Red tape choking N.O., citizens lament: Lakeview addresses city's troubles

Published in The Times-Picayune

Community leaders in Lake-view maintain house-by-house data on the status of blight, demolition and rebuilding efforts in the neighborhood. They keep track of every new business that opens. And they have the ear of public officials, several of whom showed up early Saturday morning for a meeting of the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association.

But four years after a wall of water virtually obliterated their section of New Orleans, much remains to be done. And it seems every bit of progress is hard-won, especially when it involves the City Hall bureaucracy.

City Councilwoman Shelley Midura, Councilman Arnie Fielkow and state Sen. Ed Murray, who is running for mayor, met Saturday with about 50 residents to discuss the city’s projected budget shortfall, the future of the Recreation Department and the blight that still chokes many Lakeview properties despite efforts to force owners to clean up their property.

Brad Fortier, the association’s president, implored attendees to take a metaphorical battering ram to what he called “this castle of dysfunction that has been the city of New Orleans,” though fighting the system continues to prove challenging.

As has been common citywide since Hurricane Katrina, Lakeview residents are still trying to rebuild from the grass roots.

Fortier’s 15-member board of directors on Saturday filled three tables in the St. Dominic School gymnasium. The group’s Web site lists roughly 100 volunteers who make up a dozen or so committees. Still others lead neighborhood business groups, an outdoor market and “Holidays on Harrison,” an annual gathering complete with Santa and trolley rides.

Some signs of progress are visible. Construction of a new Edward Hynes Charter School and a new public library is slated to begin in January. Harrison Avenue, the area’s main commercial drag, is being repaved. Even the gaping holes in the post office driveway are almost history, pending a final cement lip.

Still, the city last month held 200 blight hearings involving Lakeview properties, all of them observed by someone from the civic group.

And although neighbors reported that demolitions have finally begun in earnest, only 36 of the roughly 600 condemned Lakeview properties sold to the Road Home program were torn down last month. Another 172 are scheduled to be torn down within next few months. Fully half of them have been labeled “high priority” by neighbors, said Pamela Danner of CDM Inc., a city demolition vendor.

The remaining sites are waiting for demolition approval from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, which receives Road Home properties in New Orleans.

The civic association has been working closely with NORA and hopes to sell all of its Lakeview properties within a year. But even though the group has a roster of 165 interested buyers, it won’t get a list of available properties from NORA until the end of the year, said Todd Wallace, who oversees a neighborhood committee devoted to the issue.

The delay offers another example of how residents’ efforts can get mired in bureaucracy. Still, neighbors try to focus on the positive.

The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center reported in June that about half of all pre-Katrina households in Lakeview were again actively receiving mail.

And Wallace, for one, said he is hopeful about the next round of NORA homes to be sold.

“Maybe we’ll get neighbors back from the north shore,” he said.