HBO's 'Treme' spotlights Lens founder Karen Gadbois

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.

Though the events in the show are fictionalized, they’re based on real events. (Another character in the third season is based on A.C. Thompson, who reported on police brutality after Katrina.) Here’s a closer look at what really happened.

Tearing down rather than repairing

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.

Worse, many of these homes were on the city’s list of houses that were to be torn down because they were in such bad shape.

Lee Zurik, a reporter for  WWL-TV, took note of Gadbois’ reporting, and the two and Marcy Planer started working together. Zurik’s first story was a blockbuster:

That was the first of 50 stories Zurik did as he investigated the relationship between the director of the housing agency and the contractors that had supposedly done the work.

Zurik and Gadbois later won a duPont award, an IRE Gold Medal and a Peabody Award. An ongoing federal investigation has resulted in four contractors pleading guilty to paying kickbacks.

In 2008, The New York Times described Gadbois’ activism as “incendiary”:

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.