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5 Years Later: Soledad O'Brien on 'New Orleans Rising'

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Five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, "CNN in America" anchor Soledad O'Brien returned to the Crescent City for an in-depth look at the historically Black neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park. O'Brien spoke with neighborhood residents -- like actor Wendell Pierce ("The Wire"), whom she calls the "accidental developer" -- about their plight in rebuilding their neighborhood and their city. ESSENCE.com spoke with O'Brien about her In America documentary "New Orleans Rising" and what she learned from the people of NOLA. ESSENCE.com: Why did you choose to concentrate on Pontchartrain Park? SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: We were looking for a place that could be a metaphor for all those neighborhoods in New Orleans, with the basic question of, 'Where is New Orleans now?" What I like about Pontchartrain Park is that it was historically a middle-class neighborhood. The question was, 'If this was a solid middle-class neighborhood, why is it among the lowest communities to return?' The other reason we were interested in Pontchatrain Park is that it allowed us to examine the racial politics of the neighborhood -- which was created in the 1950s as segregation's answer to White neighborhoods. We also wanted to dip into the question about race, which people in New Orleans will tell you is always percolating under the surface. ESSENCE.com: Was your question answered? Why did so few people return to Pontchartrain Park? O'BRIEN: There were a number of reasons; one of them being that 65% was elderly and so because of that there were certain obstacles to returning. Actor Wendell Pierce likes to say 'There are people who don't not have our best interest at heart.' I guess what he was trying to say is that that could explain a lot of things. Sometimes it's bureaucracy, sometimes it's racism, sometimes it's greed and sometimes it's laziness. I think what someone like Wendell Pierce was able to do is become the person out front waving the flag saying, 'We, in this middle-class Black neighborhood, were raised exactly for this reason so that we could marshal our resources, which are good education, good background and good ability to respond in a crisis and save ourselves and our neighborhoods.' ESSENCE.com: Who is returning to Pontchartrain? Will it be the same demographic? O'BRIEN: I ask Wendell Pierce that all the time. I think that the people who are there now just want people who want to have a great community. I don't think they feel that it has to be a Black neighborhood. It has tremendous history because it was the only place where African-Americans could buy a house, but I don't think anybody there has an interest in keeping it a Black neighborhood. I think what they want is young families to re-populate the Park, young families to go to the schools. ESSENCE.com: You call actor Wendell Pierce "the accidental developer." O'BRIEN: I had interviewed him right after Hurricane Katrina and talked to him about what it was like to go home. Like most of America, I knew him as the guy from "The Wire." To me Wendell Pierce was an actor, and to have his name surface as the person who is leading the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation seemed, honestly, bizarre. What he said to me was, 'If not now, then when? If not me, then who?' Being a developer who also is a local boy, who also loves his community and is supported by his neighbors, makes him much more powerful than just the guy who wants to develop a neighborhood. ESSENCE.com: As someone who covered Hurricane Katrina five years ago, what was it like going back? O'BRIEN: I have been to New Orleans a hundred times in the past five years. I literally go all the time. My best friend lives in New Orleans. I think that what I have seen is progress. It's something like 82% of the population is back. But of course, depending on what neighborhood you're in, some things are frustratingly slow, for example, the roads in some of the neighborhoods are terrible, and some people's homes are just now being knocked down; five years later. ESSENCE.com: What did you learn from the people of New Orleans? O'BRIEN: It's interesting, I went back and spoke to some of the young people who I've been dealing with from years ago and I said, 'Are you different from other young people?' And they said, 'We are the people who can survive anything.' This is definitely a story of being tested and for those who make it, they now are tougher. As they say, whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I think that's true of the people of New Orleans. They've been though a lot; they're still hurting but they are stronger. "New Orleans Rising" airs Saturday, August 21st at 8pm EDT.
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