A Quiet Progress in New Orleans

Three years after Katrina, residents are finding new reasons to hope.

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The climb is indeed arduous. But there are some milestones. The city's public school system, once considered among the country's worst, is undergoing a renaissance as a laboratory for charter schools. With more autonomy and stricter rules of behavior, the charter schools are showing evidence of outperforming their traditional peers, though officials admit it's hard to compare pre and poststorm data. Civic activism is also reaching new heights, and the city is responding.

NORA officials are fanning across the city to personally engage residents about the future of damaged properties. On a recent visit to Bellow's house, Williams and an assistant used PowerPoints to painstakingly explain the agency's plan to bring to market the thousands of Road Home properties. There are possibilities for new libraries, parks, or schools. The city is giving neighbors a crack at purchasing next- door lots and wants most properties to stay in the hands of individual homeowners. But developers, who have been blamed for concentrations of low-income rental housing, will undoubtedly be part of the recovery effort. Bellow spoke for the half dozen gathered at her home when she told Williams, "If you sell to a developer, you don't know what they're going to do." Williams admitted there were no guarantees with developers but expressed the mayor's desire for more mixed-income housing.

While the rebuilding process has exposed the many gulfs of class and race in New Orleans, it has also been a unifying force. Bellow's neighbors swap tales of haranguing city officials—to dredge canals or clean up abandoned properties—like war stories. Before the storm, New Orleans had maybe 120 active neighborhood associations. Now, dormant organizations have been revived, and despite a dramatically smaller city, 30 new groups have been created. While there are no cranes in the sky, there are hammers, saws, and drills in homes across the city. "It doesn't have the same visual pop," admits one NORA official. "We had the most photogenic disaster in history and the least photogenic recovery."

The recovery process is likely to accelerate as the flow of federal dollars increasingly reaches homeowners like Julian Hamilton. His Lower Ninth Ward home sat for weeks in 5 feet of water. After 2½ years, with help from Road Home and the nonprofit group acorn, the house is nearly refurbished, with a new kitchen, and for the first time, central air conditioning, and insulation. Hamilton criticizes the city's response in his neighborhood, but says he's optimistic. "I see my neighbors returning," he says. "I expect the Lower Ninth to be much better than it was before." That's what NORA's Williams wants to hear. "It will be five years before you see significant visual change," he says. Williams calls the progress to date "winning ugly," but in New Orleans today, there may not be any other kind. b