Oprah Winfrey Created a Planned Community for Katrina Refugees. How’d That Work Out?

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Houston is a city of sprawl. With no perceptible center of gravity — no true downtown, no good public-transit system, no real sidewalks in most neighborhoods — the city seems to move perpetually outwards, enveloping prairie and bayou, unfurling strip mall by strip mall, subdivision by subdivision, farther and farther onto land dry enough to be mistaken for desert. At the edge of this sprawl is Angel Lane, a block of 65 single-story bite-sized houses coated in different shades of pastel paint, devised and partially financed by Oprah Winfrey for survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

Just shy of ten years ago, in the days after the storm, Oprah and her television crew descended on New Orleans, broadcasting stories of heroism and heartbreak to her 40-million-plus viewers. In one particularly memorable scene, Oprah’s favorite designer, Nate Berkus, cried as he promised to drive a man’s dog to safety in a limousine. A few months later, Oprah flew to Houston, where tens of thousands of Katrina evacuees were still sleeping in hotels, shelters, and the living rooms and spare bedrooms of relatives and friends, to announce she would spend $10 million of her own money, plus $5 million donated by fans of The Oprah Winfrey Show, to build Angel Lane with the help of Habitat for Humanity. Oprah’s charity was generous, but selective: Angel Lane applicants had to show proof they were working, be able to donate 300 hours of “sweat equity” toward building their own houses, and afford about $400 a month in mortgage payments for their new three- and four-bedroom homes. Twenty years from their move-in dates, Angel Lane residents will own their houses outright.

Angel Lane wasn’t the only celebrity-driven relief effort: Julia Roberts and George Clooney helped bring down food and clothing. Brad Pitt funded the construction of dozens of houses in the Lower Ninth Ward. A Canadian tire-manufacturing billionaire created a community of trailer homes for Katrina evacuees in rural Louisiana and named it after his tire company — “Magnaville.” But Angel Lane was perhaps the most high-profile of the celebrity-driven projects. It didn’t just attract media, it was the media. Oprah not only created a community, but a stream of content. She devoted several episodes of her TV show and articles in O, the Oprah Magazine to documenting the lives of Angel Laners. In each segment, its residents would profess to the cameras how grateful they were to have finally been given the opportunity to own a house. 

Even now, with the cameras gone and the block’s playground — built with the help of Matthew McConaughey and the baseball player Roger Clemens — shut down after the equipment began dangerously deteriorating, the most common sentiment you’ll find on Angel Lane is gratitude. “When Katrina came that was a blessing for me,” Lynell McFarland, a 54-year-old nursing assistant and mother of two, told me from the front porch of her house on Angel Lane. “Now I’m a homeowner.” Lynell had almost drowned in Katrina’s waters. But three days after the storm, a small boat from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries showed up at the house where she was staying, just a few blocks from her own in the city’s Eighth Ward. The boat’s captain brought Lynell and a few others to I-10, an elevated freeway that cuts across New Orleans. Eventually, Lynell was taken by police minibus with a few other evacuees from New Orleans to a parking lot of a McDonald’s in Gonzales, a tiny town in a rural section of Louisiana, where she was told to find her way somewhere else.

After a few-day stint with extended family near Lake Charles, Louisiana, she was dropped off in Houston, where her brother was staying. Lynell thought she’d spend a few nights mentally recovering, then figure out how to get her 13-year-old daughter from her sister’s place in Fort Worth. But Lynell had no car and no job. She was emotionally exhausted. Getting her daughter down to Houston ended up taking four months.

A few weeks after arriving in Houston, Lynell visited a car-insurance agent to sort out some paperwork. The agent told her about a program meant to help get Katrina survivors into more permanent housing in Houston. All Lynell had to do, he said, was go down to a church on Saint Agnes Street on a Saturday morning. The process from there was quick but strangely opaque: Within a week Lynell had completed two brief interviews with administrators from Habitat for Humanity and written a required letter about her life before Katrina. Just days after the second interview she was told she’d made it to the final round, though she still wasn’t sure what was being offered or who was offering it. Lynell was just told to show up at Madison High School the next weekend to “meet her sponsor.”

That Sunday, Lynell found herself in the high school’s auditorium surrounded by 100 strangers. Nearly all, like Lynell, were African-American. Nearly all were also from New Orleans and the surrounding suburbs. Lynell and the others tried to guess who the sponsor might be while they waited. Then, at about 5 p.m., the red curtains on the stage parted at their center and out stepped Oprah.

Look around you at all the people here,” she said to the crowd. “You might have come in as strangers, but you’ll all become neighbors.”

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Angel Lane, 2009 Photo: Eric Kayne

Nearly everyone in the auditorium burst into tears and screams, in classic Oprah-induced pandemonium. But Lynell was so dazed from the last three months of trauma, that at first she couldn’t even recognize the sponsor.

Who is that?” she asked her future neighbor sitting next to her.

Girl,” the woman replied. “That’s Oprah.”

Oprah ushered the crowd onto tour buses parked outside. Lynell was still dazed as they drove down through a series of subdivisions and to a road with empty lots. Even as Oprah began taking the kids in the group by their hands and pointing to different lots, saying, “This will be your bedroom. And this will be your sister’s bedroom. And this will be your living room,” Lynell still couldn’t register what was happening.

It didn’t really hit me until I was driving back to my apartment,” Lynell told me. “Then I started crying, and I realized what had happened.”

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Angel Lane was always more of a symbol than anything else, helping just 65 families of the 400,000 displaced by the storm. But even if its impact was limited, it became much more than a symbol for those who were selected to live there — it became home. One of the most surprising things about Angel Lane is how many of its residents chose to stay. About 60 of the 65 original families still live on Angel Lane. A few couples left because they could no longer afford their mortgages, others because they wanted to move elsewhere. Everyone else, despite how much they say they miss Louisiana, seems to feel more Houstonian than New Orleanian each day. Their decision to stay may also be in part because there is still no place for them to go home to. As a story in the New York Times recently described, despite the much-lauded recovery of New Orleans, many of the predominately black neighborhoods saw far less redevelopment. At the same time, homes are now about 50 percent more expensive in New Orleans than they were before the storm, pricing out many who relied on the city’s previous affordability. The Bywater, just a short walk from Lynell’s old home, lost 64 percent of its black population between 2000 and 2010.

Angel Lane today is a hodgepodge of Oprah’s original vision and the settled reality of its residents. At the beginning of the block is the fenced-off area that was once the playground. On the other end is the community center that Oprah promised would be built with the rest of the community, but that was finally erected only last year with greatly scaled-back ambition: the idea to paint the floor with a pattern of the Mississippi River was ditched, the class offerings and hours were trimmed. Instead, it’s three large rooms with tables and plastic chairs and a few computers. One very bored employee from the Houston Area Urban League, the nonprofit that took over operations of the center from Habitat after its construction, sits in the almost-always-empty center each weekday.

Inside the houses, the floors are laminate wood and the flair is minimal. The only consistent item in each home is a portrait, shot by a professional photographer shortly after each family was chosen to move into Angel Lane. The pictures were the only object hanging on each resident’s walls when they moved in. They now serve as daily reminders of how much has changed in the last ten years. The original furniture — handpicked by Berkus and provided by Oprah advertising partners like Target, Lowes, and Storehouse — is modern but impersonal. The chairs would not look out of place in an American Airlines Business Class Lounge. Oprah’s television audience also donated housing goods — everything from couches to the cups in the cupboards — through an online gift registry. One Angel Lane resident was eating at a local Cheesecake Factory when she found out that her waiter had donated a lamp — possibly her lamp — through the registry. Most people have slowly replaced items over time so that the interiors are beginning to look less and less like a community planned by television stars.

Angel Lane may look nothing like the colorful shotgun-filled neighborhoods of New Orleans, but at least in Patricia McGinnis’s house, it smells like home. Each week, she makes pralines — those cookie-sized pastries made with evaporated milk, brown sugar, and pecans. She sells some to friends and friends of friends around Houston, but most are quickly eaten up by her family and guests.

Being Jewish and from the North, I declined when McGinnis initially offered me a few pralines. McGinnis reacted by pushing the pralines into my hand and walking away. Later, when I relayed the incident to McGinnis’s next-door neighbor Coleen Walters, she told me she’d been in the same situation with Patricia before. “Patricia will say to me, ‘Girl, when somebody invites you, you better not say, “Are you sure?”’” Walters told me. “You’re supposed to just take those blessings.”

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It took years for Lynell McFarland’s daughter Ariel to feel part of the fabric of Houston. At first, the trauma of Katrina seemed to follow her everywhere. She couldn’t concentrate in her new school. The kids were too rich and too flashy. They kept asking her to say words that brought out her New Orleans accent — “baby,” “N’awlins.” Her grades slipped. Her entire life plan — which she’d written down in list form in seventh grade (flag twirler, McDonogh 35 High School in New Orleans, then dance team, then valedictorian, Xavier for college, then become a pharmacist) — seemed to be going off the rails.

But after so many resentment-filled years, Ariel finally had to make a decision: She could attempt to go back to New Orleans or she could try to make life work in Houston. New Orleans was still in her heart, Ariel thought, but there are few jobs in the city, and housing prices have skyrocketed. And there was something less tangible keeping her from going back: Ariel left New Orleans at 13. She’s now 23. Soon, she’ll have lived in Houston as long as she did in New Orleans. Houston was where she saw a future for herself.

Last August, Ariel moved out of Lynell’s house. She found a place with a friend closer to the center of Houston, about 40 minutes away — no more speed bumps, no more endless subdivisions, and a little bit of distance between her and her mom. The move meant buying her own car and paying her own rent, and that meant she couldn’t afford pharmacy school just yet, though she hasn’t given up on that dream. She’s now working the overnight shift at Walmart, trying to save enough to go back to school.

Like many of her neighbors, Ariel goes back to New Orleans every couple of months. Sometimes she sees friends or family. Sometimes it’s for an event or music festival. Most often it’s just to eat. “Sometimes I just want to go back and just take everything in,” she said. “Just to go back to what you thought you knew and what you’re used to, just to eat the food. Literally, every day we are there, I wake up in the morning with a taste for a hot sausage sandwich on a bun with cheese, dressing, cut in half,” she told me from her mother’s front porch. “Then I want to move on to the next meal. Let me get a po’boy. I want a shrimp po’boy. Then I think I want a hot dog with chili cheese and peppers. Make it two, and the snowball with the condensed milk over it.” Now that she’s finally decided she’s going to settle in Houston, each trip to New Orleans seems that much sweeter. “I want to eat every two hours because I know it’s only for a moment,” she said. “I know I’m not going to get this when I go back to Houston.”

Peter Moskowitz is a reporter and writer based in New York City. He is writing a book about gentrification for Nation Books. This story is an adaptation from the Kindle Single “Oprah’s Angels: 65 Families, One Big Storm, and the American Dream.”

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