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Progress In The Park: Pontchartrain Park 10 Years After Katrina

There are signs of progress everywhere in Pontchartrain Park, a historic African American community in New Orleans.
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There are signs of progress everywhere in Pontchartrain Park.

The golf course green that for more than five years after Hurricane Katrina’s wrath sat a mangled mess of dead grass, overgrown weeds and piles of dirt is now sprinkled with golfers — a mix of mostly African American men — engaged in lively games.

The neighborhood ballpark, “home of the Pontchartrain Patriots” is packed with families tailgating and cheering on hordes of football teams — from little leaguers to middle schoolers — that crowd the lush, airy ball fields. The dilapidated strip mall, once surrounded by a ramshackle chain-link fence, is a busy Wal-Mart.

The formerly desolate campus of the historically black Southern University of New Orleans is bustling with students scurrying to and from class.

The once battered 600-seat baseball stadium looks brand new, with large black and white photos of former Negro League players plastered proudly out front. Many of the blighted, modest mostly ranch style homes, that five years ago lined the community’s narrow, winding streets untouched, are now renovated or rebuilt, freshly painted residences traced by manicured green lawns.

Image: Wesley Barrow Stadium in Pontchartrain Park, New Orleans
Wesley Barrow Stadium in Pontchartrain Park, New Orleans. Major League Baseball funded the re-opening of the stadium after it was destroyed in hurricane Katrina.Tracy Jarrett / NBC News

Even with the obvious signs of progress, whether the historic New Orleans community – the oldest planned suburban African American community in New Orleans (and among the oldest of its kind in the country) ravaged by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago Saturday is truly back depends on whom you ask.

“Pontchartrain Park, in my opinion, is one of the most resilient neighborhoods in New Orleans,” insists State SenatorJean-Paul "JP"Morrell, a Democrat who represents District 3, which includes Pontchartrain. “Before the government could even get its act together, they were hosting meetings in Baton Rouge, discussing what they wanted as a community. It was almost as if they were saying to the government, ‘rather than wait for you to ineptly do it, we’ll give you the blueprint of what we want'.”

Councilman Jared Brossett, who represents Pontchartrain in City Council District D, echoes a similar sentiment.

“Almost immediately some of the residents came together for a 'charette,' which is another word for a planning meeting, to discuss what was going on in their community,” says Brossett, a former state representative, who chaired the state’s Hurricane Recovery Committee from 2012-2013. “It has always been clear that they’ve wanted their say in how their community would come back.”

Perhaps one of the biggest symbols of the optimism that abounds is just outside the front door of a model home listed for sale by the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation (CDC), the economic arm of the community’s revitalization efforts.

In a nest tucked away in the awning that hangs over the front porch of the new three-bedroom two-bath ranch, sits a lone white dove.

“I used to have one at my house too; he stayed for a while, but eventually he left,” gushes Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association President Gretchen Bradford, her New Orleans accent thick and heavy like a dark roux in a delectable bowl of filé gumbo. “Now we have one here. When I saw it at my house, I got all spiritual about it. I was online looking up the meaning of doves.”

On a recent rainy, muggy afternoon, the dove’s symbolism seems to mirror Bradford’s outlook on the rebuilding of the community she has called home all of her 51 years. According to the biblical story Genesis, a dove was released by Noah after devastating floods in order to find land; it came back carrying an olive branch in its beak, indicating to Noah that, somewhere, there was land.

Bradford and her partner in progress, CDC executive director Sheila Greenup, find comfort in the dove’s presence.

“Even with all of the problems we’ve faced since Katrina, this is still an historic, safe and lovely neighborhood to live in,” insists Greenup, 65, whose father-in-law David Greenup, was the real estate agent who sold many of the original homes when Pontchartrain Park opened back in 1955.

The impassioned community leaders glance up at their feathery friend, whenever they enter or leave the home, as if to pull inspiration and motivation from it as they tackle the arduous task of rebuilding their beloved Ponchartrain, a community that native son and well-known actor Wendell Pierce, of HBO’s "The Wire", proudly asserts was “one of the most stable neighborhoods in America” for nearly 50 years before the storm.

The close-knit community born out of the “separate but equal doctrine” has a rich history and has yielded many famous residents including trumpeter Terence Blanchard, two of the city’s black mayors and former Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson.

Image: Paula Hartley, Sharon Hartley-DeLay, and Josephine Hartley in their Ponchartrain Park home.
Sharon Hartley-DeLay andPaula Hartley-Moise pose with their 88-year-old mother Josephine Hartley in their rental home in Pontchartrain Park. They hope to save up enough money to rebuild their childhood home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.Tracy Jarrett / NBC News

Bradford was enthusiastic and hopeful five years ago for the fifth anniversary of what would become known as the costliest natural disaster in United States history; only then there wasn’t nearly as much evidence of progress in the neighborhood that was steeped in up to 14 feet of murky floodwaters for weeks.

Before Katrina hit, Pontchartrain Park touted a 90 percent homeownership rate. Approximately, 40 percent of its residents were senior citizens — many the original homeowners who’d been there since the mid-1950s. The plethora of senior citizens who still lived in and owned the homes there when Katrina hit, only further complicated the already complex rebuilding process.

“Even when those who had the drive to [rebuild], didn’t have the dexterity to do so,” adds Morrell.

According to the most recent numbers from the The Data Center, a New Orleans-based independent data analysis clearinghouse focused on Southeast Louisiana, Pontchartain’s elderly population dropped from 831 in 2000 to 320 in 2010, five years post-Katrina. During that same time frame, the number of “occupied housing units” dropped from 97 percent to 76 percent.

The Data Center found that Pontchartrain’s average household income went from $60,729 in 2000 to $38,441 between 2008 and 2012. Conversely, 45 percent of homeowners reported “paying 30 percent or more of income on housing” between 2008 and 2012; 85 percent of renters reported spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing during the same years.

Image: The new Southern University at New Orleans sign.
The new Southern University at New Orleans sign. The university was re-opened with new additions after hurricane Katrina.Tracy Jarrett / NBC News

During an informal driving tour of the community, Bradford and Greenup enthusiastically pointed out the headway made over the last five years: the $9 million renovation of the 18-hole Joseph M. Bartholomew Municipal Golf Course, an historic golf course designed by its namesake, an African American landscape architect, who designed it and several other New Orleans courses, but could not play on them due to racial segregation. The course’s state-of-the art clubhouse is now a hub for community meetings and a gathering place for residents to fellowship.

The famed Wesley Barrow Stadium reopened in 2012, thanks to a $6.5 million renovation funded by the city of New Orleans and Major League Baseball (MLB). The facility, located across the street from Southern’s campus, is now home to MLB’s Urban Youth Academy. The program provides free, year-round baseball and softball instruction and other educational services for young people from underserved and urban communities throughout southern Louisiana. Last August, Wal-Mart opened in the former Gentilly Woods Shopping Center site.

“We lost it, now we’ve got it back; the community is about 85 percent back (occupied), but some blight exists,” insists Bradford. “Some are vacant lots, some are tied up in red tape and family struggles. In many cases there’s a brand new or rebuilt house – you have all of this beauty – and next to it there’s an overgrown lot filled with tall grass.”

While Bradford and her supporters are dogged in their determination to keep their 10 anniversary reflections upbeat and optimistic, they admit that many of the problems that have been the source of frustration five and now 10 years later persist. Multiple blighted properties and overgrown lots remain an eyesore.

According to the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) to date a total of “31 housing units” have been built in Pontchartain Park. “All construction is complete, 14 are sold and a 15th home will be sold this month,” says NORA Communications Director Mary Beth Romig. “The Pontchartrain Park CDC partnered with First NBC Bank (the new developer) to complete 23 of the homes.”

For now, Greenup, who also works as a real estate broker for the family real estate business, is charged with trying to sell the 16 new homes that are up for sale. Income restrictions imposed by the “affordable housing” distinction and financial problems, particularly credit issues, remain barriers for many potential buyers still struggling financially since Katrina.

“Because our properties are considered ‘affordable housing,’ [the buyer] of a home listed for between $150,000 to $165,000 can’t make more than $50,600 a year. So basically those who have the income to buy don’t qualify and those who qualify don’t have the money to buy. It’s a catch 22!”

Many say the struggles extend well beyond home ownership. Morrell says SUNO, the largest landowner in Pontchartrain Park, got a "raw deal" after former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco opted to include enrollment numbers from the first few years post-Katrina in her funding plan.

"They basically got their throat slit,” Morrell says, noting that parts of the campus damaged by the hurricane have yet to be fully repaired. “When half of your campus looks like Beirut, you’re going to have trouble enrolling students.”

Hands down the biggest universal complaint, though is that the main street Press Drive aside, the overwhelming majority of neighborhood streets are in a condition described as nothing short of deplorable. Residents say they’ve been told that Katrina’s floodwaters ruined the infrastructure beneath them, resulting in streets with what Morrell describes as “craters the size of a small SUV.”

Resident Leslie Guimont, 47, does not share Greenup or Bradford’s optimism about the future of “The Park,” as natives call it. Guimont, who lives in her renovated childhood home with her elderly mother Lynn, says the progress has been slow and hundreds of longtime residents like her mother were unable to return; many died trying.

"It’s just sad,” she says, noting that soaring rental and real estate prices have priced out many natives, making way for wealthy people from other states to snatch up prime real estate. “The same people who built these communities can’t even afford to come back, it’s just horrible.”

She says the challenges that many retirees have faced in trying to return to Pontchartrain are just a microcosm of similar problems that persist across metro New Orleans. “After Katrina hit, a lot of people were predicting that New Orleans was going to become mostly rich, white and Republican, and for the most part it has. That’s why I moved back from Texas after Katrina. I wasn’t going be pushed out.”

Lifelong resident Juanita Fields, who returned to her home after living several years in Mission Kansas, agrees with Guimont’s take that the community doesn’t feel quite the same since so many longtime residents never returned.

“In many ways yes the Park has come back – and I’m grateful for that – but something’s missing,” says Fields, 71. “So many have not come back and before Katrina we were all like one big family.”

The Hartley family can relate.

In 2010, sisters Paula Hartley-Moise and Sharon Hartley-DeLay were hopeful that a highly-publicized initiative to build 125 affordable, energy-efficient houses in Pontchartrain would help their then 83-year-old mother Josephine Hartley get back into the flood-ravaged home she'd lived in since 1959.

The effort, led by actor Pierce, Paul Taylor, head of the Columbus, Ohio-based SRP Development firm and other influential Pontchartrain Park supporters who’d joined forces with the CDC, fizzled after four years. One of the biggest blows came in 2013, when the Salvation Army, citing excessive delays and lack of progress with the effort, as its reason for rescinding a $1.8 million offer to give to qualified homebuyers of modest means $75,000 each to help cover the additional cost of purchasing houses with green technology. At that time, the effort had yielded only 10 new homes and one new Pontchartrain Park resident.

The CDC eventually cut ties with SRP, switching from selling the modular homes that ultimately proved too expensive for most buyers (on average $265,000) to using local labor to build homes mostly in the $165,000 range. Greenup took over in 2012, following a major financing overhaul that resulted in First NBC Bank becoming the new developer and the construction of 23 new homes.

Ultimately, the Hartley family's home, which had been paid for since 1987, had to be demolished due to a termite infestation. It's now just a plot of grass that they still must maintain monthly to avoid a $500 fine. Now in their second rental home in Pontchartrain Park since 2010, Paula and Sharon, who've struggled with health issues and unemployment, hope to save up some money this year. Their goal is to buy or rebuild their now 88-year-old mother's home through the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America (NACA), a nonprofit, HUD-certified housing agency.

“I’ve been trying to get us back in the house; hopefully something will work out,” says Paula. “My main desire is to give her what she needs and wants.”

Though her daughters are persistent, Josephine is only moderately hopeful.

"I think y'all will make it back to the house," she tells them. "But I don't think I'm going to make it unless the good lord wants me back in it."

Back at the model home, Bradford says she and her team continue to put pressure on city and state leaders to address the problems with the streets and other pressing concerns. "The city says they'll start fixing them in 2016," she offers, a hint of frustration apparent in her voice. "But they said that in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 too. We'll see what happens…."

It’s a safe bet that Bradford and her team will have a hand in whatever happens with the items that remain on the community wish list. Residents, community leaders alike seem to unanimously agree that the same spirit of pride, resilience and perseverance that helped Pontchartrain Park reign as a thriving African American community for nearly five decades before Katrina, is the same one that the new generation of descendants are conjuring up to lead its rebirth after.

Adds Bradford “We only have what we have now in Pontchartrain Park because we’ve been organized, consistent and persistent; we’ve been keeping the pressure on the leadership to pay attention to us. Our rebuilding has been a community led initiative. We want to send a message, ‘yes, we’re back and we’re here to stay!’”