This article is adapted from We’re Still Here Ya Bastards, published this month by Nation Books.
New Orleans was one of the first cities in the country to get public housing, with six projects in place in the early 1940s. These were solid, well-crafted brick structures of three to five stories, often with tile roofs, front-entrance grillwork, solid wood floors, and separate entrances for small clusters of apartments. Many of them stood around courtyards with shade trees and paths. As a style, they became the model for the many private garden apartments that followed.
The “Bricks,” as they were called, are now gone, save for a few restored legacy buildings, torn down after one of the most contentious disputes in post-Katrina New Orleans. They have been replaced with faux-historic, privately built developments that accommodate only a fraction of their former tenants. This has kept many of the working poor from returning.
The demolition of public housing in New Orleans is a perfect example of what Naomi Klein has dubbed the “shock doctrine”: the exploitation of disaster to achieve what would be impossible through the normal public process. Representative Richard Baker (a Republican from a wealthy area of Baton Rouge) got it right when he said after Katrina: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it. But God did.” Actually, God had nothing to do with it; rather, the local politicians and power elite of the city, in partnership with the state and federal government, made sure that most of the 5,100 units occupied before Katrina were doomed.
The buildings targeted for destruction were broadly recognized for their incomparable quality. Architecture critic James Russell articulated this widely held view in a 2007 column for Bloomberg News: “In New Orleans, public housing doesn’t mean bleak high-rise towers. The city has thousands of units with Georgian brickwork and lacy ironwork porches that came through Hurricane Katrina barely scathed.”
Many units had private or semiprivate entrances, avoiding the often unsafe and space-wasting corridors. And the pitched terra-cotta roofs outlived most other roofing materials, not unlike buildings in Europe that are more than a century old. Multipane windows, solid wood doors, and columned entryways completed the tableau. As former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff noted: “Solidly built, the buildings’ detailed brickwork, tile roofs and wrought-iron balustrades represent a level of craft more likely found on an Ivy League campus than in a contemporary public-housing complex.”