Blazing the way in the Big Easy

With grit, and help from Harvard, an area flattened by Katrina is on the rise

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By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / August 29, 2010

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NEW ORLEANS — Hannah Hayes lives in the white house with the black burglar bars and a patch of garden stuffed with elephant ears, ferns, and Japanese magnolias. In the family since 1924, it was there she raised her seven children, and there her memories live.

Five years ago, she was forced to leave as Hurricane Katrina barreled in, devastating her beloved neighborhood, Broadmoor, along with much of the rest of New Orleans. Broadmoor was under water, and the city considered razing it.

Hayes returned in October 2005 to find her furnishings and belongings gone. With nowhere to turn, she locked herself in an upstairs bedroom filled with mold, and prayed no one would do her harm.

Today, she is the only homeowner on her block, a patch of S. Miro Street.

Still, New Orleans is slowly rising. And Broadmoor is doing better than most of the other 49 neighborhoods that flooded when the levees broke, thanks largely to the will and drive of a determined community and assistance from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which has sent 100 students to Broadmoor to help residents reopen their school and library, eliminate blight, and develop an economic recovery plan.

Today the library and a fine arts and wellness center are being rebuilt. And students walk the halls of the new Andrew H. Wilson Charter School with their heads up. It is a massive structure with airy classrooms, a new gym, and a computer lab residents can use in the evening hours.

But the work is not done. The school, opened just weeks ago, is steps away from boarded up and abandoned houses near Hayes’s home.

“We still have our work cut out for us,’’ said Doug Ahlers, a part-time New Orleans resident who teaches disaster recovery management at the Kennedy School. “We made a commitment to Broadmoor that we were not going to come for a year, that this was a long-term commitment.’’

Despite plagues, optimism
As she stands on the porch watching schoolgirls pass by, Hayes is overcome by mixed emotions.

“I’m happy, lonely, and I’m sad. I’m in a beautiful home, thanks to Broadmoor. But I have no neighbors,’’ said the 68-year-old grandmother. “It’s not fair for me to live here like this. It’s not fair when all the other landlords are not coming back and fixing their homes.’’

Broadmoor, a triangular-shaped swath just west of the French Quarter, is a microcosm of the rest of New Orleans, still wresting itself from the hurricane, the recession, and this year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For a city hit hard by disasters, residents here have embraced a can-do attitude.

They have much for which to be grateful. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans’s population has returned since Katrina. Poverty is declining. And schools are improving. In Broadmoor, 84 percent of the homes have been recovered.

Yet despite the slow resurgence, violence still plagues the city. Rents have skyrocketed, and critical industries such as tourism and shipping continue to shed jobs. In many areas, the roads are lopsided and houses are toppling over. Thousands who have left New Orleans have not returned.

On Aug. 30, 2005, one day after Katrina roared through, Broadmoor, located in the bottom of a bowl-shaped city, was slowly turned into a river. Water sat there for nearly three weeks while crews plugged the levees and drained the city. Mold set in. Broadmoor’s 2,240 properties had to be gutted.

After they saw the carnage, Broadmoor leaders began e-mailing one another, from Baton Rouge to Houston, and urging everyone to come back. Feeling abandoned by a city that threatened to raze their neighborhood, they rolled up their sleeves.

They had no idea how to start a neighborhood from scratch, so Harvard gave them a blueprint.

“Harvard came knocking,’’ said LaToya Cantrell, president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, which partnered with Harvard. “We were already doing the work and didn’t want Harvard coming in and telling us what to do. I wanted [them] to know that we are in control.’’

Since then, students from across the Harvard system have been spending weeks in Broadmoor as interns, providing critical research, data gathering, and analysis to aid residents’ goals.

Public policy students navigated federal, state, and local bureaucracies to identify funding streams to boost reconstruction efforts. Those with MBAs helped with project management, and developed financial analyses for the Broadmoor Community Development Corp. Education students provided data to guide the effort to transform the failing public school into a top-notch charter. Urban planning students provided an economic road map that included the restoration of the grocery store and other destroyed commercial businesses. One student created a Broadmoor recovery guidebook to help other disaster areas recover.

Others also stepped in to help, including nonprofits, companies, and volunteers from Bard College, whose students gutted and renovated houses.

“Before Katrina, there were areas of the community that had challenges socioeconomically,’’ said September Hargrove, a 25-year-old public policy and urban planning student who spent two months this summer helping with neighborhood’s education plan. “The community decided that it was not just going fix the same things they had before, but it was going to . . . build the best community that it could.’’

A school’s shining example
Residents here believe the school is key to their survival. Without a school or community gathering spots, they surmise, more families will not return. .

The Wilson, a $30 million building, sits amid this vision of hope and promise. It has 98 percent attendance, and test scores are improving.

At recess one afternoon, young girls with green and tan ribbons wrapped around their braids squealed and chased one another in a courtyard designed like a checkerboard.

“This is so powerful,’’ said Cantrell, tears filling her dark brown eyes. “When you stand here and see the kids engaged out there, you say to yourself, ‘This is why we did it.’ Look at where we came from. We came from nothing.’’

The principal, Connie Yeaton, a 73-year-old blind woman, came out of an eight-year retirement to lead the school of more than 500 students.

“Our children here, they feel like they are going to college,’’ she said one morning. “The philosophy behind our charter is that our children will succeed.’’

It’s also the pledge the community has made to itself: Broadmoor would not just return, it would be better.

On a map inside the Broadmoor Improvement Association’s office, colorful push pins mark the neighborhood’s progress. Clear pins indicate where work is just beginning, and green ones show vacant lots. One area is covered with purple pins and the word “uninhabitable.’’

Efforts now will focus on the still-boarded-up properties — the 16 percent where homeowners have either been unwilling or unable to return.

‘Blessed’ to have a home
On Delachaise Street, Charles Hugger is making do.

For the past two years, he has been living in a rented three-room basement apartment stuffed with used furniture he picked up along the way, and framed pictures of Michelle Obama.

He had hoped to rent an upstairs apartment after being flooded out of his pre-Katrina basement apartment. But he can’t afford one.

Since Katrina, landlords seeking tenants with government rent subsidies are charging more, which makes it difficult for Hugger, a 70-year-old handyman living off his Social Security checks and disability payments.

“They talk the talk about wanting people back, but they only want certain people back,’’ he said of the landlords. “They want people that can afford to live here.’’

At Marcie Courtney’s house on Robert Street, ceiling fans cool the hot summer air, gently ruffling the yellow curtains. A few water-stained pictures are perched on bookcases. Everything is in its place, including the dog curled on a pillow on the hardwood floor.

The 60-year-old math teacher has waited a long time for this sense of peace. Her last four years were spent in frustration inside a FEMA trailer as she waited for contractors and insurance companies. In January, she moved home.

Now a soft breeze fills the air, replacing what used to be Katrina stench. The hurricane took most of her belongings, she said, but not her — or Broadmoor’s — spirit. “I woke up one morning and I just laid there,’’ said Courtney, misty-eyed behind her wire-rimmed glasses. “I am still amazed to have walls, walls that have pretty colors. I have this feeling that I am so blessed to have a home.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at

‘Harvard came knocking,’
said LaToya Cantrell, president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association. ‘We were already doing the work and didn’t want Harvard coming in and telling us what to do. I wanted [them] to know that we are in control.’ top stories on Twitter

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