For many years, the federal Housing and Urban Development Department has advanced a policy that considers poor people ill-served by large housing projects. Fatherless homes, teenagers having babies, homicides and drug crime form a web amid so much human warehousing.
Disperse the poor into mixed-income neighborhoods, policy advocates say, provide them with rental vouchers to live in stable environments with access to better schools, and they're likely to lead better lives. Society in turn benefits when decaying projects are demolished. Developers create new neighborhoods for middle-income residents, revitalizing urban life.
Since Katrina's floodwaters hit 80 percent of New Orleans, the city has become a social laboratory for HUD's policy, generating a bitter legal battle. After HUD and the HUD-controlled Housing Authority of New Orleans announced plans to tear down four flood-damaged projects, a tenants' group sued the agencies to forestall demolitions, arguing that they held valid leases in complexes that could be repaired. For all of the violence and decay in the projects, people still wanted to return to the homes they knew. The matter is in federal court.
The fate of the poor obscures a deeper issue. With most of the projects now empty, crime is surging. Over one recent 24-hour period, six people were killed, culminating in the shooting death of young mother and filmmaker Helen Hill in her home and the wounding of her husband as he protected her 2-year-old son from intruders. New Orleans Police Department is deteriorating, while the drug culture, permeated with guns, is on a roll.
As safer neighborhoods confront the reality that scarred streets have long endured, what do poor folk think of the space they lost? Do their emotional attachments to locations known for violence shed any light on the meaning of the city?
A 'tangle of pathology'
Annie Pearl Nelson, a 40-year resident of the (now empty) Lafitte housing project, has this to say in a book called The Combination:
"When I first moved into Lafitte, this was the best housing development there was. The kids could come outside and they could play. You could leave all the doors and windows open. We didn't have to worry about breakin in, robberies, or anything like this. ... But now you could see [drug] transactions goin on anywhere you might be passin. ... I've had someone run in my door twice and the police were there, and they ran in my house twice."
The author of The Combination is Ashley Nelson, a teenager who chose to quote her grandmother without apostrophes after the lost g's. Literary license (and occasional typos) dot the 121-page volume, and four others published before Katrina by The Neighborhood Story Project, a community documentary program, working with students at the largely impoverished John McDonogh High in New Orleans.
"Lafitte is the neighborhood I grew up in," writes Ashley of the project. "It's the place where I went through a lot of different struggles in both my family and the larger community, but it's also where I learned about caring."
A few lines later, she captures the psyche of this crime-cursed city: "The people know how to make it through the worst and still love where they come from."
Ashley's life is in many ways typical of the "tangle of pathology" ascribed to project life.
"The first time I met my father," she continues, "was at my mom's funeral. I had lived with him and my mom since birth but I never knew him. ... We were sitting in a black limousine on the way home from the cemetery and he told us it would be okay because he'd take care of us. And he does. We live with him and he tries hard to be a good parent. I know it's hard because he misses Mom. He wears their engagement rings on a necklace."
She writes that her grieving father began doing drugs before her mother. Of Mom, she writes: "Drugs changed her. Every time she was high, drugs made my mother forget she loved us so she did things she normally wouldn't."
There is a lot about drugs and human loss in The Combination and other books in the Neighborhood Story volumes. There is also a striking theme of faith to the neighborhood project or otherwise. The intensity of that sense of place radiates through African-American youths, particularly the boys, for whom identification with a given ward, or an uptown-downtown dichotomy, generates rivalry that often turns violent.
The grim divisions of urban turf spotlighted through the Neighborhood Story books cry to heaven for a team of conflict-resolution specialists to work in schools. The series has sparked surprising sales in local bookstores and has gone into second printings. Designed to sharpen reading skills and empower at-risk students through the written word, the project is directed by University of New Orleans anthropologist Rachel Breunlin and Abram Himelstein of the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans.
"In the last year and a half, we have done well in book sales," Breunlin says. "Our writers receive royalties. Our idea is to help New Orleanians create the literature and ethnography of our neighborhoods in books people will want to read."
Second line blues
Another project, Prime Time Family Reading Time, is a trademark program of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Prime Time Family gets parents and students in marginal areas across the state to read together in libraries. Data on the program show a strengthening of family bonds, with 74 percent of participants reporting an improvement in the way parents communicate with their children. Imagine Ashley's mom with books instead of drugs.
According to an LEH outcomes assessment, the program had a 99.7 percent retention rate meaning that nearly everyone who entered the program stayed with it.
The Neighborhood Story Project might be seen as the opposite face on a coin with the LEH family reading program. The story project gets people to write about their lives. What effect the documentary books will have on their authors' lives is unclear.
The sixth, and longest, volume in the Neighborhood Story project was published after Katrina, Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward, written by several members of Nine Times, a social aid and pleasure club. The powerful last chapter centers on the flooding, exodus and painfully slow return of Ninth Ward folk. "We have another Katrina through here," bristles Ella, a queen of the Blackfoot Hunters Mardi Gras Indian tribe. "I'm gonna wade in the fking water and stay my ass right here. I told my children, "I do not want to die and be buried in Houston. ... You all bury me in Houston, I don't know nobody in them graveyards.'"
The role of the clubs in creating costumes and marching with brass bands for annual second-line parades neighborhood parades generally held for their own sake, in which neighborhood residents fill out a sort of moving block party is the subject of Coming Out the Door and a leitmotif in the other books.
The stories of the clubs have timely resonance since City Hall quadrupled the cost of a parading permit, to more than $4,000. The city claims the cost of policing parades has risen because of violence at the second lines. Club members, who spend months working on costumes, argue for the peaceful dignity of their tradition. The crisis of the second-line clubs has thrown a searchlight on the deeper question: Is poverty the problem, or a drug culture permeated with guns?
Wynton Marsalis made a passionate argument for the second line in his subcommittee report to the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. The lengthy report documented 70 social aid and pleasure clubs and 47 Mardi Gras Indian gangs pre-Katrina. No one knows just how many of these groups are displaced.
The clubs have a long history entwined with jazz, R&B and Mardi Gras Indian music. Young Men's Olympian Social and Benevolent Club, which dates to the early 20th century, has returned. Others, like Black Men of Labor, Lady Buck Jumpers, Trem Sidewalk Steppers and the Nine Times Social and Pleasure Club, which published its book, are comparative latecomers to a tradition of costume-making and street dance that hires the brass bands who carry the music into tourist venues.
Take away the street culture, and what kind of music do you have?
"One thing about the tradition is, everyone wants to parade where God raised them up whether it's uptown, downtown, Carrollton, Algiers, or New Orleans East," state the seven writers of the Nine Times club in their preface. "The Ninth Ward is where we're from, and that's where our smoke is coming from."
The role of drugs and violence in project life runs like a bloody line through the books. A parallel theme is how the poor honor their dead.
Ashley Nelson's grief over her parents' drug use leads to an unblinking look at reality: "People I know who sell [drugs] say, "They just making a living cuz it's hard.' But it's more than that, too. Once I asked my uncle, "Why do people deal drugs?' He told me, "Respect and power. ... Once you get it, you feel like a leader.'
"Living in the hood you gain lots of friends," she continues. "You also lose just as many. We honor our lost family and friends by getting their picture on a T-shirt. Some people go further to add a rag, socks or a bandana. We wear them with pride when we second line down the street to celebrate their home-going. It's hard not to see people that you've grown up with. I've learned to stay strong and just wish them peace in the afterlife, because once someone is gone, they're gone. I wish people who take and have taken life truly understood this maybe one day it'll stop."
Drugs and Desire
"They had this stigma that the Ninth Ward was a bad place," Larry Wilson tells his niece, Charlena Matthews, in Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward. "They made it like that. It was almost fictional."
Wilson was part of the 1998 founding of the Nine Times parading club.
"When they opened the Desire projects [in the mid-1950s] it was like putting a city inside a city. It was the largest housing development in the country. People started coming from everywhere because they didn't have housing. They had dilapidated, deplorable housing conditions in New Orleans. Especially for black people. They couldn't go everywhere."
Four decades later, HUD demolished Desire as a failure, replacing the sprawling brick tenements with a village townhouse grid, designed for the working poor. The new complex was destroyed in the flood, and because of its position on a flood plain, it won't be rebuilt.
"The first year we paraded, spirits awoke and we had some fun in that mighty Desire," write the Coming Out the Door authors. "You can imagine then, how much it hurt us as former tenants and now club members of Nine Times, when the project was torn down with no future plans on what would be done with the village" meaning the new complex wrecked in the flood.
Of the Desire housing project, interviewee Joe Barker states: "It was a close-knit community until the late 1980s, when the drugs came in and turned the scene around. It was mostly crack and clickums, you know the PCP. When that hit the street it turned our neighborhood upside down and we never recovered."
Coming Out the Door is laced with reflections by rooted folk of an area that became mythologized in Katrina media coverage as a virtual face of New Orleans, an irony not lost on residents in Lakeview and eastern New Orleans who lost homes and were trapped on rooftops.
The 1998 forming of the Nine Times Social and Pleasure Club was a statement by people on the social fabric of their lives, without shame for where they lived. The profiles by the writers and interviewees register affection for the crime-ridden Desire project before it was demolished.
Raymond Williams, a dancer in the Nine Times club, explains what second lining means to those who spend substantial sums of hard-earned money, saved from jobs, to create the color-coordinated outfits worn on the one big Sunday each year.
"A lot of clubs asked me so many times to get in their club. I always said, and it will always be like this: I don't second line for anybody uptown, or any other place except downtown in the Ninth Ward. There's too many guys who grew up down here who passed away. I'd rather spend my talent, my feelings, and my heart to all the people down here that's not on this earth.
"There's a lot of spirits around in this area. When I do pass through the Desire, I feel like it's showing more love for them because they not here. I like to show them, "Hey, this is what we're bringing to y'all. We're bringing a lot of love because you're not here to see us do our things.'"
Jason Berry is a longtime contributor to Gambit Weekly, where a version of this story originally appeared.