Sheila Phillips plants enough garlic, parsley, onions, and bell peppers in her Lower 9th Ward garden to keep up with the pots and pans usually bubbling on her stove. And next-door neighbors needing a green pepper, okra, or a navel orange are also free to pick their own from the Phillips’ backyard, because the family plants more than they need, to be neighborly.

“We’re really making groceries here,” said her son Aristide Phillips, 23, noting that some have called the Lower 9 a “food desert,” because it has long lacked a full-service grocery store. His mother believes that longtime Lower 9 families learned to live sustainably, out of necessity.

Phillips and his neighbors say that, although parts of the Lower 9 suffered badly from crime and gun violence pre-Katrina, it has historically been a peaceful spot, in almost a rural way. Lifelong Lower 9 resident Ronald Lewis agrees. “They called it the country,” he said. We had urban gardening when it wasn’t called that and there were horses, organic chickens and goats all through this community.” Whenever his mother needed crabs for gumbo, Lewis would walk to the Industrial Canal to catch them with a turkey neck on a string.

Lewis, who has headed up the Big 9 Social Aid and Pleasure Club for 19 years, relishes that moment when his annual parade is headed downtown, toward St. Claude Avenue’s lift bridge back to the Lower 9. “When we get close to the bridge, I feel like I’m Moses, leading my people to the Promised Land, the land of people who enjoy life,” he said.

The neighborhood is surrounded on three sides by water: the Mississippi River, Bayou Bienvenue, and the Industrial Canal, which bounds the Lower 9 on its uptown edge, separating it from the rest of bustling New Orleans. The historic Holy Cross area, is the long skinny slice of the Lower 9 located between the Mississippi River and St. Claude Avenue where historic houses are now going for as much as $400,000.

From a national perspective, this area is best known for water, namely the floodwaters that poured from flawed levees and deluged the neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, and Betsy, in 1965.

Afterward, when red tape seemed to stall official help, volunteers streamed in. A group from Kansas State University constructed a modern museum building behind the Tupelo Street house Lewis has owned since 1978. Since Katrina, Lewis has used his museum, the House of Dance and Feathers, as a pulpit of sorts, to tell the world that recovery in the Lower 9 is still incomplete, he said. “We still got empty lots and empty houses,” he said.“We’re still hoping that friends and family come home, to make our community whole.”

Lewis has seen progress, especially lately, in the form of the streets now under repair and the newly opened firehouse on Caffin Avenue for Engines 22 and 39, which had been run out of temporary trailers since Katrina. Kitty-corner from the firehouse stands the almost-finished Andrew Pete Sanchez Community Center, which will house both a health clinic and a year-round swimming pool. Also under construction is a new high school for Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School, which topped out at eighth grade before Katrina. Lewis is also heartened to see new residents – - each one helps to “fill in the blanks,” he said.

New homeowner James Stram walks frequently with his rescue dog Abita to the Florida Avenue viewing platform for Bayou Bienvenue, which was a thriving cypress swamp as recently as 50 years ago. But in the 1960s, the now-closed MR-GO (Mississippi River Gulf Outlet) shipping channel carried saltwater into the freshwater bayou, killing the trees and creating a “ghost swamp” dotted with tree stumps. After Katrina, neighbors looked to the swamp from what then seemed like a ghost neighborhood and saw parallels: more blanks that needed to be filled.

Stram, the wetlands coordinator at Common Ground, first worked with other groups to plant bulrushes and other fauna on the edge of the bayou, then moved to an ambitious cypress-planting pilot program. With MR-GO closed, the water is less brackish and, so far, the program’s nine young cypress trees are flourishing.

To find the latest Lower 9 milestone, follow small tagboard signs promising hot food and snoballs. The Caffin Avenue Plaza, at the corner of Caffin and Galvez, has been rebuilt segment by segment by its new owners, Lower 9 native Burnell Cotlon and his wife Keasha Cotlon, with the help of hundreds of Marquette University volunteers, who continue to visit in large groups and sign their names on the walls inside.

First, the Cotlons and the Marquette volunteers completed the barber shop in the front, “home of the $16 haircut.” Then the sweet shop, which sells snoballs and snacks like French fries, and nachos. But instead of shutting down in October, like most local sweet shops, the Cotlons began keeping theirs open year-round so that neighbors could order groceries through the small sweet-shop window.

In November 2014, the Cotlons opened third segment, the market. So far, their top sellers are Big Shot cold drinks and canned goods, but they also stock fresh fruit and vegetables – much of it grown in the Lower 9 – along with milk and bread. Recently, at the request of neighbors, store manager Virginia Felton also began cooking up fish suppers on Fridays.

After Katrina, the Coltons moved back here from Germany, where Burnell was serving in the military. Four blocks from his childhood home on Tricou Street, they bought the building that now houses the plaza, for those neighbors who still live amid overgrown and empty lots on the Bayou Bienvenue side of Claiborne Avenue. “Without the plaza, there’s nothing here,” said Keasha Cotlon.

Closer to the river, the newly opened Cafe Dauphine is also the result of other Lower 9 natives giving back to their home neighborhood. In 2014, Tia Moore-Henry and her husband Fred Henry, Jr., teamed up with his sister, Keisha Henry, to transform the Holy Cross corner store long known as Mr. Bob’s. The result is the white-tableclothed Cafe Dauphine, which offers “casual dining with a five-star experience,” said Tia Henry, whose husband’s family has long been based out of two lime-green family houses across the street from the restaurant.

Henry looks outside to her peaceful street. It’s clear to see why property values are now soaring, she said, describing how easy it is here to walk the dog, jog, or even just watch the boats pass along the river levee, which is only two blocks away. “You have the same view as you would on the Riverwalk, but tucked away,” Henry said.