New Orleans to Demolish 1940s-Era Projects

The New Orleans city council today defied protestors and voted unanimously to tear down the first of four remaining major housing projects in the city to make way for mixed-income housing that will accommodate some, but not all, of the pre-Katrina public housing population. Needless to say, the self-appointed community activists were displeased:

The scene outside New Orleans’ City Hall boiled on the brink of a riot Thursday as protesters stormed the gate and were met with police spraying mace and firing Tasers. Protesters broke through the gates outside City Hall shortly after 11 a.m.

A woman identified by bystanders as Jamie Bork Laughner, was sprayed and dragged away from the gates.

She was taken away on a stretcher by emergency officials on the scene. Before that, she was seen pouring water from a bottle into her eyes and weeping.

Another woman said she was stunned by officers, and still had what appeared to be a Taser wire hanging from her shirt.

“I was just standing, trying to get into my City Council meeting,” said the woman, Kim Ellis.

Arrests were made as officers tried to establish order.

The first brawl of the day broke out in the New Orleans City Council chamber shortly after the council convened to take a vote on demolishing a group of local housing projects Thursday.

After a few minutes of chanting and clapping by the audience, a melee ensued and police waded into the fray. Shortly after the scene calmed down, the city cut a televised feed from inside the chamber.

It’s a rare day when I’m in agreement with the editorial pages of both the Times-Picayune and Washington Post, but the latter correctly recognizes the disconnect between the rhetoric of public housing advocates and their supporters like lightweight Sen. Mary Landrieu, the Democratic leadership in Congress, and presidential candidate John Edwards and the reality of the city’s projects, even pre-Katrina:

Corruption and mismanagement led to a federal takeover of the city’s housing authority in 2002. The Department of Housing and Urban Development moved quickly to break up these concentrations of poverty and dysfunction. Redevelopment of five of nine complexes into mixed-income communities is well underway. The remaining four complexes — B.W. Cooper, St. Bernard, C.J. Peete and Lafitte — hang in the balance. The City Council must vote for demolition.

Preservationists and advocates wax poetic about the historical and architectural significance of the barracks-style structures, which were built in the 1940s. Yet their romantic vision doesn’t jibe with the gritty reality faced by the people who lived in them. These residents survived in cramped quarters in apartment buildings that were cut off from the flow of life in the city and were incubators of crime. They didn’t have showers. They had to choose between running the water in the bathroom sink or the tub. They didn’t have central heating in the winter or air conditioning in the summer. Returning residents deserve better. …

What makes no sense is perpetuating a housing policy that trapped people in poverty. As the saying goes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Maintaining New Orleans’s failed public housing would be a prime example of that.

Of course, demolishing one empty housing project is relatively easy; the real question is whether the council will maintain its resolve when it comes to tearing down the still-occupied projects elsewhere in the city that must also go to make the firm break with the decades of failed federal and local urban policy that public housing residents–and, more generally, the people of New Orleans–can finally have as one of the few positive legacies of Hurricane Katrina in the city.

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Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.


  1. Mike says:

    A gathering of people in New Orleans where violence ensues – never saw that coming.

  2. Kelli says:

    What I find fascinating (in a grotesque way) about this story is the unholy alliance of public housing activists and preservationists. The former claim to speak on behalf of poor residents (not many of whom would willingly return to pre-Katrina conditions) while the latter speak for the “historic” buildings they once lived in. These complexes may have some mild interest to historians, but more as UTTER FAILURES of post-war urban “planning” than as homes for families today.

    Here’s a passage from the Times-Picayune today

    Walter Gallas, the director of the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, says the city’s recovery should not be “planning by demolition.”

    Whyever not? This is the obscurantism of a fool who advocates staying in slavery rather than face the uncertainties of freedom. Yes, we failed once before in the “vision thing” in New Orleans–does that mean we should never try again? There is money and there is hope for the future–but perhaps we’d be safer living in a known (failed) past.

    These preservationists are psychotic, but for once they have identified as such by the press and politicians. Truly a good day.

  3. William d'Inger says:

    It does not appear that this was a grass roots protest.

    Point one: It was reported that five of the six organizations requesting to speak before the city council don’t have offices in the New Orleans region.

    Point two: It was reported that half of the protesters were white. As far as I can determine, no white person has ever lived in any of the projects slated for removal.

    Point three: The ferocity of the protests was unusually intense. It had all the hallmarks of having been driven by professional agitators.

    I don’t think it was a genuine protest. I believe it was orchestrated for the sole purpose of creating maximum mayhem. I think the real story is finding out who was behind it and what their true motivation might be. Alas, I doubt the liberal press would dare delve into those questions.