Saturday, August 29, 2009

the state of the 9th Ward, four years later

Four years ago, the 9th Ward of New Orleans became a household name. Once known primarily by New Orleanians, Southern rappers, and a scattering of historians and preservationists, this area was thrown into the national spotlight as media coverage showed houses launched off their foundations, buildings inundated in dirty water up to the rafters, stranded residents on roofs, and a barge resting on top of a house. The levee breaches following Hurricane Katrina devastated the 9th Ward on both sides of the Industrial Canal, and to a large extent, the 9th Ward remains devastated today, four years later.

Our businesses and institutions are still closed. Homeowners are still trying to get back into their gutted houses. Kids play in the streets in front of empty houses and abandoned cars. Greenish water bubbles up from cracks in the roads. In some blocks, one lone house stands in the center of empty, overgrown lots and crumbled foundations.

And of course, the stray and “feral” dog population is enormous. It’s an easy place for dogs to hide. They live under vacant houses, and indeed inside them. Sometimes you’ll see, in the evening as it gets cooler, a pack of dogs hanging out on a porch of an abandoned house, just watching the world go by like many of the area’s human inhabitants. Some of these dogs are friendly; some are shy and timid. Some are actually aggressive, particularly towards other dogs.

All these sorts of conditions – roaming, starving animals, falling down houses, general decay – all these are seen in what we now, in our politically correct world, call “developing countries.” But this is America. And I truly think that residents of the 9th Ward deserve better than this.

Not the entire 9th Ward is still so badly off. The Bywater area, which largely escaped flooding, is flourishing. The St. Claude area, which had largely moderate flooding, is largely repopulated. Many of the houses in that area were owned by absentee landlords who had the resources to patch them back up and get tenants back into them. But the remainder of the 9th Ward – many of the historic and unique neighborhoods that really embodied the spirit, for lack of better word, of the area – these areas were home to working class homeowners, many elderly, and many who had lived in these houses for decades, if not generations. They did not have the money, time, and sometimes knowledge to get back into their homes. These are the folks who are still suffering.

My neighbor, Ms Matilda, is still fighting to get back into her house. They took away her FEMA trailer, so now she’s staying with family. Think about that: a self-employed, middle-aged woman, who bought a home, raised her children, and who came back to her tattered neighborhood has been unable to get back into her home for four years. I don’t think people outside of New Orleans – hell, outside of the 9th Ward, really – understand what is going on down here.

Across the street, my 80-some-year-old neighbor, Grandma Gaines, tells me every day that she’s “too blessed to be stressed.” She’s back in her house. But she knows the neighborhood will never be the same. Grandma Gaines is a retired seamstress who worked at department stores downtown most of her life. In true 9th Ward style, she’s fighting on and making the best of things, but no elderly woman should be going through what she is. In fact, she survived an “unexplainable” fire in her FEMA trailer. Unfortunately, her dog at the time did not.

On the other side of my house, a middle-aged couple is back in their home. The husband is a Tulane Health Sciences Campus employee.

Just one small example of some folks who won’t be coming back: a middle-aged woman with adult children who worked for the Children’s Museum, and had been married to a retired Post Office employee. The couple bought a house in the Florida Area more than forty years ago. They raised all their children there. They lived there entire married life there. In 2004, they renovated it, planning to stay there the rest of their lives, with their son living in the other side of the shotgun double. Katrina pushed them out, but they knew they wanted to return. But before they ever got back in their home, the husband died, and the wife found herself unable to keep up with the completion of the work. She finally was forced to sell the house and move in with her daughter.

I know this story because these are the folks I bought my house from in March, 2009. I almost felt guilty at closing.

My point, then, is these are the people that are still hurting: good, honest, hard-working people. And these are the people who, four years later, are still being forced to live off the charity of relatives. It’s humbling at times, humiliating at others. And it’s wrong.

Here in the Florida Area, and across the tracks in the Desire Area, and the entire Lower 9th Ward, folks are still trying, but we need help. I know the rest of the country is sick of hearing about Katrina, and believe me: we are too. But it’s still there, and still very much a part of our daily lives. So if you want to stop hearing about it, help us. Tell people wherever you live – whether it’s across the city or across the country – that we have not recovered down here. The Federal Government – namely, the Army Corps of Engineers – flooded our city and destroyed neighborhoods and lives, and it’s not back yet. It’s not right yet.

As for the dogs: I’m trying to do my small part on that front, but I need help, too. No one else is coming in and picking these dogs up. That includes the Louisiana SPCA, who runs our Animal Control down here. They’re understaffed, underfunded, and frankly swamped. So dogs are allowed to wander and search for food, and starve and die of disease. They are also spreading disease to owned and cared for pets. They are a risk to the health and safety of these kids who play in deserted streets. They are a risk to the safety of neighborhood dogs and cats. And they are truly a visible, obvious marker of the sort of lack of care – the sort of devastation – that has come to characterize the 9th Ward. Because if New Orleans is the City that Care Forgot, the 9th Ward is the neighborhood that care forgot, and I just want to remind everyone. We’re not whole yet, not by a long shot. And these dogs are visible, daily reminders of the suffering that’s going on here.

Owners, Animals Control, and the general public have abandoned these animals to fend for themselves. Much the same way as the rest of the country – and even the rest of the city – has abandoned the 9th Ward.

In May, 2009, I found a starving, hairless, bleeding, nearly dead pit bull puppy. Over the last few months, she’s battled back to health, and in the process won my heart and that of many others. When her rescue day pictures circulated, many people were both horrified and touched at the sight of the tiny, sick dog – who still had the courage and heart to wag her tail.

This red nosed pit bull who now shares my bed every night was the very image of suffering, neglect, and abuse. But she was still happy, still loving, still fighting. She is truly a 9th Ward dog. This area has suffered so much, and not only since the levees broke. This is an area that has been neglected and underserved for decades – particularly since the 9th Ward public schools were used as the city’s desegregation guinea pig, resulting in white flight and an increasing lack of public services. But this place is alive, always has been, and God willing, like Pauline, it will continue to fight.

This, the 9th Ward, is where black New Orleans families first sent their children to “white” schools, in the Florida Area. This is where the New Orleans Black Panthers had famous stand offs with the New Orleans Police Department, in the Desire Area. This is where Homer Plessey sat in a “whites only” train car, in the Bywater. This is where jazz legend Fats Domino lived, in the Lower 9. This is an amazing place, and I think all of us – not just New Orleanians, but Americans – have reason to see it survive.

And the 9th Ward will, I believe, survive. Because despite what we’ve been through, we will keep fighting. This is a special place. And like Pauline, we’ll fight through it, tail wagging.

If you can help Dogs of the 9th Ward, please let me know. If you are interested in helping out in the 9th ward in any capacity, please get in touch and I will help you connect with the appropriate folks.

Dogs of the 9th Ward

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