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Goodbye, St. Thomas | The Nation

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Goodbye, St. Thomas

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"We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." --A Louisiana State legislator quoted in the Wall Street Journal in Hurricane Katrina's immediate aftermath

About the Author

Billy Sothern
Billy Sothern, a New Orleans anti-death penalty lawyer and a Soros Justice Media Fellow, is a frequent contributor to...

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"The buildings will be built around a court with play space for children and yard space for each living unit.... This arrangement not only provides light and ventilation but eliminates traffic hazards for children. The negro project will include a community building with provision for a nursery school where mothers may leave their small children while they are working, an assembly room and smaller meeting rooms, as well as the office of the administrator." --Description of the planned St. Thomas and Magnolia Housing Project in a 1938 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune

America's experiment with public housing started here in 1937, when, with the country's sails full of the optimism of the New Deal, President Roosevelt signed the loan to commence construction of the St. Thomas and Magnolia Housing Projects, the first authorized spending under Senator Robert Wagner's Housing Act.

This was a time when more than half the city's people were living in substandard homes due to a lack of affordable housing after the city's population swelled with people from across the South drawn by the possibility for work and opportunity during the Great Depression. These apartments and boarding houses were saturated with "desolation, despair, squalor, poverty, and frustration--the whole sordid and dangerous group of sinister elements that form the components of the slum," as the 1937 "Report of the New Orleans Housing Authority" described it. The people who ran the government here and in Washington, DC, thought that our citizens deserved better than these slums, and they were committed to changing the situation.

Now, seventy years later, after the largest natural disaster in our country's history destroyed tens of thousands of homes and led to a massive internal displacement, the city again finds itself in a housing crisis, with the city's poorest citizens again jammed into crumbling old shotgun houses with ever increasing rents, while the less lucky remain far from home, stuck in Houston, Atlanta, Jackson and elsewhere. But the St. Thomas is gone, victim of the wrecking ball by 2002. The Magnolia is mostly vacant and faces a similar fate as part of a new national experiment in public housing, one that seeks to raze housing projects across the country in favor of mixed-income housing for the supposed benefit of the poor.

On Tuesday, February 23, 1941, the Times-Picayune announced that the first family had moved into St. Thomas, the housing project reserved for needy whites (the Magnolia was constructed for black New Orleanians), with the headline "Housing Project Being Occupied by New Tenants" and this lead: "The St. Thomas Street low rent housing project was transformed into home, sweet home Monday as families began moving into the recently completed buildings." In the pictures of the "first family" moving in to 707 St. Andrew Street, Mrs. Cecilia Booker and her children, John, Bettye, Sammy, Grace Lou, Henry and Cecilia Oisonach, move furniture into the brick apartment building, build a fire in the fireplace and examine the new "electric refrigerator" in the kitchen. In every picture, the whole family is grinning widely. Their evident satisfaction reflected the realities of the housing available on the private market, dilapidated old homes with no running water, no bathrooms excepting backyards and little light or ventilation in low-rent neighborhoods with nicknames like Bedbug Row, the Buzzards, the Yellow Dog, Red Devil and the Lizards.

I find it easy to believe that these smiles were for more than a photo op. In recountings of my own family history, my mother still smiles when she talks about moving from a "cold-water flat" with no bathroom on Dean Street in downtown Brooklyn in the early 1950s to a housing project when she was a little girl. Now called the Clinton Hill Cooperative Apartments, my mother's former home has been privatized; one-bedroom apartments are now selling for more than $300,000. This series of brick towers with small ceramic American flags above the front entrances was built in 1938 for the families of Navy Yard workers. "It was the nicest place I ever lived," she always says. It's the same smile on 13-year-old Grace's face, or 9-year-old John's. It's a smile that expresses the joy of no longer living in squalor, of having a proper home.

Today at 707 St. Andrew St. in New Orleans, there is a vacant lot. Around the lot are brand-new, brightly colored mock-New Orleans homes built by the KB Home Corporation and HRI Properties, and a block away, a brick-faced Wal-Mart stands where people used to live. The single-family home for sale next to the lot where Mrs. Booker used to live is now for sale. But neither she nor her successors, who struggle to keep themselves and their families afloat, could afford the $330,000 asking price. A similar house will soon be built at 707 St. Andrew St., and the lot will have come full circle--from unimproved shotgun rental slum, to sturdy brick public housing in the midst of government and civic optimism, to defunded government albatross, to privately owned suburban tract home that, who knows, may someday be neglected and rented again if the neighborhood's fortunes fall.

The demolition of St. Thomas began in 2000 as part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Hope VI Program, a multi-billion-dollar plan to wipe the public-housing slate clean and start afresh with mixed-income housing built according to vaguely "New Urban" aesthetics in public-private partnerships with large for-profit developers. Demolition was only the last of a series of indignities that the brick row houses suffered. Sister Helen Prejean lived just outside the projects at Hope House, also on St. Andrew Street, and described the St. Thomas of the 1980s in the opening of her book Dead Man Walking: "Not death row exactly, but close. Death is rampant here--from guns, disease, addiction." It was this palpable despair that opened the door to Hope VI. And now, with Hurricane Katrina having done the difficult work of evicting the thousands of tenants of New Orleans's other projects, including the Magnolia, the powers that be have determined that these old buildings, many of which suffered little damage in the storm, should be torn down.

How these housing projects went from being the nicest place many people had ever lived to yet another source of woe for the poor is part of the story of the gutting of the common good in the second half of the twentieth century. First, integration following the Civil Rights Act led to white flight from public housing, which changed the complexion of the tenants to the point where there was little commitment remaining to provide the services and support that these communities needed. Second, local government officials took the now inadequate sums required to provide maintenance, and instead of doing what they could with them, they wasted money and lined their own pockets with funds that could have made the difference between hard lives and miserable ones.

By the turn of the century, when I first walked through a New Orleans housing project for my own work (representing poor people facing the death penalty), I found it difficult to believe that the government could legally allow people to live in such squalor, with windows busted out on many units, with doors knocked in exposing interiors covered with graffiti, with children playing in trash-strewn common areas overgrown with weeds taller than them. By this point, America had given up on the notion of the deserving poor in favor of the view that identified the mostly working mothers who occupied the majority of these units as "welfare queens" having children in order to get bigger government checks.

Simultaneously, the Housing Authority of New Orleans was well on its way to a complete takeover by HUD due to decades of mismanagement, corruption and cronyism. In this context, I suppose it's not hard to understand how trust in our public institutions to provide housing for poor Americans had become so degraded that we gave the keys to the castle to private industry and retreated from the original values with which these old brick buildings had been built a half-century earlier.

Mindful of the fact that it took many years and a drawn-out legal battle to remove all the tenants from the St. Thomas, business and political forces saw Hurricane Katrina as a unique opportunity to demolish New Orleans's housing projects without even having to evict the families who had lived there for years. With the tenants mostly far removed from the city, these interests quickly created plans to demolish four additional complexes, including the Magnolia, the St. Bernard and the Lafitte. Each one defies the common notion of housing projects as architectural poverty warehouses, as they were all built in the 1930s and '40s with "low scale, narrow footprint and high-quality construction" that "reflect a subtle understanding of the city's historical context without slavishly mimicking it," according to an article by Nicolai Ouroussoff, the New York Times architecture critic. These brick buildings, with tile roofs and detailed metal work, were constructed by some of the city's finest artisans, many of whom would later live in them. They are a far cry from the massive, inhuman vertical towers that have been destroyed by Hope VI elsewhere. Ouroussoff called the demolition of these buildings--from both social and architectural perspectives--"an absolute perversity."

While the demolition of the St. Thomas has provided a model for developers and HUD for replacing the city's public housing, it has simultaneously provided a cautionary tale for former public-housing residents about their fates should their homes be destroyed. They watched more than 1,500 units of public housing replaced by a few hundred for low-income people, with the rest priced at prohibitively expensive rents. They saw the corporation that manages River Garden, as the new St. Thomas development is called, repeatedly break commitments and contracts with previous tenants about their ability to return to their neighborhood.

They understood that the "redevelopment" of their neighborhoods was being done for a number of reasons, few of which had anything to do with providing them and their families with safe, decent and affordable housing. So, despite the difficulties of organizing people spread across the country, former tenants, along with grassroots community organizations, are actively and visibly protesting the fact that only about a quarter of the 5,000 units of pre-Katrina public housing are occupied, and are insisting that they be allowed to return to their homes. They have also lawyered up to prevent their homes--their toehold in a city where affordable housing is otherwise unavailable--from being demolished and reinvented.

Ultimately, the old brick buildings that served and then disserved generations reflect the rise and fall of civic responsibility, generosity and optimism in American life. They aren't slated for demolition, as some people have claimed, because they would be cheaper to raze than repair or because they were designed in a way that thwarts positive community. They certainly aren't being demolished because they are poorly constructed; the houses that will replace them are mere movie sets by comparison. They are being demolished because we hate to see poverty in our midst. We are frustrated that our efforts to help the poor have failed, so we blame them, the homes we built for them, the policies, never fully implemented, that held out promise that we could help them simply because it was the right thing to do.

Something tells me that brightly colored homes, market forces and the bulldozing of fine old brick buildings are unlikely to succeed where genuine, though halfhearted, efforts failed. At the very least, let's not add to the insults to poor, displaced and homeless New Orleans families by claiming that we are trying to help them by mowing down their homes and sending them back to the Buzzards and Bedbug Row.

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