The East. What do those words bring to mind? Abandoned houses interspersed with drug-dealers mansions, projects with gaping holes like stricken eyes, empty lots, the ghetto. And the unmentionable: black people. Even before Katrina, the government had long forsaken the community of New Orleans East. What was once a thriving middle-class, predominately white neighborhood in the 60s and 70s soon fell prey to “white flight” when the oil bust of 1986 brought Section 8 housing into the community; by the early 90s, New Orleans East was predominately African-American. Dare I say it? The authorities had a load lifted off their shoulders when New Orleans East flooded. They thought that its citizens were too poor to come back, and that Katrina had solved the problem of the “forgotten East.”
Map of New Orleans
But they didn’t reckon on the resiliency of the community’s citizens. With “…a population base now at 77,000 and projected to be 105,000 by 2014,” New Orleans East has come back strong, with more than half of its pre-Katrina population of 96,000 having returned. If you make the trek down there, you can see for yourself how neighborhoods are being rebuilt and businesses are coming back. With next to no help from the government. I was born and bred in New Orleans East, and after Katrina my parents struggled on their own to rebuild our flooded home. Rebuilding efforts took longer in the East than in other parts of the city. No one really cared about the East pre-Katrina; why would they after? And still to this day, six years after the fact, a lot of the community is still abandoned, with un-gutted houses outnumbering rebuilt houses in most places. According to the 2010 census, “New Orleans East, including Planning Districts 9, 10 and 11, contains 6,706 vacant houses…” out of the 47,738 houses throughout the city that are considered vacant.
Winn-Dixie on Chef Menteur Hwy
Part of the reason for that is because so many cultural spaces that used to be a crucial part of the community haven’t been rebuilt. Despite the fact that New Orleans East has such a huge and wide spread population, there is only one grocery store that serves the entire community, a Winn-Dixie on Chef Menteur that opened in 2007. According to one resident, “New Orleans East is almost the equivalent to a small city. It’s come to the point where there is enough reason to justify a store, they’re just not doing it.” In November of 2009, “Rouse’s president told WDSU Wednesday, ‘We have signed a letter of intent for a store in New Orleans East. We cannot release the location yet, but hope to break ground within three months.’” There were also rumors that Walmart was planning to reopen a store. Two years later, there is still no sign of either, and not much hope that there will be anytime soon.
Methodist Hospital Pre-Katrina
What is even more appalling is that there is no hospital in New Orleans East, with residents having to commute at least 30 minutes for medical services. Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital had recently been renovated right before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, a state of the art facility that had no coeval in the city. When Ray Nagin was mayor, he set aside $40 million in recovery grants to buy Methodist as well as nearby Lakeland Medical Pavilion and Lake Forest Surgery Center. That was in 2008, and in the summer of 2010 Mayor Mitch Landrieu bought just Methodist for $16.25 million, saying that, “We didn’t need three buildings. We need one…You don’t pay more than what something is worth, and you don’t buy more than what you need.” The remaining $23.75 million “…would be redirected to ‘other projects,’ which he did not identify.” Plans for Methodist are still pretty much up in the air, though it has been decided that the hospital which previously housed 350 beds will be dramatically downsized to 80 and that it will only offer 7 services out of the 33 it once boasted. “The mayor would not comment on a time line, but City Hall insiders said he hopes to get the project done in the next two years,” around 2013—that’s 8 years without a hospital. And six years after Katrina, all that has been done in terms of reconstruction is that an urgent care center was finally opened this past summer, seeing almost “…200 patients in its first full week of operation…about three times what city officials were expecting.” The figures speak for themselves.
On a slightly more promising note, there is the East New Orleans Library. For years there was only a small trailer to accommodate the community’s needs, with the flooded library lurking menacingly in the background. But in February of 2009, the abandoned library was finally demolished, and for once talk proved more than talk. Though the trailer is still there, the new library is expected to be completed soon, despite the expected month of August 2011 passing. “At 30,000 square feet, it will be the city’s second-largest library, the largest being the Main Branch library.”
Indoor Swimming Pool
Bordering the library is the second largest park in the city, Joe W. Brown Park. In the summer of 2007, 35 out of its 273 acres were re-opened to the public. Attracting as many as 1,500 visitors per weekend before Katrina, the park was “…an essential outdoor location for New Orleans East residents…” A few of the facilities that this park once possessed included an indoor swimming pool, six hard-surface tennis courts, a full-size soccer field, eight basketball hoops, a hockey rink, a recreational center, and a shelter and concession facility. Less than half of that has been rebuilt.
Perhaps the most devastating loss of Joe W. Brown Park was that of the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, which “Prior to Hurricane Katrina and Rita in 2005…was named one of the top five urban nature centers in the United States.” Besides the 10-15 foot highly saline storm surge that destroyed over 75% of the 86 acre forest reserve, there was a planetarium as well as a museum and countless other buildings that were flooded. A restoration project began in December of 2009 that planned to restore 80 acres of the reserve, but other than that there has been no news. If you go to the Audubon Nature Institute website, the Louisiana Nature Center does not appear anywhere; there is no way of knowing whether it will ever be rebuilt or not.
Another uncertain cultural space is Six Flags Amusement Park. Originally opened as Jazzland in 2000, Six Flags bought the park’s lease in 2002. There were plans for Nickelodeon to buy the park after Katrina’s devastation, but that fell through last year. The city of New Orleans officially owns it now, but no one knows what to do with it, and no one really talks about it. Lying abandoned just as Katrina left it, vandals are the only ones who have left their mark; it is an eerie and sad testimony to how neglected New Orleans East is.
A cultural space that will never be re-built was the Plaza. Once “…the largest enclosed shopping center within the city limits” of New Orleans, the area where the mall stood is now nothing but rubble and a lone Lowe’s. Built in 1974, the Plaza was a glamorous and prosperous mall, embodying 70s flavor with a distinctive New Orleans charm due to its numerous local businesses, such as D. H. Holmes, Gus Mayer, and Maison Blanche. The layout of the mall was creative and intriguing: “There were four principal interior shopping concourses—the four sides of the diamond—and an interweaving network of connecting passages. The free-standing anchor stores occupied the points of the diamond, and…in the middle of the mall was an ice-skating rink.” The first mall in Louisiana to have an indoor ice-skating rink, the Plaza also had a four-screen theater. While it lasted, it was a beautiful mall.
But in the 80s, things began to change all over New Orleans East due to the oil bust, and The Plaza suffered as well. The mall lost many of its smaller tenants, though the anchor New Orleans stores stayed strong. Yet by the 90s, they too had all gone out of business. Much of the mall was empty, echoing and cavernous. In the early 2000s, the Plaza changed management, and there were plans to resuscitate it to its former glory. Only one development was made before Katrina hit, “a new twelve screen, stadium seating-style theater named the Grand.”
There is no chance of the Plaza or the Grand ever being rebuilt because in the 80s a stigma became attached to the area, a stigma that is indeed attached to all of New Orleans East to this day: “Ultimately, the mall’s site is undoubtedly caught up with the fate of its surroundings. Though New Orleans East is largely a collection of well-maintained single family houses of varying sizes, with a median household income not inferior to the metro area’s, its public image in the eyes of outsiders is dominated by the visibly lower-income and wholly minority large apartment complexes that are regrettably clustered just west of the Plaza…no one from outside New Orleans East is willing to do anything but drive through on I-10. However unwarranted, public opinion is hard to change once it’s established. In the span of thirty years, New Orleans East has mutated into ‘da East’ in the minds of New Orleanians, dragging the Plaza down with it.”
Be that as it may, New Orleans East is still a community, a community clamoring for its right to have the basic cultural spaces that are an integral part of any community’s psyche. Katrina may have damaged those places, but it is the government of the city who has taken them away by not giving the East the attention it deserves.