WEB EXCLUSIVE: Letter from New Orleansby Peter Zinn
At first the arm of the bulldozer reaches out and probes, sort of tapping at the bricks. It doesn’t look strong enough to break through. But then it makes a hole, and then another one. The yellow claw. It rips off part of the façade. Panes of glass, plywood boards, pipes, and countless shattered bricks – everything crashes on the ground. Wire cables poke out of cement like clumps of uncombed whiskers. Karen Thompson watches from her porch. She calls out to her neighbors as they walk by, “I told you they’d do it. They tearin’ it all down.”
The bulldozer reaches out again. More rubble, more noise, more dust. It’s almost eighty degrees outside, a warm December afternoon in New Orleans. Karen lives at the B.W. Cooper housing project in mid-city. Guessing at her age I’d say thirty, but that’s probably way off. She’s wearing denim shorts and a tank top. Her hair is covered by a blue bandana. She’s petit, bug eyed, has perfect teeth, and the constant expression of someone who’s been happily surprised. If I woke up in a hospital bed and the first thing I saw was Karen’s face, I would immediately feel better. I’ve only just met her, but like other ladies in the city, she knows me as “darlin’,” or “baby.”
“You smell that?” she asks me. “Like this all day.” I step on an ant hill and set them crawling over my feet. I don’t smell anything. Karen runs inside to get me rubbing alcohol. “See over there,” she says, pointing to her window while I pour the alcohol down my ankles. “They puttin’ beaucoup garbage underneath there.” My feet begin to swell. The smell of rotten trash becomes obvious. It’s disgusting and in all likelihood not very healthy to be around, except the way that Karen describes it, beaucoup (or lots of) garbage, makes it sound clean enough to pick up with bare hands. As if the words could magically turn sewage into a pile of oak leaves.
Karen’s been at B.W. Cooper for a year. She has no job and pays $238 a month rent thanks to vouchers she receives. In three years the department of Housing and Urban Development will tear down her building too, the same as it’s currently doing to hundreds of units across the street. She shows me around her apartment. There’s mold in the kitchen and the bathroom that she can’t seem to get rid of, but other than that the place is comfortable, organized, and smells like tropical fruit and bleach. It’s far cleaner than my own apartment, and when I compliment her she pauses to thank me. During the tour I notice a man sleeping in the bedroom, spread out on a purple sheet while a fan hums beside his face. It’s against the rules for her to put him up. But that’s how it is, she explains—if someone needs a place, she’ll help them out.
Four major housing projects that have largely stood empty since hurricane Katrina –Lafitte, St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, and a majority section of B.W. Cooper—are being torn down in New Orleans. It’s a touchy situation. Start dismantling the physical component of what makes hospitality, the bricks and mortar that go along with all the smiles and invitations, and people get upset. Activists and former project residents have protested with civil disobedience. Police used Tasers and pepper spray at the gates of city hall. John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Nancy Pelosi called for HUD to suspend demolition. Yet many here would rather see the buildings go. They remember them as they were, encampments of poverty instead of empowerment. A lot of New Orleanians can’t seem to find nostalgia over life in the projects as it once was. And it isn’t difficult to see why not.
The yard outside Karen Thompson’s apartment looks perfect for a football game. A few hundred feet from the rip of bulldozers is a patch of grass, wide and set away from passing traffic. A former resident, Dwayne Green, talks about playing there when he was ten years old. One day a kid walked on the field with a shotgun. He was looking for another kid. One who had done something, or said something, or owed somebody. Whichever it was, it was enough. Dwayne is 28 now. His arms are covered in spider web tattoos. I ask him if he likes spiders but he says no, he’s not into bugs. Almost braggingly, he describes watching a cousin be shot nine times. He’s got friends in wheelchairs, prisoner friends, dead friends. Having grown up in a New Orleans project, Dwayne’s memories are those of his community. He moved to Baton Rouge when he was twelve. He believes that if he hadn’t left he wouldn’t be alive. Now, back in New Orleans, he has a full time job, insurance, and his own apartment. His rent is $700, but like everyone here, he wishes it were less.
The tragedy of Dwayne’s stories isn’t that they’re horrific, but that they’re typical. Tales of children working on street corners, living against the odds of survival. Stories that if they took place in other parts of America would become news, but in New Orleans are simply the stories of a city that lost its way. When they were built in the 1940s, the housing projects were safe. They were even beautiful. Expensive masonry, pitched roofs, balconies connected by iron lattice. Unlike institutional high-rises set in otherwise unwanted parts of town, these spaces were integrated into the center of the grid. Architecturally anyway, New Orleans did right what other cities would in later years do wrong.
Still, the case against demolition is a strong one. The cost of living here has increased since Katrina to the point that many former resident can’t afford to move back. The city’s homeless population continues to grow. FEMA has begun taking back its trailers. All of these reasons put into question the idea of destroying empty buildings. Then there’s the fact that project residents were ordered to leave before the storm and only later on told that they couldn’t move back. And that for a city locked inside of a word that would be promising, were it not actually so impossible—recovery—the psychological aspects of a bulldozer have the potential to become terrifying.
HUD promises that all who want to will be allowed to return. 4,600 units will be destroyed while 7,000 new ones will be built, yet only a percentage of the latter will be designated as low income. The development company, Providence Community Housing, also guarantees a one-to-one ratio of returning residents. But the builder has expressed concerns over HUD’s intentions once the project is finished. Costs of construction will be staggering. HUD, meanwhile, has stated that re-conditioning the existing buildings (which had become blighted under HUD’s own mismanagement) would be more expensive. HUD’s arguments seem just a bit dubious.
Sitting with Karen on her front porch, we watch the walls be torn away and the insides of what were homes become exposed like the back of a dollhouse. The process is simple and repetitious, made to look even more so by the uniformity of the buildings. But we don’t look away. A demolition of this scale can pass for entertainment. Next door a boy climbs to a second story balcony to get a better view. It’s dusk and the wrecking crews show no signs of stopping. Amid the noise and the smell and the ants, and the inevitable awkwardness that comes with my witnessing something so close to her and so far from anything I’ve ever had worry about – i.e. that my house is next— Karen manages to keep her face and somehow make me feel welcome. New Orleans is that kind of a town, the last of the “come on in” type of places. The city is at once a beacon and a monument of failed planning—at the mercy of itself as much as of the larger whole, calling for attention.
Peter Zinn is a writer based in New Orleans.