by Matt Davis
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, First Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse, Councilman Jon Johnson and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin heard the concerns of Lower Ninth Ward residents at a community budget hearing at the Martin Luther King Elementary School on Caffin Avenue this evening.
Landrieu and Johnson listen to Kopplin set the stage tonight, overlooked by an imposing portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.
Tonights forum followed on from Monday nights community budget hearing in New Orleans East, where Landrieu raised the issue of race in the context of repossessing properties in the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.
Residents tonight were frustrated by many issues. They wanted to know what has happened to all the money allocated to the district since Katrina. They were frustrated by blight in the district, closed schools, torn-up streets, flooding, lack of street lights, lack of police and fire presence, inadequate recreation facilities, lack of facilities for senior citizens, the limited scope of Brad Pitts Make It Right Foundation, lack of supermarkets and amenities, by long grass, rats, rabbits, nutria, out-of-control mosquitoes, and the growth of disaster tourism.
My mothers house is around the corner, it sits vacant, said Sharon Lamberson, a 59-year-old lifelong resident of the Ninth Ward. The Road Home [program] gave her $17,000. Thats not enough to build a decent carport.
How come the only buses that are coming out here are looking at Brad Pitts houses? asked another resident, Patrick Shannon Spears.
Theres an equity ordinance, and somebodys going to go to jail for failing to spend the citys recovery dollars on the black neighborhoods, said Vanessa Gueringer.
Jason Freeman: Angry about disaster tourism, long grass...
I live right where the levy breach was between Prieur and Roman [streets], said Jason Freeman. I realize that we dont have as many homes as the rest of the Ninth Ward, theres only two of us on our block, said But the city cuts the grass once every eight weeks, on the unoccupied land the grass is taller than us.
There are all these people coming through the neighborhood a lady told me she paid $35 at her hotel to come on a bus tour of the devastation in the Ninth Ward, Freeman continued. And none of that money comes to us.
When the tour buses come into the city to see Brad Pitts houses, the buses come past my house and they shake it. Whos going to fix my house, now? asked Rosa Ulmer. And what do I do with the snakes? I had two in my yard yesterday. I have empty lots around my area, so that the snakes and the rats and the raccoons visit me on a daily basis. We have kids that want to play in the area but they cant because of the snakes and the rats and the raccoons.
One lady prompted laughter when said she called the police for snakes, and was told the police dont come out for snakes. Read more including Landrieu's responses after the jump.
Landrieu and Johnson appeared attentive, albeit relaxed this evening.
NORD wasnt really that good to the Ninth Ward before Katrina, said Elizabeth Fletcher, who was born and raised in the neighborhood. We need programs, we need tutoring, we need mentoring and opportunities for our young people to thrive and flourish. If we dont put more schools in, and more places to plant those seeds, then our community is not going to continue to grow.
Landrieu responded, after the community had weighed in. Again, he raised the question of when is the right time to start repossessing blighted properties in the district.
About the issue of blight, now heres the tough question: When is the day? asked Landrieu. When is the day when the city says okay weve passed the time and we now have to start enforcing grass, broken down buildings, etcetera? Because its a tough issue. This deals with our brothers and sisters, our aunts and uncles that may be coming back, but then there are also people who are here living next to vacant lots.
Landrieu asked the crowd to raise their hands if they wanted the properties repossessed. Many did. What Im hearing is that the overwhelming thing was now, said Landrieu.
Now, said the crowd, in a low chorus.
Landrieu also said he expects President Barack Obama to allocated more lump sum funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency shortly $83 million was allocated to schools for the area by FEMA, that were not rebuilt. The mayor said he would talk to Sheriff Marlin Gusman about getting inmates to cut the Ninth Ward grass.
Landrieu said the city is going to launch a $7.4 million fresh foods retail initiative designed to attract grocery stores to underserved areas providing grants, loans, and technical assistance. He said preventative health clinics are a priority, and highlighted his negotiations to reopen Methodist Hospital. Theres also a $25 million community redevelopment grant coming down the pipe, he promised.
Landrieu raised the issue of a millage to improve NORD, after an audience member said hed be willing to pay more taxes to see NORD better funded. Landrieu pledged to improve NORD by the time his first term is over.
Toward the end of the evening, Landrieu addressed the issue of trust.
I was on that bridge the first day, I've been here. I know that Im an elected official and a politician and you dont trust me, said Landrieu. But Im going to tell you a story. I was in a boat down here, and I had to rescue a man in his underwear, and he said 'I cannot believe that you have to come get me.
I said, Did you see me on the TV and the radio? You know me and I told you the storm was coming and you should leave, why didnt you leave? said Landrieu. And he said, We dont trust anything you politicians say.
I got my 53 percent down here and that can either go up to 65 percent, or it can go down to 10, he said.
Nobodys interested in drive-by tours, said Landrieu. So Im going to communicate that to the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Because we dont need that. This is uncomfortable.
The Lower Ninth is an important part of America, said Landrieu. And though people in this country have tried to write Lower Nine off, we cannot write it off.