The federal hands of public housing were smashing large swaths of the urban landscape long before breached levees allowed floodwaters into New Orleans. With the outpouring of international concern for everything from trumpets for children to corner grocery stores, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods of 2005 gave preservationists a stronger voice in the policy-making process. But the feds were restructuring and reorganizing way before Katrina made landfall.
Look back to January 2004, when the Fischer housing development's former high-rise played host to a Carnival-like atmosphere for what was the city's first multi-floor demolition by implosion. The spectacle attracted witnesses from all over the region. More than 1,000 bore holes were drilled into the building for explosives and the 13 floors fell in half-second delays. It was like having Fourth of July right before Mardi Gras, only the merriment was mixed with protests from residents and preservationists who wanted the high-rise preserved.
Nineteen months later, the levees collapsed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, inundating the Florida housing development and allowing its lands to revert back to swamp. As is the case with Fischer, very few physical structures from the Florida community exist today — and those that do are slated for demolition. Unlike Fischer, however, more than just implosion enthusiasts were watching.
Suddenly there was widespread interest in what would happen to public housing that survived Katrina. An undercurrent ran through preservationists' conversations, and it had a name: "legacy buildings."
Unless there are no structures that can be preserved, Lesley E. Thomas, public information officer for the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), says all redevelopment plans must include the "renovation of at least two to three of the original buildings on each site for various uses." Thomas says developers have to work in coordination with state and federal governments to "maintain the original character and look of the exteriors, while typically completely gutting and reworking the interior of each building." They can be found all over the city — remnants of a bygone era being transformed into everything from administrative offices to community centers.
J.T. Hannan is director of public and governmental affairs for Columbia Parc at the Bayou District, the public-private entity that replaced the St. Bernard housing development off of Milton Street. "We don't want our buildings to just sit there like we've seen happen," says Hannan, walking around the grounds of the old St. Bernard project. "We want them to become part of the overall footprint."
Columbia Parc's developers are converting the surviving St. Bernard structures into an early-learning and day care center for children 5 years old and younger. Construction begins this summer and is expected to be completed in early 2013. Hannan says the buildings accomplish two objectives for Columbia Parc: preserving the past and planning for the future. "One of the root causes of poverty is a lack of education for small children during their early, formative years," he says. "Here's a solution."
The old St. Bernard project was one of the chair legs for what was known as the "Big Four" in New Orleans public housing. All of these sites have included historic preservation as part of the redevelopment plans over the years — though not at the levels preservationists wanted.
Here's a status report detailing where the site-specific Big Four initiatives stand today, based on information provided by HANO:
• The revitalized Faubourg Lafitte housing development in the Treme, adjacent to the French Quarter, has three original buildings being renovated for community usage, a Head Start program and administrative offices. Construction is underway and should be finished early next year. Despite the 2005 floodwaters, the early Lafitte structures were considered to be some of the fittest in the nation, which prompted residents and preservationists to fight the demolition plans, largely unsuccessfully.
• The Marrero Commons (formerly known as the Calliope project or the B.W. Cooper Apartments) has maintained three historic buildings that are being rehabbed as a community hub and office space. HANO estimates those buildings should be open to the public within the next 10 months.
• With a history of crime that rivals that of the old Calliope, the renamed Harmony Oaks Development (formerly known as the Magnolia projects or the C.J. Peete projects) has one 20-unit building still standing from the original design. It has been gutted and converted into 10 individual rental units. The projects' first administrative building has likewise been restored and is being used for leasing and other business services.
HANO, which is charged with overseeing local public housing, has undergone some structural changes, too, in recent years. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took over HANO in 2002 because of what HUD described as "financial mismanagement, poor maintenance, and neglect." It's likely HANO will revert back to local control in coming months, and receivership officials contend they've made a big difference in terms of historic preservation.
As an example, they point to the way the old St. Thomas project gave way to the new River Garden development.
Sandwiched between the Garden District, the Irish Channel and the Mississippi River, St. Thomas once housed 3,000 residents, all of whom were relocated during construction of River Garden. Although the five historic buildings that were left unharmed sat vacant for five years before they were completed in 2007, preservationists consider the St. Thomas restorations to be a model for other efforts around the city — or wish it would be. Several original buildings were preserved and reconfigured as 37 individual affordable housing units and one community center.
The River Garden development also provides evidence that developers have other reasons for maintaining legacy buildings. In all, they reaped more than $2.3 million worth of tax credits through the state Division of Historic Preservation. Additionally, River Garden has attempted to meld art with history in its centerpiece Boettner Park, which features 2.75 acres of green space, trees and walkways that architects, engineers and contractors like to describe as "new urbanism." A sculpture by Christopher Saucedo of the University of New Orleans' fine arts department brings it all home, depicting different periods of time with images of an acorn, oak tree and the park's namesake, Ed Boettner.
"This park design attempts to address growth, change, and rebirth while respecting our past," Saucedo says.
The high-rise from the Melpomene projects, now the William J. Guste housing development in Central City, has been retained, reconfigured and modernized over the years, but HANO is moving forward with demolition of all its remaining original low-rises. Nine years ago, the original foundations of the old Desire development were leveled, leaving behind little from its earliest incarnations, save a couple of buildings.
On the horizon is the completion of the Iberville public housing complex, bordered by Basin and Iberville streets on the fabled grounds of what was once Storyville. It will be an interesting redevelopment to watch unfold. Plans were drawn up in 2009 to restore 22 original buildings. These structures will retain their historic character and facades, according to HANO, but also will be gutted and reconfigured to provide modern housing. Depending on how it plays out, Iberville could be the follow-up to St. Thomas for which some preservationists have been pining.
The final plan for Iberville is still coming together, but the first phase of demolition is expected in the fall. Former and current residents, as well as community activists, are currently taking part in the Section 106 process, which is part of the federal review guidelines for historic preservation. Over the past few years, there have been complaints that these public consultations were launched to little fanfare and that developers preserved buildings almost as an afterthought. The proliferation of administrative buildings, rather than community centers or additional housing, helps bolster that argument.
A study conducted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonpartisan group founded through a congressional charter in 1949, suggests the Section 106 reviews held in the years following Hurricane Katrina had narrow participation, and the process "was not correctly followed." The study likewise revealed that at least 4,500 units of historic public housing that were not seriously damaged by Katrina were "needlessly demolished" due to the "failure of federal agencies to take Section 106 seriously."
On the other hand, numerous structures that had been washed out by floodwaters had become dilapidated and were essentially unlivable since demolitions in New Orleans commenced in earnest some 10 years ago. Crime and violence were primary factors as well. Architectural merits aside, those picturesque low-rise courtyard designs from the 1940s are just the beginning — public safety became part of the discussion about how public housing would be torn down and rebuilt.
Today public housing in New Orleans, at least aesthetically, is being defined by symbols of its past and future. Still, it's difficult not to view parts of the public housing landscape as alternate histories. It's as if there were pockets of false hope that the ongoing demolitions would somehow erase the legacy of neglect and brutality that some of the projects had come to represent. But that's not going anywhere; it's enshrined by memories, the written word and other means that no wrecking ball can touch.
The architecture, as we've come to learn, not so much.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alfordwrites.