New Orleans has been through a lot. Katrina famously demolished whole neighborhoods while residents, many of them poor, suffered. Some of the storm’s effects were immediate—massive flooding, cut-off emergency services, a lack of clean water or food—and others were longer-lasting—water-borne illness, violence born of desperation, lost insurance coverage, and unemployment (to name a few). Today parts of the city are still underwater, if metaphorically. The Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods because of the failed levees, has become a jungle… literally. As residents fled, streets were left without tending, and, in time, nature has taken over.
As the New York Times reported recently, New Orleans is part of the Mississippi River delta. Silt deposits have made the soil extraordinarily fertile and plants grow rapidly. Wrangling the plant-life has always been a struggle. Now, with city and federal funding consumed by a multiplicity of projects, the poorest and least populated neighborhoods are succumbing to re-forestation. Looking at pictures of the Lower Ninth today is a bizarre practice in reconciliation. The overgrowth makes the place look ancient, almost primeval, while the remnants of city life—construction debris, trash, busted cars, broken toys—make it look post-apocalyptic.
The city seems to be trying to address the problem, but the challenge is great. Projects that clear overgrown lots have a very limited shelf life. Plants simply grow back unless they are constantly tended, and there isn’t money or manpower available for constant tending in the lower ninth. One early proposal—to make parts of the uninhabited city into green spaces—met with fierce opposition from the residents who wanted their neighborhoods restored. Unfortunately, time has made that proposal a reality.
But there is hope. Aid organizations like Brad Pitt’s Make it Right and Lowernine are working to rebuild. Their focus is on creating sustainable, economically responsible housing. Lowernine is also working on a food project with the goal of transforming parts of the Lower Ninth Ward into community gardens—harnessing the overwhelming power of nature to help feed residents.
One of the big problems the Lower Ninth faces is a lack of services. There aren’t any grocery stores close by and that limits the amount of people who can return to the area. There are empty lots everywhere. Using these lots for gardening makes economic sense, and it’s a way to beautify the neighborhood without having to rely on city or federal funding. Both organizations are looking for volunteers (here and here).