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"Hurricane Nikki"

If New Orleans is to survive its near-death experience, it will be by the sheer force of will of people like Nikki Najiola.

I met Nikki in April, along with the rest of the volunteer team assembled by Andrés Duany to conduct a rebuilding charrette for the Gentilly district in north-central New Orleans. As the urban planning coordinator for the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association, an alliance of 22 neighborhoods, Nikki came to orient us to the geography, personality and previous planning efforts of her area. She made an immediate impression, not just for the meticulously organized binder of information we needed to hit the ground running, but for the focused passion and disarming sense of humor she brought to her rather grim job.

"This is truly our opportunity to make our dreams come true," she told us. That she could speak with such hope for a devastated district that had seen next to no rebuilding spoke volumes.

Nikki Najiola discusses the future of Gentilly during the April charrette as Dhiru Thadani listens.
Photo by Sandy Sorlien.

After the horrors of the storm and its water-logged aftermath, Nikki and her neighbors endured months of limbo, waiting for insurance companies, FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers and myriad other federal, state and city actors to give the guidance they needed even to make a decision about whether and under what conditions to return and rebuild. By April, Nikki -- a real estate agent turned full-time activist -- was ready to seize any opportunity and force down any door to get Gentilly on the road to recovery.

"I watched with fascination when the Mississippi charrette occurred," she says of CNU's October planning effort. "Then I watched with envy as DPZ did one in Lake Charles, then Vermilion and St. Bernard [parishes]." Frustrated at New Orleans' lack of progress, she went to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which referred her to Boo Thomas, the head of the nonprofit Center for Planning Excellence, who had been instrumental in organizing the other Louisiana charrettes. "At about the same time, maybe even the same day, Andrés made contact with Cynthia Hedge Morrell," the city councilor for Gentilly, who extended an invitation to DPZ.

When Morrell mentioned the encounter to the GCIA, Nikki knew immediately that a charrette had to happen for Gentilly. The next week she scrambled to find a place in the flooded area to house a design studio and public meeting area, and make all the arrangements. As intense as it was, it was the most hopeful thing that had happened since Aug. 29 of the previous year, she said. When Katrina hit that day, she recalled, she and her boyfriend, her brother and two sons evacuated to Baton Rouge. They learned from television that the neighborhood where she had raised her boys and whose real estate was the core of her livelihood had been devastated. The next month was unmitigated misery.

"We ended up renting an apartment in Baton Rouge from a college student, the child of a friend, who had moved up to a nicer place, if that tells you anything," she recalls. "We all slept on the floor. We didn't have a thing."

After a month, she couldn't take it any longer.

"I went on the road and traveled for about six weeks. I didn't know whether I would come back." Ultimately, she found she couldn't stay away. "I made the decision to come back for one month, after which one of two things would have to have happened: Either I would see a real estate opportunity in the rebuilding after the storm, or I would find a way to have a significant impact on the rebuilding," said Nikki. "When I came back I saw there was no money to be made but that planning and rebuilding was needed. I haven't sold real estate since."

Her devotion to Gentilly might be hard for others to understand, she said. The area didn't have the old-world ambience of the French Quarter, the Caribbean funk of the Faubourg Marigny or the cachet of the Garden District. It was a modest district of mostly post-war, single-family houses, punctuated by mostly down-at-the heels shopping centers. But the people had a strong sense of community and a wonderfully welcoming way, Nikki said.

"I bought my house in 1990 in Gentilly because my kids wanted to go to school at the magnet school," she recalled. "I loved it, but I have to say it always had a stigma attached to it that I could never understand. It has the City Park to the west, the lake to the north, interstate system to the south, and affordable housing. It's a community where blacks and whites have always lived shoulder to shoulder. We had a lot of low-income people, yet we also had one of the highest rates of home ownership. But for some reason it wasn't an easy sell."

After the storm, she saw a chance for the neighborhood to recast itself, to preserve the community while perhaps attracting new investment to the commercial areas and introducing some of the urban design and architectural elements that make other parts of New Orleans so admired.

But first she and people like Scott Darrah, who would become president of the Gentilly Improvement Association, had to reconnect a community that had been scattered. This they did with the aid of technology, starting with one cell phone call at a time. "You can't call directory assistance and get cell numbers. For six weeks cells didn't work for calls so you had to communicate by text message," she said.

After set up online forums for the displaced neighborhoods, the Gentillians began organizing themselves via e-mail and Internet billboards. They created an alliance of 22 neighborhoods that became the Improvement Association. "Within weeks there were 400 members," she said. "Nothing like that had existed before."

On April 18, when the Gentilly charrette began, Nikki was coordinator for urban planning. She plunged in up to her eyeballs in the work of the 40 or so planners, architects, designers and communicators.

"The charrette was the most fascinating week of my life," she said. "I learned so much and was so impressed with the dedication, the sincerity, the quality and the depth of work. But the most important thing is that the views of the people of the community took precedence over everything else."

The charrette was only the beginning, however. "We still have a lot of work to do. We have done our planning for our community, but the city has not arrived at the process. We're ready for implementation and they haven't even developed a process."

Nikki has left the GCIA and now focuses on working with a citywide network of neighborhood groups to institutionalize planning for the rebuilding, and win official sanction and support for the community-based efforts.

"I'm eager to take what I've learned from the charrette to other neighborhoods so they can benefit from the process and what we've learned," she said.

Ten months after the storm, she's perpetually exhausted, but she can't give up. "It's New Orleans -- it's one-of-a-kind. I couldn't just leave it to chance that somebody else would rebuild it. I had to get involved.

"It's not just the locale, the architecture, the food or the music. It's the people that make New Orleans. So it's going to be up to the people to preserve it."