Broadmoor residents didn’t run from the green dot. They rallied around it, taking the symbol of their potential destruction and remaking it as a logo of sorts for their recovery campaign. “We used it against them,” says LaToya Cantrell, who was president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association when Katrina hit, and now sits on the New Orleans City Council. In the days after they learned of the green dot plan, residents organized a 300-person rally protesting the recommendation, and soon green banners and signs proclaiming “Broadmoor Lives” proliferated in the neighborhood. The ensuing years would be marked by an unprecedented level of activism in Broadmoor, and, in 2008, residents celebrated the neighborhood’s progress by cutting a cake in the shape of a green dot.
“It was thumbing our nose at the recommendation,” Cantrell says, “but also showing that neighborhood leaders and the community residents are the world’s greatest experts on their neighborhood, and we were capable of not only planning for ourselves, but also garnering the resources needed to rebuild ourselves. It became not focusing on them, but focusing on us. The green dot became a symbol for community unity. It means something positive to us, instead of something negative.”
The Broadmoor Improvement Association set up a number of subcommittees to tackle specific issues, but the two most important were the redevelopment and repopulation committees. Leaders became obsessed with getting at least 51 percent of the neighborhood’s residents back in town, to be able to show city officials that the area was, indeed, “viable,” and they aggressively lobbied displaced residents to return to their homes, warning that a wait-and-see approach could lead to the death of Broadmoor. They kept a large map of the neighborhood and colored in parcels orange when they learned that a family planned to return.
Instead of asking the city to incorporate Broadmoor into its planning, neighborhood leaders set out to create their own plan, partnering with faculty and students from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Neighborhood leaders viewed it as key, though, that residents—and not outside groups—lead the recovery effort. To break up the work, and to invest residents from across Broadmoor, leaders divided the already small neighborhood into three subsections. Each had different socioeconomic demographics, which ensured that people of all races and income levels would have a say in the process.
Central to the neighborhood’s 320-page redevelopment plan was the creation of an “education corridor,” with a rebuilt community library and elementary school. In addition to the “Broadmoor Lives” slogan, residents adopted the motto of “Better Than Before.” It’s the sort of stuff that’s easy to write down on paper, and that often ends up forgotten in overstuffed binders, collecting dust while the neighborhood in question falls further into disrepair. But in Broadmoor, the plan became a reality.
In 2007, the neighborhood’s elementary school was selected as one of five schools across the city to be fast tracked for renovation. In 2010, Andrew H. Wilson Elementary moved into its newly renovated LEED Gold building, which features solar panels, rain gardens, a reflective white roof, and windows that facilitate natural light. Two years later, the sleek and spacious LEED certified Keller Library and Community Center opened. In addition to loaning out books, the facility hosts free classes on topics ranging from Zumba to how to cook healthy meals on a food stamps budget.
Most impressively, Broadmoor is, by some estimates, nearly 90 percent repopulated (in the 2010 census, the neighborhood’s population was 5,400, still down quite a bit from the 7,200 people who lived there in 2000, although more residents have moved in since).
As part of its repopulation effort, the neighborhood partnered with the local development and consulting firm Green Coast Enterprises to rebuild 55 of the most blighted properties as affordable housing units. All of the new units meet some sort of green building standards, and four of the homes are LEED Platinum houses with whimsical names like “The Little Easy.”
Will Bradshaw, the president and co-founder of Green Coast Enterprises, says that Broadmoor has “one of the best redevelopment stories and redevelopment strategies I’ve ever seen.”
“It was really amazing to watch,” says Bradshaw, a Texas native who was in graduate school at MIT when Katrina hit, and who met Cantrell at an event at Harvard. “It was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen, and it made me want to pick up and move halfway across the country and make my life in New Orleans.”
What sets Broadmoor’s story apart, Bradshaw says, is the way residents banded together to attract outside help, but still maintained control over the neighborhood’s destiny. “In Broadmoor, you had exceedingly strong leadership that was very well organized. They spoke with one voice that was clear, and they utilized that voice to attract extraordinary resources from all over the world.” For example, the Carnegie Corporation gave $2 million for the construction of the library and community center, and the neighborhood also received help from the Clinton Global Initiative. “They were able to reach out and say, ‘We need this help at this time,’” Bradshaw says. “As a result of the ability to be clear and uniform, they got a lot more done than a lot of people that were in a similar place.”
This charity helped provide a boost to Broadmoor, but investment by residents and businesses is what will sustain the neighborhood over time. Bradshaw’s firm developed four commercial buildings near a busy intersection in the northern part of the Broadmoor, one of which is occupied by a social entrepreneurship incubator, and one of which will soon be home to a community health clinic.
One of the buildings houses Bradshaw’s own office, which sits directly above a vegan café that specializes in baked fries. Across the street stands the shell of an abandoned car dealership, the front adorned with a colorful mural. The artwork shows people dancing under a rainbow, and a large green dot is inscribed with the words, “Broadmoor Lives at the Heart of New Orleans.”
It’s tempting to look at Broadmoor and label its recovery complete, or at least nearly so. The “Broadmoor Lives” movement started so long ago that some of the major players from its early days have left New Orleans, and by many accounts the neighborhood truly is “better than before.” There’s still some blight, but few clues point that, only nine years ago, this place was underwater and practically left for dead.
But some people are still in the process of returning to Broadmoor. Mr. Chill, a neighborhood barber, cut hair under a tent at the site of an abandoned gas station for 17 months after Katrina, and eventually reopened his shop a couple of miles away in the Hollygrove neighborhood. A year ago, he opened Mr. Chill’s Broadmoor Dogs and Sweet Pastries, a casual restaurant that has a counter decorated with images of dancing frankfurters. It’s in the same building where he once cut hair, away from the main roads and surrounded by residential buildings. But Mr. Chill is still trying to get back to his own house, about 10 blocks away.
Mr. Chill (he was born Wilbur Wilson, but earned the nickname “Chill” in middle school for his smooth way with girls, and added the “Mr.” after his business success) says the money he received from the state’s Road Home program was enough to fix up the home’s exterior, but not the inside. He’s still staying at a family member’s house.
Still, Mr. Chill was overjoyed to get back into business in Broadmoor. He chose to sell hot dogs, he says, because he wanted to create a place that, like a barbershop, was accessible to everyone. “To get back in this building, I felt like a kid that had been sick in the hospital,” he says, occasionally chomping on a hucklebuck—a New Orleans treat of frozen Kool-Aid in a plastic cup with fruit cocktail at the bottom. “And when he finally got out of the hospital, he got what he’d been asking for— going on the merry-go-round. That’s how happy I was.”
Santiago Burgos, who recently wrapped up a four-year stint as the executive director of the Broadmoor Development Corporation, speculates that most of the people who plan to return to the neighborhood have already done so. “The houses that remain vacant have now been vacant almost 10 years,” he says, sitting in the neighborhood library’s snack shop, which is named—perhaps inevitably—the Green Dot Cafe. “Some of them were vacant before the storm. Those families are probably not coming back. They probably don’t have the resources to fix that house.”
In particular, Burgos says, blight remains high in the poorest segment of Broadmoor, which was dubbed Subgroup B when the neighborhood split into three sections during the recovery process. “In a place like Subgroup B, I think a lot of people now are recognizing that it would probably make sense to have more green space in the form of athletic fields and parks, than to have hundreds of dilapidated, decrepit properties that people are not going to live in,” Burgos says.
And so, ironically, this could be the final step in the recovery of a neighborhood that fought so hard against the green dot plan: bulldozing homes to create green space.