National

New Orleans remade after Katrina — for better and worse

A road sign, nearly submerged under floodwaters during following hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans, Aug. 31, 2005. The storm struck the Gulf Coast with devastating force at daybreak on Aug. 29, 2005, pummeling a region that included the fabled city of New Orleans and heaping damage on neighboring Mississippi. In all, more than 1,700 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of others displaced.
A road sign, nearly submerged under floodwaters during following hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans, Aug. 31, 2005. The storm struck the Gulf Coast with devastating force at daybreak on Aug. 29, 2005, pummeling a region that included the fabled city of New Orleans and heaping damage on neighboring Mississippi. In all, more than 1,700 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of others displaced. NYT

It is a wonder that any of it is here at all: The scattered faithful gathering into Beulah Land Baptist Church in the Lower 9th Ward. The men on stoops in Mid-City swapping gossip in the August dusk. The brass band in Tremé, the lawyers in Lakeview, the new homeowners in Pontchartrain Park.

On Aug. 29, 2005, it all seemed lost. Four-fifths of the city lay submerged as residents frantically signaled for help from their rooftops and thousands were stranded at the Superdome, a congregation of the desperate and poor. From the moment that the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina dismantled a fatally defective levee system, New Orleans became a global symbol of American dysfunction and government negligence. At every level and in every duty, from engineering to social policy to basic logistics, there were revelations of malfunction and failure before, during, and after Katrina.

Ten years later, it is not exactly right to say that New Orleans is back. The city did not return, not as it was.

It is, first of all, without the more than 1,400 people who died here, and the thousands who are now making their lives someplace else. As of 2013, there were nearly 100,000 fewer black residents than in 2000, their absences falling equally across income levels. The white population decreased by about 11,000, but it is wealthier.

The city that exists in 2015 has been altered, by both a decade of institutional re-engineering and the artless rearrangement that occurs when people are left to fend for themselves. Empowered by billions of federal dollars and the big ideas of policy planners, the school system underwent a complete overhaul; the old art deco Charity Hospital was supplanted by a state-of-the-art medical complex; and big public housing projects were razed and replaced by mixed-income communities with housing vouchers.

In a city long marinated in fatalism, optimists are now in ascendance. They promise that an influx of bright newcomers, a burst of entrepreneurial verve and a new spirit of civic engagement have primed the city for an era of greatness, or at least reversed a long-running civic-disaster narrative.

“Nobody can refute the fact that we have completely turned this story around,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, talking of streamlined government and year-over-year economic growth. “For the first time in 50 years, the city is on a trajectory that it has not been on, organizationally, functionally, economically, almost in every way.”

The word “trajectory” is no accident. It is the mayor’s case that the city is in a position to address the many problems that years of government failures had allowed to fester. He did not argue that those problems had been solved.

As before, there are two cities here. One is booming, more vibrant than ever, still beautiful in its best-known neighborhoods and expanding into places once written off; the other is returning to pre-Katrina realities of poverty and routine violence, but with a new sense of dislocation for many as well.

Old inequities have proved resilient. The child poverty rate (about 40 percent) and the overall poverty rate (close to 30 percent) are almost unchanged from 2000. Violent crime remains a chronic condition and efforts to fix the city’s criminal justice system have had mixed results: While the city’s jail population has been substantially reduced, the incarceration rate is more than twice the national average.

The ability of many residents to afford housing, in a city of mounting rents and low wages, is more compromised than before. In a recent ranking of 300 U.S. cities by income inequality based on census data, New Orleans came in second, a gap that falls starkly along racial lines. According to the Data Center, a New Orleans-based think tank focusing on southern Louisiana, the median income of black households here is 54 percent lower than that of white households.

Many here are more impatient than ever to fix these old problems, yet are ambivalent about all the outside expertise and weary of change after a decade of upheaval. Others, particularly black residents, see something more nefarious at work.

“They want to push us to the side like we don’t matter,” said Janie Blackmon, a champion of still-struggling New Orleans East, home of much of the black middle class.

New Orleans, of course, has long wrestled with disparities of race and class and a constant anxiety that it was always on the cusp of losing its character.

And as far back as 1722, when a 4-year-old New Orleans was flattened by a hurricane, it has entertained a notion that after disaster it would finally get things right.

The difference now is that this proudly distinctive American city has become a giant workshop to test solutions to problems that are confounding the entire country. But there is almost a nation’s worth of variety here in different parts of town, and success or failure will nonetheless be gauged neighborhood by neighborhood and block by block.

Treme: A Culture, Found and Lost

Merline Kimble, 66, whose family has been in Tremé for generations, was talking about how it used to be:

”Somebody was crossing the street on Dumaine and said something funny and the whole block started laughing. So James Andrews, he started playing it on his horn, he put what the man said into music. Then his brother Buster came out the door and he played the drum and put a beat to it. Then they start calling people on the phone and next thing you know we got a band out in front the door. And little James is writing and writing and soon he’s got the lyrics down. Next thing you know I was hearing it on the radio.”

Who wouldn’t want to live in a place like this, one of the country’s oldest African-American neighborhoods? Which bills itself as the “birthplace of jazz.” Which has produced more musicians per capita than perhaps anywhere else in America. Which gave its name to a critically lauded HBO series?

Before too long, the bigger question might be: Who can afford to?

Drawn by a street culture that has perhaps never been this widely celebrated, newcomers have flocked. They have shown up at the street parades and black working-class traditions from which many in New Orleans used to keep a wary distance.

They have also dropped fortunes on houses, and paid prime rents to live on streets that taxis wouldn’t visit not so long ago. Badly blighted properties have been renovated and repainted. Second homes proliferate, as do vacation rentals advertising “authentic New Orleans culture.” Around the next corner, where you might have encountered danger or a front-stoop colloquy in the past, you’re as likely now to find a gaggle of tourists on Segways.

Before the flood, the Tremé blocks just east of the Lafitte public housing projects were close-knit and tough; the music flourished, but so did crime and blight. Joe’s Cozy Corner was where musicians met before their gigs in the French Quarter; it was also where “Papa Joe” Glasper, the bar’s owner, shot and killed a man.

The flooding was not so bad, but the residents, mostly renters, left town with everyone else. The neighborhood has almost fully repopulated since then, but not with all the same people.

The Cozy Corner is now a residential property. Though the neighborhood is still a mix of up-and-coming and already there, rents have spiked. Median home values by some measures more than tripled between 2000 and 2013, with some renovated houses now on sale for close to $1 million. A few of the most prominent landlords are black, but, according to census data the percentage of white Tremé residents in 2013, at 36 percent, was more than twice what it was in 2000. Four out of five of them were not Louisiana-born.

“People here, locals, always had this thing about crossing Rampart Street,” said Eric Wilkinson, 35, of the aptly named street separating the Tremé from the French Quarter. “Some people from New Orleans didn’t even know where the Tremé was.”

The newcomers do not have those old preconceptions: in the four years since he moved to the neighborhood, said Wilkinson, a white real estate agent from Texas, all of the houses around him have sold.

“I’ve been in real estate a long time.” he said. “Tremé’s the only neighborhood where people say they don’t want to change it.”

On a sweltering weekday evening, the Preservation Hall brass band put on an informal concert in Tuba Fats Square. If spontaneous music still happens here - now that neighbors complain and most parades need permits - it happens after funerals or in this square.

After the concert, Jeffrey Hills, 39, once a Tremé resident and protégé of Anthony (Tuba Fats) Lacen, packed up his sousaphone and prepared like the others to head for home. The New Orleans musical tradition is as strong as ever, he said. But with no Caledonia or Cozy Corner, no crowded front stoops and no run-ins with old mentors, the musicians generally get together elsewhere.

“It’s not musical around here really anymore,” he said.

Mid-City: A Latino Surge

Jelly Roll Morton, speaking in a jazz context, famously referred to it as a “Spanish tinge” - in Mid-City, like all of New Orleans, there has long been a defining hint of Caribbean and Latin worlds.

But in the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, that tinge has been amplified. Hispanic workers rushed in after the flood to demolish the ruined landscape and rebuild. Many stayed, nearly doubling Hispanics’ share of the metropolitan New Orleans population, and changing the flavor of sections like this one.

This culturally rich middle-class neighborhood is, like many areas here, still on the mend from severe flooding. But it is once again studded with beloved corner bars and joints specializing in the Crescent City’s signature sandwich, the po' boy.

Today, it is also home to the Taqueria Guerrero, a restaurant-bar called El Rinconcito (“The Little Corner”) and the Ideal Market, which sells big sacks of guajillo chilies along with the ubiquitous local Creole seasoning called Tony Chachere’s. There is Esperanza Charter School, where roughly half the students are Hispanic. And there are newcomers like Elizabeth Oviedo, 52, a Honduran who drove over from Texas just after the floodwaters rose.

She took up residence in a one-room apartment with 14 other Hispanic laborers and began gutting devastated school buildings. “You imagined those kids who were outside of the city,” she said. “We had to do the work so they could return.”

Oviedo also saw an opportunity to make enough cash to open her own restaurant. She began cooking for the laborers out of a rented house, and eventually opened a legitimate place called Telamar, where today the fried chicken is served with helpings of fried plantains and lonesome construction workers belt out plaintive karaoke rancheras.

Oviedo’s story is part of a long, rich dance between New Orleans and the Latin world. The city was ruled by the Spanish from 1762 to 1803. For much of the 20th century, it was a crucial import hub for Central American bananas. Hondurans have had a strong and long-running presence here. The 1959 revolution in Cuba brought thousands of exiles, most of whom have fanned out into other neighborhoods.

Today, Mid-City is set to be transformed by the recently opened University Medical Center, and a soon-to-open veterans hospital, both set along scruffy Tulane Avenue, a few blocks from Oviedo’s restaurant.

The neighborhood is in fix-up mode. Steps from Finn McCool’s Irish Pub on Banks Street last month, Hispanic crews were building a new camelback shotgun-style home on a vacant lot, sprucing up a flood-damaged Craftsman bungalow down the street, and working on a third house around the corner.

According to census figures, the Hispanic population, about 58,000 in 2000, stood at more than 103,000 in 2013, with some of the most significant growth in suburban Kenner.

From the beginning, some established locals have grumbled about losing jobs to the newcomers. An unemployed African-American man named Leo Evans, 48, walked past the VA worksite recently and asked a reporter if anyone was hiring.

“The Spanish people get all the work,” he grumbled, although he said he didn’t blame them: “They came to work. Everybody’s got to take care of their families. But what’s the situation with me?”

Lower 9th Ward: Renewal Deferred

It was 2007 and the Dixons, Demetra and Lionel, were living in Mississippi, waiting to see how much money they would have to rebuild their home in the Lower 9th Ward. State officials had put the cost of the damage at about $225,000. But $36,635.83 is what they were getting.

The Lower Nine, as the neighborhood is sometimes called, became known to the world when the levee burst and blocks of working-class homes were bulldozed by the waters of the Industrial Canal. There was no place in the city where the destruction was more thorough, and the recovery more lacking. The residents - some without the means to leave, others elderly and judging a difficult evacuation to be the greater risk - found themselves marooned in attics and on roofs. After the water drained, they were not allowed back for months, as officials and experts questioned the wisdom of their neighborhood’s existence.

The “Brad Pitt houses,” as people refer to the pastel origami homes built through the actor’s foundation, now line up jauntily along Tennessee Street. But it is one of the few fully occupied stretches in this part of the neighborhood.

For block after block north of Claiborne Avenue it is country quiet, though hammering can be heard from a volunteer crew still at work. An old man mows an empty lot, a kindness to a former neighbor. Other lots noiselessly grow wild. Opossums are a problem.

“You couldn’t see an empty lot nowhere,” recalled Dixon’s father, Wilmer, of the 54 years he lived on North Derbigny Street. “Now it’s like living in the woods.”

There have been civic investments: one school renovated, another on the way, a playground, an enormous community center.

A CVS is coming, finally.

The Lower Nine is now one of only four city neighborhoods that has less than half of its pre-Katrina population. The other three are sites of demolished housing projects. Reasons have been given: That it is below sea level (though much of it is not, and other, more thriving parts of the city sit even lower). That its residents were mostly poor (though most owned their homes).

The Dixons offer a reason of their own: bureaucracy.

The state-run, federally funded Road Home program, which disbursed $9 billion in rebuilding grants, was both exasperating and vital for homeowners. The program made it possible for more than 100,000 people to rebuild.

But inequities lay in its design. Grants were calculated through a formula: the pre-Katrina value of a home or the cost of damage, whichever was less, up to $150,000 - minus any other compensation.

So here was the Dixons’ recovery on the back of a napkin: an estimated home value of $98,500. Minus a $60,000 insurance payout, no matter that the Dixons’ mortgage lender took that entire sum.

Thus: $36,635.83 to rebuild, plus a separate grant only for home elevation.

More than 1,000 homeowners in the Lower Nine simply chose the Road Home option not to rebuild. The Dixons, though, filed appeals, went to hearings, provided documents, met with sympathetic but rule-bound officials and paid thousands of dollars a year in rent.

“Every year we said, ‘Maybe we'll be in the house for Christmas,’” said Demetra Dixon, 46, a paralegal. “We stopped thinking about it that way.”

In 2010, a federal judge suggested what to many had been obvious: that the Road Home formula appeared to have hurt black homeowners, who were more likely to have homes in poorer neighborhoods. Under a revised formula, many applicants were granted additional money; the Dixons received a further $37,000.

In 2013, the Dixons were told that because they had not moved back into their home by the deadline, they were to give back everything they had been paid.

In 2015, after some pushing by an advocate with the local homeowners association, the Dixons learned that the forced mortgage payoff would not count against them. They will be granted the $60,000 they never saw - and, under some changes announced only this week, possibly some compensation for the tens of thousands they have paid in rent.

Wilmer Dixon sees his old neighbors at funerals these days. There are scattered across the country, many having given up on the hassle. But the Dixons are determined. In their apartment in a neighboring parish, Demetra Dixon considered the eventual return home.

“As you get older you want more quiet and you want more peace,” she said, finding a bright side. “It does bother me that the community is gone.”

Central Business District: Season of Startups

Old-school Southern men of commerce can still be found here heading to work in seersucker suits in the heat of the hurricane months. They still swap gossip at the private Boston Club, and sip Friday afternoon sazeracs at Galatoire’s, the white-tablecloth grande dame of Creole cooking just across Canal Street in the French Quarter.

But in the post-Katrina reality of the Central Business District, these proud creatures of a timeless New Orleans coexist with a small band of entrepreneurs and techies who lounge, in the glow of laptops, on Swedish-style furniture. They swap irregularly shaped business cards at Capdeville, a gastro pub where a riff on red beans and rice is served with a green onion aioli. They make deals at the Pulp & Grind coffee shop, where a flier on a bulletin board recently announced, “CLOUD DEVELOPERS UNITE!”

The startup scene here is, to a great extent, a deliberate construct, built by a small, aggressive group of boosters who believe that this city, so careful to honor its past, must innovate its way to a future that isn’t so reliant on the old standbys of the oil, gas and hospitality industries.

Among them is Michael Hecht, president and chief executive of Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development group.

“New Orleans attracted some of the best and most passionate people in the world after Katrina to help rebuild,” Hecht said. “You just had a talent influx. A lot of people saw New Orleans as the Peace Corps with better food.”

It makes for a good story: “GET CAUGHT in our BRAIN STORMS,” read banners hanging from downtown lightposts.

But there is also something to it.

According to the Data Center, the local think tank, the city’s business startup rate lagged behind the national average before the hurricane hit, but is now 64 percent above it.

Those numbers form part of a broader post-Katrina narrative of rebirth, reform and success that coexists with a New Orleans narrative of stasis, failure and unrealized dreams. “Back and Better than Ever,” reads a headline on the convention and visitors bureau website. And indeed, much of the old charm is still here, along with new reasons for hope: New residents are reviving old traditions, and creating new ones, in art galleries, kitchens and carnival krewes. There are more homegrown restaurants than before the flood.

The entrepreneurs are a mix of locals and newcomers like Justin Bayer, the founder and chief executive of Welcome to College, a Web-based operation he hopes will revolutionize the way colleges conduct campus tours.

On a recent weekday morning, Bayer, in a T-shirt and jeans, could be found lounging on a beanbag chair in the office of 4.0 Schools, an education-themed business and nonprofit incubator.

“OK, fantastic,” he said to a potential client on the receiving end of his cellphone. “Maybe we can hook up in person …”

Bayer, 36, was lured here in January by the Idea Village, an entrepreneurial support nonprofit. His “office” is a desk at 4.0 Schools, founded by Matt Candler. Candler originally came to town to help run New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit founded in 2006 to support the pioneering public charter school movement.

During Mardi Gras, old-line carnival organizations hold private luncheons for the city’s established social set. Bayer was thrilled to be included in a luncheon last carnival season, but this one was a sly iteration of the old model.

It was hosted by a new group comprising entrepreneurs like him. In a mash-up of French and English, and with an eye to the future, the group calls itself the Krewe de Nieux. The last word is pronounced “new.”

B.W. Cooper: Public Housing Reconceived

For decades, New Orleans denizens who cast their glances just northwest of the Superdome could observe the sorry state of public housing, as exemplified by the dilapidated B.W. Cooper complex. The two- and three-story brick buildings, generally known by an older name, the Calliope (CA-lee-ope), were notorious for shoddy maintenance, residents’ poor health and shocking levels of violence.

In their place today is the far prettier Yvonne Marrero Commons: New Urbanist apartments finished with wooden siding, brightly colored front doors and broad front porches. At a glance, things look good.

But not everyone is back.

The Big Four, as a group of sprawling New Orleans housing developments were known, were home to 3,077 families before Katrina. Now, after being razed and replaced, there are 1,829 tidy apartments instead. But only about 40 percent of them are offered at traditional public housing rents, according to the housing authority, with the rest at market rates or a tier in between.

The idea was to replace many of the old units with housing vouchers, which have more than doubled in number since Katrina and are now used by nearly 18,000 families - one in 10 New Orleans households.

But in a city in which thousands of rental units were flooded and market rents are soaring, there are simply not enough vouchers to fill the need. Some former public housing residents now look back with fierce loyalty and a qualified fondness.

“You were a part of the Calliope,” said Rodney Lavalais, 29, who has the word tattooed on his right arm alongside an image of his mother. At the same time, though, he said he did not want to glamorize the realities of life there. “There was a lot of drug-selling and killing going on,” he said.

Descriptions like this drove a national trend away from large housing projects, seen as excessive concentrations of poverty, and toward a more decentralized housing strategy. The trend reached New Orleans in the 1990s, when the city received federal grants to overhaul two of the city’s public housing complexes. Work was still in progress in 2005.

It was about a year after Katrina when the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a more ambitious plan: the demolition and rebuilding of the Big Four. The decision set off protests, including clashes at City Hall, with many arguing that the plan undermined the return of the city’s poorest residents, virtually all of them African-American.

These days, those who live in the new complexes are pleased. The apartments have appliances and central air-conditioning, which the old ones lacked. Some complexes also offer movie theaters and fitness rooms. Police tape is a rare sight.

“It’s a new Jerusalem,” said Emelda Paul, 81, a longtime resident leader in Lafitte, another onetime Big Four site.

For Lavalais, who lives outside the neighborhood now, Marrero Commons is a touchstone, a place for him to extend handshakes and kisses to neighbors he has known since the third grade. But the college students and young professionals who also live there don’t often stop and speak. Stoop-sitting is frowned upon. On some days, a new security guard will ask him and his friends to leave, saying the complex is for residents only.

For those without a unit, it can be a struggle. Landing a housing voucher takes years: a waiting list thousands of names long remains from 2009, the last time applications were accepted. Many of those who do have vouchers are happy to rent their own houses and have their own yards. Others are nomads.

“They move from house to house to house, trying to find the right environment for their kids and a landlord who’s not a slumlord,” said Alfred Marshall, 56, a Marrero Commons resident.

A recent report found that a quarter of the vouchers were used in only nine census tracts, most of which were “high-poverty” areas. Lavalais’ mother rents in one of them, in New Orleans East.

“It’s better,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say good.”

Lakeview

A Wealthier Do-Over

Drive around Lakeview just south of Lake Pontchartrain, and there are signs of a fine, flourishing moment. Young mothers in workout gear push expensive strollers. Big, handsome homes have replaced smaller ones. A gift store called Little Miss Muffin, full of housewares and baby clothes, has doubled to 6,000 square feet in the years since Katrina.

The success of this mostly white neighborhood shows how the haves of New Orleans, not surprisingly, were destined to have an easier time rebuilding than its have-nots. For instance, the haves could pay rent on a temporary place while paying a mortgage on a destroyed home. They could use private funds to improve those homes while waiting for government rebuilding subsidies. And they could hire lawyers, as needed, to navigate the sea of paperwork.

You could call it gentrification, if the gentry hadn’t already been here before Aug. 29, 2005, when a levee on the 17th Street Canal breached and flooded Lakeview about as badly as any neighborhood in New Orleans.

You could call it a comeback, but it’s a bit more than that - the neighborhood is a little richer, a little younger, a little tonier.

Residents of Lakeview tend to bristle at talk of their improved fortunes. Even though the average household income here in 2000 was more than twice that of the Lower 9th Ward, there were always gradations of wealth. And they say rebuilding was difficult for everyone.

“It kind of irks me when people say how affluent it was,” said Ann LeBlanc, an attorney and past president of the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association. “There were a lot of small homes.”

Today it is a neighborhood full of optimism and mourning, gratitude and regret. The Little Miss Muffin boutique had the opportunity to expand because the business owners next door did not come back.

Simone Bruni, 43, lost her home in Katrina, and her job as a party planner. She also lost neighbors who couldn’t afford to get back home. “They could hardly afford the demo,” she said of one couple who lived four doors down.

But Katrina also made Bruni. Ten months after the storm, she began to festoon the ruined neighborhood with signs for her new venture, a company that she cheekily named the Demo Diva. She deployed hot pink Dumpsters and work trucks, and built a multimillion-dollar business tearing down ruined homes.

Many of the original, smaller Lakeview houses have been replaced with grander homes that replicate the 19th-century styles of the Uptown and Garden District neighborhoods.

It’s a subtle but telling aesthetic shift for a neighborhood where historically, many residents were proud to consider themselves a little less stuffy than the Uptown social set.

“I’m very happy that the neighborhood has been rebuilt, and is prospering, and, you know, it’s bigger and better in some ways,” said Jean Clavier, 56, who fixed up and reinhabited her three-bedroom house. “But it doesn’t have the true sense of Lakeview, in that everybody tore down the little house that I remember as a little kid and put up these monstrous houses. There are a lot of people in this neighborhood now that aren’t even from New Orleans.”

New Orleans East: A City of Charter Schools

Paris Road runs across the eastern reaches of the city, one of the first parts of New Orleans to see the sun come up. The sky had barely begun to blush when 9-year-old Serenity Murdock rolled her backpack down the sidewalk, trailed by her little brother, King.

It was just after 6 on an August morning, the first day of school. The two youngest Murdock children were in for a long bus ride to KIPP Believe Primary, a charter school 18 miles away in the oak-lined streets of Uptown.

They would not be home again for 11 hours.

There is perhaps no topic of the last 10 years as polarizing: a piecemeal state-run experiment begun before Katrina that took off afterward into the most radical education overhaul in the country.

What had been a perpetually failing and corruption-battered school system is now hardly a system at all, but rather a decentralized network of largely autonomous charter schools, with some of the biggest name brands in education, like KIPP, represented along with homegrown versions.

Most of them are part of the Recovery School District, which took over low-performing schools and encompasses most of the schools in New Orleans. It is the nation’s only all-charter school district. A remnant of the former city school district also remains, and it, too, is mostly made up of charter schools, meaning that more than 9 out of 10 schools in the city are now charters - the highest proportion in the nation.

Failing schools are shut down or taken over by other charter networks, union contracts are nearly nonexistent, test scores are scrutinized and parents all across the city vie for spots in the best performing schools.

Supporters call it the greatest single development since Katrina, giving choice to poor families and backing up promises with evidence of performance.

Critics, who say the evidence tells a different story, see the new teachers, many of them young, white and transitory, and describe a crusade by outsiders to wrest control of the school system from locals.

“They’re treating our school system like a business and our children like commodities,” the parent of a 6-year-old said at a recent education forum.

The neighborhood school is more or less a thing of the past here. Parents apply through a citywide lottery to scores of schools runs by dozens of boards; there are at least 15 different first days of public school across New Orleans. This is an oft-heard frustration by parents at community meetings.

Kenneth Murdock, the father of King and Serenity, is fine with it. He likes the school, and no longer likes his neighborhood.

The suburb-within-a-city known as New Orleans East stretches for miles, a wide band of starter homes and mini-mansions. For years it was the dreamland of working-class whites and then of the aspiring African-Americans who took their place - the doctors, lawyers and schoolteachers who formed the backbone of the city’s black middle class.

When the levees breached, the East flooded catastrophically. It had already been struggling. Now it is poorer. Many professionals chose to stay in Houston. Veteran teachers, laid off by the thousands after Katrina, thus making the school overhaul possible, sought new jobs in Atlanta or Baton Rouge. Many of those once in public housing moved in.

As for his children’s school, Murdock said: “I got no complaints about KIPP at all,” adding that his children were now reading at advanced grade levels. He noted that a good education would give them a choice about whether to stay in New Orleans, or leave.

To be honest, Murdock said, he most liked the schools in Corpus Christi, Texas. He spent two years there after Katrina, working at Wal-Mart and T.G.I. Fridays, before returning here to work as a jack-of-all-trades at Brennan’s, the famed French Quarter restaurant.

He watched a police car turn a still-dark corner, where a body had been found dead a few days before. Texas was quieter, he said.

And yet, Murdock, who was wearing a T-shirt from one of the many hopefully named volunteer rebuilding groups, had returned.

“It’s true that not everybody has come back as fast and that we haven’t solved all the problems in the world since Katrina hit,” the mayor, Mitch Landrieu, said.

He tallied up the institutional makeovers - in education, public housing, health care and more - a litany of changes he sees as beginning to undo decades of negligence. “But here’s the thing,” the mayor said. “It takes generations for that to happen.”

At seven minutes after 6, the school bus arrived. King and Serenity were the first to board.

The new year was about to begin.

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