Call to Action
Faced with rebuilding his home, his life and his neighborhood, the author joins the group that he hopes will save Broadmoor. Now, if he could just figure out what's the deal with that big, green circle.
By David Winkler-Schmit
Broadmoor resident Dr. Janet Strangi tends to her house on Napoleon Avenue. The Bring New Orleans Back Commission report said that neighborhoods like Broadmoor would have a chance to determine their future. It's a warm, cloudy Saturday morning in January as I push my 2-year-old daughter, Claire, in her stroller. We walk up Napoleon Avenue towards Fountainbleu to meet a group congregating on the dead, matted grass of the neutral ground. The 30 or so people gathered are a mix of black, white, old, young, upper middle class, lower middle class, a few in strollers, and one in a wheelchair.
We aren't here to start a second line because this is not the beginning of a celebration. This is the start of a confirmation. We are volunteer citizens of the Broadmoor neighborhood, and we are working to confirm our survival. We want to tell the mayor and the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOBC) that we are returning -- and rebuilding our community -- despite the many question marks that surround us, including a big, green circle that has been drawn around and through us.
Today we will be placing fliers throughout the neighborhood announcing the next "Broadmoor Revitalizes" meetings. The meetings will take place in the coming week and are our neighborhood's response to some very disturbing news.
Two weeks before, BNOBC issued its urban planning report. According to a map, "Parks and Open Space Plan," much of Broadmoor had been transformed into a big, green circle, representing a park. The more than 7,000 residents who call Broadmoor home will have to live elsewhere.
This is the second stage of Katrina -- the one that follows that initial stage of survival, of hearing harrowing stories of life and death in the immediate aftermath. This second stage is the stage of recovery. Six months later, the story has become what will happen to all the flooded homes and neighborhoods in New Orleans. Will we who want to return to New Orleans and rebuild our homes be allowed to? Since we evacuated, this question has consumed all of us.
And there has been no clear-cut answer.
I'm a writer, and I am used to searching for answers, but this one has alluded me. I've daily read news reports, watched news channels, conducted research on the Internet, and even listened to talk radio. But nothing has presented itself. Some reports, such as the one by the Urban Land Institute, suggested Broadmoor might become a green space. But I couldn't be sure because the group's map lacked much detail.
I wanted to scream, "Just give me a goddamn answer."
The BNOBC report didn't provide a real response. It proposed a park in Broadmoor, but it also said that neighborhoods like Broadmoor would have a chance to determine their future. What I saw was a park, but maybe there was some wiggle room.
Residents were already organizing. Two days after the report's release, a rally, "Broadmoor Lives," was held on the Napoleon Avenue neutral ground, and 300 people showed up.
I needed to join in the fight to save Broadmoor. I told my editors that I couldn't write anything objective about Broadmoor; it was too personal and it would be unethical. Sometimes objectivity can fly out the window as fast as a bulldozer can destroy a house. But I could join my fellow residents and tell the powers that be that you can't raze our community -- and then let the rest of the city know what we're going through in just one of many neighborhoods struggling to come back.
IN THE PAST TWO MONTHS, BROADMOOR HAS BEEN ORGANIZING AND TRYING TO SURVIVE. There have been many meetings and rallies, and more are planned. It has all been done with the knowledge that it all could be for naught. And it has been psychologically exhausting -- my emotions rise and fall on a moment's notice, and most days end with a glass of bourbon on the rocks. But I'm not alone -- everyone in Broadmoor, and many others in all of the great New Orleans neighborhoods live with the anxiety of not knowing their future. Even without knowing what the final plans would be for our area, my wife, Beth, and I decided to move forward. We not only planned on coming back, but we started rebuilding.
I returned to New Orleans in mid-October. My wife, my daughter and I would be staying temporarily in Uptown while we reconstructed our house on South Prieur Street. With part of our flood-insurance check deposited in the bank -- the mortgage company held on to the rest -- we were excited about the process. Even though our area took on between 7 and 8 1/2 feet of water, we believed that our home, which had about 4 feet of water sitting in it for two weeks, was salvageable. We hired an architect to design a new floor plan; a friend of mine and his father would be our main subcontractors; now jobless, I became the general contractor. Within two days of returning, I assembled a demolition crew -- good friends, who normally don't swing hammers and picks -- and we began tearing down the walls.
It took us four days, and it was tough work. Every wall had to be torn out up to the ceiling, and the walls were plaster-covered by sheetrock. I was swinging a 10-pound crowbar. At the end of the first day, I took off my shirt and found my stomach bloody and crisscrossed with scratches from the bar. But this was good; my friends and I needed this. We wanted to be doing; not worrying, but moving forward. No more watching CNN all day -- we had a job to do.
We weren't alone. On the morning of day two, I notice my neighbors, Betty and Al, trying to empty out their flooded ground-floor basement. Betty has owned the house for more than 50 years, and they are both in their 80s. The basement was full of the odds and ends -- old lawnmowers, tools, furniture, you name it -- that they accumulated over the decades. I put my arm around Betty. She was already worn out. They had traveled that morning from Bogalusa, where they were now staying. Al puffs on a cigarette, and looks determined to continue. I try to be as gentle as I can.
"I'm sorry folks, but this is too much," I say. "You can't do this work anymore. You have to go home."
Betty's small, frail body shook across my arm.
"David, this is our home," she replies.
Standing behind me are a couple of guys in hazardous materials suits. They're part of a group of volunteers from the Cavalry Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. They had arrived the day before, loaded with equipment and food, and they want to help clean up some of this mess.
I explain to Betty and Al that these men would give them a hand. Betty hugs me, and Al reaches out to shake my hand. Not much later, they get in their car, and return to Bogalusa. The volunteers empty Betty and Al's basement, remove a tree from their roof, and give a little relief to two people who should have been enjoying retirement, not commuting an hour and a half every day to visit their former home. As for the rest of the neighborhood, it's mostly empty. Occasionally, a car drives by, kicks up some dust, and continues on.
THE FLIER DISTRIBUTION HAS BEEN A SUCCESS; MUCH OF BROADMOOR HAS BEEN BLANKETED WITH THE MEETINGS ANNOUNCEMENT. The Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA) decided to temporarily divide Broadmoor into three subgroups, and my home was in the Subgroup C section. The first meeting I attend for Subgroup C is held the following Monday evening at the First Presbyterian Church.
The BNOBC had put a halt to the work many had begun. The Times-Picayune used the verb, "gambled," to describe the action of those who had started repairing their homes. The short sentence did go on to say, "If you gambled and started rebuilding in a neighborhood that ultimately has a high return rate of residents, it may not affect you at all." Most of us only see "gambled" and "may," and the words have the opposite effect of calming anyone. There was a chance you could make your house livable again, and the local, state, or federal government could come along and tear it down.
Beth and I had read about the BNOBC report and still decided to forge on in our rebuilding. The carpenters had framed in the new floor plan; they had erected piers for an addition (we had been planning on this for awhile, and it seemed like no better time), and we were getting bids from plumbers, electricians and roofers. It was a risk, and the fear of eminent domain and losing our home was always on my mind. Each time we progressed -- Claire's room was reframed -- we couldn't help but think, "Yeah, that's great, but what about the big, green circle where our house used to be?"
Anxiety is stamped on the faces of many of those at this meeting. Some show it in their eyes -- not a frantic look, but alert. I recognize a few in the audience. One man, Joe Clark, hired me as a librarian when I first moved to New Orleans 11 years ago. He has lived in Broadmoor most of his life.
Hal Roark, co-chair of the revitalization committee, walks to the front of room and scans the crowd of approximately 250, mostly Caucasian Broadmoor residents.
"It's amazing what fear can do," Roark says.
The BIA, a community organization that has existed since 1930, initiated the revitalization committee. The current president is LaToya Cantrell, an African-American transplant from California who bought a house on Louisiana Avenue Parkway in 2000 and has been active in BIA since 2001. She and her husband, Jason, purchased in Broadmoor because the area no longer flooded due to the now decade-old (and unfinished) Southeast Louisiana (SELA) project. One of the main accomplishments of that project included the completion of underground canals and a pumping station on Broad Street to drain the area during heavy rains and floods. Plus, buying in Broadmoor meant they could get a larger house than most of those they had looked at in Uptown.
Roark, had approached Cantrell about the BNOBC plan. He was concerned that the plan was basically going to turn into a land grab for developers. Cantrell asked Roark to facilitate a meeting for all Broadmoor residents where he could explain his thoughts on the BNOBC plan and what could be done about it. Roark accepted, and at that meeting, residents voted Roark and Mark Morice -- a resident and owner of a construction company -- as the co-chairs of the revitalization committee.
Roark reiterates his thoughts from the first meeting. He says he believes it was better to use the language of the BNOBC report to prove Broadmoor's right to survive rather than simply fighting against the entire plan. He goes on to say there are some good redevelopment ideals in the report -- neighborhood sustainability, vibrant economy and neighborhood vibrancy -- that Broadmoor could use to its advantage. We need to demonstrate to BNOBC that we are willing to cooperate with them, Roark says, but we don't want to become a drainage park.
As the BNOBC report indicates, neighborhoods like Broadmoor that sustained substantial flooding are considered "Neighborhood Planning Areas." A neighborhood planning process, as the BNOBC report states, "[will] determine the future of the areas."
Photo by Donn Young LaToya Cantrell, a California transplant, has been active in the Broadmoor Improvement Association since 2001. We have to be part of the process, Roark explains, and we will have to work hard to come up with a plan in the scant four months the BNOBC dictates.
And with a nod to the big, green circle, Roark concludes, "And all this without the certainty of a guaranteed outcome." He repeats his statement three times. An elderly black woman in the audience seconds him. "Yeah, you're right," she says.
Roark runs the meeting well. He has a salesman's approach, and most of the crowd is buying it. He says, "We need to have concrete outcomes for each meeting. Do you agree?" The audience nods its approval. By the end of the meeting, Roark sums up what we are all feeling: "the horrible unending of not knowing."
Following the meeting, I look for Betty and Al; they're not there; they're still commuting from Bogalusa most days to work on their house, but the meetings are too late in the day and maybe just too much for them. As for myself, I leave the meeting a little more confident that Broadmoor could survive, but the big, green circle remains in my head.
I ATTEND MORE AND MORE REVITALIZATION MEETINGS.Subcommittees were formed to address specific issues: urban planning, legal advisory, light rail, repopulation and media relations. I join the media-relations subcommittee because of my experience as a writer. I'm uneasy about this, so I tell the chair of the committee, Cantrell, and Roark, that I can write editorials, Web site descriptions and press releases, but I can't objectively report on the Broadmoor situation.
What we haven't solved is why Broadmoor is being proposed as a green space. We had plenty of reasons why it shouldn't: Broadmoor is recognized as a historic district with a number of architecturally significant buildings; it had good drainage; it has existed for more than 120 years; it is racially diverse with 68 percent African Americans, 26 percent Caucasians, and 4 percent Hispanics residing in the community; and, most important, Broadmoor is home to more than 7,000 people. Of course, other neighborhoods have just as valid reasons, and some of those are going green as well.
Matt McBride, who lives on my block, has done his homework. He did what I as a journalist neglected to do -- he went to the source. John Beckman, a planner with Wallace, Roberts, and Todd, an urban planning firm, had designed the "Parks and Open Space Plan." It was Beckman who had drawn the big, green circle.
McBride called Beckman at his Philadelphia office and spoke to him extensively about Broadmoor. Among the things McBride discovered were that Beckman wasn't aware of the rift he had caused between neighborhoods with green spaces and those without spaces; he hadn't taken the SELA project into account, and he wasn't even sure who on his planning team had actually decided on where to place the parks. McBride reported all of his findings at one of our meetings. Overall, the audience didn't seem too surprised. But residents' anger was rising, and the next meeting at Loyola's Roussel Hall would give them a chance to direct that anger.
We had invited the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
AS I WALK INTO ROUSSEL HALL, I SEE MY NEIGHBORS MILLING ABOUT. Nervous joking is sprinkled throughout the conversations to deflect the matter at hand, but mostly the crowd was quiet. I notice the little kids sprinkled throughout the audience; it's not easy getting babysitters these days.
Walter Baumy, chief of the Engineering Division, New Orleans District, Task Force Guardian for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, addressed the BIA. Considering his title and the levees failure, I can't help but think of Mr. Baumy as someone who has let his guard down.
When he is introduced to the crowd, along with other assembled members of his team, he's greeted not by applause but a stony silence.
Baumy begins his lecture with a Power Point presentation -- three words that in some cases almost feel like a ploy to beat any given audience into bored resignation. And it seems to be working; Baumy's voice has the somnolent quality of a tedious academic as he drones on about the Corps' plans. The levees will be re-strengthened to pre-Katrina status, flood gates will be installed at the lakefront, pumping stations will be restored, additional projects will occur, and they are exploring the prospect of Category 5 protection.
It's nothing we haven't heard before.
Baumy offers no culpability on the Corps' part. When he does discuss the levees, he says that there were breaches, but he doesn't know what caused them. "Water came over and through it," is all he says, referring to the levee around the Inner Navigation Canal.
He tries to assure us that in June a new report, compiled by the Corps and other outside experts, will finally determine what caused the levees to fail. More experts and more reports. It's too bad paper, the millions of tons of it used for these reports, isn't good levee material.
Baumy is finished with his lecture, so the inquisition can begin. Now, we'll pepper Baumy with questions until he breaks and admits this is the Corps' fault.
Unfortunately, the process is a slow one. Question forms for Baumy were handed out before the meeting and then handed to Marilyn Crump, vice president of BIA. She reads out the name of the questioner, and then we watch them walk up to the microphone and ask the question. We'll never get Baumy reeling this way. Plus, we are so far away, up the steps of the auditorium while Baumy stands safely below.
The first query comes from Jonathan Olivier, who bought a house in Broadmoor as an investment property. He wants to know what the Corps is doing to make sure this won't happen again, and whether people can feel confident to buy in Broadmoor now.
Baumy answers with the coolness of an experienced bureaucrat. He tells us the Corps is trying to ensure the system will be capable of handling Katrina levels on the Lakefront, but that ability will be tested. Prior to Katrina, the highest storm surge on Lake Pontchatrain was around 10 feet, but for Katrina it was 20 feet. Another massive event like Katrina is possible, but what is the probability of it occurring? In other words, the Corps is doing what it can; making no promises, and confidence is up to the individual. Life's a gamble.
Mark Morice, co-chair of the revitalization committee, comes to the microphone, and thanks Baumy for coming. Morice is worried about his poorer neighbors.
"I miss my neighbors -- some don't have enough money to come back," Morice says. "At what point will the Corps either accept responsibility, or join us in helping get money from Congress?"
Baumy tells him that lobbying for money is the job of elected officials and not the Corps.
Doggedly the rest of the questioners step up to the microphone, and their inquiries are swatted away by Baumy. His guard is up; he is a professional, and most of us are only determined amateurs. We try a few haymakers -- "When will the Corps accept responsibility?" "Isn't this your fault?" and "Will Broadmoor be turned into a retention pond?" -- but he easily deflects them by repeating the promise of the all-revealing June report. He's heard nothing about Broadmoor being changed into a pond or green space.
Even with his cool demeanor and lack of an answer to the question of responsibility, a sense of calm settles over the crowd. Stan Green, SELA project manager, reports that in six weeks the pumping stations will be fully functional. Repetitive flooding helped justify the SELA project in Broadmoor, so maybe the problem of repetitive flooding in Broadmoor prior to the Napoleon underground canal and the Broad Street Pumping station (SELA projects) won't sink us.
When Baumy is asked again about Broadmoor turning into a drainage park, the reply seems satisfying enough: "It wouldn't be for hurricane protection, and I'm not aware of any plans by the Sewerage and Water Board or the city for this." Even the engineers are saying there's no reason to turn Broadmoor into a drainage park to protect against hurricanes, and the Corps knows how to protect against hurricanes.
With the crowd warming up to Baumy, he drops his guard a little. If the June report indicates the Corps is partially responsible, then "I imagine we would go before Congress and testify to that," he says. When someone asks if we should start rebuilding, Baumy admits it's hard to say, but his parents did rebuild after Hurricane Betsy destroyed their home in 1965.
The meeting takes more than three hours, and the original crowd of more than 200 has diminished significantly. While Baumy and his cohorts won't take the blame for any of this, and maybe that's why so many left, those remaining do applaud his efforts. Going into this, we couldn't realistically expect the Corps to admit anything, and it doesn't. But it does provide us hurricane-protection updates, and it does assuage some of our fears of Broadmoor disappearing. And most importantly, it reveals a human side to the science of engineering. Levees, canal gates, underground canals and pumping stations are all part of a system designed to protect, not just Broadmoor, but the engineers who design the system as well.
BUT I'M STILL NOT SATISFIED. Someone out there has to be able to definitively tell me why Broadmoor should become a park. I take McBride's lead; I call Beckman.
The secretary at Beckman's Philadelphia office immediately patches me through to Beckman. I'm surprised; I thought it would be like trying to get admitted to the Wizard of Oz's palace. But there is no giant screen, or at least I can't see one, and the voice answering the line is calm and avuncular.
Photo by Donn Young Al Hewitt and Betty Foley essentially have been "camping out" in their home that Foley has owned for 50 years, waiting for their gas service to be turned back on while they rebuild. Nervously, I tell him that I'm a writer and I'm doing a story on Broadmoor. I want him to explain the big green circle. His reply disarms me.
"I screwed up," Beckman says. "I should have labeled the map more clearly. The dashed circles (the big green spaces) indicate general areas where neighborhood groups might want to see a park."
"Where Broadmoor might want a park?" I ask. Yes, Beckman tells me. These are only places where a park could be, but it would be up to the residents. He was under a much tighter schedule than usual -- most urban designs take years not months to plan -- and they only wanted to outline a way of organizing a master plan. He says that a written summary will be added to the BNOBC Web site explaining much of this. And he apologizes: "People don't need yet another thing to be worried about."
After I get off the phone, I call Cantrell, and tell her about my conversation. We haven't had a BIA meeting in almost two weeks because of Mardi Gras. In the meantime, she's had a meeting with Mayor Ray Nagin, other neighborhood association leaders, and ... John Beckman. She has heard Beckman's explanation.
"I called him out about it," Cantrell says. "He went against what the experts told him to do with these dashed circles. They told him all hell would break loose if he included them, and that's exactly what happened."
Cantrell doesn't think the fight is over. She is concerned about the lack of African Americans attending the BIA meetings.
"It's been a hard time, but I do see some results when I've done some canvassing," Cantrell reports. "The majority of blacks haven't returned to Broadmoor -- they're not living here, or rebuilding."
Cantrell believes that citizen activism, involving all of Broadmoor, is the key to the community rebounding.
"We have to continue planning for our neighborhood," says Cantrell. "We can't stop. We want to develop a revised plan, and it's only going to come from us."
SUDDENLY, I DON'T TRUST BECKMAN'S ANSWER. Later on, I contact Ray Manning, a local architect and co-chair of the BNOBC's committee overseeing the neighborhood-planning process. This is the second phase of the BNOBC plan in which neighborhood districts will meet with urban planners to determine the future of their communities. I talk to Manning about the future of New Orleans and how out-of-town firms and other outside experts are weighing in on our city's destiny. Manning's reply confirms what I am thinking.
"I'm nauseated by it. I'm at Princeton University and although there are probably some smart, well-meaning people here, they don't have a clue about what it means to be from New Orleans and be part of that city. I'm sick and tired of people who live afar telling us what can and cannot succeed in a place I've lived in my entire adult life."
I ask Manning the question that has been with me since returning to the city. Should I be rebuilding my house?
"You should be rebuilding," he says, "and you should be rebuilding based upon the facts. And the facts are: the SELA program is going to be completed; the levees are going to be repaired; and when you moved [to Broadmoor] seven years ago, you knew there was the possibility there could be hurricanes here, and you're continuing to assume that risk as an adult in a free society. If you lived in the Ninth Ward, and your house had been leveled, and you had to rebuild from the ground up, I would say 'no' to you. I would say that because in rebuilding your house, you may have to build at a new elevation whenever the new FEMA maps come out."
Manning goes on to say that, in general, all of Broadmoor should be rebuilding.
I DROP BY BETTY AND AL'S HOUSE NOT LONG BEFORE SITTING DOWN TO WRITE THIS PIECE. They have moved back in, but they are still waiting on gas service. Betty says, "We're camping out." Although there aren't too many others living close by yet, there is enough construction activity going on to know that soon more people will return. One thing this whole process has done is made me closer to my neighbors. Prior to the storm, I had never spoken to Matt McBride. I've known Betty and Al for quite awhile, but you always learn something new when you visit with folks. Betty tells me they needed to return to where they had lived for so long even though some change is good.
"When you're our age, it's pretty hard to start over," Betty says. "But we do feel like newlyweds because now we have a new washer and dryer."
Funny thing is, Betty and Al never were newlyweds. They have lived together for more than 30 years, but they aren't married. As Betty puts it, "We were doing it before anyone thought it was cool." It's quite a blessing to know they live in the house just behind ours, and that they'll be here when we get back.
After so much fretting, I finally feel a sense of relief. The big, green circle seems to have disappeared.