By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |
A week after Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced he will spend $45 million on street repairs in the Lower 9th Ward, residents said the Landrieu administration has many more promises left to deliver on.
“If you expect residents to return, there must be faster progress on the infrastructure in this community,” Chester Nevels Sr. said. He was one of many who spoke at a public meeting on the city’s 2012 budget held Wednesday evening at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward, the sixth of seven such meetings to gauge the priorities of citizens as he prepares the coming year’s budget
“You can’t expect people to come back when it looks like the Third World,” he said.
Like at earlier meetings, citizens spoke passionately about the need to eradicate blight, fix streets and repair the drainage system. But while neighborhoods across the city share those priorities, a more immediate sense of urgency characterized voices in the Lower 9th Ward, and at a meeting on Tuesday in eastern New Orleans. Along with the urgency came a threat, sometimes spoken, sometimes implicit, that the mayor would not have the support he needs to remain in office after 2014 unless progress speeds up.
“We have not a medical center, nothing for our senior citizens. We have a bus that goes nowhere. We need you, Mr. Mayor,” one Upper 9th Ward resident exhorted. “When you were running for your seat, you didn’t have to ask us. We stood by you. But now you done forgot about us.”
Landrieu captured 66 percent of the vote in 2010. A message of reform and unified rebirth registered across racial and geographic lines, winning majorities in all but the city’s easternmost precinct. On both Tuesday and Wednesday, he responded to criticism from the crowd with reminders that it was they who had put him in office and they who would remove him.
“Y’all can fire me,” he said multiple times.
Vincent Wilson said he is a Katrina refuge who has been living in Houston since the storm, commuting back to the Lower 9th Ward to get his house “back up and running.” He asked Landrieu for proof of his dedication to the Lower 9th Ward.
“In St. Bernard Parish, they working day and night,” Wilson said. “Why isn’t that happening here? We want a list of all expenditures in the Lower 9th Ward.”
All the driving back and forth on damaged city roads had left his truck “toe-up,” Wilson added, pleading with the mayor to get moving on planned street repairs as fast as possible.
The mayor, who often reminds audiences that his first ambition was to be an actor, handled the impassioned crowd deftly, alternating between self-depreciating humor and the stern tone of a schoolmarm.
Sometimes the two met. At one point towards the end of the three-hour meeting, Landrieu responded to comments about blighted houses across from Sam Bonart Park by asking a question of his own.
“What I want to know is: How do you stay mad for so long?” Landrieu asked neighborhood activist Vanessa Gueringer. After winning laughs with his ribbing of Gueringer, he switched to an earnest tone, noting his respect for her and calling to staffers to take note of her issue.
“I’m going to check back on that and make sure we do what we said we would do,” he told her, repeating another familiar refrain.
Throughout his remarks, Landrieu plugged away at the same theme that dominated other meetings in the less-affluent parts of the city – how federal spending cuts and efforts to shrink government in Washington would translate to service cuts or tax increases in New Orleans.
“With this gang we got in Washington, we got a huge threat,” Landrieu said.
So far, the city has not seen major cuts in federal recovery dollars, and in August, a FEMA official said that the city should not expect to see its allocation of disaster aid shrink.
“There is no downward pressure that is saying we are going to cut you off,” said Eddie Williams, supervisor of the federal agency’s New Orleans Public Assistance Division. “Honestly speaking, we will never deny a legitimate claim, no matter how much time has passed.”
Despite any potential threat, Landrieu said that his administration would remain steadfast in its commitment to the Lower 9th Ward. The $45 million recently obligated for street repair would not be the last investment in the neighborhood. The administration was working to reopen the recently shuttered Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic, he said, and trying to attract a grocery store.
“I am not anywhere happy with where the city is, as it relates to the lower 9th Ward,” he said. “I am not happy. But I can tell you, I am committed to the Lower 9th Ward.”