A self-guided tour through the built and natural environment of the Ninth Ward. Photographs by the author, sound by Ben Phelps-Rohrs. (Please use headphones.)
In late 2005, a few months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the moribund New Orleans tourist industry began offering “Katrina Tours.” Big Easy Tours charges forty-three dollars for a three-hour bus ride through devastated areas of the city, neighborhoods most passengers have seen before in the images shown on television for a few weeks after the hurricane: collapsed roofs cradling upturned cars, stranded residents frantically waving their hands at passing news helicopters, corpses drifting alongside sodden couches down the channels that coursed through the Lower Ninth Ward, emptying finally into the Industrial Canal.
I noticed these businesses in October 2006, when I first visited New Orleans to work on ACORN Housing’s community-based “People’s Plan” for rebuilding the Lower and Upper Ninth Ward. (I returned three times over the next year and a half.) Tour buses drove through mostly decimated neighborhoods—camera flashes flickering from behind closed windows—as locals worked to rebuild their homes and their lives. All the attention left Lower Ninth residents deeply ambivalent; though wary of seeing their misfortunes turned into a spectacle for the ogling eyes of outsiders, they nonetheless hoped the laggard process of rebuilding would gather speed if more visitors from other parts of the country were to witness the dismal condition of their neighborhoods and the mystifying absence of any substantial reconstruction effort. But their hope proved abortive. As the attention of the mass media has waned, so has the willingness of residents to brook these hourly incursions. Cajun Encounters recently suspended tours of the Ninth Ward, explaining gingerly that residents “have asked us not to enter those areas any longer.”
I first considered this “disaster tourism” as an extension of the phenomenon of “slum tourism” increasingly common in Rio de Janeiro, as well as Mumbai and Nairobi. (There is a precedent in our country: In the ’90s, out-of-towners made pilgrimages to soak up scenes of life in South Bronx.) A typical tourist thought of Rio and New Orleans as meccas of tropical bacchanal, with grand old buildings imbuing their colonialist histories with a sensuous, charming aspect—one that was further enhanced by the hedonistic nightlife, musical diversity, and raucous festivals of Carnival and Mardi Gras. That such imagery obscured the tremendous disparity between rich and poor was beside the point; that is not what the tourists came to see. Now, with the proliferation of “socially responsible” tourist excursions to third-world sites, many come for precisely that reason.
Favela tours cater to a market that wants a face-to-face encounter with “the real Rio”; they simultaneously fortify and debunk stereotypes regarding violence and poverty by showcasing those conditions while also arranging for benign elements of the affected populations to mingle with (and peddle cooperatively produced wares to) the tourist. The film City of God
helped foster a thriving industry around exporting images of Rio’s slums to Western audiences. In New Orleans, the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, along with Spike Lee’s nationally televised documentary When the Levees Broke
, had a similar effect.
The Katrina tours are not only composed of visitors taking a break from their French Quarter revelry to gawk at the destruction wrought by nature’s fury and government negligence; they also cater to real estate speculators, volunteer groups working on disaster relief, and attendees of the numerous professional conferences held in the Central Business District. From the vantage point of a bus seat, with a “real New Orleanian” holding forth on the community’s traditions and lore, these patrons are able to glimpse what they cannot experience: life in the Lower Ninth Ward, before and after. The slight distortion of the aisle speakers, the quarter-inch lens of the glass windows, and the steady speed of the bus itself all conspire to perfect the image of history recently made.
From above and below
I began to think of my own presence in New Orleans as that of a walker, my experience of the city taking place at the same speed and from the same vantage point as those of the residents with whom I worked—however else our experiences differed. Only I would walk not just from one point to the next, in between bus stops and neighbors’ houses, but to all points across an area designed to make foot traffic between neighborhoods nearly impossible. Drawing on my particular obsession with the literature on walking and urbanism—I was, after all, a graduate student in urban planning at the time—I set out to wander attentively and deliberately through the Lower Ninth Ward. I hoped that such a perspective could be an antidote—more realistically, a momentary alternative—to the omniscient view presented by news cameras, the aerial photographs that dominate contemporary cartography and urban planning, and the pointedly limited vantage point offered by tourist buses.
In the cities of the developed world, walking is no longer the most common mode of transportation. In fact, nearly all advances in transportation technology and urban design have impeded free movement on foot. In “Walking in the City,” a 1984 essay that helped shape my understanding of this phenomenon, and one I found myself reading repeatedly during the time I spent working in New Orleans, French philosopher Michel de Certeau writes, “The ordinary practitioners of the city live ‘down below,’ below the thresholds at which visibility begins.” From the top of the World Trade Center, he saw Manhattan as an image of order and geometric discipline, in contrast with the messy, dynamic configurations observable at street level, where walking constitutes “an elementary form of the experience of the city.” The movements of people become “intersecting writings” with “neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alternations of spaces; in relation to representations, it remains daily and indefinitely other.”
What I saw while walking was a desolate environment mostly devoid of people, haunted by infrastructure meant to accommodate railroads and ships and suburban commuters, the supply of which has been significantly depleted: a few smudged lines across a crumpled canvas, running up against great swaths of gray paint. The built environment has moved to the foreground; it speaks to its own absence of purpose in today’s New Orleans, and it speaks where there is otherwise silence.
What follows, then, is a tour of sorts, a walk through the remnants of the Ninth Ward (as it was last March), accompanied by a conversation with some of its residents
The physical isolation of the Ninth Ward is partly topographic, but mostly a result of “urban renewal” programs that circumscribed the area with a highway, freight yards, and the Industrial Canal. What remains is an assemblage of fragmented territories wedged between concrete walls and impassable barriers. The Desire and Florida public-housing developments are particularly isolated; both were once densely populated, but neither was resettled after Katrina drove out their occupants. The bleak concrete blocks sit on a plot of land in the Upper Ninth Ward that is separated from the rest of the city by freight-train tracks, highways, and an industrial waterfront. Desire, the site of a showdown between the Black Panthers and New Orleans police in 1970, has recently been redeveloped as “New Desire”—the developers call it “Abundance Square”—at one-fifth of its original population density.
To get to the Hurricane Katrina memorial, one must first cross this bridge, the only pedestrian passage connecting the Desire Projects to points east, including the Florida projects and the Lower Ninth. The bridge is fortified by rusted chain-link walls and spans a long drainage ditch secured by barbed-wire fencing. Though originally constructed for pedestrians and cyclists, it’s difficult to imagine it as anything other than a foreboding, claustrophobic passageway—the single concession to human settlement in the midst of an otherwise off-limits drainage project. At the time these photos were taken, there were no streetlights, crosswalks, or signals alerting pedestrians to passing freight trains; both housing projects were still closed, despite the fact that Florida was not badly damaged by the hurricane.
Just past the bridge and the nearby Florida projects, one comes across this meeting of train tracks and an elevated highway. The tracks were laid in the early 1900s to transport goods to and from the Port of New Orleans, the self-proclaimed “world’s busiest waterway”; the highway, Interstate 10, which extends to California, was constructed in the late 1950s to ease canal traffic and serve the suburbs ensconced on the city’s perimeters. The effect was not only to bypass the Ninth Ward but also to immobilize its residents.
Finding a path
The closest way across the Industrial Canal is a drawbridge on Florida Avenue, and it does not offer pedestrian access, its sidewalks having been reduced to rubble by Katrina and never repaired. The Upper Ninth Ward was originally planned as an industrial sector, and the right-of-way granted to passing barges is now absolute.
Unable to cross here, one must find a nearby railroad bridge marked by a path of worn underbrush where others have walked. Because of the high train traffic, a wait of twenty minutes or more is not unusual.
Beneath the ships
Moving east, one passes the ramp leading up to the St. Claude Avenue Bridge, the ultimate symbol of the Lower Ninth Ward’s isolation from the rest of the city. Here, residents have painted graffiti expressing their grief and frustration, turning the space into a popular memorial to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The ramp must rise significantly above the ground to span the Industrial Canal, which is at sea level. From this vantage point, ships appear to glide across the horizon.
St. Claude Avenue
The St. Claude Avenue Bridge is the only way pedestrians can reach the rest of the city from the Lower Ninth Ward. (For some months after Katrina, it was also the only route of access for cars.) It crosses the Industrial Canal, which was constructed in the 1940s to allow large ships easier passage from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. The metal-grid catwalks on both sides of the drawbridge are only wide enough for one person to pass at a time. During the hurricane, many residents took refuge atop the bridge, as the neighborhood beneath it was swallowed by water. It is now common to see tour buses crossing the bridge in either direction.
Crossing into the Lower Ninth, one immediately notices how many houses still bear the spray-painted notices left by rescuers and disaster-relief workers. These X-shaped markings indicate the date the house was searched, which National Guard unit completed the search, and how many bodies were found, and occasionally include notes or warnings for future rescue parties. In wealthier parts of the city, such markings were made on the sidewalks outside people’s homes.
On the western edge of the Lower Ninth stands the Industrial Canal levee, the most enduring symbol of the effects of transportation infrastructure on life in the community. The original levee collapsed under the weight of the storm; across the street, one can see the expansive green field where dozens of homes destroyed by the surge of water once stood. It is widely agreed that the replacement levee could not withstand a hurricane equivalent to Katrina.
The final destination, the Hurricane Katrina memorial, is located just before the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, which lacks pedestrian access. In the background are FEMA trailers, the standard housing stock of a neighborhood lumbering toward recovery. The site stands as a memorial to the people who lost their lives in the hurricane: The blue poles show the water levels in various parts of the city in the storm’s aftermath, and the red structure symbolizes a house being built.
The memorial is also symbolic of another aspect of the Lower Ninth Ward, one that existed before and persists long after Hurricane Katrina. It is located in a median directly past the off-ramp of a high-speed road, and there are no crosswalks in sight. The memorial is meant to be seen from the window of a car or tour bus, not visited.