Like a Ton of Bricks
Lafitte public housing residents were hit hard by the news that HUD plans to demolish their homes, which they called "the best project in town." Now an unlikely coalition of architects, housing experts, agitators, and former residents is trying to save the development. The following is the first of a two-part series that originally appeared in the October 24, 2006, Gambit Weekly.
Image: Struggling to Make It
Katy Reckdahl

I don't want to see those buildings come down," says 70-year-old Shirley Simmons, who grew up near the Lafitte public housing development. At a recent planning meeting, she explains that she supports recently announced plans to build homes and apartments in the Sixth Ward neighborhood that surrounds the Lafitte. But Simmons also is protective of Lafitte itself.

As a child, Simmons remembers her relatives, legendary Seventh Ward craftsmen, coming home and talking about their work on the bricks that day. "So I know that Lafitte was built by the very best roofers, cement finishers, and carpenters," she says.

All her life, she has compared the handiwork. "Sometimes I'll pass by the Iberville and other projects that were built for the white families," she says. "Lafitte was built for us—black families like us—but those buildings always were the prettiest of all the projects. I was envious of our friends who lived there; we lived in a wood house; they lived in a brick house."

Providence's conclusions do not change the agency's decision to demolish the Lafitte.

In August, former Lafitte residents seemed optimistic after HUD hired a pair of redevelopers for the Lafitte-Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable-housing nonprofit, and Providence Community Housing, a local post-Katrina housing initiative launched by Catholic Charities.

At a recent planning meeting, former Lafitte residents liked that the partners seem devoted to helping all of them return to New Orleans and to providing them with a wide range of social services. They also are interested in the "in-fill" housing that Providence-Enterprise is constructing. The nonprofits have acquired approximately 200 lots from the city in the Sixth Ward area, where they will build new shotguns, cottages, and small-scale apartments.

In general, however, neighbors did not like HUD's instructions to the partners: they must begin with a demolished site. "Why is HUD so focused on putting a wrecking ball to those bricks?" asks one man, who has lived for decades across Orleans Avenue from the Lafitte. On a recent walk through the project, he and other neighbors point out Katrina water lines that are clearly below the top of the buildings' foundations, supporting Providence's recent finding that most of the Lafitte's buildings did not flood.

Providence's conclusions do not change the agency's decision to demolish the Lafitte, says HUD spokeswoman Donna White. "[It is] old and it would take millions to repair buildings that basically warehoused poor people," she says, restating HUD's commitment to giving residents newly built housing.

Sounds good, responds Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group. But redevelopment will take years, she says, and evacuees can't wait that long. "I started getting calls from residents in December asking me, 'Why can't I come home? My building wasn't damaged,'" she says. "And they're right. Residents should be able to return to perfectly suitable housing. Units that can be reopened should be reopened tomorrow."

Lafitte resident Jeffrey Hills already was his own handyman. During the 12 years that he and his family lived in the project, he laid linoleum and carpet, caulked the windows, and painted the walls when they needed it. "Lots of people did that—it was home," he says. Hills has been inside his apartment since the storm and is well aware of the mold on its concrete walls. Still, he says, there's no sheetrock to gut, and thus the cleanup won't take much. "A good scrub-down and paint is all it needs."

For Hills, a Preservation Hall tuba player, one benefit of the Lafitte's sturdy bricks was that its walls were soundproof. "I could practice my horn inside and no one could hear me on the other side," he says. "Those walls are thick, made of concrete, bricks and metal beams." Any new construction will be positively flimsy by comparison, he says.

Some local preservationists agree. Longtime local urban planner Bob Tannen says that the Lafitte is worth saving for several reasons: the buildings were nicely designed, modeled after the much-prized Pontalba apartments that line Jackson Square, and they were built using excellent materials—good bricks and tile roofs.

Tannen also believes the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) is overstating the amount of damage sustained by the project. "Lafitte had a minimum of water damage," he says. Even the official HANO report estimates that first-floor apartments in the Lafitte took only 2 to 12 inches of floodwater, a trickle compared to many already-rehabbed buildings in town. "I don't believe that HUD should be demolishing these buildings," says Tannen.

Neighbors consider these buildings attractive, which is a good enough reason to preserve at least some of them, says Bernard Zyscovich, the Lafitte neighborhood planner for City Council consultant Lambert Advisory. "The Treme neighborhood was the one neighborhood where we heard 'preserve public housing buildings,'" says Lambert Advisory head Paul Lambert.

Zyscovich believes that a combination of renovation and new construction would solve some existing design problems. "Too many buildings are crammed into one site," he says. "And the project was conceived as an island. We've since learned that things work better when streets connect." As a result, Zyscovich submitted plans that retain some original buildings but demolish others to make way for green open space and intersecting city streets. The plans also include oft-requested retail space, such as supermarkets and drugstores, on the first floors of some buildings.

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