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The Big Chief’s Stand

June 1, 2010

Once again, there were plenty of things to write about in this episode, but I kept going back to Albert’s fury about housing for his gang.

Jacques Morial sits talking to Davis and says:

“Whole neighborhoods are being written off. Nagin’s talking Chocolate City but he’s not pressing the Feds to bring anybody home.” He then asks the question: “Why won’t the Feds move?” Poor Davis looks clueless, so Morial explains, “If New Orleans becomes whiter, the state turns from purple to red.” He then talks about the infrastructure necessary to sustain culture not being attended to. While Davis tries to find a rhyme for “infrastructure” we are allowed to let that last statement sink in and remember that Albert and his gang are exactly a part of the culture that Morial’s talking about.

Later, as Albert makes his stand, finally the cops come. The first ones to arrive tell him pointedly that the unit he’s in “don’t belong to Perleen Cross. It belongs to the Housing Authority of New Orleans.” Nevermind Perleen had a lease on that unit, which is in great shape, probably had that lease for years and was given no notice that her lease had been rescinded in any way. Nor had she been to court to be stripped of her rights according to the lease. There had been no legal process started against the pre-Katrina residents by HANO at that time, I don’t believe. As a reporter interviews him, Albert asks why with all this housing available, housing that’s in good shape, and with so many wanting to come back home, the projects aren’t being opened. “I need someone to explain that to me.”

Me too. I was asking the same questions at the time.

Finally, the Community Relations Officer arrives saying that “the Mayor and City Council President Thomas want to resolve this without any real conflict.” Uh huh. Oh I bet so, although I’ve often wondered in light of Barbara Bush’s comments at the Astrodome if anyone outside of New Orleans would have wondered why we wondered.

The officer goes on to say that the Feds control the projects. Albert’s bewilderment when he says, “Don’t make no sense that nobody in New Orleans is fighting the Feds on this one,” was my bewilderment. Perhaps I’m an idiot, but at the time I really did not understand it one bit. When the officer follows that with, “The people who vote in this town, black and white, have been awfully quiet on this thing don’t you think?”

The truth is that there were a lot of us at the time who were really concerned with the housing/projects situation. Prior to Katrina some of the projects had already been demolished to build what they called “mixed-use” housing, and others were slated for demolition. Talk around town prior to the storm was that people really, really wanted Iberville gone. I mean, c’mon, that’s some prime real estate there fo’ true. The St. Thomas projects were already gone, other housing and a giant Walmart had been put in its place. Once before the storm hit, I’d gone to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in the Lower Garden District and struck up a conversation with a family who lived down the way from the route. They were having a party and were decidedly not Irish. We talked for a long time and I missed a lot of the parade. They told me that a lot of the housing in the area was now lived in by former tenants of St. Thomas because “this is where their people are at. This is where they grew up. They don’t want to leave the neighborhood even though they might find better housing somewhere else. And the rents around here have gone way up since the projects went down.”

On the Westbank, I know they were already starting to eliminate the projects and some of the new housing that had been built pre-Katrina. The problem was that they seemed only to be rebuilding half or less of the number of units that existed before the wrecking ball hit. I wondered then, what happened to those other families? The other half?

Fellow BoT contributor GBitch wrote in June 2006:

My mother grew up in what was the Magnolia housing projects Uptown. Back then, as in many ways recently, it was a place for poor people with children and elderly people living on pensions. Poor people who worked, older women who planted flowers and tomatoes and scolded children no matter who they belonged to, cooperative communities.

After promising that all have “the right to return,” the federal government through HUD is now saying that there will not be enough room for everyone. While multiple condominium complexes go up around the CBD and Lower Garden District, condos that start at $200K, HUD has decided to raze and redevelop 4 housing projects over the next 3 years and to (eventually) redevelop them as “mixed-income” housing. Only 1000 more units will be open by this August, bringing the total of available public housing units to about 2,100, which is 3,046 fewer units than pre-Katrina. What most focus on in the housing projects is drug crime, teen pregnancy and welfare dependency. They ignore the elderly who have lived in (and anchored) neighborhoods all their lives and who, even if they wanted to move, couldn’t afford to live anywhere else in the city. They ignore the working poor, the single parents.

(You should read the entire piece Who’s Right to Return? here.)

What’s happening in Albert’s neck of the city was happening in other housing projects. Next time you are having coffee, put Magnolia Projects into your browser and read who grew up there. You’ll see links for other New Orleans projects, with lists of other people’s names that you have on your bookshelf or in your CD collection. The video below is what happened at the St. Bernard Projects which admittedly got more water than some of the others. It’s a tad long, but for those of you reading this who live outside New Orleans, it’s important that you see how determined people were: both those who wanted to come home and those who enforced the you-can’t-come-home policy. Albert’s storyline is entirely plausible and completely real.

Oh yeah, and I found this today: Harmony Oaks Apartments. In Central City. With a special link for former C.J. Peete residents. Rents from nearly 700-950/month depending on number of bedrooms. I’m going to have to check out how many units C.J. Peete had before demolition and how many units Harmony Oaks now has built. And hey, it’s only five years since the storm!

8 Comments
  1. June 1, 2010 2:32 pm

    Now that most of those built-by-hand-by-craftsman buildings are gone, we sure licked our crime problem, didn’t we?

    It wasn’t a racial issue. It was a class issue, as I was minded watching a Wire from season three when the recently released convict goes out to see his old girlfriend who is now a “county girl.” Our own county people out in the east were as anxious to see “the element” not return as the folks on Audubon Place, even though the poor working class–the people who could (just barely and by great sacrafice) afford to mask or parade are the heart and soul of New Orleans culture.

    The Element. I think you could build a whole series around the class conflicts that masquerade as race in this country.

  2. June 1, 2010 3:17 pm

    It’s not separate from race, not race or class but both, intertwined. Right, there were folks out in Gentilly and the East who didn’t want Those People to return. Just because there were black people who wanted Those People gone just like white folks doesn’t mean Those People were not all seen as not just black but dark black and poor, the lowly, the ones who show how uncompassionate and selfish our society is. And who verified that Those People all lived in the housing projects? As a matter of fact, with the projects emptied, crime was still high, worse right after the Flooding—I remember all too well the Wild West nature of Central City, a far-from-fully-populated Central City—which shouldn’t’ve been if all Those People were Finally GONE, Chile!

    That’s part of The Lie.

    Class does not trump race. They co-exist. Who tells us it must be only one thing? Who benefits from carving it up that finely? Not poor black folks who get paid so little they can’t live in anything but subsidized housing.

  3. June 1, 2010 5:47 pm

    Hold on a minute while I find my Fidel cap with the red star on it….ok….it matters because race is an unnecessary card to play, because it flips a switch in so many people’s heads that makes it harder to talk about class in our allegedly classless nation, because it always ends up a tool to divide people of common class interest.

    We’ve talked about race for a hundred years and all we have done is enlarge the pool of people who can look down their noses at people who are poor (and black).

    All Hail Marx and Lennon.

  4. June 2, 2010 10:24 am

    *sigh* I was really hoping the show wouldn’t get quite this political. I feel it will turn off at least half the viewers now because roughly half of Americans (the fiscally conservative ones) don’t think supporting public housing is a good idea. This isn’t my opinion, it’s just a fact. I was hoping the show would remain popular so it would stay on air and bringing money to our city.

    Personally, I go with the technical/legal explanation on this one. You can’t claim property that you don’t own. Unfortunately for poor folks, when you choose to depend on the government, you also choose to give up some of your rights, and that became painfully evident during Katrina. Many people were forced to live where the government told them to go like Houston/Atlanta. Obviously they could have returned of their own free will, but once you’re ‘dependent’ you have no mental means to survive. You are now stripped of your dignity because of the CHOICE you made to take the easier path.

    Is it true that white elites tried to close the housing projects in order to rid the city of black poverty and crime? I wouldn’t be surprised. But I also know, that if those poor folks hadn’t given up their freedom, it would not have been an issue. Accepting aid from the government is like making a deal with the devil – it will take your soul.

  5. June 2, 2010 11:43 am

    In the case of New Orleans public housing, I don’t think closing it down after Katrina is as elementary as philosophical support of projects or not. If half of the American people are too simple-minded to get that, this show is not for them.

    a) Practically, these were well-built structures, many that didn’t flood, that could have been used as temporary housing for people flooded out of actual homes they owned that they were rebuilding, instead of poisonous FEMA trailers, and

    b) it was the way the housing was done away with, whether it was by white and/or black elites. Quickly and quietly, with no public input, before folks could come back to figure out options to live in New Orleans again. It’s like HANO and the city were saying, “You’re in Atlanta or Houston now, that’s your problem, you’re their problem, we’re going to take away your options without your input while you continue to pay taxes.”

    Now we have shoddily-built, mixed-income housing like the St. Thomas projects housing complex I lived near, where the crime hasn’t gone down and forget dignity.

  6. samjasper permalink
    June 2, 2010 8:46 pm

    “You are now stripped of your dignity because of the CHOICE you made to take the easier path.” Pistolette, is this okay with you and is this really how you see it? Did you watch the video I put in that piece? Most of the people in that video had jobs. Some of the jobs the “poor folks” who “chose” to be dependent on the government work are the very ones without which our city would come to a halt. They are the maids in the hotels, the busboys in restaurants, the bar backs, the janitors, the invisible person that cooks up your order in the kitchen in the back of your favorite lunch place. They are the waitresses serving up cocktails and food for less than 3 bucks an hour most places. They save up their tips to send their kids to Tulane. They are the people who make sure the peanut butter is on the shelf at the grocery store, the cashiers at Walmart, the security guards who walk you to your car in a dark parking lot to make sure you’re safe. They are the working poor, some working two or more low paying jobs and still needing some help. They are the permanent underclass we bred for labor, used for years and once we no longer needed their labor in higher paying jobs, we abandoned.

    Of course the crime problems caused by some can’t be dismissed, and I’m not trying to say that the projects are some kind of experiment in utopian living. I am, however, saying that some people need help and they shouldn’t be accused of having chosen their situation, nor should they be stripped of dignity for needing it. After Katrina the rents in town skyrocketed, and these people had to fight for a home to come back to. It didn’t sit right with me then and it doesn’t now.

    Perhaps you should consider yourself lucky that you were not born a person of color whose mom was a maid at the Monteleone for 18 years and Dad was the doorman for 14 (yes, I know the people I’m talking about here. They actually exist.) Consider yourself lucky that you probably got a good education. So did the daughter of the couple mentioned above, thanks to their scrimping and saving and knowing just what to buy with the foodstamps to make sure she wasn’t eating junk food. Indeed, choices were made, in this case they were amazing, determined, strong choices. Choices I never had to make for my child.

    On the other hand, I think the daughter of the maid and doorman might consider herself lucky not to be quite as judgmental as you seem to be in your comment. And remarkably she would never consider that you weren’t worthy of dignity and respect no matter what situation you found yourself in.

    I can also be very sure that she did not have the “easier path.”

  7. June 3, 2010 9:49 am

    First off, I’m not OK with it. It’s heartbreaking to see human beings treated that way, which is why I have such disdain for the government that shuffled them around like inconvenient statistics. But giving a lecture to me about the amazing people who live in housing projects doesn’t change that they chose to live there. And yes, I’m sure most of them had jobs (something I didn’t even bring up, you did). But since I’ve had dozens of friends who spent years waiting tables and sleeping 7 people in a 2 bedroom apartment in order to save money for their own place, I don’t see why this standard should be different for anyone else. Anyone can survive and thrive without government aid.

    “I am, however, saying that some people need help and they shouldn’t be accused of having chosen their situation, nor should they be stripped of dignity for needing it.” I didn’t say they chose to be poor. I said they chose to take aid from the government and that requires a sacrifice – as unfair as it may seem. I believe everyone is worthy of dignity and respect, but my point is that when the government gets involved you cease to be human, you’re now a social security number to be reassigned from one housing gulag to another. And that is what I meant – a surrender of humanity.

    Lastly, I’d recommend not making personal assumptions about your readers when you know nothing about them except the color of their skin (which you judged me on thanks to my avatar). You have no idea what I was raised in and what my parents went through for me, and I won’t diminish it by having a dick measuring contest with you over who has the most poverty cred.

    Anyway, good debates on here, and keep up the good blogging. Hope to see all you Back of Towners at the next Rising Tide. Salut. -Pistolette

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