The Big Chief’s Stand
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that unit, which is in great shape, probably had that lease for years and was given no notice that her lease had been rescinded in any way.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!