updated 1/14/2007 2:26:15 PM ET 2007-01-14T19:26:15

On Martin Luther King Day last year, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin famously said his city would “be chocolate at the end of the day,” a remark meant to encourage African Americans to return after Hurricane Katrina.

At the time, it drew accusations of racial divisiveness and a barrage of jokes. T-shirts went on sale in the French Quarter portraying Nagin as Willie Wonka and maps of the city were redrawn with neighborhoods named Godiva, Hershey and M&Ms.

But a year later, it is no laughing matter. New Orleans, one of the most culturally distinct African American cities, is struggling to regain its black character.

“We need the chocolate back in the vanilla!” housing activist Endesha Juakali shouted to a crowd last month to protest the demolition of public housing damaged by Katrina.

But there were only about 20 black people listening, just a fraction of the whites who came to support the cause.

New Orleans was 67 percent African American before Katrina and 28 percent white. Now, in a city with less than half the previous population, blacks account for 47 percent and whites 43 percent.

“It will never be the same in my lifetime, we already know that,” said Juakali. “The forces that control the redevelopment are going to string this thing out for at least five years. And people can’t wait that long.”

No place to go
Signs of a sluggish recovery are everywhere, 16 months after Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, burst its protective levees and flooded 80 percent of the city.

Nowhere is it slower than in predominantly black neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, where workers are still tearing down homes destroyed by a wave of water. Gentilly, a middle class black area, is also barren.

Meanwhile, life in the mostly white Uptown district has returned to normal and shows few signs of storm destruction.

But no one is ready to decree the demise of black New Orleans.

“It is way too early and no one can predict accurately,” said pollster Silas Lee.

“It is going to be dependent upon resources available from the government, changes in the infrastructure, a lot of factors that are beyond the control of the individual,” Lee said.

Government is slow
Government is woefully behind schedule, sparking accusations from some that it is deliberately stalling to keep certain problem neighborhoods from coming back.

Only 100 families out of 90,000 applicants have received federal aid to rebuild homes hit by Katrina in the whole of Louisiana. The city redevelopment plan, said to be in its final stages, has yet to be announced.

Poor black residentss who did not own their homes have little affordable rental accommodation to choose from, keeping them at bay in cities like Houston. Meanwhile, local media report that middle class black evacuees are thriving in new cities like Atlanta, and are unlikely to return.

Sharon Jasper, 57, lived in public housing that is now closed, but finally made the decision to come back a few months ago.

“Our young people need to come home where they belong,” said Jasper, a seemingly strong woman who breaks down when she talks about her children scattered in several cities.

She said depression and tension are rife in the city, with two or three families staying in a single home and kids attending disfunctional schools.

Indeed, shooting deaths are a near daily occurrence, a pattern Nagin called “black-on-black” crime.

Upbeat like a jazz funeral
Black New Orleans certainly had many of these problems—poverty, crime, poor schools—before Katrina.

But it also had a cultural richness coveted by blacks and whites alike that made living in New Orleans unique.

Where else, for example, can one see a “second line”—a black brass band procession with jubilant dancing and extravagant wardrobe?

But for all the efforts and experience of the second line organizers, many members of the “krewes,” or clubs, have not returned and processions are few and far between.

On a sunny day in December, the Big Nine Pleasure Club held a rare second line in the Lower Ninth Ward. Amid the mold-infested homes and overgrown lawns, black people from the neighborhood joined the procession, smiling and dancing.

Tradition ain’t gonna die’
When they arrived at the monument honoring the victims of Katrina, the band switched to the slow, mournful hymn of the world-famous New Orleans jazz funeral, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

There to say a prayer was Henry Irvin, who is rebuilding his home in the Lower Ninth at the age of 70.

“We’re coming back and I’ve already told the man who sits in the chair Uptown, the mayor, don’t get in my way because we are tired of waiting for y’all,” said Irvin.

As the brass band resumed its lively rhythm, like jazz that breaks out at New Orleans funeral after the deceased is buried, Irvin was upbeat about the survival of black culture in the city.

“Tradition ain’t gonna die,” he said.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.


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