Tripod: New Orleans at 300 returns with a look at the Desire community, then and now.
If you come from New Orleans, or you have lived here for a minute, you know how often the locals identify themselves through their neighborhood. Before Katrina, for thousands of residents of New Orleans, these neighborhoods were social housing: the Magnolia, B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, the Calliope. All these developments have now disappeared, they have all been demolished and so they are not part of what this ongoing city-wide Tricentennial conversation has been. But these communities remain super important parts of the lives of thousands of people and the history of this city. So, for one of our last Tripod episodes, we decided to hear from residents of one of those neighborhoods: The Desire.
Leonard Smith grew up in the Desire community. He gives me a tour through his old neighborhood. He used to roll here as a child. "During the Christmas period, the street Alvar closed because everyone was skating during Christmas, skating and cycling, so they would skate in. It would be hundreds of people who are roller skates.
I wanted this tour from Leonard, because I had never been around before. And apparently I am not the only one. "Many people have never even been back in Desire and may have lived all their lives in New Orleans," Leonard told me.
Because it was there, it felt at a distance. And pretty bald. Many empty plots, high grass, destroyed houses. When we drove around, we were physically enclosed by train tracks on two sides and an industrial channel on a third. This part of the upper 9th section would be industrial, it was not intended as a residential area. It was actually also a city dump. The landfill was made in 1909 and became a landfill for both household and industrial waste. Now, fast forward to the housing law of 1949, which allowed new construction. People saw this area as an opportunity to build a housing project on a cheap plot.
The landfill was closed and new houses were built that were sold specifically to black veterans from the Second World War. "And they
would always promote the Times Picayune as real estate for colored people, "says Leonard." & # 39; Hey Mr. G.I., hello Mr. G.I. & # 39; And this is the first time this has happened in the south. & # 39;
In the sixties houses were made available to everyone, not only for veterans, and the family of Leonard made his transfer from Uptown in 1964. "It was the first opportunity for my parents to be here to buy a house, so we moved to Metropolitan Street which was around the corner from my grandmother, my mother's mother and father."
Meanwhile, while the homeowner was developing, public housing was built across the street. There were other developments in public housing in New Orleans: the Magnolia, St. Thomas, the Florida. but they needed more housing, especially for African Americans. And so they built the Desire development (public housing) opposite Leonard's house.
The Desire was the last public housing project that would be built in the city and the largest. Dan Perkins grew up in the Desire development. He was one of the more than 13,000 inhabitants who lived in 1860 units.
"We had our own parish, actually, we were so big, you know."
Dan & # 39; s household was also big. He lived in a three-bedroom apartment with ten other children. And he loved it. His mother cooked all day for her family, along with everyone who came through.
& # 39; She did not send anyone away. I would go into the storage room to get something, I would see someone else that I did not even know I got some corn flakes. & # 39; Who are you? & # 39; & # 39; The door was open. & # 39; That was the kind of heart she had. Because her heart was open, she kept her doors open. & # 39;
Do not forget that at least 13,000 people live on 100 hectares. And 10 thousand of them were children. And for 10,000 children there was a playground.
"Imagine one playground with only about three or four swings and one sliding board and one merry-go-round for thirteen thousand people," Dan said. "So we had to wait our turn to get on the swing, for some time we had to wait two days to get started!"
As Dan grew older, he began to realize the extent of development, and how few resources there were to share. He also realized how isolated they were from the rest of the city.
"Think about where we are – between train tracks, and if there is a train on the east side of the apartment complex, ambulance and security or whatever can not come in before the train has passed, sometimes a train takes two hours. stop them from resting before they can cross, so we were locked up in emergency situations, many people died. "
There are now two viaducts that you can get on track if there is a train, but not when Dan grew up. There was only one way and a way out. He said it was a trap. And then there was that mess, the Agriculture Street Landfill, which had been open since 1909 and then closed at the end of the fifties.
When Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965, they opened it again to drop all the rubbish out of the entire city. This was only a year after Leonard came home. His house got a few meters of water and the apartments for social housing were flooded. Freestanding porches, collapsed roofs. It was bad. So while the neighborhood tries to clean up, the city literally dumps all its waste right on top of them. Leonard says they would burn things in the garbage can.
& # 39; Do you know that we used to hang clothes on the clothesline. But when those days they burned the garbage on the garbage, you had to bring in the clothes because they would have that smell differently. "
Even with the burning garbage and two days waiting for the swing, Leonard and Dan are proud of where they come from. It is who they are.
"We were poor, but we did not know!", Dan explains. But then they did that. Both boys went to George Washington Carver High School and played in the famous Carver fanfare. Leonard also played basketball, so he was extra popular. It was not really until they left the Desire to play another team when they realized they had a reputation.
"We really did not know all the negative things until we started traveling with the sports team and with the band and things like that," says Dan. "I even remember in the basketball team when we would go to different places to play in the city that we had a reputation, you know people were afraid to play us, a sort of thing."
It was not just Leonard. He told me that a friend he knew said he did not know he lived in the ghetto until he heard it on TV.
Adrian Woods has also grown up with Dan and Leonard. "Regardless of how you felt about yourself, it was the stigma that lives in the Desire, you were seen as poor, you were seen as underclass, and I did not want to be seen like that."
Adrian went to Southern University in New Orleans and students could not believe she was from the Desire. "They just could not believe it, you know, Oh my god, it's a terrible place, and you know people are living on top of each other, and then I always put it right, no, not really, because it's only four families in any building. "
Buildings ranged from four to sixteen units, but were all only two stories high.
"So it was not like we had 100 people like some of the buildings they had in Chicago, for example, but I've just got tired of explaining that. & # 39;
Because that was not her experience. She also has great memories that grow up in the Desire, and her whole family had around her.
"My oldest sister lived on the second porch, and then the second oldest sister lived on the porch behind us, and my grandmother lived below us, and you know most of the people in that area, it was more family you know, was very family oriented, whether they were family members or not, you know, everyone was your cousin. & # 39;
Adrian says that people felt completely safe.
I mean, we were walking to dusk in the park, and nobody felt fear. & # 39;
"Most people thought that they would store Desire all night, but people were walking around the streets all night, and nobody was worried about someone robbing them or something like that."
But for some reason Desire still had a bad rap. People saw it as super dangerous and avoided that part of the city. I asked Leonard why he thought people had this negative perception, and he thinks part of it depends on how Desire looked. Only a few years after the development was opened, some parts were already out of date. There is a reason for that. Desire was the only one of all developments that had actually been built with wood. All other developments in the field of public housing were built on top of the cement foundations, but Desire, built on a landfill in a sinking swamp, had a wooden foundation. All other developments were made of brick, but Desire? Brick veneer. Fake stones. Only six years after the people were withdrawn, they saw problems.
"You had ceilings that came down," Leonard recalls. "You had steps away from the foundation, you had holes in floors and stuff like that, but it was because it was on a wooden foundation, in contrast to a cement foundation, and so, of course, with the time that New Orleans was damp and is damp and lives in a swamp, you know it's just a matter of time. "
It was the largest project that was built, the last project that was built and the cheapest. The New Orleans housing, HANO, caused a lot of twists and turns in construction, but officials came a few times a year to carry out inspections. Dan Perkins says they were terrible. & # 39; You know how they would treat my mother … I was so tempted to tell the inspection lady where to go. But I would put my mother in trouble and put us in trouble. & # 39;
Adrian Woods also hated these inspections.
Occasionally, this lady who worked for the housing office came and they would inspect your house to make sure it was clean, making sure there were no chalk or writings on your wall. And the most important thing was that they checked whether the people you say lived there lived there. & # 39;
This was an important rule for the eligibility of housing. To get an apartment in the Desire, you had to be under a certain income category. Which led to many of the apartments being single-parent families. Inspectors came to ensure that friends, friends, whoever, did not live in the apartments, were not registered. And Dan says there were many other things that HANO had certainly not done in the apartments. "A toaster, iron, air conditioning, because they find out if you could have that than you're not qualified – is not that something?"
According to Dan, if the HANO inspector saw that you could pay certain electrical appliances, she thought you might be able to afford to live alone. Great for morale, right? Not to mention image. But these inspections did not stop Dan's mother.
"My mother had toasters, we had a coffee pot, we had electrical stuff, we had to hide them, I wanted to get rid of those things and show the inspector and say we have it." "What do you want to do?" But I know what happened happened you left us out We would have been on the streets We could not have things that other people had because we were a project We were in the hood, in the ghetto, you know they wanted to keep us there. # 39;
Year after year Dan saw his mother resisted. They were not allowed to have chickens – they fed chickens. They were not allowed to have a dog, she got a dog. And after living in the same apartment for fifteen years, she felt that she owned the place. She picked up a white wooden fence.
"I helped build it, and when the inspector saw it, they told my mother I want that fence to be broken." She came back and told the inspector, "Why do not you take it down?" 39;
She won it. She even placed a swimming pool in her front yard.
"We were having fun, we were having fun, you know we were determined to have a desire to be where we were, we had no choice, and we made our own fun and you know we found out that we were human, like everyone else, they always say that nothing good came from this project, but they were wrong. "
Leonard Smith is working on a documentary about the Desire. His whole motivation is to have people who have really grown up there, tell their side of the story and disrupt the negative image that immortalize people on the outside. I wondered if there was a legitimacy for the negative image. Leonard says it for sure – the Desire became increasingly dangerous, especially after the famous Black Panther shootout in 1970 (which is a very different story, go look it up). He says the neighborhood really began to change with Richard Nixon's War on Drugs & # 39 ;, which he stated in June 1971. He drastically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and launched things like mandatory penalties and manhunt.
John Ehrlichman, former adviser to Nixon, later admitted to the press that Nixon had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. Ehrlichman said: "We knew we could not make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by inducing the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then severely criminalize both, we would communities, we could arrest their leader, attack their homes, break their meetings, and accuse them of the evening news night after night, did we know we were lying about drugs? Of course we did. & # 39 ;
Leonard says that when the community really started to see crack cocaine. "And that's when a lot of people, you know, lost their minds, you know it got very serious there and the crime went up then, but that's only natural, because that's what happens."
In the 70s and 80s, the War on Drugs took its toll on the community. Some people went home and a lot of people, mainly black men, were locked up and the population shrank. Then, in 1996, with a HOPE VI grant, social housing was demolished to make room for a new neighborhood with mixed income called The Estates. Katrina has destroyed The Estates. Driving through the neighborhood with Leonard recently, that devastation is still evident as day. There are gaping holes in houses, many of which lack facades. From the street I could look straight into the second stories, straight to the bedrooms, with clothes still in the closet.
"You look at this city after Katrina and look at everything that has happened in the city, how beautiful it is," says Leonard. "It's amazing when you look at the rest of the city, and see how amazing things have become since Katrina, and then you come back to a community like this, and say wow, it looks like the storm hit yesterday."
If a neighborhood falls off the radar, what does that mean for the people who are still there?
We drive through the neighborhood and slow down to greet a woman who is just walking out of her house, in slippers, to get her mail. The woman is Shannon Rainey, the president of The Residents of Gordon Plaza. Gordon Plaza is a small neighborhood that was developed at the end of the 70s, during the administration of Mayor Dutch Morial. It was built on the old town dump, which was officially covered with sand and earth and redeveloped as a residential area. Mayor Morial defended this as a new opportunity for Africans with a low income to qualify for homeownership.
& # 39; This was my very first home that I have ever bought, & # 39; says Shannon, turning around to look at her front door. That was more than 40 years ago, when Shannon Rainey was 25 years old. As soon as she went in, she started to plant a garden. "And then we discovered different types of cans and badgers and drums with the X & # 39; s and skeleton heads on it."
This is how Shannon learned that she had bought a house on top of a landfill. No one had told her or the other homeowners the history of the site. But an independent study of the soil went in search of 154 different toxins, 50 of which cause cancer. The EPA would continue to give Superfund status in 1994 when Shannon and her neighbors started fighting for a buyout. Numerous residents have died of cancer that goes back to the toxins. Residents can not sell their homes and go elsewhere because the property has no value.
Shannon says that nobody wants to take responsibility for the problem and looks for the debt back to Dutch Morial. She was equally disappointed with how his son Marc treated the situation when he became mayor. Then Sidney Bartholeme, then Ray Nagin and then mayor Mitch Landrieu.
"And he says that before he moves us, he has built a prison, and he did."
Now Latoya Cantrell is mayor. Shannon Rainey says that she has promised in her campaign game to move the 54 remaining households in Gordon Plaza. But nowadays: & # 39; We can not even let her come and walk through the community to give us a meeting. & # 39;
The mayor's office has told reporters that, because lawsuits are pending, the mayor can not make any specific comments about the status of residents of Gordon Plaza. But they are still fighting. & # 39; We do not stop until we move, & # 39; says Shannon as we say goodbye.
For now Shannon and her neighbors live day in and day out, surrounded by deserted buildings and empty plots, inhaling toxins and can not go anywhere. When Leonard and I drove away, we saw a group of children with rucksacks hanging out their carver uniforms. We delayed to leave them on the street. They walked home from school.
TriPod is a production of WWNO in collaboration with the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at UNO.