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. The following is the second of a two-part series that originally appeared in the October 31, 2006, Gambit Weekly.
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."
"Parents helped each other....They say that it takes a village to raise a child. We had that village."
"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."