Squandered Heritage Vintage

Response to Judy Walker of the Times Picayune

In response to Judy Walkers

Times Picayune article Hallelujah! An Eyesore Is On The Way Out

I am writing in response to the article, “Hallelujah! An Eyesore Is On The Way Out” by Judy Walker. The Hebrew word Hallelujah means “Praise Yah” (the Holy One), and in the Jewish tradition, each morning, we praise {bless} the Holy One “who opens the eyes of the blind.” I pray that the eyes of Ms. Walker, who admits she “nearly went blind” reading “tiny legal notices” of home demolitions and the eyes of others like her open wide. I hope they become sensitive to the suffering of those whose homes have been senselessly destroyed. “Praise the Bulldozer who knows no difference between the nonblighted and the blighted” is not a blessing found in my prayerbook.

Two days ago, a friend, Richard Plaisance, called my partner to tell us that our home had been scheduled for demolition. He learned of it on a website known as Squandered Heritage, which is trying to draw attention to the mind-boggling destruction of structurally-sound homes throughout New Orleans. Our shock set in instantaneously. Though the City of New Orleans Planning Commission, the Third-Municipal District Assessor, and the Bureau of the Treasury have our current New York City mailing address, we received nothing in the mail, nothing.

Until Katrina, we lived in a single shotgun, built in 1900, directly across from the historic St. Roch Cemetery. We took pride in being pioneers and enjoyed fixing up this proud old house—we painted the white awning red, then peach, and filled the yard (and kept filling it) with flowering plants and bushes. Whenever we had a party, guests were asked to paint one of their palms with paint and press it up against the dining room wall. I wish we had had the luxury of worrying about mosquitoes, rats, and vines, which are certainly annoying, but the murder of a New Orleans police officer at a bar around the corner and repeated break-ins and muggings forced us to focus on staying in one piece.

On Saturday, August 27, 2005, around 11:00 p.m., we left the lights on and the radio playing and set out for Houston. We were evacuees. It wasn’t long before several inches of gray water filled our house and those around it.

The closure of the Tulane University lab, where my partner worked, prevented us from returning to New Orleans to live. It has been frustrating, to say the least, to make the house livable from the Upper Westside of Manhattan. We encountered many of the same frustrations as other New Orleans home owners: a stream of conflicting information from the public and private sectors, shamefully inflated estimates, half-completed jobs, no shows.

I don’t know how or why our house wound up on the demolition list. It is very difficult to get answers or files or packets. A licensed engineer has determined it to be structurally sound, which came as no surprise to us. The thick plaster walls and hardwood floors—scrubbed down months ago—held up amazingly well. Until it was added to the demolition list, all of its windows and doors were secure. A week ago, the antique front door, original to the home, was ripped off its hinges and the copper pipes pulled out from under the house. It seems as though there is stealth activity in my neighborhood too, Ms. Walker, but of a different kind and purpose. I am forced, then, to conclude that our house, nestled in a neighborhood that at one time boasted more Free People of Color than any other in New Orleans, was slated for destruction because the grass wasn’t being cut. Or, is there a sinister, far more obscure reason?

Ms. Walker writes that some houses “undoubtedly can and should be saved,” and I agree with her. Norris Butler at Code Enforcement is of the same opinion. He listened attentively to what I told him about our house. “Show me proof of mold inspection/remediation, make sure the doors and windows are secure, cut the grass, and email me photographs of the inside and outside, and your house won’t be demolished,” he told me. Thank you, Mr. Butler. Within the next two days, you’ll will have everything you require, but I am nervous, very nervous. Last night, I heard about a woman who fully complied and furnished proof, and when her nephew went to mow the grass, her house was gone.

Since Wednesday (August 1st), we have been navigating through a world where truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and we have been blessed to meet (over the phone) some beautiful, generous people. Attorney Eric Person and his wife, Pam, are now in the process of filing an injunction to ensure that our home is saved. Karen Gadbois and Sarah Elise Lewis from Squandered Heritage, Bobbie Walker from Common Ground, and Ben McLeish from St. Roch Community Church / Desire Street Ministries continue to be of tremendous help. Ben was kind enough to board up the front door. His contractor, Bill Murphy, is now my contractor, and if my partner and I are unable to move back to New Orleans, Ben’s church, which bought two adjacent properties, will manage the property for us and in return we will make the house available to a member of the church’s ministry team at a pre-Katrina rent.

In conclusion, I want to say thanks to those who see beyond “Meyer lemons and antique roses.” Thanks to those who take the time to say to the rest of us, “Stop, Look, and Listen: Listen to the Bulldozers!” Thanks to those who reach out to neighbors, to strangers, to save one more house from senseless demolition.

Rabbi Robert dos Santos Teixeira, LMSW

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About Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use for Squandered Heritage. For her work with television reporter Lee Zurik exposing widespread misuse of city recovery funds — which led to guilty pleas in federal court — Gadbois won some of the highest honors in journalism, including a Peabody Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award and a gold medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors. She can be reached at (504) 606-6013.