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The pull of New Orleans

Many former residents return after witnessing Katrina's aftermath. "You want to show you care," one says.

Published August 29, 2007

Jenga Mwendo works on the ceiling in the hallway of her home in the Lower 9th Ward. She has learned about house construction after volunteering with the St. Bernard Project and works on her house by herself most every day.
[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
Jenga Mwendo and her mother Nilima Mwendo, look at the progress she has made on her home. Jenga quit her job in New York to move to New Orleans where she is living on savings, renting an apartment where she lives with her daughter and mother until they both finish their homes.

[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
Jenga Mwendo dumps a load of debris from working on her house on Maurice Street in the Lower 9th Ward to the front yard after a day of working on the home by herself.

NEW ORLEANS -- At age 17, Jenga Mwendo wanted nothing more than to escape New Orleans.

She hated it.

As with many of New Orleans' brightest, her educational and career ambitions appeared to clash with the city's limited landscape.She went to North Carolina, then to New York. She got a degree and landed a job creating computer animated characters for popular kids' films.

But after Aug. 29, 2005, when floodwaters rushed into the streets where she used to play, overtook the homes where she grew up and forced her longtime New Orleans family to scatter to Atlanta, Houston and Memphis, the possibility of her hometown's extinction turned suddenly personal.

"Wow," she thought, "New Orleans isn't going to be home for me anymore."

What happened next was nothing she could have planned before the storm. She came home.

She gave up her dream job, left New York with her daughter and moved into a one-bedroom New Orleans apartment with her mother. She dug into her savings, took a trip to Home Depot and started prying moldy drywall from a little wood-frame house by the river.

The house has no air conditioning. The walls are torn out. Someone stole the front door.

But when Mwendo, 29, stands in the middle of these four connected rooms, a white bandana around her head, sweat beading on the bridge of her nose and a power screwdriver in her grip, she feels honest-to-God love.

"I never felt this way," she confessed last week.

Like many homegrown New Orleanians who had fled years earlier in search of a better future, Mwendo has returned to her birthplace at a time when the city's future still seems in doubt.

* * *

Politicians and business leaders had fretted for years over the city's "brain drain" to little effect. In the end, nothing said "Come home" like the horrific images of the televised evacuation, the roof-top rescues, and days of unanswered phone calls to missing relatives.

It's impossible to know how many native New Orleanians are among the estimated 264,000 who have moved back to Orleans Parish over the past two years. Victoria Elmwood, an English professor at Tulane University, can tell you of at least three off-hand. She is one, too.

She calls it "the return of the exiles."

When the urge struck Shokufeh Ramirez, she was 31, six months pregnant, gainfully employed in public health, and living in Honolulu with her husband of three years.

"I have to go back," the voice looping through her mind said, "I have to go back."

On the day before Mardi Gras 2006 -- the first carnival season after the storm -- she boarded a flight with her 3-month-old son and moved back into her old bedroom in her parents' flooded home.

"It's hard to explain without getting teary," she wrote six days before her move from Hawaii, "but returning to New Orleans is something I have to do. Part of it is my desire for my son to spend time with his grandparents. But I have to wonder if I'd be going to New Orleans if it weren't in the condition that it's in.

"It's like going to visit a sick relative. They may be recovering, but you want to show you care, give them your support, help in whatever way you can. Even if it's just by sitting close by and showing that you believe they'll be up and about soon."

Mwendo and Elmwood both say they never felt completely at home anywhere else. Mwendo loved New York, but felt lost in its bustle and sea of faces. Now, she's surrounded by people who know her people, her aunts, her cousins, her uncles.

"I think when I was younger, I just took that stuff for granted," Elmwood said. "When I got older, I started to understand that there was a distinct cultural awareness here that didn't always translate to other places."

Carol Bebelle, director of the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood, said one of the best by-products of the storm is a renewed connection between the city's generations. "What this really did," she said, "was put young people back in touch with their families."

* * *

To the rest of the world, New Orleans is the place you go for grits and grillades, crawfish and mirlitons, even if you don't know what any of that is. It's where you dance in the streets to hopping brass bands, gulp from giant cups full of slushy red stuff and show off your extra-long beads if you're oh, so lucky to get them.

For Mwendo, it was something altogether different -- but, frankly, it took a storm to help her remember what.

New Orleans is her grandmother's stuffed peppers, her uncle's gumbo. It's flying down the side of the levee on her bike with her siblings. It's her mother's community activism and her father's firehouse. It is where she learned to hate public school, to love the public library, to want a life somewhere else.

In the 12 years she was away from New Orleans, it became a place she grew proud to say she was from. Saying so always elicited such a strong response.

The only question now is whether she'll be able to stay.

Like before the storm, there's not much demand for computer animators here.

The cost of living is higher now than ever. Average rent went from $676 for a two-bedroom home in 2005 to $978 now.

A survey released earlier this month by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicated that young people ages 18 to 34 who moved to New Orleans after the storm are four times more likely than their older counterparts to say they are planning a move or "seriously considering" moving away again.

Chief among the concerns: bad levees and the city's affordability.

Mwendo, a single mother who has assumed the role of block captain in her Lower 9th Ward neighborhood, wonders how she'll draw income.

The dual-income Ramirez family is struggling to figure out if they will ever be able to afford their own house in this city. They got close to buying this month, but backed out, worried about the crippling cost of insurance.

Elmwood, 29, who returned in 2006 after 10 years in Oregon and Indiana, says the post-doctoral position she feels she lucked into at Tulane last year will more than likely come to an end.

"I know that there's going to be a moment," Elmwood said, "when I have to choose between my academic career or New Orleans."

And there are the uglier realities that come with making New Orleans home, too. Crime, corruption and the who-you-know way of life here continues to overshadow day-to-day progress.

Mwendo awoke one day to find her main mode of transportation -- her bike -- had been stolen. At the end of every day of work in her house, she chains her equipment together so no one will make off with her tools like they did with her front door.

For now though, Mwendo is home.

Taking a break from picking out tile Monday, Mwendo said she's committed to doing her part to rebuild this little block in this little neighborhood, her newfound piece of home.

"Right now," she said, "since the whole city is being rebuilt, there's the possibility for something new. ... There's a real possibility of me being able to build something new."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at or (813)226-3383.



[Last modified August 29, 2007, 00:05:22]

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