Notes from the Field: New Orleans Loses a Valued Leader

Posted on: January 6th, 2009 by Walter Gallas

Rev. Marshall Truehill, a staunch ally in our battle over the demolition of the New Orleans public housing developments, and more recently, the return of Charity Hospital, died unexpectedly on Christmas Day of heart failure. He was 60 years old. Saturday I, and hundreds of others, attended his funeral.

The sudden death of Marshall Truehill is incredibly sad, and a great loss to the community.

I first met Rev. Truehill as a fellow student at the University of New Orleans’ College of Urban and Public Affairs about 15 years ago. I had recently arrived in New Orleans to pursue a Masters degree in Urban and Regional Planning. Marshall was working on his Ph.D. in Urban Studies—the degree, I understand, he finally attained just days before his death.

I followed his career in public service including his tenure on the City Planning Commission, but it was during the battle of the proposed demolitions of the "Big Four" public housing developments in the last few years that I really got to know him better. Marshall was able to eloquently express the plight of the public housing residents—whose voices were stilled or ignored by city and federal officials. We attended editorial board meetings together, spoke at public meetings and City Council hearings, and huddled with other community activists to plot strategies. His manner was usually cool, calm and collected, but when he was provoked, an angry and defiant edge would creep into his voice, and those in the room would stop, look up, and listen to the words of this confident preacher.

As the representative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in New Orleans, I struggled constantly to articulate a message that the public housing debate was more than about saving and re-using old buildings, that it was really about whether housing policies for the poor in our community are humane, inclusive and sustainable. Marshall managed much better than I to get the message across, and maybe he pricked the consciences of some of our local leaders. Alas, they chose not to heed his admonitions, and we are seeing the fulfillment of his forecasts that the City of New Orleans, HANO and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development were pursuing a dangerous and wrong-headed housing redevelopment strategy that essentially locks out the vast majority of the poor.

I will miss Marshall a lot. I hope that we can use him as a constant touchstone against which to check our assumptions, weigh our positions, confront our prejudices, and perhaps eventually reach some of the goals he sought with so much determination to achieve.

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