Squandered Heritage Vintage

What get's squandered.

In 1988 I moved to a small village in Mexico. The church which is located in the main square defines the town itself. It is a compass and a gathering spot and it is also the manifestation of a dream some say. The original was been built in 1683 and completed by Zeferino Gutierrez in 1880 inspired by postcards from Europe.

San Miguel

My husbands family had moved there in 1968 when there were 6 thousand people. By the time I met him and moved there the population was at about 25 thousand. It was still a small and very personal space. And most everyone at some point in the day met in the park which faced this Church. On Sunday young men and women parade counter clockwise in the square in a courtship dance and each hour of the day was marked with a manual tolling of the bells.

One day the bells began to ring and did not stop. After a full half hour of calamitous ringing I walked to the square to see what was going on. When I arrived I saw a small bobcat and a crowd of furious residents. It seems that the City government had decided that a lower portion of the Church property should be demolished to build a new sales area for the street vendors.

The bells continued to ring and people kept coming. There was no talk about “historic” preservation, instead the talk was about identity and self preservation. It was about ownership and pride and about self determination. It was about a spatial connectedness that would not be destroyed that day. The citizen’s prevailed, the bobcats left and the city officials figured out a way to get the space they wanted and not destroy one tiny bit of the Church.

I always find myself caught in this narrow confine of historical preservation when it is a much larger social and political issue. If we, the citizens, are not given the most basic voice in issues of self determination how will we see ourselves?

These past months as the drone of process took place many of us knew that the day would come when the decision for the LSU/VA hospital would be made public. We knew the day was coming and we knew the endless processes and procedures that took place would have little to no impact on a decision that was made outside of the realm of public input. We were entertained, we were placated and we were lied to. But in the end those decisions were not ours to make for ourselves. The public realm, the private property and the fate of a neighborhood fell to those who will not show their faces, those who seek to make careers, not communities.

Last summer I was in Mexico again. I was a Charity patient here in New Orleans and the care now is so difficult and complicated that I went to the Hospital de Jesus in Mexico City to get my prescription filled. The facade is a pretty ugly contemporary design but the heart of the Hospital is a colonial beauty.


When I asked the nurse about the history of the building she proudly told me it was the first hospital in the America’s and that it had been built by Hernan Cortez. Imagine that, the oldest hospital in the Americas is still a hospital.

Here in New Orleans we pin our hopes on “new” and “state of the art” in the hopes that ultimately it will be our rescue..will this hospital complex be the salvation of New Orleans? Will this lift us out of our economic slump? Will it be the new “pot’s of money”; remember those, the one’s that never materialized? In order to see those cranes we were promised must we go through another season of destruction, demolition and betrayal?

At the end of my trip to Mexico this past summer I went to see some friends in Malinalco. This municipality has about 20 thousand people. It is a small and very poor community. Yet they had this richness of place.

Malinalco Church

Because the community decided they should save it. And they did.

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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.

  • Brad

    What an eleagant description of the reasons we fight for our home and community against great odds, a stacked process and a hidebound economy which predetermined the decisions long ago for this LSU/VA project whose opportunity took advantage of our bewilderment in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

    Increasingly I am feeling like an alien upon a landscape not of my making. Yet some friends and loved ones still abound along with remembrances of those lives since departed echo enough amidst the streets and buildings of this God-forsaken town of ours to say “remain maladjusted to injustice” — calling to mind Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonition to forge ahead whatever the odds.

    In the months to come we’ll need to have more houseparties and street parades amidst the ruinous environs — while simultaneously being forever pesky and insistent with our local form of bell-ringing to sound the siren call that we could save what people become aware of — echoing the best of this medium named Squandered Heritage.

  • What a beautiful yet sad post… I love that people in Mexico stood up for what they loved and the officials listened!

    When I got the news about the new VA plans they unveiled (but still don’t have financing for) I was really upset. A good part of me knew they would choose to build new but a small part of me hoped that my logical thoughts were wrong. I love looking at Charity hospital from my boyfriends window and I cannot imagine the citys skyline without it.

    I hope someone find a solution other than destruction for such a majestic building. Along that same note, I hope someone in the VA/LSU group has the sense to incorporate majority of the historic building in the area they are planning to build. I’m so tired of construction that is worse than what was built 40+ years ago.

  • bobbi

    That was beautiful Karen. Thank you. It’s a shame that people cannot treasure what they have. So many treasures lost needlessly. Today I looked around my big beautiful home that my husband and I lovingly restored to the beauty that it is. I wondered how much longer I would have to enjoy it.

  • debi

    this is such a beautiful and poignant piece Karen.

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  • Thanks for all your comments.

    Even if you believed that the hospital site was the best that they could find and that a neighborhood has to come down to make it happen. Does anyone really believe the City can do this in any just and equitable way?

  • bobbi

    Is it possible to use the words “just”, “equitable ” and “New Orleans” in the same sentence?

  • bobbi.. I agree. The City has never acted in the best interest of the citizens and no reason to think they will start now.

  • Unfortunately, the reality is that the citizens don’t act in the best interest of the citizens. A government can only run the show if the citizens allow it to do so. If we had voted in a mayor who cared about preservation and community, we might have a very different outcome right now. Until the majority of the citizenry of New Orleans wakes up to the fact that we are all in this together and stops voting based on very specific criteria, things will never improve.

  • Billygoat Park

    There seems to be an unspoken belief that what happens below Broad stays below Broad. Unfortunately, the expropriation genie is out of the bottle. Expropriation without representation is here and it will spread. Major re-development plans have advanced in near-total secrecy, with neither public review nor accountability.

    However meaningless the LSU meeting of November 28, 2007 and VA’s site selection meetings in 2008 have been, the fact remains that those meetings were very well-attended by concerned and informed citizens who were shut out, shut up and stonewalled by elected and appointed officials. Nagin is only one of the participants in a totally broken and unaccountable system.

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