Wendell Pierce on the tragedy and triumph of New Orleans after Katrina: “It’s created a schism between the haves and have-nots” – SCOTT TIMBERG SATURDAY, SEP 5, 2015 11:30 AM PDT


Salon talks to Wendell Pierce, star of “The Wire,” to discusses his poignant new book “The Wind in the Reeds”

Wendell Pierce on the tragedy and triumph of New Orleans after Katrina: "It’s created a schism between the haves and have-nots"

When the actor Wendell Pierce returned to his native New Orleans in the summer of 2005, he saw a city that was 80 percent underwater.

“Nearly fifteen hundred people were dead. Half the houses in the city had four feet of water in them, or more. There was no electricity or clean water in the city; looting and the breakdown of civil order would soon follow.”

You can remember these bare outlines and still be startled by the immediate and direct way that Pierce, best known for his roles in “The Wire” and the post-flood saga “Treme,” recounts them in his new book. “The Wind in the Reeds” tells of his deep roots in the city, the catastrophe of Katrina, and his experience acting in David Simon’s celebrated series. The center of the book is his intertwined effort to put on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in post-Katrina New Orleans and to help bring back his old neighborhood.

We spoke to Pierce about art, tragedy, his city and its past and future. The interview has been slightly condensed for clarity.

The first part of “The Wind in the Reeds” gives a detailed picture of your family history, the establishment of the black middle-class neighborhood Pontchartrain Park, and your own early years. Your childhood exposure to music, the arts and culture in general made a powerful, and it seems, permanent impression on your life. How did it end up hitting you so hard?

One of things about growing up in New Orleans is that we live our culture. It is part of our life. It is something that you wake up in the morning with; when it comes to our cuisine, you hear music constantly, in every part of your life there is music included. So I always knew culture to be part of my life, and something of great importance.

 

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In Measuring Post-Katrina Recovery, A Racial Gap Emerges – Cheryl Corley AUGUST 15, 2015 8:42 AM ET


 

Large homes and lush lawns are common in Lake Forest Estates, a subdivision in New Orleans East. After Katrina, 6-foot-deep flood waters devastated the region.

Large homes and lush lawns are common in Lake Forest Estates, a subdivision in New Orleans East. After Katrina, 6-foot-deep flood waters devastated the region. Cheryl Corley/NPR

 

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How can you tell if a city has come back from a tragedy as devastating as Hurricane Katrina?

Ten years after the levees failed in New Orleans, and the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, whipped up by Hurricane Katrina, flooded most of the city, New Orleans residents say there’s been much progress since then.

A new NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that a majority surveyed — 54 percent — says New Orleans has mostly recovered, measured by returning population, new housing, jobs, infrastructure and quality of life.

Break the results down by race, however, and the numbers show a big gap. Just 44 percent of black New Orleanians think the city has come back. The number is much higher for white residents, at 70 percent.

In the Broadmoor area, one of the most diverse in New Orleans, residents fought down plans to turn a parcel of low-lying land into a park. Now a new library and community center at the site hosts classes, clubs and events.

“This is one of the anchors the community worked really, really hard to rebuild and to renovate in the years after the storm,” says Emily Wolf, director of the Broadmoor Improvement Association.

Cheri Babich (center) and her friends gather at the Broadmoor library for a weekly game of mahjong. Residents rallied to save the building after the low-lying area was designated to become a park in the aftermath of extensive Katrina-related flooding.i

Cheri Babich (center) and her friends gather at the Broadmoor library for a weekly game of mahjong. Residents rallied to save the building after the low-lying area was designated to become a park in the aftermath of extensive Katrina-related flooding.

Cheryl Corley/NPR

On this day, a group of friends has come in to play its regularly scheduled game of Mahjong. They’re white, and one of them, Cheri Babich, is enthusiastic about the city’s prospects.

“Now we’ve got young people moving in here,” Babich says. “There’s new restaurants opening every week. It’s just amazing. So many people are just bustling around and working. It’s great.”

Some areas have more people and housing than even before Katrina. Mary Logsdon, who lives in one of those neighborhoods, says there’s a bit of a downside to the boom.

“Rents have gotten unbelievably high,” Logsdon says.

For many long-time residents, rents are unaffordable and they’ve had to move elsewhere. But two-thirds of whites and those with higher incomes say the recovery efforts have helped people like them, either some or a lot.

About 10 miles northeast of Broadmoor is the Lake Forest Estates subdivision, one of several neighborhoods in the New Orleans East region. Houses here are big, lawns expansive.

Realtor Sylvia Scineaux-Richard, a black former biology professor, describes this neighborhood as well-to-do.

Realtor Sylvia Scineaux-Richard says residents of New Orleans East were among the first to return to repair flood-damaged homes. Scineaux-Richard doesn't expect New Orleans to fully recover from Hurricane Katrina for another five to 10 years.

Realtor Sylvia Scineaux-Richard says residents of New Orleans East were among the first to return to repair flood-damaged homes. Scineaux-Richard doesn’t expect New Orleans to fully recover from Hurricane Katrina for another five to 10 years. Cheryl Corley/NPR

“You’re not going to see a whole lot of blight in these areas here, because people had invested quite a bit of money in these homes, as you can see,” Scineaux-Richard says. “These are not throw-away types of properties.”

Most of the homes here are occupied; in other areas of New Orleans East, not so much. One reason for the disparity is the way the rebuilding grants worked. The Louisiana Road Home program maxed out federal rebuilding money at a home’s pre-Katrina value, meaning more money for wealthier homeowners and substantially less for those in poorer neighborhoods.

Civil rights activists and homeowners filed suit, accusing the program of discrimination. A settlement eventually allowed homeowners to apply for additional funds.

Scineaux-Richard says there should be more of a focus on New Orleans East.

“New Orleans East deserves to have the rebirth here and the renovation as a priority, because we were so badly devastated and damaged,” she says.

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http://www.npr.org/2015/08/15/432254189/in-measuring-post-katrina-recovery-a-racial-gap-emerges

Texas Abortion Case May Hinge On Definition of ‘Undue Burden’ – CARRIE FEIBEL JANUARY 08, 201512:28 PM ET


Women with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health demonstrate Wednesday outside the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A federal appeals court in New Orleans is considering whether a Texas law puts up an unconstitutional obstacle to women seeking abortions.

Women with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health demonstrate Wednesday outside the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A federal appeals court in New Orleans is considering whether a Texas law puts up an unconstitutional obstacle to women seeking abortions. Jonathan Bachman/AP

A part of a Texas abortion law — one that requires that any clinic performing abortions meet stringent, hospital-like medical standards — is on trial this week in a U.S. appeals court.

The effect of the law has already been dramatic in Texas. Before it passed, a year and a half ago, more than 40 clinics provided abortions in the state. Now there are about 17 such facilities. If this part of the law is reinstated, about 10 facilities would close, leaving vast distances between some residents and the nearest clinic.

Opponents of the law say the loss of these clinics puts an “undue burden,” a specific legal standard, on women who seek an abortion. Proponents argue that the strict requirements for clinics protect the safety of these woman.

In the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, on Wednesday, the judges responsible for rendering a decision in the case sharply questioned both sides, leaving little sign of which way they are leaning.

Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell, the solicitor general representing Texas, argued that the state’s law doesn’t place an “undue burden” on women seeking to exercise their federal right to abortion just because they may have to drive farther than they would have had to before the law was passed. (Courts use the “undue burden test” to determine if a legislature has passed a law so restrictive that it interferes with a person’s constitutional rights.)

“The undue burden has to require something more than driving distance,” Mitchell told the judges. “People will have to travel to get abortions in Texas, but that’s always the case. People will always have to travel to get an abortion.”

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http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2015/01/08/375725066/texas-abortion-case-may-hinge-on-definition-of-undue-burden

For ex-cons, finding housing may become less difficult in the Big Easy – by Elaisha Stokes August 14, 2014 5:00AM ET


New Orleans has passed a radical policy that, if implemented, would for the first time admit ex-felons to public housingScreen Shot 2014-08-14 at Aug 14, 2014 4.05

NEW ORLEANS — Charleis Williams’ problems began last May. After she had lived in a modest four-bedroom home in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans for six years, her landlord decided he wanted out of the business. He was old and had recently suffered a heart attack. Taking care of property was no longer his priority, so he decided to sell the house — empty. He gave Williams 30 days to pack up her seven children and all their belongings and find a new place to live.

For Williams, the move should have been simple. She had a Section 8 voucher through the New Orleans Public Housing Authority that would subsidize $1,100 of her rent. All she needed to do was find a new landlord to accept it.

Trouble was, no one would accept her voucher.

“I have put in an application on at least 12 places in the last two months,” said Williams. “But I still don’t have a place to live.”

Several years ago Williams was charged with theft when a friend she was out shopping with stole a couple of CDs from the local Walmart. She pleaded guilty and was released on probation. In April, she was charged again after a probation officer who had come to see her son searched her house and found her marijuana stash. The case is currently making its way through the courts. Her former landlord was aware of both charges, but didn’t seem to mind so long as Williams paid her rent on time and kept the house in good repair, which she did. But other landlords appeared to be a lot pickier.

“If I had to guess, once my background comes up, they don’t want to approve my application,” said Williams. “They just never get back in touch with me. They just go quiet.”

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, known as HUD, provides public-housing assistance to about 3.4 million households annually, either in the form of housing projects, where tenants pay rent substantially below market rate, or rent-subsidy vouchers, to be used in private, market-rate housing, better known as Section 8 vouchers. Historically, people with criminal histories have been banned from receiving these benefits. Under federal law, local public-housing authorities are empowered to create their own guidelines for admission, provided they adhere to the Fair Housing Act of 1968. For most local housing authorities, these guidelines banned formerly incarcerated people from public housing. In some instances, just a record of arrest, even without charges, was enough to have an application for housing denied.

What we know is that employment and housing are critical factors in remaining crime free. Public housing is critical.

New Orleans Police Hope To ‘Win The City Back,’ One Kid At A Time by KEITH O’BRIEN May 14, 2014 3:44 AM ET


New Orleans police investigate a shooting in February. Though the city's murder rate is down for a second straight year, it's still high compared with other cities.

New Orleans police investigate a shooting in February. Though the city’s murder rate is down for a second straight year, it’s still high compared with other cities.

New Orleans is making progress toward losing the “murder capital” label. For a second straight year, homicides declined in the city, in keeping with a nationwide trend.

For African-Americans in the city, though, the numbers are less comforting. Of the nearly 350 killings in the past two years, 91 percent of the victims have been black. It’s a cycle that’s worrisome to the city’s African-American community — and law enforcement.

But to help address the problem, New Orleans’ cops are taking an unusual approach: talking to 12-year-olds.

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‘Winning The City Back’

The goal is to repair relationships between communities and law enforcement, says New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas. When he took office four years ago, Serpas faced a raft of problems: high crime rates, police corruption, dismal approval ratings. An independent poll showed just one-third of residents were satisfied with the police.

“When I saw a 33 percent overall department approval, it was clear that in the summer of ’10 we were looking at a department that was in complete disconnect from the community it served,” Serpas says. “That is never a good place to be as a police officer.”

Today, in every survey category, the police department is improving. Sixty percent of people say they are satisfied with the police in general, 72 percent are satisfied with the officers in their neighborhood, and 81 percent feel safe at home.

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http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/05/14/298726161/new-orleans-police-hope-to-win-the-city-back-one-kid-at-a-time