I’m here at the National Trust Board meetings in New Orleans, which is as potent and colorful a mix of culture as the drinks being swilled from plastic billabongs along Bourbon Street. I always thought Mardi Gras was a day, but here it is a couple of weeks. We have, of course, toured Holy Cross and the Lower Ninth and Lakeview to see the excellent work the Trust and others have been doing restoring houses partially wrecked in the man-made disaster following Katrina, and while many of my colleagues were impressed by the progress after 2 1/2 years, I – not having seen it before – was still amazed by how wrecked some of it looked. In 1874 no one noticed the fire that had burned down Chicago in 1871, but in 2008 the path of aftermath Katrina flooding is quite clear in this landscape.
But what I want to write about, and what our Board got charged up about, was the 1930s-era public housing shown here, the Lafitte Housing Project. Locally it was a den of crime and hopelessness in recent decades, but we saw only vacant and incredibly sound brick buildings and our impulse is they should be saved but HUD wants them down.
IRONY CHECKLIST: 1. New Orleans is still at 65% of its pre-Katrina population. This is caused not by a lack of jobs, but a lack of housing. THEY NEED AFFORDABLE HOUSING. So, they are tearing down hundreds of units????
2. A local developer, which would redevelop the land for HUD, complained that the buildings were TOO WELL BUILT to be rehabilitated. Yow.
They are tearing the same type of buildings down in Chicago (Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, and the threatened Lathrop Homes) basically because the land is too valuable and public housing agencies are sort of like Catholic archdioceses – land rich and cash poor. But just like the well-located Lathrop Homes in Chicago, the Lafitte Housing is close enough to the center that it could work – It could be transitional housing for the workers rebuilding the city that can’t find a place to live. In fact, that is exactly what it was designed for. Politically they need to erase the painful recent memories of the place and rekindle the original idea of housing as it worked in the 1940s and 1950s – that is what can be and should be preserved