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One Man's Dream Helps Rebuild New Orleans' Hardest Hit Neighborhood

New Orleans has been rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina struck the city last August. Broken levees are repaired and between a third and half of the population has returned. Still, low income black neighborhoods have remained damaged and empty. But, as VOA's Margaret Kennedy reports, that situation is beginning to improve.

"This Is my life and my world, right here. And this is my future of education in the community, the future House of Dance and Feathers." Ronald Lewis proudly proclaimed.

Ronald Lewis left his house on Tupelo Street just before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans last year. Floodwater almost five meters deep devastated his neighborhood in the mostly black Lower Ninth Ward. Now he's one of the first to rebuild.

Volunteer students from Kansas State University are repairing his house and replacing the small private museum he had that was called the House of Dance and Feathers. It housed a collection of artifacts and costumes associated with the African-American way of celebrating Mardi Gras. Most of it was lost. The retired transit worker and community leader is intent on re-creating his museum.

"You know, it's not just about the artifacts. It's about the education of the culture of New Orleans."

Lewis' passion for preserving New Orleans' culture came to the attention of Patrick Rhodes, Assistant Professor of Architecture at Kansas State University. He and his students designed the new House of Dance and Feathers.

Professor Rhodes runs a non-profit group that creates community buildings with money from private donors. Thousands of volunteers like him and his students have been helping cleanup and rebuild New Orleans in cooperation with private community action groups. "The idea was that this would hopefully serve as a catalyst for this neighborhood. And that we can -- I don't know if inspire is the right word -- but if we can show people that things are happening down here."

Mardi Gras is the defining annual event in New Orleans, part of the Christian custom of Carnival before the season of Penance. Elaborate costumes have long been a feature of the general celebration. African-Americans make fantastic feathered costumes called Mardi Gras Indians for parades in their own neighborhoods.

Professor Rhodes says the future museum will be more than a museum. "So the idea of this museum here in the backyard of Ronald's house is that it also served as a kind of ad hoc community center. You understand his kind of dedication to passing on the traditions to the youth of the neighborhood. It touched a chord in all of us and we felt like we needed to do it."

Lewis and his wife are staying in an apartment about an hour away, but he says that his heart is on Tupelo Street. His friend Henry Faggen --also driven away by the storm and living in Texas -- came to visit today and wonders when he, too, can return.

"We love our community," he says. "As you see, there are trailers coming up on Tupelo Street. That's several neighbors coming back. (There are) trailers down in this block. Most of the houses on this street have been gutted out. And those that have not, we're working to assist them."

More affluent areas of New Orleans had less damage or have been able to get insurance money for repairs. Lower income families often had little or no insurance and many lived in rental housing. At least half the city's population has not returned, many because they have no place to live.

There are complaints about slow government aid, no electricity in some areas, and doubts about rebuilding in low lying sections. Yet private and community action groups are pushing hard for resettlement and helping people like Lewis.

But Professor Rhodes says there is progress. "We've seen a lot of activity on this block, just since we've been working here. They are on a deadline. If people don't move back and get things started, they are going to find that they don't get the public assistance they need and it's going to become infinitely harder for them to do what they have to do to get back home."

Lewis says he is optimistically waiting for the final project. "I'm working my way back home. The life I live here in New Orleans to me is second to none. New Orleans is me... the life, the culture, everything. I'm here to show people of my community that through this tragedy we can have a new beginning, a new life. And that's what I'm working towards."

Celebration in New Orleans is not just for Mardi Gras. Parading goes on now in the recovered French Quarter despite the destruction in other parts of the city. Lewis looks to the day there can be parading again on his streets in the Lower Ninth Ward.