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Razing a Community 

Sixty-five years ago, New Orleans gave grand tours of its first public housing projects. Today, philosophies about public housing have changed, but Lafitte residents say that their project stood out as a stable, closely knit community -- one worth saving

Second in a two-part series

One year after Katrina, almost all is quiet on the grounds of the Lafitte public housing project, now slated for demolition by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In the Derbigny Street courtyard, however, a group of protestors cluster on a porch outside the first-floor apartment of Gregory "D.J." Christy. Christy stayed during Hurricane Katrina and saw water come up through his floor, but he's ready to scrub off the mildew and move back into his apartment. "Ain't nothing wrong with it," he says.

Outside, all eyes from the porch are trained on the sidewalk, on a pair of approaching New Orleans Police Department officers, one short and one tall. The shorter officer walks in, checks Christy's ID, then comes back outside and says, "Everybody get off the porch." Some obey. But one protestor with a shaved head pumps his fist into the air and yells, "This is a criminal act, we are his guests." His fellow protestors began chanting. "We are D.J.'s guests. We are D.J.'s guests. We are D.J.'s guests. We are D.J.'s guests."

The officer doesn't blink. Anyone remaining on this porch will be arrested, he says calmly, prompting more people to hop down to the ground. To the officer's left, a slight young woman wearing an "Eat Our Dust" T-shirt stays. She's the first taken away in handcuffs to a waiting platoon of squad cars. As she's ushered into the back seat of a car, an officer in a dark-blue First District Task Force shirt turns to his buddy and chuckles.

"I don't recall seeing her on any of these porches before the storm," he says.

That's true, says D.J. Christy, one of the nearly 2,000 black residents who lived in the Lafitte before the hurricane. But he doesn't have a problem with the fact many of these mostly young, mostly white protestors are newcomers. "They serve a good purpose being out there," says Christy. "I believe that people from Lafitte would be here protesting if they were here. But they're not. They're still in Texas."

"FROM THE FRONT TO THE BACK, THERE USED TO BE KIDS there," says Jerome Smith, pointing at the Lafitte public housing project. It's now empty, its windows and doors sealed shut with heavy steel panels. Before Hurricane Katrina, 800 kids lived there, making up nearly half the project's population. Those numbers climbed even higher during the daytime, when kids from all over town were left in the hands of trusted grandmothers and aunts.

For four decades, Smith had worked with these children at the Sixth Ward's nearby Treme Community Center, which he runs, and through Tambourine and Fan, the youth club he formed in 1968 to preserve New Orleans' cultural traditions. So, as he stood in front of the vacant buildings, he felt a shiver. "It wasn't cold," he says, "but I got goose pimples thinking of the children and the absence of their sound there." He sits down, and his eyes get far away as he recalls the Lafitte pre-Katrina: the group of kids that was always marching up and down the sidewalk playing drums, children screaming with joy as they played tag under the big oak trees.

Jazz musician Jeffrey Hills could see children playing whenever he looked out his window, at the corner of Claiborne and Orleans avenues. "Parents helped each other. You know, if it was cold outside and a kid's nose was running, the nearest parent would grab a tissue. They say that it takes a village to raise a child. We had that village," he says.

"Everybody knew everybody knew everybody," says Lois Nelson Andrews, whose musical children include James "Twelve" Andrews and Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews. She and her kids were living in the St. Bernard project, but her children and their cousins "were practically raised in the Lafitte" in the apartment of her mother, Miss Dorothy Hill, she says. "My mother had 12 children herself; all of us have children and we all brought them to my mama, because she was the one doing the cooking. In the summer, she would cook five-dozen eggs every morning and feed everyone. People would come in, 'Grandma, you got an egg?'"

As a child, Jerome Smith remembers being part of an active Boy Scout troop that was housed in the Lafitte. HANO annual reports from the 1940s show programs and opportunities galore in the Lafitte -- Scout troops, flower gardens, a credit union, childcare, outdoor movies, health clinics, home-nursing classes, sewing clubs and all sorts of sports, including softball games against the other projects. The annual report touts their Tenant Relations Department, which was created to help tenants deal with their finances or "discord in household."

Sixty years later, at a Providence Community Housing workshop, Lafitte residents wish those activities were still in place. Providence is a nonprofit housing initiative launched by Catholic Charities; it has partnered with Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable-housing nonprofit, to redevelop the Lafitte and surrounding neighborhoods. HUD plans to demolish the entire site before Providence-Enterprise begins building new, smaller structures there. But a group of residents and urban planners are organizing to preserve at least some of the original brick buildings.

Regardless of whether the buildings are made of brick or some other building material, social services will be a vital part of success for Providence and Enterprise, says Susan Popkin, a housing policy researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute. "You can't just put people with the same problems into nicer-looking buildings," says Popkin. "You need places for people to live to connect with services, especially after all that has happened to them since Katrina."

After studying Chicago public housing families displaced by HUD's HOPE VI redevelopments, Popkin found that two-thirds were "hard to house." They were disabled, have chronic health or mental conditions, large families or household members with criminal records. She's guessing that the numbers may be similar in New Orleans, given the similarly high rates of concentrated poverty.

Providence CEO Jim Kelly is confident that Catholic Charities can address those complex needs. The Lafitte redevelopment package has a social services budget of $5 million, he says -- $2.5 million raised by Catholic Charities, matched by $2.5 million from HUD. "So we'll provide services until the money runs out and then raise some more," he says. Those at Providence's meeting say that, in general, they trust Catholic Charities. "But some of these promises sound a lot like what my people in the St. Thomas heard when they HOPE VI'd that," says one Lafitte resident. "And, baby, they never saw anything they were promised. So I have got to be skeptical."

The residents then go on to critique their pre-Katrina living conditions. One complaint trumps all others -- drugs. "Drugs were No. 1," says a woman named Yolanda, who has a Sixth Ward tattoo on her forearm -- she came to the Providence meeting pushing her elderly mother in a wheelchair.

With those drugs came violence, which took four Lafitte lives in 2003, seven in 2004, and one in pre-Katrina 2005. Still, say residents, Lafitte was more stable and less violent than other projects; most killings, they say, were caused by outsiders who entered the Lafitte to cause trouble. There's also a solution, they say: violence decreased whenever police walked a beat in the project. They'd like to see police beats implemented again.

Even young kids are matter-of-fact about seeing drugs and weapons in the Lafitte. "In the cut between two buildings, people would be making dope transactions, and so you'd see guns -- you know, drug dealers are going to carry some sort of protection. If you be around there a lot, you got used to it," says 13-year-old Summer, shrugging her shoulders. While her mother was working or running errands, Summer would grab the opportunity to visit her grandmother's Lafitte apartment. "I felt too safe there," she says, reminiscing from her evacuated home in Atlanta about playing in the courtyards with her cousins and other neighbor kids.

Le-Ann, a 16-year-old evacuee in Texas, agrees. For one thing, she says, those small-time drug deals happen in many New Orleans neighborhoods, not just Lafitte. She also believes that her exposure to it helped her learn right and wrong at a young age. "Here's the trip part about it," she says, "when you see drugs and what they do to people, you don't want to live like that."

No one messed with her, says Summer, mostly because everyone in the Lafitte knew each other. But it didn't hurt that her Grandma Esther's mother Helda, the very first resident of that apartment, left a fearsome legacy that Summer's playmates still recalled. "One time," says Summer, "Miss Helda saw that somebody was trying to break into her apartment; they had their fingers sticking in under her window. So she took a knife, went 'chop,' and left the fingers in the window."

The girls say that the Lafitte had a definite code of conduct. No violence, fights, or bad words in front of kids or old people, they said. "If some guys were cursing or something," says Summer, "and my grandma was coming out the door, they'd look up and say, 'Miss Esther, excuse my language, it just slipped out.'"

Even when the water rose, neighbors watched out for the Lafitte's elders. There are countless Katrina stories about people swimming through neck-deep water with elderly neighbors on their backs -- sometimes ferrying one older neighbor over to the I-10 on-ramp across Orleans Avenue and then swimming back to get another. Lois Andrews says that her mother, Miss Dorothy, and other mothers stood to the side and took care of some little girls while other Lafitte residents pushed their mother up the interstate in a hospital bed. "They was like a family over there," she says.

IF THERE IS A PROBLEM WITH LIFE-long, closely knit communities like Lafitte, it's that those bonds can't be artificially recreated somewhere else. As a result, many evacuees from public housing are slipping into depression. Others wake up every morning to unfamiliar landscapes and people and instantly feel uneasy. "I can't get comfortable here. I don't even have a corner store to walk to," says one elderly evacuee who landed just west of Phoenix.

"People who lived in New Orleans' public housing still feel like their lives are in limbo," says Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group. She is one of the attorneys of record for a federal lawsuit filed this summer against HUD and the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO). The suit asks the court to bar the demolition of any public housing apartments, including those in the Lafitte.

It also asks U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle "to permit residents to return to their public housing units and rebuild their lives."

"People want to go home for a lot of reasons," says Browne-Dianis. "They were totally uprooted, and now they need to be home, around the things they know and love, in order to deal with the psychological impacts of Hurricane Katrina."

She'll get no disagreement from Kelly, head of Providence Community Housing. "What I know in my gut of guts is that you cannot begin to heal from the wounds of Katrina until you're home in your own home," he says.

Kelly believes that the majority of Lafitte residents have not yet returned to New Orleans. A database Providence obtained from HANO shows former Lafitte residents currently living in 41 states. Residents who more informally track their neighbors through phone calls and word of mouth agree that most Lafitte residents are still evacuees. They're living mostly in Texas, they say, particularly in Houston and San Antonio.

Recent surveys conducted for Providence by All Congregations Together show that more than 90 percent of Lafitte residents want to return to New Orleans. The obstacles, however, are daunting. Many evacuated residents say they can't afford to return to New Orleans, where the rents have skyrocketed in the past year. According to the latest "Fair Market Rents" report, released recently by HUD, the average rent in the eight-parish New Orleans metro area jumped 45 percent since the hurricane. A two-bedroom apartment going for $676 before Katrina now goes for $978; an $868 three-bedroom unit is now $1,256.

It can be even harder to pay rent in a new, unfamiliar city -- especially if you're unemployed. According to September 2006 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Katrina evacuees not living in their former residences is triple that of those who have returned home. Evacuees in other cities say that some employers tell them flat-out that they're not hiring anyone from New Orleans. On top of that is the instability of aid from FEMA, which regularly threatens to discontinue housing assistance.

Technically, public housing residents should have more stable living conditions than other evacuees, because HUD designed special vouchers for all housing project residents displaced by Katrina. But, according to HUD data, only 11 percent of the nation's public housing agencies are currently dispensing the vouchers.

As a result, less than half of New Orleans' former project families still receive housing assistance. According to HUD, of the 5,146 displaced HANO families, only 2,300 have received vouchers and have been able to find landlords who will take them. HUD has no official information on families living without housing aid, but those who work with evacuees suspect that many families are sharing apartments -- squeezing two and even three families into spaces designed for one family.

Laura Tuggle, the public housing attorney for New Orleans Legal Assistance, says many of her clients continue to make long commutes from Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. Parents called back to work in New Orleans sleep on friends' couches during the week and then return to Houston on weekends to see their kids, who are staying with relatives there. She talks about elderly women driving the freeway from Atlanta each week to check on their home's reconstruction, while young men work construction jobs in the city by day and commute to their mothers' homes in Baton Rouge by night.

"If there was ever a time for affordable housing in New Orleans, it's now," says Tuggle.

HISTORIANS WOULD SAY THAT THERE already was a time for affordable housing in New Orleans -- but it was nearly 70 years ago. HANO's 1937 annual report boasts, "To New Orleans went the distinction of being the first city in the United States to benefit under the Wagner Act for the eradication of slums by providing housing for low-income families." The city had received $8,411,000 -- the first contract created under the act and signed by President Franklin Roosevelt.

For its application, HANO researched construction statistics from the previous two decades, proving "that private industry has done nothing to relieve the plight of our low-income families." Before the projects were built, HANO surveyed tenants who lived on the proposed public housing sites. The Lafitte site, known as federal project LA-1-5, held 567 existing apartments, houses and rooms. Of those, nearly all (532) had no running hot water, only cold. One in three had no heat or lights or bath. One in 10 had only outdoor, shared toilets.

The same report then described the soon-to-be constructed housing projects. "The buildings for each project of brick, fire-resisting construction will occupy somewhat less than 25 percent of the entire site," it reads. "This arrangement will provide an abundance of fresh air and sunshine and will contribute materially to the physical and moral well-being of the tenants."

On Sunday, Jan. 12, 1941, "citizens of New Orleans were given their first close-up of public low-rent housing," according to that year's HANO report. When the first family moved in three days later, The Times-Picayune issued a special edition. Within that year -- 1941 -- the city would open 4,137 public housing units at the Iberville, the Magnolia (now renamed C.J. Peete), the Calliope (now B.W. Cooper), the St. Thomas (torn down to make way for the River Garden development) and the Lafitte, which filled the last of 896 apartments on Aug. 26, 1941. The Magnolia, Calliope, and Lafitte were for black residents only; St. Thomas and Iberville were for whites.

Any building of merit more than 50 years old can technically be considered historic. Thus, in 1995, legendary Mardi Gras Indian chief Ferdinand Bigard, who was interested in this city's craftsmen and their work, submitted an application for the Lafitte to the National Register of Historic Places. Bigard detailed the area's history, noting that black working men have lived in this part of town since 1730, when it held 40 houses known as "Lodging for Negroes of the Brickyard." The city eventually built Lafitte on what was called "The Commons," a piece of land long used for grazing animals and as a source of firewood.

The location was well chosen, says Scott Bernhard, an associate professor at the Tulane University School of Architecture. Bernhard pulls out an elevation map and runs his finger from the river to show how most of the Lafitte, like other high-ground areas, is green, indicating zero elevation. "It's the toe of the natural levee," he says, connecting high ground to low ground. On the far end of the Lafitte, the green fades into the color yellow, showing the dip to below sea level.

The Lafitte corridor could also connect the city in another way. This past summer, Bernhard and his students, in a HUD-funded project, created different designs for a ribbon of parkland -- a greenway -- that could run alongside the Lafitte buildings, on the land that is now a sea of surface parking lots. Until it was filled in 1938, it served as the Carondelet Canal. The greenway could function for bicyclists and pedestrians like the canal functioned for boats, connecting Bayou St. John to the French Quarter. Adding a streetcar to the greenway could also create a loop with the Canal Street streetcar.

Bernhard's students also incorporated housing into each design. The greenway concept could also accommodate commercial buildings, such as the new film studio that recently broke ground atop the former canal, he says. And it wouldn't be difficult to acquire the land, because the rest of the lots are open, unused and owned by the city. "A lot of us in New Orleans feel like we're too far from a park," says Bernhard. The greenway idea could address that concern.

When the city's first housing projects were built in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Louisiana's U.S. Sen. Allen J. Ellender, an ardent segregationist, was a big booster of public housing. That was not an unusual stand for white southern politicians of the time. "Public housing wasn't an airport or a new school, but it was on that 'sought-after' list," says Alexander von Hoffman, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies and the author of House By House, Block By Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods. In general, von Hoffman believes, southern housing projects looked better because housing authorities here seemed more likely to hire architects who would add a regional flair to the construction. Hence the attractive garden apartment look of the Lafitte's buildings, which were designed by local architects Sol Rosenthal, Jack "J.H." Kessels and Ernest W. Jones. It's believed that the Lafitte's brown-brick structures were modeled after Jackson Square's historic Pontalba buildings, which are commonly known as the nation's first apartment buildings.

In the 1960s, just a few decades after the Lafitte was built, public housing's population began to shift, partly as a result of the civil rights movement, which gave middle-class blacks a wider selection of private residences and, as a result of school integration, prompted white flight from the city.

"People who had choice moved away," says von Hoffman. "Left behind were the poor and the elderly." And, as perceptions of public housing changed, so did the demand. "At first, housing authorities could get really good, low-income, working tenants because people really wanted those apartments," says von Hoffman. As the demand decreased, the tenants became poorer and had more problems, he said.

Katrina chased many of those poor away, some temporarily and some possibly forever. The storm's aftermath, however, has fostered new tensions between public housing policymakers and residents. The former wants to abandon -- or at least rewrite -- the early mission of public housing in New Orleans, while the latter are determined to preserve it as they always knew it.

"Everyone talks about 'a hand-up instead of a handout.' Well, in the Lafitte we gave each other that hand-up," says an elderly man who prefers to simply be called "Mr. Walter." He adds that he's been retired from the river for 20 years and had lived in Lafitte for 40 years before evacuating to Baton Rouge. "Some people say that God was sending us a message with Katrina," he says. "And I believe that He was -- He was telling us to take better care of each other. Now, baby, we could use some help here in the Lafitte. New bathrooms with showers. New kitchen cupboards. More activities for our kids."

Mr. Walter takes a seat on a milk crate and talks about a former neighbor of his. "People from the outside would say, 'She's crazy.' But we know the grief that made her crazy -- and we also love that crackhead that you despise. He's one of us. Don't get me wrong, baby, we're glad to know that Catholic Charities is ready to help us. But don't let no one tell you there was no help in the Lafitte before Katrina. Help was always just a porch away."

click to enlarge Former residents of the Lafitte public housing complex, - which HUD plans to demolish, say the buildings are sturdy - and can and should be cleaned up and saved. - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • Former residents of the Lafitte public housing complex, which HUD plans to demolish, say the buildings are sturdy and can and should be cleaned up and saved.
click to enlarge Before Hurricane Katrina, Lafitte was a vibrant and close- - knit neighborhood where people raised their families, - including about 800 kids. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Before Hurricane Katrina, Lafitte was a vibrant and close- knit neighborhood where people raised their families, including about 800 kids.
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