By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |
Hoffman Triangle residents thought they were getting a handle on the blight problem that has gripped their community since Hurricane Katrina.
A small neighborhood wedged between Broadmoor and Central City, the Triangle went deeply under water after the levees failed. As a recovery strategy, residents formed a neighborhood association, pitched in on clean-up drives and have been working steadily to increase home ownership and rid the community of blight.
In early April, Mayor Mitch Landrieu held a high profile event in the Triangle, to mark demolition of the “Treme” houses, a picturesque but dilapidated row of bungalows that figured in a photograph used on promotional materials for the HBO TV series.
Rebuffing a letter in which the show’s creator, David Simon, urged preservation of the streetscape facing Taylor Park, Landrieu said residents had a stronger investment in the community than Simon did and that their wishes – or the mayor’s interpretation of them — came first.
But Simon wasn’t the only preservationist concerned about the Hoffman Triangle’s tout ensemble. Away from the microphones and photo-ops, residents carped that if Landrieu was so zealous about eradicating blight, why was the city allowing houses removed from the site of the planned medical center to be plopped down helter-skelter in their neighborhood and left open to the elements. In the last four months of 2010, no fewer than 21 of the 73 houses removed — at Landrieu’s behest — from the medical center site wound up in the Triangle.
The medical center site, which will eventually accommodate a new Veterans Administration hospital as well as the Louisiana State University teaching hospital, is being cleared of houses that stood on 27 blocks bounded by Tulane Avenue and Canal Street, between S. Rocheblave Street and Claiborne Avenue. Early plans for the multi-billion-dollar project called for simply demolishing the houses. Most dated to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and 165 were deemed of historic significance — too many to move. But upon taking office, the Landrieu administration reviewed the situation and yielded to preservationist pressure to save as many as possible.
To get them under wires and overpasses, the relocated houses arrived in the Triangle and other neighborhoods without roofs and in some cases with their second floors shorn off and architectural details missing. Most are still in that condition – prey to wind and rain and now breeding grounds for both insects and the criminal element, which has found them excellent places to stash guns and deal drugs.
In February, The Lens partnered with FOX 8 television to look at houses scattered throughout the city, many of them all but destroyed in the process. With Hoffman Triangle now clearly established as the epicenter of the relocation process, it’s possible to assess the program’s impact on a neighborhood, not just individual structures.
Shockingly, despite official comments in February that the houses were about to get roofs after too many months without them, a half year later, the so-called “dry-in” process is still incomplete. Builders Of Hope, the Raleigh, N.C., non-profit in charge of moving the houses, has sealed only 43 of the 73 it has transplanted so far.
According to mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni, the city has released $4.2 million to Builders of Hope to complete the roofing jobs and the group is on track to complete the job within nine months of moving the houses, as required contractually. Builders of Hope currently has “nine houses underway,” Berni said, with the remainder scheduled to be completed in the next six weeks.
Sealed or unsealed, many of the relocated houses in the Hoffman Triangle are an eyesore as well as a public nuisance. Grounds are littered with construction debris, rotted wood and sodden interiors are exposed to view, and water has been allowed to pond below several. Only one house has a dumpster on site. Blocks of wood and concrete stacked up below holes in the flooring serve as makeshift stairways, allowing easy access for criminals and, parents fear, for young children, who risk injury.
How is this “blight eradication,” asks Pamela Hamilton – when the city itself is bringing in the damaged and moldering structures?
Hamilton, who lives next door to one of the houses that were “dropped” into the Triangle, said residents met after the fact with representatives of the city as well as Builders of Hope; promises were made but ultimately we were “stuck with this property.”
She said police had found and confiscated guns inside the relocated house adjacent to hers; Berni said the administration is unaware of any reported incidents.
Jackson Avenue resident Edmundo Stiward points out damage to his house incurred while pilings were being driven for the transplanted house next door and wonders if he will ever be compensated for his losses. Stiward, 70, said he and others in the Triangle first welcomed the idea of the relocated houses, but now all he sees is “junk in my neighborhood” that the city put there. “If you are going to do something, do it right, ” he said.
“We had no input on this,” said Ralph Morris, a lifelong Hoffman Triangle resident who is about to turn 60. “We are trying to live right,” he said, waving his hand in disgust toward a transplanted house that has stood untouched for months, its roofing paper shredded and no shingles in place.
Morris also expressed concern that the unsecured property and accumulated debris would become an added hazard in a hurricane.
Builders of Hope’s local representative, Nicole Barnes, blamed the roofing delays on bureaucracy. She said the city allocation was a “reimbursement” program with a “lot of hands touching the money” before they were able to pay the contractors.
Barnes said the dry-in process should be completed by Sept. 9. She could provide no fixed date for when the properties will be ready for occupancy.
When asked about security and safety issues Barnes said, “It is an ongoing challenge” and blamed others for leaving the piles of debris. “If anybody has a complaint, we try and be responsive,” she said.
Residents are worried that still more houses may be on the way from the medical center site. Barnes confirmed that her organization has an agreement to move the last structures from the LSU/VA site and that their roofs would be removed in the process. Neither Builders of Hope nor the city would provide the list of addresses were the next batch of houses will be relocated.