Razing a Community
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Image: Struggling to Make It
Katy Reckdahl

The residents then go on to critique their pre-Katrina living conditions. One complaint trumps all others—drugs. "Drugs were No. 1," says a woman named Yolanda, who has a Sixth Ward tattoo on her forearm—she came to the Providence meeting pushing her elderly mother in a wheelchair.

With those drugs came violence, which took four Lafitte lives in 2003, seven in 2004, and one in pre-Katrina 2005. Still, say residents, Lafitte was more stable and less violent than other projects; most killings, they say, were caused by outsiders who entered the Lafitte to cause trouble. There's also a solution, they say: violence decreased whenever police walked a beat in the project. They'd like to see police beats implemented again.

Even young kids are matter-of-fact about seeing drugs and weapons in the Lafitte. "In the cut between two buildings, people would be making dope transactions, and so you'd see guns—you know, drug dealers are going to carry some sort of protection. If you be around there a lot, you got used to it," says 13-year-old Summer, shrugging her shoulders. While her mother was working or running errands, Summer would grab the opportunity to visit her grandmother's Lafitte apartment. "I felt too safe there," she says, reminiscing from her evacuated home in Atlanta about playing in the courtyards with her cousins and other neighbor kids.

Le-Ann, a 16-year-old evacuee in Texas, agrees. For one thing, she says, those small-time drug deals happen in many New Orleans neighborhoods, not just Lafitte. She also believes that her exposure to it helped her learn right and wrong at a young age. "Here's the trip part about it," she says, "when you see drugs and what they do to people, you don't want to live like that."

No one messed with her, says Summer, mostly because everyone in the Lafitte knew each other. But it didn't hurt that her Grandma Esther's mother Helda, the very first resident of that apartment, left a fearsome legacy that Summer's playmates still recalled. "One time," says Summer, "Miss Helda saw that somebody was trying to break into her apartment; they had their fingers sticking in under her window. So she took a knife, went 'chop,' and left the fingers in the window."

The girls say that the Lafitte had a definite code of conduct. No violence, fights, or bad words in front of kids or old people, they said. "If some guys were cursing or something," says Summer, "and my grandma was coming out the door, they'd look up and say, 'Miss Esther, excuse my language, it just slipped out.'"

Even when the water rose, neighbors watched out for the Lafitte's elders. There are countless Katrina stories about people swimming through neck-deep water with elderly neighbors on their backs—sometimes ferrying one older neighbor over to the I-10 on-ramp across Orleans Avenue and then swimming back to get another. Lois Andrews says that her mother, Miss Dorothy, and other mothers stood to the side and took care of some little girls while other Lafitte residents pushed their mother up the interstate in a hospital bed. "They was like a family over there," she says.

If there is a problem with life-long, closely knit communities like Lafitte, it's that those bonds can't be artifcially recreated somewhere else.

If there is a problem with life-long, closely knit communities like Lafitte, it's that those bonds can't be artificially recreated somewhere else. As a result, many evacuees from public housing are slipping into depression. Others wake up every morning to unfamiliar landscapes and people and instantly feel uneasy. "I can't get comfortable here. I don't even have a corner store to walk to," says one elderly evacuee who landed just west of Phoenix.

"People who lived in New Orleans' public housing still feel like their lives are in limbo," says Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group. She is one of the attorneys of record for a federal lawsuit filed this summer against HUD and the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO). The suit asks the court to bar the demolition of any public housing apartments, including those in the Lafitte.

It also asks U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle "to permit residents to return to their public housing units and rebuild their lives."

"People want to go home for a lot of reasons," says Browne-Dianis. "They were totally uprooted, and now they need to be home, around the things they know and love, in order to deal with the psychological impacts of Hurricane Katrina."

She'll get no disagreement from Kelly, head of Providence Community Housing. "What I know in my gut of guts is that you cannot begin to heal from the wounds of Katrina until you're home in your own home," he says.

Kelly believes that the majority of Lafitte residents have not yet returned to New Orleans. A database Providence obtained from HANO shows former Lafitte residents currently living in 41 states. Residents who more informally track their neighbors through phone calls and word of mouth agree that most Lafitte residents are still evacuees. They're living mostly in Texas, they say, particularly in Houston and San Antonio.

Technically, public housing residents should have more stable living conditions than other evacuees, because HUD designed special vouchers for all housing project residents displaced by Katrina. But, according to HUD data, only 11 percent of the nation's public housing agencies are currently dispensing the vouchers.

As a result, less than half of New Orleans' former project families still receive housing assistance. According to HUD, of the 5,146 displaced HANO families, only 2,300 have received vouchers and have been able to find landlords who will take them. HUD has no official information on families living without housing aid, but those who work with evacuees suspect that many families are sharing apartments—squeezing two and even three families into spaces designed for one family.

Laura Tuggle, the public housing attorney for New Orleans Legal Assistance, says many of her clients continue to make long commutes from Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. Parents called back to work in New Orleans sleep on friends' couches during the week and then return to Houston on weekends to see their kids, who are staying with relatives there. She talks about elderly women driving the freeway from Atlanta each week to check on their home's reconstruction, while young men work construction jobs in the city by day and commute to their mothers' homes in Baton Rouge by night.

"If there was ever a time for affordable housing in New Orleans, it's now," says Tuggle.