The view from Horne's front porch is bleak: a weedy lot; the dark, gutted house of a dead neighbor; and beyond that, a derelict subdivision stretching as far as the eye can see. Occasionally a bird swoops in or out of a broken window. A ripped chain-link fence borders the abandoned affordable-housing development, which never reopened after Hurricane Katrina forced its operator, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), to close it more than six years ago.
"One day my baby granddaughter was sitting out on the porch swing, and she said, ‘Why does that building have eyes? It looks like it's looking at us,' " Horne, a retired school custodian, says. "I said, ‘Baby, they're supposed to be windows and doors to keep little girls like you safe.' "
Horne used a grant supplied by the state to rebuild her tidy ranch-style house from the ground up after Katrina. For reasons both emotional and financial, she never seriously considered not doing so. "We don't have any other place," she says quietly. "This is where I raised my children. We can't afford to go anywhere else."
Upon her return, she installed a jungle gym in the backyard and, inside, a plush sofa with plenty of room for chatting with the neighbors she expected would return. They haven't. The population of Horne's neighborhood, Desire, has dropped 68 percent since 2000, falling from 3,791 to 1,213 in 2010, U.S. Census data show. Where there were once occupied homes, weeds grow. The only commercial establishment for miles is the Money and Honey One Stop, a concrete-fronted corner store with unpredictable hours and an inventory heavy on 99-cent soda and hot potato chips.
Though New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu's recovery plan includes putting a $11 million community center and health clinic in this Upper 9th Ward neighborhood, the only city project to be completed so far is a modestly outfitted park with a small swimming pool, a few sports fields and a Kaboom playground donated to the neighborhood. On warm fall evenings, the sound of children playing football reverberates through otherwise quiet streets.
"No traffic. Nothing. It's a ghost town other than the park," a neighbor, Hardy Price, says. Price is one of four residents on his block. One of the others is his adult son, who lives across the street. The remaining two are renters who moved in next door after the property's prior owner moved to Texas following Katrina and converted his home into a Section 8 rental.
The weeds were growing high in the Upper 9th Ward long before Landrieu took office—and indeed, even before the hurricane hit. For more than a decade before that disaster, a quieter one was unfolding, one that caused residents of the nearly 100 percent black, largely low-income community to live alongside a potentially lethal legacy of federal policy decisions. In the case of Horne's neighborhood, the decisions were spectacular failures. Her house, as well as the abandoned HANO development she sees from her front porch and the public elementary school where she worked and her grandchildren studied, were built atop a 95-acre municipal dump.
Despite its devastation, the Upper 9th Ward has received far less attention than the Lower 9th, which sits several miles to the southeast, across the Industrial Canal, where a levee failure during Katrina sent 20 feet of floodwater surging into the neighborhood.
At a town hall meeting in September, residents begged Landrieu to invest in their neighborhood. "We have not a medical center, nothing for our senior citizens. We have a bus that goes nowhere. We need you, Mr. Mayor," one resident exhorted Landrieu. "When you were running for your seat, you didn't have to ask us. We stood by you. But now you done forgot about us." A booming round of applause punctuated the woman's comments.
Shrinking Cities , Big Worries
Welcome to the new normal—where entire swaths of city neighborhoods deteriorate behind fences and no one is too surprised when a child invents a story to explain why so many buildings in her community are vacant. The circumstances that brought New Orleans' neighborhoods into their current limbo are a combination of singular events and larger national trends. Many communities around the country currently confront similar fates. For evidence, look to the urban prairies of Detroit; Youngstown, Ohio; and Flint, Mich. In the case of New Orleans, the storm immediately preceding abandonment was Katrina. In these other cities, it was the slower winds of economic and political change, the foreclosure crisis, decades of urban population loss, spending cuts, and federal policy changes. Now cities must decide how to proceed: continue to maintain support for communities built with earlier generations of public support or simply disinvest?
"We are paying a big price for decades of bad decisions at local, state and federal levels," says Dan Kildee, president and co-founder of the Center for American Progress, a national nonprofit that focuses on urban revitalization. "We are paying the price of decades without a vision."
Obama is the first president to admit loud and clear that new strategies must be followed in communities like Desire, where there are houses and no one to fill them or fix them. Unlike prior administrations that have changed individual programs and hinted at a broader need to reshape the way the federal government supports urban development, Obama's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, has said from Day One that the agency's entire approach must be transformed to take into account changing economic and environmental considerations as well as new geography of poverty that has populations once concentrated in cities dispersed across ever sprawling suburban regions.
Indeed, the New Orleans housing officials who made the decision to build affordable housing on a landfill in the Desire neighborhood were not acting in a vacuum. Rather, they built in line with the theory that many argue guided urban development across the country throughout the 20th century—the notion that the health of cities depends on sustained growth, particularly in the area of housing, America's favorite economic indicator.