4500 Public Ghosts

A month after Hurricane Katrina wrecked the Gulf Coast, the city of New Orleans reopened its confines to allow residents to return home. Jenny Hiser discusses the impact this has had on residents, and how the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) has responded to the situation.

March 8, 2012

A month after Hurricane Katrina wrecked the Gulf Coast, the city of New Orleans reopened its confines to allow residents to return home. Stores and supplies were sparse, but so were the people trickling in to assess their damages. The lack of infrastructure, jobs, and finances proved difficult for those hoping to rebuild. Still others faced greater problems, like steel security plates over doors and windows of their former units. In an effort to deter residents from reoccupying structures because of “security and safety concerns,”1 the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) barred over 4500 families from re-inhabitation.

“HANO put fences around the development. At Lafitte, they spent millions of dollars putting these steel doors on there,” said Dr. Jay Arena, a public activist and member of C3/Hands Off Iberville. “We broke in, we led people back into their homes. We broke through the police lines. We highlighted the contradictions of what the government was saying…”2

With proposals to demolish and build new units at four housing project sites, HANO hoped to revitalise the nature of tenement housing with mixed-income development. The plan’s controversy stems from a history of mistrust of the Housing Authority. Many believed the damage reports to be unfounded. Contractors agreed the units would be safe for inhabitation with a minimal amount of repair. Even HANO’s own documents reported the cost/benefit of re-modernisation versus demolition and new construction.

The Associate Professor of Architecture at MIT, John Fernandez, inspected 140 HANO apartments and stated:

“…no structural or nonstructural damage was found that would reasonably warrant any cost-effective building demolitions… Therefore, the general conclusions are: demolition of any of the buildings of these four projects is not supported by the evidence of the survey, replacement of these buildings with contemporary construction would yield buildings of lower quality and shorter lifetime duration; the original construction methods and materials of these projects are far superior in their resistance to hurricane conditions than typical new construction, and with renovation and regular maintenance, the lifetimes of the buildings in all four projects promise decades of continued service that may be extended indefinitely.”3

With displaced residents eager to scrub and gut the damages themselves, HANO’s resistance initiated frustration, demonstration, and civil disobedience. With leases in hand, many residents took direct action to re-occupy their former neighbourhoods. No one was allowed to stay, all were arrested for trespassing – with some at gunpoint.

Opponents of the demolition believe that the new development signals a racial and class cleansing. Activists refuse to accept the inadequate housing stock for low-income families. Since Hurricane Katrina, HANO only serves a third of the families that once relied on its assistance. Because 95 per cent of the public housing population was African-American pre-Katrina, the Advancement Project filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and HANO for racial discrimination, in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The lawsuit asked the court to bar the demolition of any public housing apartments and permit residents to return to their units. Both the Federal Court and later the U.S. Fifth Circuit denied the legal challenges.

Despite the grassroots dissent to HANO’s proposals, the end of 2007 marked a unanimous decision by the New Orleans City Council to demolish the city’s four largest housing developments: Lafitte, C. J. Peete, B. W. Cooper, and St. Bernard. Although people often hold sentiment and respect for one’s heritage, these historic relics have been deemed dispensable. The seventy-year old brick buildings were once constructed by some of the city’s finest artisans; the concrete structural framing, brick facades, terra cotta roofs and wrought-iron rails not only appealed aesthetically to the neighbourhood, but also served the practical function to resist deterioration in the humid and flood-prone region.

New York Times Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff stated that the Lafitte Housing Projects were:

“scaled to fit within the surrounding neighborhood of Creole cottages and shotgun houses. To lessen the sense of isolation, the architects extended the surrounding street grid through the site with a mix of roadways and pedestrian paths. As you move deeper into the complex, the buildings frame a series of communal courtyards sheltered by the canopies of enormous oak trees. Nature, here, was intended to foster spiritual as well as physical well being.”4

The history of New Orleans is both rich and tragic; a microcosm can be viewed within the Faubourg Tremé, a neighbourhood directly north of the French Quarter. At the end of the 20th century, the Tremé neighbourhood included one of the country’s oldest African-American communities, with a history of initiating housing for free people of colour and introducing jazz music to the world. Prosperous, politically active and ethnically diverse, Tremé had become a bustling community of craftsmen, artisans, writers, and musicians. However, following the Second World War, the once-prosperous shipping canal that bisected the community was labelled unnavigable, and was filled. The Tremé Market, a key component of the neighbourhood’s economic stimulus, was removed and replaced with the Municipal Auditorium. By 1941, the Fair Housing Act replaced all but six structures of the infamous Storyville ‘red light’ district in order to construct the Iberville Housing Development for caucasian servicemen. The Lafitte Housing Development for African Americans replaced an existing fabric of shotgun houses and Creole cottages.

Although well-intentioned, well-planned, and well-constructed, the developments of the Forties demolished the old infrastructure with idyllic hopes for alleviating unemployment and unsanitary slums that had developed during the Great Depression.  The years following the Works Progress Administration (WPA) era of hope and revitalisation included the social mobility of the middle class to the suburbs, the replacement of a thriving tree-lined boulevard of businesses with an elevated interstate (highway), and the removal of thirteen square blocks of houses, stores and clubs as part of an urban renewal project. Initially financed by the WPA, social services like nursery schools and adult education programs were no longer provided. The neglected community deteriorated and worsened with every budget downsizing.  Violent crime infiltrated and became the scapegoat for the urban, low-income problem, however, the community that was Tremé had long ago been destroyed.

Although these housing projects survived the wind and water of nature, they crumbled before the forklifts and bulldozers of impatient leaders. The director of the New Orleans field office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Walter Gallas laments, “We’re going to see wood-frame construction replace solid masonry buildings. People have these visceral, negative feelings about these buildings that caused drug and social problems, so by destroying the buildings everything will get better. Everybody knows that (is) not the case.”5 Unfortunately, the Tremé neighbourhood knows the circumstances a little too well. While HANO promises an improved life of carpeted apartments and pastel facades, the cultural heritage of New Orleans has lost more than its infrastructure.

Maybe one day the edifice will no longer be the only culprit.

  1. HANO: Housing Authority of New Orleans, 2005, < HYPERLINK “http://www.hano.org/” http://www.hano.org/>.
  2. Cardinale, Matthew, “(IPS) Public Housing on the Chopping Block,” Atlanta Progressive News, 30 August 2007, <http://www.atlantaprogressivenews.com/news/0218.html>.
  3. Anderson v. Jackson, 556 F.3d 351, 2007.
  4. Ouroussoff, Nicolai, “All Fall Down,” New York Times: Architecture, 19 November 2006, <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/19/weekinreview/19ouroussoff.html>.
  5. Burdeau, Cain, “Demolition Begins on St. Bernard Housing Complex, WWLTV, 19 February 2008, <http://www.wwltv.com/local/stories/wwl021908tpstbernard.cb9f023.html>.

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