “For Sale” sign in her yard. The 70-year-old widow, who lived with her two daughters and a pair of 7-year-old grandchildren, hopes to get $70,000 for the skeletal remains of the house she and her late husband proudly purchased in 1960.

From her apartment in Houston, the former teacher said she could not bring herself to live in a neighborhood that seemed so diminished.

“I just had to cry the last time I was there to see everything we had worked for over the last 40 years destroyed,” Gaston said. “We didn’t want to come back, because people around us weren’t coming back. I lost all my neighbors and friends.”