Before The Lens, there was a blog called Squandered Heritage. And before there was a staff of nine working on an in-depth news site, there was Karen Gadbois, who simply wanted to know why so many houses were being torn down in a city known for its historic buildings.
Gadbois’ blogging on Squandered Heritage led her to found The Lens, and it also got her a spot in the third season of HBO’s “Treme,” which chronicles life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Her character is introduced in the Oct. 28 episode.
A year after the storm, Gadbois’ Carrollton neighborhood in Uptown New Orleans was languishing in disrepair, like much of the city. Some owners had decided to to tear down the buildings rather than repair them — decisions made easier by the fact that the federal government would pay for the demolition.
Gadbois wondered how that widespread demolition would change the fabric of the neighborhoods, so she found a FEMA list of houses proposed for demolition, drove around the city photographing them, and posted what she found on Squandered Heritage. She attended obscure hearings at which the city approved the demolitions. Some of the homes were repairable, but they were torn down.
City steps up demolition
In 2007, demolition kicked into high gear. The city labeled 1,700 homes as “imminent health threats” and moved to knock them down, again using federal money. Gadbois continued to take photos of the homes, using legal notices published in The Times-Picayune as a guide. A cadre of volunteers and bloggers started to help out. They sought out owners, many of whom didn’t know their houses were to be demolished. In some cases, the owners didn’t find out before the bulldozers came. Some of those owners were waiting for Road Home grants to repair their homes. Other homes had already been repaired or had building permits for work.
A Wall Street Journal reporter came across Squandered Heritage when searching for an angle on the second anniversary of Katrina. Rick Brooks’ story opened with IdaBelle Joshua, who was trying to repair her Lower 9th Ward home after it had flooded to the roof:
She spent $5,000 to have the brick house gutted, $275 to clean it and then went to City Hall on July 5 to make sure 2611 Forstall St. wasn’t on a list of derelict properties here facing demolition because of storm damage. Two city employees assured her that the house was safe, she says.
Two days later, her nephew called. He had gone by to mow the lawn. But the house where Ms. Joshua and her late husband had raised three children was gone. It had been knocked down by the city. Since then, she has been trying to get an explanation, but with no luck.
The tip of a corruption story
In 2007, Gadbois was glad to hear that the city would pay a local housing agency called New Orleans Affordable Homeownership (referred to simply as NOAH) to repair homes owned and occupied by poor and elderly residents. The federal government paid for the repairs.
A friend of hers got a list of the properties that had been fixed up, and they checked them out. They could immediately tell that something wasn’t right. Some addresses didn’t exist. Many houses clearly hadn’t been touched since the storm. Some of the property owners weren’t poor or elderly, nor did they live in the homes.
It has set off a bomb that has exploded in slow motion here in the past three weeks, largely thanks to Ms. Gadbois: the federally financed program to gut and repair the storm-damaged homes of the poor and elderly, on which the city spent $1.8 million, has been exposed as — at least partly — a sham.
The Times’ Adam Nossiter went on to recount the reaction of then-Mayor Ray Nagin, who “complained about what he called ‘amateur investigations,’ a reluctant nod to Ms. Gadbois and her followers in the news media.”
Gadbois had a hat made that said “Amateur Investigator,” and she kept at it.
Best of Squandered Heritage
Gadbois continues to cover historic preservation and land use in New Orleans on a section of the site also called Squandered Heritage.
We’ve moved all the posts from Gadbois’ blog to The Lens and highlighted some of the best here. Take a look. If you like what you see, support The Lens.
Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on
Could it be a faded rose from days gone by
And did I hear you say he was a-meeting you here today
To take you to his mansion in the sky
I do not wake up easily in the morning. I have a pained ritual which includes trying to figure out where the newspaper delivery guy threw the newspaper, and looking at my watch to see if it is late enough to have missed the much diminished crowd that walks to school each day from down the street.
Below you will find an analysis of the situation we are in regarding demolition. It is hard to ignore the “cause and effect” Preservation minded folks uncovered the NOAH story and now the payback from the Mayor is in full effect.
How is it that Matt McBride had the data to support this article and the Office of Recovery Managment is still grappling with this issue. We have brought this to the attention of the Neighborhood Conservation District as each NOAH house has been apprised for demolition, there was no response to my question of how it was possible that these house were remediated and then demolished.
These last few days have really proven that our Recovery is guided by a person who refuses to accept that the city is owned not by those who wrangle contracts out of City Hall, or those who believe the public is a body to be mocked, scorned and ignored, but rather the Citizens who have worked tirelessly and for no compensation but for the love of a City. While I was unable to attend today’s meeting I was able to keep stay in direct contact with people attending.
Owner Name NEW ORLEANS REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY
1340 POYDRAS STREET SUITE 1152
City / State / Zip NEW ORLEANS LA 70112
3313 1ST ST
This property is only one example of the endless properties which seem to skirt the rules. So it begs the question did NORA actually apply for remediation of a property that states it’s mission is to provide the service to elderly homeowners?
So here we have a program for the elderly and seniors claiming to have done work for seniors and the poor but this house which is owned by Orleans Metroplitan Housing is on the list. So go back in your time machines and let’s revisit Orleans Metropolitan Housing and then take another look at this house and the price they paid for it.
This house is located at 136 S Alexander and it is listed as “remediated” by NOAH. Well it does not look remediated, in fact it is owned not by an elderly homeowner, which is called for in the guidelines.