For Karen Gadbois, the city's recovery and her own have become inextricably linked, and she has fought hard for both. On New Year's Eve 2005, Gadbois finished her final chemo treatment for breast cancer and flew from Austin, Texas, to New Orleans, so she could be here for the last day of the tragic year.
That night she sat on the porch of her raised, side-hall shotgun house in northwest Carrollton with a friend and her husband. Newly installed streetlights illuminated the neighborhood wasteland of flooded homes, and Gadbois' pile of ruined artwork and other possessions sat on the front curb. Drinking wine, Gadbois began throwing rocks at the bright, invasive lights.
"And I was really happy," Gadbois says. "I was so happy to be back."
Gadbois is still happy, but she isn't content. She has battled against those, including Mayor Ray Nagin and other bureaucrats, who have attempted in the name of progress to destroy and squander our city's heritage. With little more than a digital camera, a computer, a blog and her green Honda Element, this indefatigable 53-year-old mom has shown that it is the average citizen — not government — that's leading New Orleans' recovery.
By the time Gadbois first heard about the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership (NOAH) program in early 2008, the Boston, Mass., native had been taking on City Hall to save homes from demolition for more than two years. Nevertheless, she initially was optimistic about the program because she thought the city finally was making a gesture to help people get back into their homes by creating a program that was supposed to gut and board houses for poor and elderly homeowners.
"A number of people were questioning why we were spending millions of dollars gutting and boarding homes when there were volunteer groups," Gadbois says. "It didn't make sense in terms of using government, but it could be used to leverage volunteer work to get people back in homes."
It was in May when Gadbois saw a Central City house — dilapidated and the yard with knee-high grass and filled with junk — supposedly remediated by NOAH.
"Someone put up a (NOAH) sign," Gadbois says. "It was a joke."
Sarah Lewis, who was co-director with Gadbois of Common Knowledge, an organization promoting governmental tranparency, requested a list of "remediated" properties from NOAH. Lewis and Gadbois scrutinized the list and found it riddled with problems: nonexistent houses and remediated homes that were owned by slumlords and people like former U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson's brother Mose Jefferson, who clearly were not poor or elderly.
"It's like finding 700 pounds of gold on your front lawn," Gadbois says, displaying her Yankee wit. "It can't be gold; it's sitting in my front yard. This is so ridiculous it can't be as bad as it looks."
Gadbois was so flabbergasted that she put her findings aside for a while until another blogger, Eli Ackerman, convinced her the story was more dynamite than gold. Gadbois turned to WWL-TV investigative reporter Lee Zurik, who broadcast her findings in an exclusive special report on July 21. The next day, Mayor Nagin held a news conference — besides city officials, only Gadbois, Lewis and Zurik were in attendance — and decried Zurik and Gadbois' investigation, accusing them of hurting the city's recovery.
"I was not prepared to be single-handedly destroying the recovery in New Orleans," Gadbois says. "That was a lot of insult, a very loaded insult."
Nagin's attempt at intimidation wasn't enough to deter Gadbois. Although she had only moved to New Orleans from a small Mexican village in 2002 with her husband, Jon Schooler, and their daughter, Ida, Gadbois had already become a dedicated New Orleanian. She had her hands full trying to renovate the house they bought, but says the family was comfortable and found New Orleans' open and accepting environment similar to what they had experienced in Mexico: "I loved that you could be poor with dignity in New Orleans. The first issue of the day was not what you had on."
In the days following Nagin's news conference, Gadbois, Lewis and Zurik continued to build a case against NOAH. City officials claimed Gadbois and Lewis were working off the "wrong" NOAH property list, and the correct list would prove NOAH had delivered services for the $1.8 million contract it had with the city. So, Gadbois, Lewis and Zurik pored over the new list; this time they found even more problems.
Besides listing houses on blocks that don't exist in the city, and charging the city for work done by volunteer groups, NOAH had used a list of contractors that included Cedric Smith, the mayor's brother-in-law, and Trellis Smith, a business partner of former NOAH director Stacey Jackson. More allegations came forward — Jackson had business relationships with other NOAH contractors — the City Council held hearings, NOAH closed its offices and a federal investigation was launched. And it was Gadbois who had first spotted NOAH's leaky ship, but all Nagin would say at the time was, "I love that we have professional investigators involved now."
What he didn't know, or refused to believe, was that he had been dealing with a professional investigator all along.
With her cancer in remission in 2006, Gadbois became involved with her neighborhood organization, Northwest Carrollton Civic Association (NWCCA). The group argued that a proposed Walgreens drugstore at the intersection of Claiborne Avenue and Carrollton Avenue broke zoning laws. Refusing to budge, NWCCA pushed City Councilwoman Shelley Midura to broker a plan for the new Walgreens that conformed to zoning regulations and included space for a much-needed supermarket.
"So that was sort of the beginning of my paying attention," Gadbois says.
Still, it was more of a desire to preserve memories than anger that kept Gadbois focused on the city's recovery. Realizing a number of buildings would be demolished as New Orleans rebuilt, she wanted to start an online memory book of photographs of those structures. It was the genesis of Gadbois' blog, www.squanderedheritage.com.
As Gadbois began driving around the city in June of 2006 shooting photographs of houses, however, she noticed many of them appeared salvageable.
"The city seemed to have taken the stance of, 'If you want your house demolished; you can get your house demolished,'" Gadbois says. "End of conversation."
Even if an owner didn't want a home destroyed, the city could find a way to raze it. Gadbois discovered this when she started tracking — along with Matt McBride, another New Orleans activist — the city's Good Neighbor Program, which was ostensibly set up for residents to notify the city of blighted houses. Gadbois says McBride began crunching housing statistics and determined the program was being used to feed into the city's demolition plans. And if a house wasn't reported as blighted, the city could inflate the structure's damage assessment.
The city's approach didn't sit well with Gadbois, and with a small grant from the Blue Moon Fund, she (Lewis signed on later) has probed deeper into the city's demolition lists than any investigative agency or reporter.
Nowadays, Gadbois is back to being a solo act — the Blue Moon grant money is nearly gone, so she and Lewis had to part ways — and she is still driving around the city and documenting houses slated for demolition. She thinks there is more to the NOAH story than the public is aware, but she believes the truth will eventually come out.
"I'm hopeful," Gadbois says. And for a woman who has beaten cancer and City Hall, hope can go a long way.