Razing a Community
Page 3 of 3
Image: Struggling to Make It
Katy Reckdahl

Historians would say that there is already was a time for affordable housing in New Orleans—but it was nearly 70 years ago. HANO's 1937 annual report boasts, "To New Orleans went the distinction of being the first city in the United States to benefit under the Wagner Act for the eradication of slums by providing housing for low-income families." The city had received $8,411,000—the first contract created under the act and signed by President Franklin Roosevelt.

For its application, HANO researched construction statistics from the previous two decades, proving "that private industry has done nothing to relieve the plight of our low-income families." Before the projects were built, HANO surveyed tenants who lived on the proposed public housing sites. The Lafitte site, known as federal project LA-1-5, held 567 existing apartments, houses and rooms. Of those, nearly all (532) had no running hot water, only cold. One in three had no heat or lights or bath. One in 10 had only outdoor, shared toilets.

The same report then described the soon-to-be constructed housing projects. "The buildings for each project of brick, fire-resisting construction will occupy somewhat less than 25 percent of the entire site," it reads. "This arrangement will provide an abundance of fresh air and sunshine and will contribute materially to the physical and moral well-being of the tenants."

On Sunday, Jan. 12, 1941, "citizens of New Orleans were given their first close-up of public low-rent housing," according to that year's HANO report. When the first family moved in three days later, The Times-Picayune issued a special edition. Within that year—1941—the city would open 4,137 public housing units at the Iberville, the Magnolia (now renamed C.J. Peete), the Calliope (now B.W. Cooper), the St. Thomas (torn down to make way for the River Garden development) and the Lafitte, which filled the last of 896 apartments on Aug. 26, 1941. The Magnolia, Calliope, and Lafitte were for black residents only; St. Thomas and Iberville were for whites.

"Everyone talks about 'a hand-up instead of a handout.' Well, in the Lafitte we gave each other that hand-up," says an elderly man who prefers to simply be called "Mr. Walter."

Any building of merit more than 50 years old can technically be considered historic. Thus, in 1995, legendary Mardi Gras Indian chief Ferdinand Bigard, who was interested in this city's craftsmen and their work, submitted an application for the Lafitte to the National Register of Historic Places. Bigard detailed the area's history, noting that black working men have lived in this part of town since 1730, when it held 40 houses known as "Lodging for Negroes of the Brickyard." The city eventually built Lafitte on what was called "The Commons," a piece of land long used for grazing animals and as a source of firewood.

The location was well chosen, says Scott Bernhard, an associate professor at the Tulane University School of Architecture. Bernhard pulls out an elevation map and runs his finger from the river to show how most of the Lafitte, like other high-ground areas, is green, indicating zero elevation. "It's the toe of the natural levee," he says, connecting high ground to low ground. On the far end of the Lafitte, the green fades into the color yellow, showing the dip to below sea level.

The Lafitte corridor could also connect the city in another way. This past summer, Bernhard and his students, in a HUD-funded project, created different designs for a ribbon of parkland—a greenway—that could run alongside the Lafitte buildings, on the land that is now a sea of surface parking lots. Until it was filled in 1938, it served as the Carondelet Canal. The greenway could function for bicyclists and pedestrians like the canal functioned for boats, connecting Bayou St. John to the French Quarter. Adding a streetcar to the greenway could also create a loop with the Canal Street streetcar.

Bernhard's students also incorporated housing into each design. The greenway concept could also accommodate commercial buildings, such as the new film studio that recently broke ground atop the former canal, he says. And it wouldn't be difficult to acquire the land, because the rest of the lots are open, unused and owned by the city. "A lot of us in New Orleans feel like we're too far from a park," says Bernhard. The greenway idea could address that concern.

When the city's first housing projects were built in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Louisiana's U.S. Sen. Allen J. Ellender, an ardent segregationist, was a big booster of public housing. That was not an unusual stand for white southern politicians of the time. "Public housing wasn't an airport or a new school, but it was on that 'sought-after' list," says Alexander von Hoffman, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies and the author of House By House, Block By Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods. In general, von Hoffman believes, southern housing projects looked better because housing authorities here seemed more likely to hire architects who would add a regional flair to the construction. Hence the attractive garden apartment look of the Lafitte's buildings, which were designed by local architects Sol Rosenthal, Jack "J.H." Kessels and Ernest W. Jones. It's believed that the Lafitte's brown-brick structures were modeled after Jackson Square's historic Pontalba buildings, which are commonly known as the nation's first apartment buildings.

In the 1960s, just a few decades after the Lafitte was built, public housing's population began to shift, partly as a result of the civil rights movement, which gave middle-class blacks a wider selection of private residences and, as a result of school integration, prompted white flight from the city.

"People who had choice moved away," says von Hoffman. "Left behind were the poor and the elderly." And, as perceptions of public housing changed, so did the demand. "At first, housing authorities could get really good, low-income, working tenants because people really wanted those apartments," says von Hoffman. As the demand decreased, the tenants became poorer and had more problems, he said.

Katrina chased many of those poor away, some temporarily and some possibly forever. The storm's aftermath, however, has fostered new tensions between public housing policymakers and residents. The former wants to abandon—or at least rewrite—the early mission of public housing in New Orleans, while the latter are determined to preserve it as they always knew it.

"Everyone talks about 'a hand-up instead of a handout.' Well, in the Lafitte we gave each other that hand-up," says an elderly man who prefers to simply be called "Mr. Walter." He adds that he's been retired from the river for 20 years and had lived in Lafitte for 40 years before evacuating to Baton Rouge. "Some people say that God was sending us a message with Katrina," he says. "And I believe that He was—He was telling us to take better care of each other. Now, baby, we could use some help here in the Lafitte. New bathrooms with showers. New kitchen cupboards. More activities for our kids."

Mr. Walter takes a seat on a milk crate and talks about a former neighbor of his. "People from the outside would say, 'She's crazy.' But we know the grief that made her crazy—and we also love that crackhead that you despise. He's one of us. Don't get me wrong, baby, we're glad to know that Catholic Charities is ready to help us. But don't let no one tell you there was no help in the Lafitte before Katrina. Help was always just a porch away."

Originally published on October 31, 2006, in the Gambit Weekly. Copyright © 2006 by Katy Reckdahl. Reprinted with permission of the author and the Gambit Weekly.