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Cornell planning students survey a New Orleans neighborhood yet to rebuild

NEW ORLEANS -- Among the many Cornell students who spent spring break, March 15-21, doing fieldwork were a group of planning students who focused on sustainability in New Orleans, aiding post-Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts for one hard-hit area of the Crescent City.

George Frantz '80, M.R.P. '91, a visiting lecturer in City and Regional Planning (CRP), accompanied 14 students to New Orleans as part of the CRP Special Topics course, City Planning Design Studio: Imagining the Sustainable 9th Ward.

Frantz has made five trips to New Orleans and the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast of Mississippi since January 2006, a little over four months after Katrina. According to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, the city's population, 400,000 pre-Katrina, is still down 25 percent.

Working in partnership with the nonprofit ACORN Housing Corp., a national organization that provides counseling and other services for homebuyers, Frantz's students conducted a detailed property survey of a 60-block area of the city's Lower 9th Ward, a once-densely populated working-class neighborhood that remains largely unoccupied 31 months after the storm.

"We were going to do just a general survey, [but] the focus became a very detailed survey," Frantz said. "By Wednesday [the students] had a good understanding of what they had to do and they just dove right in and really took off."

Students printed out maps and devised a code to mark the locations of vacant lots and which properties with structures still standing were occupied, damaged, destroyed or under rehabilitation. ACORN will use the data, in part, to inform its continuing effort to build new, energy-efficient homes for low-to-moderate-income residents in the Lower 9th Ward.

"I'm getting a chance to work on the ground and to see how things are applied," Simone Greenbaum '08 said. "The primary focus is not an academic exercise, it is more in service. It's also great because ACORN gave us a goal and didn't tell us how to get there."

The Cornell group also met with several residents, city officials and community leaders devoted to recovery work. Steve Dominick of the city's Office of Recovery and Development Administration talked with the students for two hours about citywide and specific recovery plans since Katrina, some of them retooled after an outpouring of community response.

"A lot of debates came in 2006 about wet vs. dry neighborhoods; it was about shrinking the city. That gave birth to citizen activism," Dominick said. "I do think we've turned a corner, [and] you can use the planning process to get a lot of things done."

Inspired by a talk the previous day by community development representative Mary Tran, several students (along with CRP professor John Forester, also visiting the city) helped clear land on March 20 for an urban farm and community garden in Viet Village, a Vietnamese enclave in New Orleans East.

"[In] the Vietnamese community, you can see firsthand what can be done in a couple of years," said Fernando Montejo '10, who was on his second service trip to New Orleans.

The group traveled along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and talked with workers in an aid camp who were rebuilding houses in Pearlington and with a Katrina survivor still living in a trailer in Biloxi. They also listened to former residents hoping to return to the 9th Ward, and attended a meeting of the 9th's Holy Cross Neighborhood Association.

"This was a group of people who have an agenda, they're organized and they're moving forward," Frantz said. "I am still very optimistic -- there seemed to be a whole lot of energy in the Lower 9th Ward."

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