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Dreams hold people together

In a southern Mississippi backyard this weekend, dreams of rebuilding began as an insistent hum.

BY SUSAN KIM | NORTH GULFPORT, Miss. | October 23, 2005

"This city wants to take away our property."

—Rose Johnson

In a southern Mississippi backyard this weekend, dreams of rebuilding began as an insistent hum: "We'd like curbs and a sidewalk." "We'd like gutters." "Yeah, and streetlights."

And as community leaders, pastors and residents trickled by, the hum became a chorus: "This community should be inviting. Attractive. Decent. Safe for people to live."

In the small African-American subdivisions of North Gulfport, Turkey Creek and Forrest Heights, dreams are what's holding people together right now. Homes are roofless and shattered.

Ella Holmes-Hines, the first African-American city councilwoman in Gulfport's history, picked through the debris in her yard. "Those were my computers," she sighed, pointing to one pile. Then her 5-year-old daughter discovered three black-and-white photographs of their house, taken before Hurricane Katrina inundated it with six feet of water. Delighted, Holmes-Hines peeled the still-damp photos apart and gazed silently.

"This house dates back to the 1870s," she finally explained. The home is on the National Register of Historic Places, and Holmes-Hines predicts repairing her house could take a couple years.

Meanwhile, she said, she's concerned about her community - its future and its history. "It's very important to the community and things like this, this house and other houses dating back - they link the entire community as one family."

Worried about their lack of voice in the rebuilding process, community leaders chose to act on their own this weekend by hosting a San Francisco-based architectural firm that has volunteered to help them create a rebuilding plan based on grassroots visioning.

"Everybody's dreamin'," said Holmes-Hines, as they outlined their hopes for the future. Suddenly, in the wake of the state's largest natural disaster in history, at least some residents are seeing an opportunity. They might - after decades of fighting against over-development, pollution and discrimination - finally have something to fight for: a better life after Katrina than they had before.

Residents are highly concerned about how their grassroots plan will fit into the statewide Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal. They called the weekend meeting because they feel they have to act fast. They said - especially given their long history in the area - they will stand up for their vision, win or lose.

In 2003, community activists from North Gulfport opposed a commercial development project they believed would have increased flooding from runoff and made an already-notable pollution problem even worse. Ken Combs - mayor at the time - publicly referred to North Gulfport residents who opposed the development as "dumb bastards."

Combs, no longer mayor, left a legacy that has not been forgotten: residents in these small subdivisions said they're not dumb - and they're prepared to preserve their community, even in the face of a huge disaster. In the post-Katrina era of fluctuating property values, one thing has remained constant: these small African-American subdivisions sit on what some regard as the most valuable piece of property in the city. Their houses are situated just off a major thoroughfare at a crossroads that's close to the airport - and ripe for commercial development that's already eating away at the edges.

Rose Johnson, a community activist who was born and raised in North Gulfport, said she worries about gentrification - restoration by affluent people that displaces lower-income families. As far as Johnson and others are concerned, the post-Katrina recovery leaves them extra-vulnerable to losing their community forever. "This city wants to take away our property," said Johnson. "They've had their eyes on North Gulfport for many years."

Even before Katrina hit, the area was prone to flooding - much of it caused by overdevelopment that sends water runoff straight into low-income, African-American neighborhoods, said Johnson. She said she feels like a purposeful disaster target. "I think that they felt like, if we can't get them out any other way - we'll flood them out."

Since then, Johnson has been determined to stay in North Gulfport - and encourage her neighbors to do the same. Yet, she said, even before Hurricane Katrina hit, living conditions were tough. Dilapidated homes sit alongside well-kept ones. Children often can't walk to school or to playgrounds safely. When streets and yards flood - and this happens often - sewage washes into the floodwater.

"This is not the way a community should look," said Johnson. "This is not the way a community should be."

Johnson said she envisions an affluent middle-class society. "This is what we deserve," she said.

Part of her fight against development involves preserving the wetlands that surround her community, said Johnson. The wetlands have cushioned flood damage in her community for decades, she explained. "Let's face it, the wetlands are the only infrastructure that African-American people and poor people could depend on in the heavy rain. The wetlands absorb some of that flood water."

Wetlands are also a natural pollution filter, she added. "No chemical has ever been invented that could clean water better than wetlands."

Johnson said she and her parents - and grandparents - didn't choose to live here. "We were restricted. This was where they put us. They thought they were putting us in an undesirable area - in the swamps with snakes and mosquitoes. Well, we survived. And they're not going to make a big profit off of selling our land. Back then, we didn't ask to live here. But now - we're sure staying. It isn't much - but it's sacred ground."

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