The struggle over public housing has been building for years here in New Orleans. Now it’s ramping up to new levels.
It’s a disgusting and pathetic spectacle. With apologies to Mom and Dad, it’s a clusterfuck. There’s just no other word to describe it. I don’t have it in me to play reporter and account for the steady stream of protests and legal maneuvering, but it can be summed up like this: Some people want to tear all the public housing developments down to build mixed income developments, and some people think that’s a nefarious plan for “ethnic cleansing.” Emotions run high around this issue. Shrill rhetoric abounds, and civil discourse is in tragically short supply.
I’ve been following the issue half-heartedly for over a year now, and I still don’t know what to think. My politics are, perhaps, most closely aligned with the protesters who want to stop the demolition juggernaut, but at the same time I have to acknowledge that some of these housing activists are real jerks. So I’ve stayed away.
Plus, I’m not unsympathetic to the other side of the argument. I’ve only talked to a couple public housing residents about the issue, and they are both fully in favor of the proposed redevelopment. Granted, that’s hardly scientific, but it certainly does give me pause. The plan for redeveloping the Lafitte project, at least, is regarded by many as extremely progressive. I don’t know about the other projects. But I have a hard time with any plan that calls for tearing down sturdy building built in the 1930s. We just don’t build to the same quality today. But we seem to have developed a spatial fetish about those buildings.
No one seems to doubt that public housing was a failing proposition before Katrina. It was failing the residents and also the general public. The main beneficiary was the hospitality industry, who effectively got government underwriting for their poverty wages.
The Housing Authority of New Orleans is corrupt, so much so that it’s been run by the federal government for years. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development also appears to be corrupt. In any case, HANO & HUD have amply demonstrated their inability or unwillingness to provide quality housing. I don’t believe we can trust this administration (or any recent administration) to do the right thing, whether that’s re-opening the old projects or tearing them down.
But I’m not going to pick sides in this fight. I’m just watching from the sidelines. I hope the City Council can perform a miracle on Thursday. I hope some middle ground can be sought. I hope the principles outlined in the Unified New Orleans Plan are honored.
And now a bit of lagniappe, here’s a video we shot in the summer of 2006 which is unfortunately still relevant today:
Update: Just an hour later I have to revise what I wrote. I just had a conversation with Donna, who is former resident of public housing, and she said unequivocally that she thinks the demolition proposals are wrong, wrong, wrong. She doesn’t need or want to move back into public housing herself, but what about all those estimated 12,000 homeless?