I spent the better part of my first year as a college graduate living in the past. No, not missing college — well maybe a little — but recording living memory of the Ninth Ward through a National Geographic Young Explorers grant.
I recorded the evolution of this historic neighborhood from its immigrant foundation through poverty, World Wars, desegregation and hurricanes. While this was not just another Hurricane Katrina project, the storm was the catalyst for my work. It was imperative to study the Ninth Ward now while landmarks sit untouched and the community’s oldest residents are still with us.
It was also a personal journey as the Holy Cross section of the Lower Ninth Ward was where my grandparents — and their parents — grew up and fell in love. They then raised my father and his three siblings on Marais Street. It wasn’t uncommon for one of my subjects to recognize my last name or to discover we were kin somewhere back.
This is an area that I have dedicated over a year of my life to researching and means something to me at a fundamental level. And, now, it is threatened once again.
The Ninth Ward, especially the Lower Ninth Ward, has always been a community on the edge. It sat at the back of the city away from dense urbanization and was often stigmatized as a working class neighborhood. Many of my subjects acknowledge this distinction and take pride in the thriftiness and fortitude it ingrained in them.
The city has plans to construct a high rise in the historic Holy Cross community. They claim this is just the ticket to bring business and people back into the Lower Ninth Ward after Katrina. But I disagree.
I have spent a lot of time looking at this district as the epicenter of New Orleans history and a key contributor to New Orleans food and celebrations. And to build a modern, concrete high rise would ruin the area’s character. It would completely go against the rows of shotgun houses or Caribbean style bungalows. Building a concrete superstructure is also a punishment to those working to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward. People who have put effort into one or two level homes will be towered over.
Most importantly, it would diminish, or block, the view of the levee.
The Mississippi River levee is something all of my subjects reminisced fondly about when discussing their childhoods. I documented tales of skinny-dipping (even though they weren’t supposed to), the distinct smell of the river, large passing ships, flying kites and grazing horses. The levee is part of the Holy Cross experience.
This kind of nostalgia is rarely reported or revered when discussing the Ninth Ward. For this reason, its history and architecture are often ignored by the city. I am not sure of the solution to rebuilding the Ninth Ward, but I know it is not ruining the neighborhood’s green space, camelbacks and charm.