Mythbusters Edition: The Lower Ninth Ward Isn’t the Lowest

How many times have we heard the argument that the Lower Ninth Ward is just “too far below sea-level” to rebuild?

Aerial view of the Industrial Canal Levee and Lower Ninth Ward, April 2006. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy Carol M. Highsmith.

We’ve seen this myth spread from news media sources to the mouths of congressmen, turning up in countless conversations about the lack of progress in the Lower Ninth Ward (See The Seattle Times and House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s infamous comment).  Now it’s been seven years since the storm and we still see articles circulating that refer to the Lower Ninth Ward as one of the “lowest-lying” and “most flood-prone” area in the city. From day one, Lower Ninth Ward residents and activists have argued such claims are exaggerated and bogus, pointing to neighborhoods in Lakeview and New Orleans East (equally as vulnerable and “flood-prone”) that were given more resources and opportunities to rebuild (Landphair, 2007).

Scientists who have studied the topography of New Orleans agree that the Army Corps’ elevation warning for the Lower Ninth Ward was far from certain (Schwartz, 2006). Much of the Lower Ninth Ward is ”two to three feet higher” than areas of the Lakeview or New Orleans East neighborhoods, as well as the western side of Jefferson Parish, but after the storm, there wasn’t a discussion about people having to move from there. Advocates of the Lower Ninth argue that the “question of high ground versus low ground is also beside the point…’If you build a good flood-control system, the entire city is safe…If we don’t get a good flood-control system, the entire city is dangerous.”

After doing some research, I found that many articles refer to the Lower Ninth Ward being above sea level in some areas and relatively higher than New Orleans East or Lakeview, but I wasn’t able to locate a source with actual data to back up the argument. This is most likely due to the unofficial neighborhood lines, as well as rapidly changing elevation rates throughout New Orleans.

In order to find more accurate snapshot of New Orleans’ elevation levels, I decided to take a look at the USGS elevation index for the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East. Even within each sub-neighborhood, elevation levels vary quite a bit, but the overall data supports arguments that the Lower Ninth Ward is indeed much higher than the vast majority of Lakeview and New Orleans East.

According to the USGS elevation dataset, most landmarks in the Lower Ninth Ward range from 3 feet below to 3 feet above sea level (Lee Playground 0 Feet; Bonart Playground 3 Feet; Beulah Land Baptist Church -3 Feet; Amozion Baptist Church 3 Feet). Meanwhile, the New Orleans East neighborhood has areas in Pines Village and Read Blvd East as low as 10 feet below sea level, with its highest areas in West Lake Forest coming in right at sea level (Pines Village -10 Feet; Pradat Playground -7 Feet; Werner Playground -7 Feet; Wimbledon Playground -7 Feet; Baptist Church 0 Feet; Prince of Peace Lutheran Church -3 Feet; Louisiana Nature Center -10 Feet; Little Woods -3 Feet).

The idea that the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood is unworthy of being rebuilt because of its elevation has proven to be yet another myth in the devastating story of Katrina.

Allstate Returns to the Lower Ninth Ward

Allstate Insurance Company, the corporate sponsor for the 2013 Sugar Bowl, graced the Lower Ninth Ward with its presence once again on Wednesday, January 2nd.

According to a WDSU News report, fans and players from the Allstate Sugar Bowl “met up to clean the blighted and overgrown lots in the Lower Ninth Ward.”

When I was here two years ago, Allstate sent (upwards of 500) actual company employees along with fans and players to the Lower Ninth for a day of clean up and festivities in honor of the Sugar Bowl. I remember a marching band, a mobile stereo, a speaker’s podium, matching shirts and plenty of back patting.

While the Sugar Bowl volunteers undoubtedly had the Lower Ninth Ward in their hearts (as WDSU asserts), it’s hard to ignore the Allstate logos peppered throughout their gear and warm clothing.

As you may know, Allstate has had a contentious relationship with the Lower Ninth Ward, especially after the corporation fraudulently denied claims from Gulf Coast residents whose homes were destroyed in Katrina’s aftermath. Since Katrina, Allstate has been involved with numerous lawsuits, and in some cases fined millions of dollars, regarding arbitrary policies and illegal refusals during the claims process.

With a broader context in mind, is the Allstate Sugar Bowl “Day of Service” merely a way to repair a damaged image in the eyes of New Orleans (and Lower Ninth) residents? With the amount of money it takes to send all of these volunteers to the Lower Ninth each year, (not to mention the matching shirts, entertainment and media coverage), all for half a day of trash clean-up, it would appear as though the insurance company is more interested in a photo-op “quick fix” than a serious commitment to repairing the damage it has done in this community.

The Living Museum has a guest!

Late last night we welcomed a new member to the Living Museum team! Tali Petschek, an extraordinary artist and former Oxy student, will be joining us until the 10th to begin planning the Katrina sculpture she is contributing to the Museum. This is her first time back to New Orleans since coming down to gut houses with Professor Heldman’s Disaster Politics class in 2007.

Tali describes herself as an artist interested in ideas of loss, transition and growth. If it were possible to find the space between the shadow and the floor, this is where her work exists. She earned her BFA from California College of the Arts and continues to live and work in Oakland.  Most recently she worked with San Francisco artist Michael Swaine building a fire pit and sun dial for Pie Ranch in Pescadero CA, as well as submitted works to The Memory Library, an online gallery of work curated by artist Brandon Jones.


Today we took her on her first tour of the Living Museum to begin planning for the installation  which she hopes will give a visceral experience of being in a room covered in mold and in the process of rebuilding. The installation will be in the museum side Kitchen, and will lead into the Katrina room. Her intention is to honor the strength that comes with facing loss.

We’re very lucky to have her here with us!

P.S. (After getting permission from his mother) Jeffrey would like the world to see the beautiful puzzle he has finished. It’s been an all-around productive day at the Living Museum!


Lower Ninth Ward “Food Desert”

Finding healthy foods in the Lower Ninth Ward is more than just a challenge – it’s nearly impossible. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Lower Ninth Ward is considered a “Food Desert,” meaning it has a population of 500 or more people who don’t have access to a grocery store within a mile from their homes.


Photo from the USDA “Food Desert” Locator – the red dot is the Living Museum!

On October 20th, in association with National Food Day, The Lower Ninth Ward Food Access Coalition (a project of the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development) took a stand for food security by hosting a “Grocery Store For-A-Day” event in the parking lot of All Souls Church and Community Center. The festival included live music, cooking demonstrations as well as a “pop-up” grocery store, and brought attention to the Lower Ninth Ward’s food desert status while raising money for the development of a mobile grocery store. The program was an incredible success, bringing widespread attention to the issue of food security and hundreds of people to the makeshift grocery store to celebrate. Mitchell Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, even proclaimed October 20th “Lower 9th Ward National Food Day,” affirming the CSED’s hard work.


Renee Peck (via the Times Picayune)


From the Grocery Store For-A-Day Facebook Page (









In 2009 the USDA found that 23.5 million people lacked access to a supermarket within a mile of their home and a nationwide analysis found 418 rural “food desert” counties where all residents lived more than 10 miles from a supermarket or supercenter, accounting for 20 percent of all rural counties. Another multistate study found that eight percent of African Americans live in a tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of white Americans.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, the nearest full-service grocery story is about 3.5 miles away in St. Bernard Parish. According to Lower Ninth Ward activist Jenga Mwendo, about 30 percent of residents lack personal transportation, making a trip to Walmart in the neighboring city of Chalmette that much harder.

“If we had a grocery store it would be a catalyst for other economic development in our neighborhood,” Mwendo told the Times Picayune. “Given we lost about 75 percent of our population after Katrina having something like that would help bring people back and bring in new residents.”

For more on the Lower Ninth Ward food security initiative, check out CSED’s Food Action Plan.

Living Museum Appreciation BBQ!

The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum hosted an Appreciation BBQ this past weekend to thank residents for their generous contributions of time and knowledge. The outreach team has spent the summer gathering oral histories from residents that will be featured in audio and video throughout the finished museum. Residents have also contributed to the Remembrance Room that will honor memories of Lower Ninth friends and family members who have passed.

Over 60 people attended the Appreciation BBQ. The event got off to a great start with delicious food, great music, and neighborhood kids playing in the yard.

Throughout the evening, residents watched a short film featuring interviews with people from the neighborhood. Residents also gave feedback on rough draft exhibits in the red, yellow, blue, green, and purple rooms. These exhibits start with the early history of the area as a runaway slave colony and end with present events in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Toward the end of the evening, a group of residents gathered in the green room and shared stories of Hurricane Katrina and Betsy. Surrounded by mock exhibits, they debated the causes of the catastrophic levee breach, giving meaning to the “living” part of the museum as a community space for history as told by the people.

Special thanks to Cafe Dauphine, Cast Iron Rose Creole, Cajun Joe’s, Mardi Gras Zone, Jack Dempsey’s, The Joint, Elizabeth’s Restaurant, Maurepas Foods, Jimmy’s Grocery, Montrel’s Bistro, and “Mack” McClendon from the Lower 9th Ward Village for their generous contributions to this event. Also, many thanks to Stephanie Dragoon (the “Dragon”) for making this event happen.

Midpoint Reflection

It’s been a little over a month since I arrived in New Orleans and I am amazed at the amount of work our group has done. As Co-Coordinator of the Community Outreach crew, I help oversee the development of relationships between the Living Museum and residents of the Lower Ninth Ward. In only five weeks, we’ve knocked on over 500 doors and have met countless residents. We’ve been informing the folks in the neighborhood about our mission and getting feedback on the museum. With Ian’s help, Rachel and I have interviewed about 20 residents, recording incredible stories of what it was like growing up in the Lower Ninth Ward, people’s experiences with Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina, and what it’s like to live here now. Oftentimes people don’t see beyond the French Quarter when they come to experience New Orleans culture, and I have to say that this is a sad mistake: the Lower Ninth Ward’s rich cultural history is fascinating and one of a kind. I’m really looking forward to meeting more residents and hearing their stories. The last five weeks have been full of eye-opening and life changing experiences and I can’t wait for the next four.

Thanks, Nick “Media Intern”

Going Back to Oakland

Wow. I’ve been here in the Lower Ninth Ward for just over a month, but it feels much shorter. I leave on Friday to go back home to Oakland, California, and cannot help but reflect on my work here in New Orleans.

With the guidance of Professor Heldman and Ian, this group of interns has been fortunate enough to be part of something that could have a true impact on the Lower Ninth Ward. In giving the outreach crew the task of canvassing the neighborhood, letting me decide what color to paint house, and having Madi write the museum’s exhibitions, we interns have been instrumental in shaping the project in substantive ways.

Of course none of this would be possible without collaboration with residents of the Lower Ninth Ward. Resident stories are essential to making the museum be what it is; a space for community empowerment. The encouragement and positive vibes we’ve received from many of our neighbors in the Lower Ninth Ward give us momentum in our work. Important advice from community members such as Smitty and Mack has also helped us better navigate our role in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Much work remains to be done. Nothing can erase or completely reverse the human-made disaster of the flooding of New Orleans. In a neighborhood that formerly had the highest rates of black home ownership in the nation, only one-in-five residents have returned to the Lower Ninth Ward. Our goal is to create a space for the residents to remember the past, share stories of the present, and make plans for the future. I believe that the museum will be a great space for these goals to be realized. To all who are reading this blog, I urge you to read Professor Heldman’s blog post on Hurricane Katrina ( It will scratch the surface on many of the injustices that occurred during and after the hurricane. Most of all, Americans need to know that, despite the election of an African-American president, we are far from overcoming racism. Hurricane Katrina exposed the gross deprioritization of equality that persists in the United States.

My experience in New Orleans has been great. It is a beautiful, vibrant city with a unique culture. Most importantly, I now see social justice and political activism as an important part of my future. I feel that it would be impossible to ignore any inequalities present in my surroundings. I will return to my hometown of Oakland with a greater desire to learn its history and to study the systems that have created its reputation for violent crime.  Lastly, this will not be the last time I see the purple and blue double-shotgun house on the corner of Deslonde and Urquhart. Nor will it be the last time I spend time with the awesome group of people who I have lived with for the past four plus weeks. This internship has been an amazing experience, and one that I will definitely never forget.

— Alex Parker-Guerrero (“The Runt”), Media Intern, Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum

Roger Guenveur Smith Performing “Fredrick Douglas Now” at the Lower Ninth Ward Community Village

Sunday, June 24th, 6 p.m.
Obie Award-winning theater artist Roger Guenveur Smith returns to New Orleans with the local premiere of FREDERICK DOUGLASS NOW. Smith’s interpretation of Douglass’ classic 19th century texts casts the abolitionist and pioneering feminist in a contemporary light, illumin…ating the continuing struggle against racism, sexism, and economic deprivation.
Smith’s other stage credits include A HUEY P. NEWTON STORY, which he adapted into a Peabody Award-winning telefilm directed by Spike Lee, after an acclaimed run at CAC; and, with Mark Broyard, the New Orleans-inspired INSIDE THE CREOLE MAFIA, also at CAC, and most recently, at Dillard University, with music by Branford Marsalis. Roger’s extensive work on screen includes DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, GET ON THE BUS, HE GOT GAME, EVE’S BAYOU, DEEP COVER, KING OF NEW YORK, ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS, MOOZ-LUM, and AMERICAN GANGSTER, for which he was nominated for the Screen Actors’ Guild Award.
Television viewers know him from the HBO series OZ, K STREET, and UNCHAINED MEMORIES: READINGS FROM THE SLAVE NARRATIVES.

Getting Started!

After more than a year of planning and research, we are officially launching the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum!

While we are still in the planning stages, many of the pieces are falling into place rather quickly. Kurston and Alex are working on the logo, brochures, and business cards, and Nick has joined them on designing a fancy new website. Nick is also working with Miss Kim and Rachel to develop canvassing databases and paperwork for continued community outreach. Smitty is training the staff on history and traditions in the neighborhood, while Stephanie and Shylana are planning our first cultural event. Madi and Sara are busy conducting in-depth research for each exhibit, and Aaron and Becca are working on background research for a book about Katrina.

Neighbors Jeffrey, Tyrell, Yasmine, and Yari are making lots of great pictures to put on the office walls, and Tony, another neighbor, is fixing our roof. It’s truly a group effort!

Aside from the occasional 1:30 a.m. rooster wake-up calls and the pigeons who have roosted in the attic, all is going well.  This has been an amazing experience so far.