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A Comeback Story in New Orleans

The Hollygrove neighborhood rises from Katrina’s destruction, better than ever

When Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans five years ago, it left devastated neighborhoods in her wake. Many have still not recovered. But for residents of Hollygrove, a working-class African American community on the western edge of the city, destruction has proved to be an incentive to make their home turf better.

In August 2005, the hurricane breached the 17th Street Canal and turned the neighborhood into a lake that was a few feet deep in some places and 12 feet in others. “The hurricane completely wiped us out. But at the same time, I knew that it was also our chance to shine,” says Kevin Brown, 49, the director of Trinity Christian Community, a ministry his father started in 1967. “I knew we could come back much stronger than we were before if we seized the moment.”

Seize they did.

Hollygrove is one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city, but it recovered faster and with less outside attention than did neighborhoods in the well-publicized lower Ninth Ward. The recovery still has a long way to go—local streets are still pocked with potholes and lined with vacant lots and abandoned houses—but residents are confident it will happen because they have seen an important change that is still mostly invisible to casual visitors: They have started working together. And thanks to a long-term effort assisted by a coalition of outside organizations, including AARP, they are taking control of their future.

Down on crime

For one, the community doesn’t stand for crime anymore. There were six murders in the neighborhood during the first half of 2009, and three in the first half of this year. One murder happened in June when Darrien Christmas, 50, found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the drug wars struck again. Posters mark the spot on Edinburgh Street where he fell, offering a reward for information and a phone number for anonymous tips.

Several weeks after Christmas’ murder, Ryan Terrence and Michael White, both 22, died in a drive-by shooting just down the street. Terrence was a suspect in another murder case, and he had been charged with dealing drugs out of an abandoned house nearby. The city tore that house down a few days after he was killed, after months of urging by the neighbors.

Responses like these are a welcome change from the bad old days of 2003, the year Joe Sherman, 66, moved back into the house where he’d grown up. “Back then, this was one of the most murderous neighborhoods in the country,” he says. “And we still have serious problems. The difference is, now we are doing something about them.”

Sherman’s family moved to Edinburgh Street in 1948, when he was five. He says it was so safe back then “that I couldn’t get away with anything.” He moved away to go to college, got involved in the civil rights movement, “and since that time,” he says, “I have been trying to make things the way they ought to be.” There is more than enough in this neighborhood to keep him busy in retirement, and fighting crime is just one part of it. “The list is long,” he says. “But until the storm, nothing was being done.”

A rebound model

The Hollygrove project has been so successful that five years after Katrina, people are citing it as a national model for community organization. “AARP wants to help places build their own capacities by strengthening what is already there,” says AARP Louisiana State Director Nancy McPherson. “We have learned a lot from Hollygrove.”

Despite a long-term decline in the share of residents who own their homes, Hollygrove retains a core of committed “originals” like Sherman and his childhood friend Earl Williams, 55, who manages the finances at Trinity. The lot next to the church became a gathering place in the days after Katrina, with a circus tent, portable toilets and a field kitchen. Trinity was managing hundreds of volunteers at the peak of the rebuild; so far, they have worked on 1,600 homes, and there are only about 2,700 addresses in the neighborhood. In June 2010, about three-quarters of those addresses were actively receiving mail, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

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