Squandered Heritage Vintage

Ghetto Clearance Part 1

I would like to begin this post by telling you before you read it how I felt after I wrote it. I felt like I was trying to compose an epic poem, and I am not a poet. That by introducing the element of cultural genocide I was going to invite the scorn of those who believe it is only about public housing, not about the people who live there. I say it is about both. And I say our reaction to it as a City has fueled the fires of them and us. The very same people who would scoff at the comment made by Dr. Blakley as to “Shiites and Sunnis”relations seem to be embracing a logic which could lead to even more discord.

HMK and her mother Millie Charles {walking away from City Hall after being locked out}

Last weeks lack of debate about Public Housing was especially painful as I believe that many otherwise intelligent people missed the chance to have a discussion about the History of Ghetto clearance and instead focused on Sharon Jasper and her Television set. The discussion of Sharon Jasper was a great foil and perfect lost opportunity. A handful of bloggers who attended the hearings wrote interesting and informative posts on the participation of individuals in this “process” We then witnessed a 3 day assault by the Times Picayune on the need to demolish these units. Including a live blogging event, many otherwise rational people seemed to become consumed with the idea of GETTING RID OF THOSE BUILDINGS.

A ghetto is a section of a city occupied by a minority group who live there especially because of social, economic, or legal pressure. The word was originally used to refer to the Venetian Ghetto in Venice, Italy, where Jews were required to live. The corresponding German term was Judengasse. In Moroccan Arabic, ghettos were called mellah. The term came into widespread use during World War II to refer to Nazi ghettos

Ghetto clearance

With all the talk of demolitions of the Urban Ghettos we have here in New Orleans one thing I found lacking is any substantive discussion on the History of Ghettos and ghetto clearance.

In 1887 the middle-class Czechs dominating Prague’s City Hall announced that they had a plan for the large-scale destruction and reconstruction of the city’s former Jewish ghetto. The plan, involving the razing of nearly all of the roughly 260 buildings inside the ghetto, was carried out in the name of sanitation. To fund this ambitious project, city officials borrowed a vast sum of money. They also expelled the area’s impoverished residents from their homes without making any effort to secure new affordable housing for them. .

Of course getting rid of the buildings means also getting rid of the people. But wait, we are not getting rid of the people we are deconcentrating poverty. and while we seem to be waging a class war here on the issue of density no one seems to be pointing out this confused logic. When a developer wants to build a high rise on the sliver we are told that we need to embrace density. While at the same time we are asked to rally around what may be a failed logic. to deconcentrate poverty.


So which is it, do we need more wealthy people living closer together and more poor people living farther apart? Do we take the people with the least resources and force them out into parts of the City at a time when Schools, public transportation and the health care system is fractured and limping along?

The interesting part of living in New Orleans is the ability to approach people who are recognized authorities in varying fields. With that in mind I contacted Dr. Mindy Fullilove. Here is a Doctor who has dedicated her career to the examination of the physical illnesses created by displacement. she was more than willing to talk and was and is interested in the physical and mental health of our citizens.

It may be too late for these buildings, but it should not be too late to have the discussions.

Daily Demo

Part 2 Where Veronica White takes over the demolitions of housing.

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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.

  • It’s about time that serious attention be given to the historical context of what makes a ghetto a ghetto, and what’s been done to “clear” them and why. Also how playing “musical apartments” with the poorest elderly, disabled, and families with young children is not only an excuse to avoid addressing poverty itself, but also how scattering people (especially the elderly, disabled, and children) has just as many implications as “warehousing,” if not more.

    You’re right – it’s an epic, and most of what we’ve been hearing about housing is jingles.

  • ramona

    Wonderful, and humbling Karen. You are so right and thank you, thank you for your tenacity and your bavery to say so.

    Forced in and then forced out…………

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  • Laureen

    I think the issue of density was good here but perhaps not fully developed. We have seen that dense levels of poverty/desperation are far different than dense levels of wealth. If you are poor or struggling middle class, it’s better to have a network of shared resources vs. a dense network of people with NO resources. This is what the projects had become not only in New Orleans but across the nation as economics and politics have shifted on a greater scale. The people with the most resources had become the drug dealers who took over in a vaccuum.

    One must also ask, how does high density wealth work in this same fashion? For example, you can have someone always available to pick up packages. On some level, it’s a reliance but the wealthy pay for the services in the condo models. But it’s a reliance on service that is parallel in the density discussion.

    Karen and I looked at a statistical survey of Central City done some 20-30 yrs ago. There were lots of social services on Oretha Castle Haley to support these projects. The loss of general economics in the ENTIRE city at that time coincided with the loss of these same support social services for the project model, or that same level of density. Hindsight has shown us that this began in the 60’s with school desegregration and flight of the middle class from the inner city. Banking on this, the developers who once chomped for gov’t contracts shifted to the ‘
    affordable’ subdivisions and the development of suburbs and areas in the Lower 9th Ward. Cheap houses, not housing.

    I believe what we are going through is all part of the larger economic transition. Developers do hold the cards. In this case, the time for voicing opinions has happened. How these voices are heard/interpreted remains as part of the vital work ahead.

    Luckily, we have had other housing in our city that our residents could reside in for generations, unlike places like New York City. NYC is a good example if you want to cry about people being forced out. But, NYC is also a great model for looking at how the homeless and low-income people helped them to spark revitilization of some areas of their city which were completely deplorable. Also, they have rent control. New Orleans isn’t there economically but there are stop gaps for the future. Unfortunately, these communities are being consumed by the wealthy today. This is because they have an endless economic base that New Orleans doesn’t, so the end game will not be the same. I hope we come up with our own and better solution in the end.

    The other point I wanted to make is that because this is HUD and enormous amount of public money, it’s naive to think the discussion just happened last week. I know Karen knows the demo contract discussion has been flourishing for a year and I began attending Providence meetings more than a year ago. The discussion has been happening. It’s not news to us. We must acknowledge that the City Council vote was merely a formality for the record. I am sure there is some crooked greed going on, but it’s not the driving force behind all of the intent in demolition the projects. Did you think we’d solve it all in one glorious City Council meeting? Hardly.

    Sorry for being long and redunant and boring.

  • Laureen

    One more thing that I have not seen discussed anywhere regarding affordable housing, however, Karen and I have discussed this within the issue of affordable housing on our own.

    The fundamental problem may be how the government calculates poverty on an economic level. Currently and for as long as we’ve seen, the government determines the poverty line based on the cost to feed a family of four. They base the poverty issue on FOOD, not housing. Until they change this model to calculate poverty based on the cost of RENT/Mortgages, rather than a gallon of milk, we will continue to struggle as a nation to solve the problem of affordable housing.

    A couple years ago, while in grad school in D.C., I was in the presence of someone from the Census Bureau and asked them how we would get this equation changed to actually work for benefit of people who are struggling. I recognized it as a fundamental flaw.

    The answer was that the government changes these pivotal indicators of poverty based on research done by academics, in other words, PhD’s. He said, when the academic world gathers enough evidence to make a formal change in this calculation, then the government would update their models. At that point, our country’s tax allocations might shift from War (digression) to homes for our citizens.

    At that point, we would not be talking about the price of milk but the price for people to have a roof over their heads. I believe that could be where our problem lies on the back end. It’s so complicated . . . where are the academics on the issue of healthy/functional economic indicators! ? Do they only care about summer vacation, tenure and sabbaticals?? Considering this element of the problem, one just gets rather exasperated.

    This still leaves us at the mercy of those who receive Gov’t Housing contracts and how they execute them, regardless. That is the invisible equation where distrust prevails. Sorry, no good questions/answers there . . . yet. Make them live in the units they construct?

  • funnybone

    I enjoy reading this site and its many comments and like many, were saddened by the national news coverage of this incident (as opposed to this ISSUE). Since leaving New Orleans after Katrina and monitoring the subsequent planning dialougue, debates, decisions and drafts, I could not help but notice that the many public housing developments were absent from inclusion. Why did the Mayor allow for a seperate, federal planning and disposition process at such a critical juncture in New Orleans’ history? At a time when public distrust and private interests are at an all time high, a truly comprehensive planning approach may have averted the temper-driven tsunami broadcast across the nation.

    Regrettably, comprehensive planning requires vision, transparency, equity, coordination, cooperation, timelines, untampered resources and political will; the very litany of ingredients that New Orleans seems to loath mixing…

    Most of all, the true problem of public housing policy is that it rewarded poverty and procreation while penalizing employment and marriage for many generations.

    Now that New Orleans is conveniently ready to do away with the developments, it is only appropriate to ask:

    Is New Orleans treating the problem or the sympom?

  • funnybone


    Is New Orleans treating the problem or the symptom?

  • I’m not sure I’d call public housing a “reward” for poverty or procreation. It ain’t much.

    As for including public housing in the planning process(es), it was included in the UNOP District plans, and those plans didn’t call for sweeping demolition. It’s certainly interesting that the City Council chose to thumb its unanimous nose at what plans we do have, for better or worse. It’s also unclear who has jurisdiction over what in this matter – HUD? HANO? HCDRC? City Council? HUD’s been flexing a lot of muscle, whether it’s warranted or not, and HUD was never under any obligation to abide by UNOP recommendations or any other recovery plans. It’s not at all clear to me who or what actually IS under any obligation to abide by UNOP or any other plan. Curiously, the development of a “comprehensive city-wide” plan was required for the release of Federal recovery funds. Why, exactly, I can’t say, since obviously Federal agencies aren’t bound or even guided by it.

    For once, I’m going to say that this isn’t primarily the mayor’s fault (astonishingly), unless Alphonso Jackson has been appointed acting mayor while I’ve been away for the holidays. That would only surprise me a little.

  • Carmen

    “Most of all, the true problem of public housing policy is that it rewarded poverty and procreation while penalizing employment and marriage for many generations.”

    This is racism in the same way that immigration debates are racist, under a blanket of (largely) Republican lies. Most public housing in America, including New Orleans, was not built to house African-Americans. It would seem all the whites “got out”, here and in Chicago and in other places. So what are you saying? I’ve read and heard of plenty of black folks who worked themselves out of projects too.

    What do we need public housing for anyway? The jails might be overcrowded, but hey, the winter’s not too cold so the underpasses suit. Perhaps the members of HANO and City Council ought spend a few nights there before passing judgement on demolitions.

    Karen, you wrote a good piece. Feedback never comes from the people you know: especially friends love to offer their own views which invariably are to friction. Feedback comes in the end results of the work. The people who are working don’t have time to blather on.

  • How you have ever characterize my writing as being “consumed with the idea of GETTING RID OF THOSE BUILDINGS” is beyond me. What I have advocated for is having a wide open discussion about issues of poverty and housing, to illuminate ideas such as those you presented here, but to challenge them as well. To eviscerate false stereotypes of welfare queens, but not to shy away from ferretting out those who take advantage of public assistance and therefore discredit those who need it most.

  • Well it looks like those discussions will not be taking place.

    There has been missed opportunity after missed opportunity, the Mayor claims we are at a tipping point. I think we tipped already.

    Sorry for the misreading of your position.

  • What I find ironic about the burb-living middle class and their opinions on NOLA public housing: a number of them, who now reside in Metairie, Da Parish and the Northshore, came out of these same projects. I work with white folks who lived in these projects as children, for three-five years, before they moved onto freestanding homes with that other albatross, the mortgage. In that light, one of my questions has always been when did government-assisted housing become permanent housing? I’d like to know more about the history of black entry into and concentration in the Ghetto.

    Another question: Where are the residents of these projects now? If a lot of them were unoccupied at the time of demolition, were folks simply waiting to come back or were they not going to come back to New Orleans at all? How many of them are in trailers or in temporary housing in NOLA or in other cities?

    And, finally, an honest opinion: I don’t trust the government of this city to do anything without bungling it. For the denizens of project housing to wait on the city until it makes good on its promises is fruitless. The city makes it hard enough on those of us who can afford to live here that I want these former residets of public housing here to give their middle finger to New Orleans and leave for greener pastures. Let their kids go to good schools in cities where their chances of dying are drastically lowered.

    As for concentration and deconcentration of the poor and/or rich, similar people band together out of fear and a need for security. This is why we have ghettos and gated communities, neither of which are really appealing in any way. Perhaps deconcentration of public housing residents will finally be their road to economic survival and growth. The inbreeding of any group is quite self-destructive after a while.

  • funnybone

    My comment on public policy and public housing is not racial but factual. Women with more children obtained larger units, women without jobs were able to have subsidized rents, working /married familes with income were forced out. Please read the quote on HUD’s policies and their impact on Chicago’s housing authority, per Mayor Richard Daley:

    Two federal guidelines made the problem even worse, Daley said. One required that CHA high-rises take “the poorest of the poor” and that those who landed even minimum-wage jobs had to move out. The second edict denied benefits to those who got married, Daley said.

    “They destroyed the work ethic of people and they destroyed the family relationship of marriage and everything else going with it,” the mayor said

    My comment was not about race but reality. Reality that flawed federal policy continues to haunt us. Unfortunately for New Orleans and the rest of the nation the vast majority of public housing residents are now minority and sustemically disenfranchised…

  • Carmen

    Trusting the words of a politician when the government providing him monies is behind the ‘renewal’ is akin to trusting the ACE to reconstruct the levees without oversight. But I won’t get started with Daley here; we all have enough on our hands with Nagin. Shame Bernazzani let us down. Considering the BNOBC centered on eminent domain concentrated in neighborhoods (with the claim Entergy couldn’t get itself up and running with the old infrastructure) the stuff of this website is clearly not the product of incompetence but of rampant corruption.

  • funnybone

    Indeed corrupt with collusion!

    Yummy combo, but please don’t leave out vitriol, vendettas, victimization, gentrification, gerrymandering, equity, entitlement and ethnic cleansing, sprinkled with righteous indignation with a hypocritical cherry on top!

    Hey, is that how you make Gumbo?

  • AS

    I’m glad someone is trying to have a discussion about the social problems versus the buildings. I’ve been arguing frequently with my co-workers about this. I think demolishing these buildings (the original ones, not the later infill) is such pointless waste. People I talk to insist that the conditions were terrible and that the projects bred crime and perpetuated poverty. I am in no position to argue with that– I’m a preservationist, not a sociologist, and I’m new here.

    My point is that the buildings are not the problem. Some building types really can help create dysfunctional social conditions, but these buildings do not seem guilty of that. In fact, they conform to a lot of our current ideas about what constitutes good development. Think about these buildings in terms of New Urbanism. Compare them to the examples of bad buildings in A Pattern Language. Finally, compare them to buildings in cities nationwide that are being converted into upscale condos. How different are these buildings from an old factory, school, warehouse, convent, etc… And how hard is it to turn any of these into a luxury apartment filled with wealthy hipsters?

    My objection to all of this is that we are solving no problems by demolition. We are not solving the problem of housing for the poor and we are not getting people out of poverty. We are demolishing solid buildings which would cost a fortune to re-create. We are promoting new building which is likely to be of lower-quality construction and of a suburban type that has nothing to do with this city. I also object to the needless replacement on environmental grounds. For all the hype about LEED, this country has not yet recognized that the greenest building is always the one that is already there. Demolition and replacement has a huge and far-reaching environmental impact, to say nothing of the embodied energy that a building represents. How much coal, wood and oil was burned to make those bricks and concrete and assemble those buildings? How much more will be expended on the replacements?

    Advocates for new public housing talk about deconcentrating poverty and promoting mixed-income communities. Fine. What does that have to do with the buildings? See above about condo conversions. Buildings are adaptable.

    Confusing the issue of what to do with these buildings with the issue of what to do with the poor helps no one. Especially not the poor.

  • LGW

    I completely agree that these buildings are more green, solid, and historic than anything that would or could replace them. And I’d love to live in a condo there, just as I’d love to live in one of the old school buildings that is just rotting away since the storm, or even before then! But, as you say, you’re new here and what you may not realize is that territorial legacies run very deep in Nola. The incidents and outrage over the demolition by former tenants is a great example of that sentiment. Were these beautiful old buildings turned into upscale condos, there would be a fierce and vicious backlash from the displaced population, angered over their abandonment, and perhaps rightly so. I can almost guarantee that anyone brave enough to move there would be victimized in retaliation by some of the former residents. Accomodations and considerations must be made for these people–we created the problem of blighted urban dwellings and therefore cannot simply flush human beings out with nowhere to go. Revitalizing these buidlings in the New Urban style may not have ever even been discussed, because it was simply understood as fact that these events would unfold. I truly believe that mixed-income housing will be the only solution to temper the anger and accomodate everyone peacefully.

  • AS

    Oh, I’m not suggesting that these BE redeveloped as condos… that’s just an extreme example to try to make the point that to keep looking at the buildings as the cause of the problem is to miss the point.

  • Ghetto clearance is often a euphemism for getting rid of certain peoples. I think many would agree with that. What needs to be done is the creation of affordable houses that are not ghetto like where we can house the less fortunate among us.

  • Excellent, Excellent post.