NEW ORLEANS — The Rev. Charles Duplessis navigated the new landscape of the Lower Ninth Ward, crossing from newly paved streets to those still muddy and rutted as riverbeds.
He drove past a gleaming duplex designed by Frank Gehry and the skeletons of vacant homes, past a community garden and overgrown lots with “no dumping” signs, until he reached his destination: Flood Street.
Here were more examples of the progress made after Hurricane Katrina — and the problems that remain. Construction cranes hovered over a new community center taking shape nearby. A city crew poured concrete for new sidewalks that stretched past several vacant lots and his unfinished church.
Mount Nebo Baptist Church, like so many other buildings here, was destroyed by Katrina.
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Duplessis, 62, has mustered only enough support to raise the backbone of a new church: metal beams and a roof. He needs to raise $500,000 more to finish construction. His congregation shrank from 120 before the storm to 50.
The sign out front proclaims, “Through God’s promise we will rebuild!” But the pastor is frustrated.
“This is nine years after the storm,” Duplessis said, pointing to an uneven, brambly lot nearby with weeds the size of small trees. “It will take at least 20 years before we get it back.”
The Lower Ninth Ward, or “Lower Nine,” struggled with poverty and crime long before Katrina struck in 2005. It was home to 14,000 residents, mostly African-American homeowners.
Only about 25 percent of residents have returned, according to a homeowners association. About 1,700 addresses in the neighborhood were receiving mail as of last June, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
For many, the neighborhood embodies the shortcoming of the city’s rebuilding strategy, in which New Orleans officials vowed to rebuild every neighborhood, not just the Lower Nine. A nonprofit group even adopted the motto, “How’s the 9? This is the question by which the recovery of New Orleans must be judged.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu says he is focused on “place-based” redevelopment of battered city neighborhoods. He said his priority has been to invest federal money where it can do the most good and incentivize private investment. Hence the Lower Ninth Ward’s new community center, pool, high school and police and fire stations under construction.
New Orleans officials have spent more than $200 million rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward — on pavement, utilities and playgrounds, among other things, Landrieu’s staff said.
“The challenge for the Ninth Ward is that, before Katrina, it was the poorest part of the city,” Landrieu said. And although city officials can work to bring businesses back, “we can’t force people to go someplace.”
Alan Mallach, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Center for Community Progress, which has an office in New Orleans, said that the mayor and others helped orchestrate a successful revival of the city as a whole, but that unoccupied areas of the Lower Ninth Ward probably will remain fallow.
“Hopefully over time they can assemble enough lots so that instead of this crazy patchwork you have now, it would be something more coherent. It’s going to be a slow process,” Mallach said.
Robert Green was among the first to move back, in a trailer in 2006. Three years later, he moved into one of the ultramodern homes built by Brad Pitt’s nonprofit group Make It Right. The group has built 100 homes and plans to erect an additional 150.
Green, 57, who lost his mother and 3-year-old granddaughter to the storm, is now president of the Historic Lower Ninth Ward Association, and its meetings are standing-room only — a testament, he says, to local demand.
“Things are coming back. There is a need and there is a population to support them. If you watch the school buses coming out of here — children need to be fed and clothed,” he said. “I could see a Starbucks here, a Dunkin’ Donuts.”
A year and a half ago, Keisha Henry opened one of the area’s first post-Katrina sit-down restaurants, Cafe Dauphine. Some warned that the menu was too pricey — $6.99 for her signature Cajun egg rolls, $11.99 for a fried oyster po’boy and $22.99 for the seafood platter.
Henry, 35, says the restaurant is thriving. She lives across the street with her 9-year-old son in her childhood home, has a dozen people on staff, 60 to 80 customers each weekday and up to 150 each weekend day. A new grocery store would generate foot traffic, she said, and anchor a shopping mall for smaller stores.
Others suggest city officials could have done more to encourage economic diversity in the area, and thus attract middle-class families.
“They should have been saying we need a much more economically diverse ward to become more stable” after Katrina, said Charles Buki, a consultant with Czb, a neighborhood planning firm based in Alexandria, Va.
Buki worked with city officials to rebuild St. Bernard Parish to the east, where many residents of the Lower Ninth Ward now shop.
“Now they’re in this awkward position where they are slowly re-creating the poor ward that it was,” Buki said of city officials. “It has to be an explicit policy of the city to diversify in every ward. Until that happens, you’ll have a very thriving Garden District and French Quarter and Bywater and a very poor Ninth Ward.”
Burnell Cotlon is struggling to set up Galvez Goodies, a convenience store, or “sweet shop,” as they say here. Eight months ago, he opened a barbershop in the same building on Galvez Street. Cross the Canal Barber and Beauty Salon has seen steady walk-in business and employs four people.
Cotlon, 42, an Army veteran who grew up here, sank his life savings of more than $70,000 into the once-blighted property four years ago, restoring most of it himself. Now he’s mowing yards and fixing neighbors’ plumbing to pay for city permits.
“The city as a whole saying we’re going to help entrepreneurs and rebuilding — I’m sorry, that’s not true. I do need the help. I’m not opening up a strip club, I’m opening a grocery store,” he said.
For now, he and other residents of the Lower Ninth Ward must make do.
The Rev. Duplessis holds services in his living room, where he stood before a dozen worshippers seated in folding chairs on a recent Sunday.
Duplessis read a passage from the book of John, “Mine hour is not yet come,” and the tiny congregation sang the chorus of a gospel song:
“Today’s a new day, but there is no sunshine.
“Nothing but clouds and it’s dark in my heart and it feels like a cold night.”