Driving along Canal Street lately, you may have noticed the emerging moonscape sprawling off across the landscape near S. Galvez Street. It’s a striking change to see across acres and acres of dirt all the way to Tulane Avenue because until this past summer, the area was dense with blocks and blocks of historic housing. It doesn’t look much like New Orleans at all.
For over a year, I’ve been chronicling the fight to save the Lower Mid-City neighborhood as well as the neighborhood’s ongoing demise to make way for the LSU/VA Hospital. I was pulled off the sidelines in September of 2009 as I learned more and more about the hospital plans that appalled me. I went down to see for myself what the “70 acres of blight” really looked like up close. I found a neighborhood with quintessential New Orleanian architecture that was progressing in its effort to rebuild from Katrina.
To date, approximately 70 historic homes have been moved off the VA Hospital Footprint, the footprint that has been almost entirely cleared. But it’s important to note that even as houses moved off the site for rehabilitation in other vacant lots around New Orleans (as demanded by citizens, facilitated by various entities, and funded by the city), demolitions have continued apace. A similar number of properties, dozens and dozens of them contributing to the Mid-City National Register Historic District, have been demolished since May.
Across S. Galvez Street, crews continue to demolish historic buildings in the LSU Footprint – despite the fact that the University Medical Center Board is short on financing to build the hospital to the tune of about $400 million. At present, there is no house moving plan for the LSU Footprint, unlike the positive effort we’ve seen on the VA Hospital side.
It’s also important to note that people still live in the VA and LSU Footprints. Other residents have already departed after having their properties expropriated by the state. Some sold out with knowledge that expropriation was looming in the background. Some went to federal court when they felt that the state’s move to cut off utilities infringed on the ability to secure adequate compensation. Whether it was an 80-year old veteran displaced to Metaire by the VA Hospital or a young family that arrived post-storm to help with recovery who bought a home that was ultimately dismantled, the process has been painful, ironic, and trying for many.
Looking back at what led to this unfortunate point, I would advise New Orleanians to heed the story of Lower Mid-City as a cautionary tale. If urban-renewal-style mass demolition could happen there, it could happen in any neighborhoods in the city that are less than pristine. The mass outry calling for saving Charity Hospital has seemingly saved the physical building. But the structure remains vacant with no tenants planned despite polling that showed restoring hospital facilities in the Art Deco edifice was highly popular before demolition got underway in the neighborhood to make way for replacement facilities.
Neighborhoods weakened by the storm need to hold public, state, and federal officials accountable – and keep them from being blinded by the panacea of economic development and federal dollars alone. In the case of Lower Mid-City, city officials imposed a moratorium on even repairing homes in the area in 2007, which led to a decline in property values and made blight a self-fulfilling prophecy. These same officials called repeatedly for a “full public hearing” on the issues surrounding the hospitals, only to repeatedly refuse to schedule such a hearing. State officials just don’t get New Orleans. And federal agencies failed to change course under the Obama administration, leaving the completely inappropriate suburban-style hospital plans of the Nagin-Blakely axis intact.
We, as a city, can do better. New Orleans’ historic architectural street fabric is an asset. It’s what drew me to this city both before and after the storm. It’s unique. Future development in the city needs to be guided by a respect for historic neighborhoods and for the people who inhabit them so that growth is organic and sound rather than imposed like an alien force from above.
New Orleans is an old city, but not just any old city. Based on the scorched earth policy playing out in Lower Mid-City, though, you’d never know.
– Brad V
Administrator’s note: Many thanks to Brad, our first male contributor, for this provocative post. Please visit his blog, Inside the Footprint, for more information about the demolition of the Lower Mid-City neighborhood.