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New Orleans community rises and shines

By Lisa Jackson, Special to CNN
  • Lisa Jackson: Pontchartrain Park a pioneering African-American neighborhood, built in the '50s
  • Jackson grew up in this neighborhood, which produced artists, doctors, mayors
  • Many lost everything to Katrina, she says; now "The Park" is getting stronger than ever
  • Community getting revitalized as a green town with people working together, she writes

Editor's note: Lisa P. Jackson is the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She also served as chief of staff to New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and commissioner of the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Learn more about how the residents of Pontchartrain Park banded together to help rebuild their community on CNN's "New Orleans Rising" at 8 p.m. ET Saturday and Sunday.

(CNN) -- Pontchartrain Park was -- and still is -- the American dream. The historic African-American neighborhood was born in the 1950s, emerging at the height of the Civil Rights era and Jim Crow segregation laws.

Homes were arranged around a golf course planned by Joseph Bartholomew, who had designed several golf courses in the New Orleans, Louisiana, area, but as a black man, was forbidden to play on them.

The homeowners and families in Pontchartrain Park were among the first African-Americans to buy their own homes in the New Orleans suburbs. Despite the racial inequality of the time, they shared a belief that the nation's opportunity should be equal for everyone.

In 2010, Pontchartrain Park is being reborn, re-emerging after the destructive power of Katrina and the failure of the New Orleans levee system left the neighborhood devastated. Today's vision is no less bold than it was in the 1950s.

Pontchartrain Park is re-emerging as model of new urbanism, a place where livability, environmental responsibility and economic opportunity come together. My dad, my aunt and uncle, my cousins and the many other Pontchartrain Park pioneers who are no longer with us would be proud.

That's because the first residents of Pontchartrain Park measured their success not by the sizes of their homes, but, like most Americans, by the range of new possibilities opened for the next generation. I was fortunate enough to be part of that "next generation."

The success of my parents and their neighbors became apparent as the kids I grew up with went on to become lawyers, teachers, doctors, artists and more. Some were the first in their families to go to college. The Park was home to Ernest M. Morial, the first African-American mayor of New Orleans. His son Marc Morial went on to be mayor as well.

Today my generation is working to open up new possibilities for our children. Led by our parents' example, some have even committed to moving back to the Park to restore the community that gave us so much.

When people see that the neighborhood is rebuilding ... it shines a light on the road ahead of us.
--Lisa Jackson

This is the history being commemorated as Pontchartrain Park marks its 55th anniversary this year. It is a special milestone, and a bittersweet one. The celebrations are shadowed by the presence of the Deepwater BP oil spill, a crisis that has touched every community in New Orleans.

This year also marks the fifth year since Hurricane Katrina. The memories -- and the destruction -- are still present. It was during the last major milestone, the 50th anniversary year, when the storm struck.

My mother was still living in the neighborhood at the time. I happened to be visiting to celebrate her birthday, and drove her to safety before the worst hit. But the wind and flooding destroyed her house, the house I grew up in. Once the floodwaters receded, my mother, my stepfather and my aunt went back and watched as cleanup crews took away every picture, all of their clothes and every piece of furniture. They are a few of the many in Pontchartrain Park who lost everything they had.

Yet, hope remained. Today, the rebuilding process is under way. The same hope that inspired the first residents of Pontchartrain Park is fueling efforts to make it livable once again. And we are learning from the lessons of the past.

Last year, on my first official trip to Louisiana as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, I met an elderly man who had lived in New Orleans most of his life. All that was left of his home was a set of concrete steps. I was introduced to him on the site where a new home is being built -- a home that will be sustainable, energy efficient and full of innovative designs and technologies. It's one of many green homes that are going up in the community.

On that same trip, I learned that my childhood home has been slated for redevelopment by the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corp., an organization formed by Wendell Pierce, the actor who grew up in Pontchartrain Park and is now leading efforts to rebuild and revitalize the area as a sustainable, green community. The first two new houses were built by All American Homes from Elkhart, Indiana, another community that is reinventing itself to find its way in the 21st century economy.

This is just the beginning. In Pontchartrain Park and across the city, people are building efficient homes, riding hybrid buses, installing solar panels and working in green-collar jobs.

After Katrina and the BP spill, the understanding that environmental issues have a real impact on everyday life is taking hold. My mother, who like many others wouldn't have called herself an environmentalist before Katrina, has joined the strong calls for wetlands restoration and protection coming from communities across the region.

Pontchartrain Park is still a place of hope for the future -- and an inspiration for other struggling communities. When people see that the neighborhood is rebuilding and emerging stronger and better than before -- not only with jobs and prosperity, but with a sense of community and renewed possibility -- it shines a light on the road ahead of us.

At another difficult time for our nation, it reaffirms that the American dream carries on even in the face of extraordinary challenges, and that we are strongest when we pull together as a country to realize those dreams.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lisa P. Jackson.