Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village, a brand-new neighborhood in the Upper Ninth Ward.
Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians’ Village, a brand-new neighborhood in the Upper Ninth Ward

Just two days after August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans, architectural wunderkind Daniel Libeskind was already overflowing with ideas about how to restore the city. Libeskind—he of the 1,776-foot “Freedom Tower” for New York’s Ground Zero—compared New Orleans with postwar Berlin, which had “in a daring way developed . . . into the 21st century.” As for a “theme” for a rebuilt New Orleans, Libeskind mused to the New York Times, “What could be more creative than jazz?”

Mercifully, New Orleans isn’t erecting any saxophone-shaped skyscrapers as it recovers from the hurricane, which left 80 percent of its surface area—a swath seven times Manhattan’s size—inundated with floodwaters and drove nearly all of the city’s 455,000 residents from their homes. New Orleans has rebounded remarkably since then. As of January, it boasted 302,000 residents, with 2,000 more returning each month, according to data crunchers at GCR & Associates, an information-systems firm. (In early 2006, the city’s official planners had figured that just 247,000 people would be home by September 2008.)

New Orleanians have achieved much of this success by doing what New Yorkers couldn’t do after 9/11: ignoring the potentates and eggheads hankering to turn devastation into conceptual art. They’ve been building and rebuilding on their own or with small-scale help, rather than under top-down decree—and, in the process, showing that thousands of individual planners are better than one master.

True, a strong government role was necessary at first to set the stage for New Orleans’s progress. Federal agencies, especially the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Army Corps of Engineers, worked with contractors to clear millions of tons of debris from lawns and streets, unclog waterways, and provide trailers so that New Orleanians could live in their driveways while fixing their houses. They also repaired levees and are working on upgrading flood-control infrastructure in general—crucial steps in making homeowners more confident about weathering future hurricanes. But government, while critical for acute recovery, hasn’t driven the long-term rebuilding work.

That’s not to say that it hasn’t tried. Just weeks after Katrina, the city unveiled a panel called Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB), charged with drawing up ambitious recommendations for everything from public transportation to schools. The panel comprised an equal number of black and white luminaries, from an archbishop to a famous jazz musician to a university president to a top real-estate developer. But it quickly became reviled for asking the city to prohibit rebuilding in low-lying neighborhoods—which are vulnerable to flooding—that didn’t first “prove their viability.” Still more infamous were its “green dots,” markers on maps that seemed to suggest turning some low-lying areas where people already lived into parks. “There is a large green dot over our homes,” one resident fumed at a crowded town-hall meeting in January 2006, according to New Orleans’s Times-Picayune. “I will sit in my front door with my shotgun,” promised another homeowner.

Nothing was wrong with encouraging New Orleanians to favor higher ground as they built and rebuilt. But trying to do so by government decree, rather than through gentler incentives as well as targeted infrastructure and public services investments, was a losing proposition. A few months later, Mayor Ray Nagin—looking toward reelection, cowed by public outrage, and stifled by his own administration’s lack of follow-through—abandoned any huge effort to plan neighborhoods. “Rebuild at your own risk,” he told citizens. As late as April 2007, Times-Picayune columnist Stephanie Grace was still lamenting the “curse of the green dot” as the cause of politicians’ paralysis and pinning her hopes on a more modest second round of planning. But by then, it was too late: self-reliant New Orleanians had already taken Nagin at his word.

One of them was Father Nguyen The Vien, a Roman Catholic priest in a Vietnamese-American enclave of the badly flooded New Orleans East. Vien and his largely working- and middle-class parishioners showed that after a disaster, neighborhood and church connections can mean the difference between reconstruction and abandonment. “It’s not the city that determines we are going to build,” Vien says. “I can’t ask the city to get everything lined up and [only then] I’ll come home.”

Stranded in Houston after Katrina, Vien racked up nearly $1,000 in cell-phone bills staying in touch with his 6,300 parishioners, and he held meetings in a Houston community center, where a grassroots plan was born. Starting in early October, after New Orleans’s government reopened their neighborhood, Vien and his flock repaired their church’s relatively minor damage and began using it as a base—a place to eat, sleep, and use restrooms as they tackled their own houses. Many even lived near one another in trailers on a property across from the church. Five weeks after the hurricane, Vien celebrated his first post-flood Mass, showing people worried about being the only family on the block how many residents were returning.

Vien also used numbers to lobby for public services. “I went to see Entergy,” the electricity company, “on October 19, and told [the representative] ‘we need electricity,’ ” Vien says. “He said he needed to justify the load, because he couldn’t take power from populated areas. He said, ‘Give me a list of households so I can go before the board and make the argument.’ ” Vien brought a list of 500—enough to get the power back on. By early 2008, he says, 95 percent of his parishioners were home and the trailers were gone. “We are done with recovery and [are now] working on development,” says Vien, including launching a charter school and wooing hospitals to set up clinics nearby.

Lakeview is an upper-middle-class neighborhood that, like New Orleans East, rose in the twentieth century and is more vulnerable to flooding than older neighborhoods on higher ground. As Lakeview residents started to come back in early 2006 and rebuild homes ravaged by more than ten feet of water, they relied heavily on existing institutions. Martin Landrieu, an attorney, lifelong New Orleanian, and officer of the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association, echoes Vien’s outlook: “What’s first is schools and churches.”

Landrieu calls the opening of Catholic schools beginning in January 2006 “critical” because “the driving force for most families was getting kids into some semblance of order. People said, ‘If I can get my kids settled into a routine, I can work on other things.’ ” Evacuated neighbors, many living an hour or more away, also drew reassurance from Lakeview’s First Baptist Church, which put up a map in early 2006 so that residents could stick a pin over their blocks to declare that they were committed to coming home.

When the hated green-dot plan spurred residents to “prove our viability,” Landrieu notes, neighbors rose to the challenge, launching 72 committees on everything from grass-cutting to covering swimming pools so that citizens wouldn’t feel that they were returning to abandonment. “People were coming out of the woodwork to see what they could do to help,” says Landrieu. Saint Paul’s Episcopal School also opened a resource center offering residents cleaning equipment and information on hiring contractors.

By the summer of 2006, people were returning in earnest. When Landrieu moved back into his home about a year after Katrina, he had five or ten neighbors in a three- to four-block area; six months later, the population had quadrupled. Today, 44 percent of Lakeview’s population is back, according to GCR—a particularly significant accomplishment because so many of its properties were totaled, meaning that residents were returning not to recoup the value of houses but to build new ones from scratch.

An even higher success rate is happening in Broadmoor, a hard-hit neighborhood with more black residents than white and household incomes that range from poverty-level to the high six figures. There, over 70 percent of households have returned—partly because the great majority had flood insurance, partly because the neighborhood’s historic houses hold up relatively well to storms, but also because of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, which worked tirelessly to contact displaced residents and convince them that they would have plenty of company and support in rebuilding. Broadmoor shows that neighborhoods with strong institutions don’t have to be ethnically cohesive, like the Vietnamese-American pockets of New Orleans East, or wealthy, like Lakeview, to recover.

While small, neighborhood-based organizations have helped spur recovery in places like New Orleans East, Lakeview, and Broadmoor, larger institutions like New Orleans’s Preservation Resource Center (PRC) are playing a big role, too. Dedicated to fixing up historic properties, PRC realized that its traditional mission took on new importance after the hurricane. “People were coming back to flooded, moldy houses,” says executive director Patricia Gay. So a few weeks after Katrina, PRC began holding workshops on how to eradicate mold, providing free cleaning supplies and lists of contractors. The group also began bus tours to convince evacuees that damage was fixable, launched online groups so that returning homeowners could learn from one another, and started a “selective salvage” operation, working with FEMA to save historic doors, windows, and moldings from houses too far gone to fix. “I don’t believe this city is disposable,” says PRC’s Kristin Palmer, who runs one of PRC’s rehab programs.

PRC’s pre-Katrina rehabilitation of low-income and elderly homeowners’ historic houses assumed new urgency after the storm. So far, the effort has brought 72 families home. “We cluster homes, do three, four, five houses on the same street,” says Palmer, in order to create confidence that historic neighborhoods are coming back. PRC also fixes up and resells vacant historic properties, which tend to be less vulnerable to storms, since they’re sturdier than modern homes and are located in older neighborhoods that flood less regularly and drain more quickly than newer ones do. Last year, restaurant manager Heather Lolley moved from Lakeview to one of PRC’s lovingly refurbished properties, a $132,000 house on the higher ground of historic Holy Cross. Her new home is made of “bargeboards,” water-resistant wood planks that were once part of a boat that traveled down the Mississippi.

PRC hasn’t entirely stuck to its pre-Katrina playbook, however, partly because of a stubborn economic fact: New Orleans’s houses were cheap before the storm only because their construction was paid for long ago. Returning New Orleanians, including renters, need houses, but substantially rehabbing flooded properties or building them from scratch at $130 per square foot can be unaffordable for citizens of modest means. What to do?

PRC took a market approach, endorsing something that may sound unusual for a preservation group: “kit-built” houses. After Katrina, local firm Wayne Troyer Architects joined forces with architect Andrés Duany to design five models of a “Katrina Cottage” that would fit into the long, narrow lots of comparatively high-ground Holy Cross. The cottages follow traditional New Orleans home designs, so as not to harm the neighborhood’s historic character; meet 140-mile-per-hour wind-speed codes; and are made of materials resistant to mold, rot, and termites.

PRC has gotten on board, winning approval from New Orleans’s Historic District Landmarks Commission to build the cottages, and it will break ground on the first four as City Journal goes to press. Thanks to PRC’s volunteer labor and the low cost of materials for mass-produced kits, the organization hopes to build brand-new houses for under $70 per square foot. Pam Bryan, who runs PRC’s construction program, notes that the kits are available at Lowe’s home-improvement stores for $36,000 to $40,000, so that returning residents who aren’t working with PRC can buy them, too.

Urban planners aren’t wrong when they see in disaster an opportunity to try something new. Katrina has afforded local architects and their clients just such an opportunity, both in severely flooded areas and elsewhere. But they’re seizing it with their own money and property, not with public funds.

Architect Byron Mouton is finding that his middle-class and affluent clients are doing the different in pursuit of the practical. In Gentilly, a neighborhood of mostly twentieth-century homes that took seven feet of water, one client, an artist, wanted a new flood-resistant house like the one his neighbor is building, with a bottom floor raised at least a story off the ground, but couldn’t afford the $30,000 to $40,000 extra charge. The architect’s solution: a “disposable” first floor that the client will use for nonessential purposes. In Mouton’s design, the second floor contains the kitchen, art studio, and living space, as well as an ample porch so that the artist won’t be cut off from the outdoors. In other twentieth-century neighborhoods, some homeowners are similarly designing ground floors as “floodable” car garages or children’s play spaces.

Mouton is also a Tulane University architecture professor who runs a program called URBANbuild, in which students design and build modern, hurricane-resistant, but affordable houses in New Orleans’s most run-down neighborhoods—areas that weren’t severely flooded but that were already so blighted that they look as though they were. This approach to siting may seem counterintuitive, but Mouton reasons that it may encourage New Orleanians to invest in higher-ground neighborhoods lost to crime and decay. (Fear of crime and blight is precisely why so many citizens fled to newer, lower-lying developments long before Katrina.)

It’s jarring to see the sleek, ultramodern house that the students completed in Central City, a neighborhood so beleaguered by crime that residents display thou shalt not kill admonitions behind their barred windows. Raised about five feet off the ground, the house combines elements of an elevated, New Orleans–style cottage with those of a Manhattan-style loft and is enclosed by a spacious, hardy deck. Mouton has had trouble finding a qualified buyer willing to take a chance on the neighborhood. He was more successful with URBANbuild’s first home, in the Treme neighborhood, which police officer Timothy Holmes bought for about $150,000. Holmes has no illusions: the year before Katrina, his mother was killed at the Treme restaurant she managed in a quadruple robbery-murder. But he’s giving it a try, saying that “positive people need to stay.”

Naydja Bynum of the Historic Faubourg Treme Association says that Holmes’s house “looks like a spaceship.” Certainly, no one would want a New Orleans composed entirely of URBANbuild homes. But residents who look askance at these alien newcomers should be grateful that no master planner is deploying them on a huge scale; those that work will be repeated, and those that don’t won’t. New Orleanians are free to choose.

Habitat for Humanity has launched and executed one of New Orleans’s most ambitious post-Katrina building projects, conjuring up a whole neighborhood on five square blocks of the Upper Ninth Ward. Habitat bought the site, an eight-acre area where a long-abandoned school had stood, with financial assistance from homegrown musicians Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis, who also suggested making it a “musicians’ village” to bring scattered artists home. With 50,000 volunteers—including waves of students every spring break since Katrina—Habitat is completing 72 houses on its “core site” and is working on 70 more nearby.

Though Habitat has kept costs under $80 per square foot, even including what paid labor it uses, it has taken a no-nonsense approach to structural integrity. Walking through half-built Habitat houses, you think that they could already stand up to anything: deeply driven pillars support their elevated foundations, and their structural elements are reinforced with concrete and steel. Jim Pate, Habitat New Orleans’s executive director, boasts that the 101 homes that the organization had completed before Katrina suffered no structural damage, even though some had to withstand walls of water.

The Habitat homes fit neatly into their surroundings—they are “consistent with the culture,” as Pate says—although their newness and freshness is startling against their weather-beaten neighbors. Like those neighbors, the Habitat houses are New Orleans shotguns (long, narrow houses with each room the full width of the house). All have full porches and, for the volunteers’ safety, slightly less steep versions of New Orleans’s signature pitched roofs. And Habitat isn’t just respecting its surroundings; it’s improving them, connecting roads and other infrastructure and building a playground and musicians’ center.

The surrounding working-class neighborhood can rest assured that Habitat isn’t inflicting an underclass on it. One day, a concerned couple who owned a nearby house but still hadn’t decided to return stopped Pate to ask if he was building subsidized housing. Pate explained the system: Habitat makes sure that prospective buyers will be able to keep up with costs; those buyers have to put in “sweat equity,” working on their own houses or on others; and then they must pay their own (admittedly below-market-rate) mortgages, insurance, and other costs. The reassured couple decided to move back.

Actor Brad Pitt, with far less experience, rivals Habitat when it comes to ambition: he’s donated money and embarked on a fund-raising campaign to build 150 houses for property owners whose homes were utterly destroyed in a hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward tract. Pitt’s team, Make It Right, hasn’t yet broken ground, but its plan seems sound so far, especially its reliance on the market to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Make It Right held a competition for architects, accepting designs for elevated, mold-resistant, flood-resilient, energy-efficient houses that met strict wind-speed codes, contained attic escape hatches, and fit on tiny lots—all for $150,000. Contestants found 13 different ways to meet those specs, including one lovely design by local firm Billes Architects, with detailed window frames and moldings, a shaded raised porch to blunt the effect of the five-foot elevation, and a gently sloped roof. To keep air-conditioning costs down, Billes’s design favors northern exposures; to assure structural integrity, its pilings go down 20 feet, a vast improvement over much of the cheap slab-on-grade construction that dominates the Ninth Ward’s twentieth-century blocks. A few competing concepts are just as good, while others are outlandish—but here, too, each homeowner will be able to choose the design that he likes.

Make It Right’s spokesperson, Virginia Miller, notes that homeowners are adamant that “it’s not a giveaway.” While the program will subsidize costs, families will bring a “large chunk” to the table—the details of how much haven’t been worked out yet—and must be able to afford insurance and maintenance. Pitt isn’t using Katrina as an excuse to take on the city’s still-intractable social problems.

In one crucial way, New Orleans’s modern history of weak, ineffectual government helped it recover after Katrina. Though the BNOB luminaries drew up their plan swiftly, nobody had the political will, knowledge, or resources to enforce it. Property owners could show what they thought of the plan—and of various other utopian schemes bandied about by the nation’s architectural giants—by ignoring them.

This approach—or better, lack of one—differs markedly from the reaction to the nation’s other recent large-scale disaster, the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In New York, the state government, which had a long history of centrally planning huge projects, quickly monopolized control over rebuilding. Ground Zero, unfortunately, seemed the perfect opportunity for such a project. After all, the World Trade Center had been built as a government scheme 30 years before the attacks, and the towers’ single leaseholder, real-estate investor Larry Silverstein, sweated under immense political pressure to cooperate with the government in its ambitious reconstruction plans. Six and a half years later, Ground Zero is still an early-stage construction site. Worse, what’s eventually built there could be a white elephant.

In New Orleans, by contrast, though the city and feds can still screw up the sites that they control, including now-vacant housing projects, they can’t define the whole reconstruction process. Enterprising homeowners can experiment with what works, rather than being stuck with some starchitect’s vision for the next century. And it will be fascinating, in a decade or so, to see if one or another approach has fared better than the others: Mouton’s enticing new homeowners to bad neighborhoods on higher ground and hoping that others follow; Habitat’s adding entire blocks to a working-class neighborhood; or Pitt’s luring evacuated low-income homeowners back to one of the hardest-hit and least-rebuilt parts of the Lower Ninth Ward.

New Orleans’s returning residents have performed heroically, demonstrating that restoring neighborhoods is a job far better suited to citizens and organizations than to government. But certain tasks are the government’s responsibility. For one thing, the city should work with Katrina-ravaged neighborhoods to snuff out blight. Many New Orleanians worry about the “jack-o’-lantern effect,” in which so many abandoned houses crumble alongside rebuilt ones that the street looks like a gap-toothed grin. But managed well, abandonment doesn’t have to be a plague. “People think having three houses on a block is a bad thing,” says Steven Bingler, a local architect. “Well, some people like to live in a hamlet.” Programs like the city’s tentative Lot Next Door initiative—in which neighbors could buy condemned, abandoned property at cut-rate prices from the state and city governments and use them as big yards—could mean the difference between blighted and bucolic for neighborhoods that may become less dense.

But the government’s single most important task is protecting citizens from violent crime in a city that was dangerous before Katrina and is more so now (see “Baghdad on the Bayou,” Spring 2007). Further, New Orleans will never persuade functional working-class and middle-class citizens to move into crime-ridden neighborhoods on higher ground unless it can effectively police those neighborhoods; in past decades, people have proved that they’d rather take their chances with high water than with hellish crime. At a Harvard-sponsored symposium this January, one resident of a fragile neighborhood, Saint Roch, said that the previous week, he had been out “enjoying the amenities”—a refurbished green space provided by the city’s much-scaled-down rebuilding commission. Then he was mugged at gunpoint.

New Orleanians are bringing their city back. But if their government can’t do what it should do, they aren’t going to stick around.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next