Bouncing Back from the Bottom Up: KSG students volunteer to help save New Orleans neighborhood

Part I in a series of first-hand accounts from March, 2006

March 27, 2006
Nick Grudin

New Orleans — Walking down a city block in the heart of New Orleans, it seems like Hurricane Katrina struck last week rather than half a year ago. Smashed and abandoned cars straddle sidewalks, body counts remain spray-painted on front doors, and toxic mold grows inside boarded and condemned homes.
I spent the last week in Broadmoor, a neighborhood at the heart of New Orleans, as part of an ongoing Harvard volunteer effort organized by Doug Ahlers, a senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center. After Katrina hit, the breach in the levees submerged this community of more than 7,000 residents, killing five and dislocating nearly everybody. In the months since, some planners have suggested that the particularly low-lying neighborhood should be leveled in favor of open space, despite the fact that thousands of residents have returned and are resolved to stay put.
While in Broadmoor, I worked with a small team of students from the Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School to help a community group called the Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA) structure a redevelopment plan for the neighborhood. This week, 25 more students — predominantly from the Kennedy School, but also from Harvard’s schools of design and law — are joining the effort to write that plan.
As a student at the Kennedy School of Government, I have spent the last two years learning about the theories, ideals, and iterations of democracy. But it was not until I stepped into a Broadmoor neighborhood association meeting that I saw self-government in its rawest form — citizens organizing to save their own livelihood.
“When I moved to Broadmoor, I knew I would work my butt off to make the community better,” BIA President LaToya Cantrell told the neighborhood’s Urban Planning Committee in an impassioned appeal last week. “Now, after Katrina, there couldn’t be a better time.”
In the face of death, destruction, and government inaction, Broadmoor is determined to save itself. Community members are writing their own redevelopment plan, not only for survival, but for wide-ranging revitalization.
Alhers, a New Orleans native, says the Harvard student volunteers not only provide useful manpower and expertise for the planning effort, but also an inspiration for New Orleanians who have started to feel abandoned by the rest of the nation.
“It is clear how energized the residents of Broadmoor have become with the arrival of these Harvard students. The community now feels they know the task that needs to be accomplished and they are confident in their ability to get it done,” Ahlers said.
It is impossible to leave Post-Katrina New Orleans without feeling exhausted and saddened. The challenge of resuscitating a major American city is daunting, and the relics of destruction remain stark. But something is undoubtedly stirring beneath the rubble. It can be heard in the echoing bangs of a hammer against a new doorframe, in the loud clap of two-by-fours tossed into a truck-bed, and in the distant buzz of a chainsaw dislodging a felled tree. While it is still faint, New Orleans has a pulse, and it’s getting stronger.

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