Excerpted from The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken by Wendell Pierce. Out now from Penguin Random House.
On the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, Katrina gashed the levee in two places north of the bridge, which traverses the Industrial Canal, the economically vital artery for shipping from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain and, via two other man-made canals, out into the Gulf of Mexico. Millions of gallons of water washed through the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. In a single morning, a historic black neighborhood of 14,000 souls, among them the city’s poorest, ceased to exist.
Days later, after the water receded, there was nothing left but ruins, and corpses. In the heat and moisture of south Louisiana, weeds, vines, and trees rapidly consumed the desolate lots and sidewalks. Rattlesnakes and cottonmouths moved in, chasing the rats that overran backyards where children once played and stoops where families used to barbecue. Sometimes, packs of wild dogs owned the streets. The few residents able to return not only had to fight nature just to hold their ground, but also lived in fear of predatory rapists and other savages lurking in the rotting ruins and dark thickets that used to be a neighborhood.
I knew intimately the agony of the people of the Lower Ninth Ward. Six miles north of the neighborhood, where the Industrial Canal meets the lake, the district of the city where I grew up—Pontchartrain Park, the first black middle-class subdivision in New Orleans—had been virtually annihilated when a breach in a different canal to the west caused the neighborhood to fill with water up to the rooftops.
Built in the mid-1950s as the wall of segregation was beginning to crack, Pontchartrain Park symbolized the opening of the American dream to black folks in New Orleans—people like Althea and Amos Pierce, my schoolteacher mother and my photographer father, who in 1955 bought a modest ranch home there and started a family.
In January 2007, I put out a call to the neighborhood, inviting folks to come to a picnic on the playground. At the time, only about 40 percent of the houses were inhabited. It was like living on a frontier. Yet people loved Pontchartrain Park so much that some even came home from around the country to be at that meeting, to learn how we could organize to save our legacy and our future. Nobody was going to come in and save Pontchartrain Park; all we had was each other.
When I saw that 150 or so people had gathered on a playground smack in the middle of a devastated urban landscape, eager to discover what they could do to help themselves, I realized that the younger ones among us have luxuries that our parents did not have. They were just trying to build a decent life for themselves. They not only battled bureaucracy, ignorance, and everyday racism, but also had to fear for what the violent hooligans from across The Ditch in Gentilly Woods (which, after 1970s-era white flight, was now all black) might do to them. This playground where we were gathered—our parents put their lives at risk so we, their children, could grow up playing here, like any normal American kids. How could we in good conscience let it go?
“I grew up in this neighborhood,” I began. “It has been brought to my attention that there’s an effort underway to make Pontchartrain Park different from what it was before the storm. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I’m putting out a call to action: We are going to restore Pontchartrain Park ourselves.”
I talked about the legacy our parents had left for us here, and how we had a responsibility to them and to ourselves to fight for it. Katrina had revealed to me the value of this place, and I was committed to moving back to defend it.
“This is a call to service,” I said. “This is a call to exercise our right of self-determination.”
Troy Henry and I formed the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corp. for the purpose of restoring the neighborhood. Our hope was for it to be a haven for home-owning families, especially black ones, to keep our parents’ dream alive for a new generation. We got to work. Our goal: to build 300 solar-paneled, geothermally heated houses there.
Eight hard years later, we are not where we wanted to be on the road to Pontchartrain Park’s comeback, but we are making steady progress. The route to building homes has been winding, full of detours, switchbacks, potholes, and washouts. In all candor, it has been a very New Orleans story. Unfortunately, one of the most resilient aspects of life in the Big Easy has been its rough-and-tumble politics.
Troy ran for mayor in 2010 but lost to Mitch Landrieu, son of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu. I was told the worst thing you can do is come in second in the mayor’s race, because the victorious political machine is going to spend the next four years trying to keep anything you do from succeeding, because your opponents want to neutralize you as a political threat for the next election.
In New Orleans, politics are as pervasive as they are murky. Plus, competence and efficiency are not virtues we have come to expect in our public servants and agencies. It is difficult, therefore, to say whether obstacles suddenly arising in your path come from bureaucratic ineptitude or political malice. It took the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority two years of hemming and hawing to transfer four properties to us. It tells you something, though, that when U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu was publicly commending us for trying to bring a grocery store to the Lower Ninth Ward food desert, which hadn’t had a decent food store for decades, her brother Mitch was meeting with the bank about the grocery store project.
I can’t prove my suspicions, but I do know this: Before the deal’s financiers went into the meeting with the mayor, they were committed to financing the grocery store; when the meeting was over, they dropped us. The project’s developer moved on to take on another opportunity elsewhere in the city. It’s hard to believe that this wasn’t about politics. Where our store was going to be in the Lower Ninth, there is still nothing but an abandoned building.
I also had a letter of intent to open a food store on a blighted corner of North Broad and Bienville in Mid-City, in an area designated as a food desert by the city. Then the developer stopped returning my phone calls, and the next thing I knew, the city awarded $2 million in grants to turn the site into a Whole Foods. Imagine that: attempting to meet the grocery needs of poor and working-class people with a premium supermarket mocked as “Whole Paycheck” for its high prices. My business partner and I noticed a pattern: Projects we were involved in that had been moving along well suddenly stopped, and we saw that Mayor Landrieu was involved in some way.
When Nelson Mandela died in 2013, I read in his obituary a quote of his that resonated deeply with me: “It is always difficult until it’s done.” It made me think about all the times I’ve wanted to give up, to focus on my career, to lay down the burden of rebuilding Pontchartrain Park. It seems impossible that this will ever get done. But we’re not going anywhere but forward.
In January 2014, I bought a house in the neighborhood, across the park from the street where I grew up. If I am asking others to move to Pontchartrain Park after the disaster, then I need to do it myself, I figured. Because of the nature of my work, I am constantly shuttling among New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. My house in my hometown sits only a few blocks away from my dad. I tuck him into bed at night, and instead of going into my room down the hall, I drive to the other side of the park. I love waking up in the morning there, watching the old neighborhood come back to life.
And slowly but steadily, we are moving families into houses. For the first time, we have four or five white families living in Pontchartrain Park. In 2014 the basketball coach at the University of New Orleans bought a house in the neighborhood. My father’s reaction? “This is America, man, this is what it’s all about.” I never thought I’d see the day when an 89-year-old black man would be so happy to have a young white basketball coach and his family move into the neighborhood, and to declare that this liberty is what he fought for.
The golf course is open once again. Southern University’s campus has expanded. All the churches are praising God on Sunday mornings, just as they always did. Major League Baseball rebuilt the baseball stadium nearby. The neighborhood school is brand-new. When it’s fully restored, Pontchartrain Park will be filled with young families as well as original stakeholders who have been there forever. It will look like the neighborhood I grew up in.
Excerpted from The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and The City That Would Not Be Broken by Wendell Pierce. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Wendell Pierce.