Notes from the Field: New Orleans

Posted on: December 26th, 2007 by Walter Gallas

I have been spending considerable time reflecting on what happened last week with that vote of the New Orleans City Council to demolish about 4,500 units of 1930s/1940s-era public housing. Any arguments I tried to make for the retention and continued long-term use of any of the buildings on the basis of historic preservation, architectural merit, structural soundness or sustainability were fruitless in a public arena filled with rhetoric about the evil nature of the buildings, their dilapidated appearance, the alleged high cost to remediate and repair, and the success of national developers at showing examples of their work in other communities.

Council members were eager to state that they had visited redeveloped communities in Atlanta and St. Louis—all based on new construction. We never succeeded in getting enough information on anyone’s radar screen about the redevelopment and continued use of buildings of the same era by the Chicago Housing Authority, and so rehabilitation was never a consideration by the Council or the local media.

The Times-Picayune discounted any claims that the loss of the buildings now would create a shortage of affordable housing, pointing to the hundreds of apartments HUD and HANO say are available but unoccupied. I had joined a number of anti-demolition advocates earlier in the week in a meeting with the Times-Picayune editorial board trying to get them to understand some of the reasons against wholesale demolition, but it was clearly impossible. Sunday’s paper carried an editorial headlined “A vote for a better life.”

It continues to intrigue me that taking a position in favor of rehabilitation and modernization of these old structures—even a position that includes calls for selective demolition to reconnect buildings with neighborhoods by restoring street grids—is automatically seen as favoring a return to the bad old days of public housing mismanagement.

There is clearly a visceral reaction to these inanimate structures, which is so strong that people want them eliminated. A leader of the local Unitarian congregation put his finger on it, when at the Council meeting he observed that the passion to destroy the buildings seemed to emerge out of bad theology and a mystical belief in atonement—that the buildings’ destruction would somehow wash away the sins of the past.

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