An image from Squandered Heritage as New Orleans attempted to bulldoze its way to recovery. credit: Karen Gadbois

Newcomers to this site may not be aware that before there was The Lens there was a blog called Squandered Heritage.

With help from a wee band of fellow zealots, I devoted Squandered Heritage to the task of chronicling the parlous state of the built environment in New Orleans post-Katrina, with particular attention to the city’s priceless residential architecture.

I could hear the sound of bulldozers rumbling in the distance as “blight” hawks chased after FEMA demolition funds and eagerly proposed eradicating vast swaths of the flood-ravaged city.

Love of New Orleans – and anger at those who would so stupidly destroy it – got me up in the morning and kept me up late at night. But in due course these raw emotions gave way to an education and something like strategic expertise. Squandered Heritage became the go-to site for information on demolition, permits and many other aspects of the war to save New Orleans.

We were cited at City Council hearings; we were written up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. In 2007, in collaboration with television reporter Lee Zurik, yours truly shared a Peabody Award, TV journalism’s Pulitzer Prize.

Encouraged by these successes, I teamed up with reporter  Ariella Cohen to place Squandered Heritage’s mission within the broader context of issues and concerns that are the focus of The Lens today.

It’s been a gratifying transformation – but I confess, I missed my baby. And so, with this debut article, we are reactivating Squandered Heritage as a standing feature on The Lens home page.

Alas, there is much work to be done: The city’s economic revival is proving to be nearly as grave a threat to its poignant beauty as the floodwaters and bulldozers were half a decade ago.

In this, the debut edition of a revived Squandered Heritage, it seems appropriate to glance back over some of what the site has managed to do, its heritage, so to speak.

For starters, I’ll hark back to the debate over just what we were going to call the site. Early candidates included “My Blighted New Orleans” or “NOLA Blight” – both of which were rejected. They played too directly into the mindset of the politicians and grant-chasers hankering to crank up those bulldozers in the name of a War on Blight.

As we collectively pondered how to save what the storm hadn’t taken, an influential fellow-blogger from Washington, D.C., a guy named Richard Layman made a case for New Orleans that I found utterly convincing: .

“Architecture, history and urban design are the key competitive advantages possessed by New Orleans even today,” Layman remarked to me – and I wholeheartedly agreed. No matter how many of us summoned the resolve to return to the city, what would be left of the New Orleans we loved if these assets were destroyed.

It was Layman who then steered me to a powerful series of articles on urban destruction that had run in the Chicago Tribune in 2002 under the logo, “A Squandered Heritage.” In multiple installments, reporter Blair Kamen had explored significant Chicago architecture lost to ignorance, greed and lack of political will. We drew inspiration from Kamen’s work and honored it by borrowing his logo.

Damaged but reparable, the neoclassical double at 2008 Jefferson Davis survived Katrina but not the bulldozers.

My first post slammed the proposed demolition of a neoclassical shotgun double  in Mid City.

At first I wrote mainly about properties in areas of the city where demolitions were governed by a committee then called, ironically, the Housing Conservation District Review Committee.

It was a panel of mostly mayoral appointees and city workers, and it met — as the cheesiest script for a movie on corruption might require — in a back room of the Safety and Permits department at City Hall. Items were added to the agenda at will and sometimes, when the agenda was large, attempts were made to get blanket approvals. Members regularly made motions to  demolish buildings before their addresses had even been read aloud or opponents – like me – given a chance to speak out.

It was post-Katrina’s version of the Wild West, and the stampede to grab FEMA demolition funds was at full thunder. The first wave of demolitions were owner-requested; then came the flood of city-requested demolitions. I was joined by an unpaid crew of three: Sarah Elise Lewis, a graduate student in urban planning; Laureen Lentz, an ardent preservationist and Randall Fox, the wunderkind of the trio, a preservationist who at the time was a freshman in high school. In tandem and apart, we scrambled across the city photographing the nearly 2,000 properties the city was proposing to demolish.

Our visual database alerted the city’s unsuspecting residents to the decimation that was being proposed. It was a wake-up call – most especially for folks who found their houses on the demolition list even after they had been renovated and reoccupied.

Chanel DuBose was one of those people. She and her husband, Stanley, had worked long and hard to revive their house, in a part of the city over burdened with abandoned commercial structures.

Our chronicle of their plight figured in coverage by the Wall Street Journal reporter. Rick Brooks had visited New Orleans to see what was going on here two years after Katrina and came to appreciate Squandered Heritage as the default authority on the widespread demolition threat.

In a conversation with me, Brooks described city officials as “craven” – a word as good as any, I thought, though I might also have used “Kafkaesque” or “Orwellian” in reference to the so-called Imminent Health Threat demolition program, a doomsday machine with no built-in appeal process.

Lee is fourth from the left, I’m at the far right as we collect our Peabody Award in New York for exposing corruption in the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership program.

What really put Squandered Heritage on the map – and on the Peabody Award list – was our focus on the now infamous (and aborted) New Orleans Affordable Homeownership (NOAH) program.

I had been wanting to write about what a relatively small allocation of funding would do for a neighborhood, and the Mayor’s program to gut and remediate houses for the elderly seemed like a good place to start. With money to burn, NOAH began a program to restore homes for the elderly. Or so they claimed.

What Lee Zurik and I found was that mainly what was getting gutted was the public till. Cronyism was rampant, and with friends in high places, some contractors weren’t even bothering to perform the maintenance and repair work they were billing the city for. Others claimed to be busily at work – but at addresses that didn’t exist.

Just last week contractor Earl Myers pleaded guilty to charges stemming for his NOAH work. Lee and I doubt he’ll be the last.

The powerful response to our NOAH coverage was the germ of what became The Lens: the fulfillment of our dream to team with a staff of skilled journalists to address the full gamut of municipal concerns.

Unfortunately, just because we’ve reached adolescence as a news service and resource for community action does not mean the issues that nurtured Squandered Heritage in its infancy have gone away.

While the pace of post Katrina demolitions has slackened, there are still a large number in the pipeline.

Next week Xavier University will seek permission to demolish 11 houses near its new convocation center – and no plans have been made available to show what they propose to do with lots once they’ve been scraped clean.

An Uptown house just sold for over a quarter of a million dollars – and the new owners propose to destroy it – a signal that an era of high-priced tear-downs has arrived.

One New Orleans classic that still stands: a barber shop that doubles as a barbecue pit.

The grassroots struggle against unwarranted demolitions won’t be our only mission. We’ll also be strolling and rolling around town to snap photos of unpermitted, illogical or simply baffling building projects – some lamentable, some definitely worth savoring. The Central City Tonsorial Parlor is a goner. (A tonsorial parlor in funky old New Orleans? Who knew?) But the mixed-use Gert Town “Bar-ber-Que” hair cut and food joint is still with us and, hopefully, will be for years to come.

And that little double shotgun I first wrote about? Well it is now a gargantuan 4,000-sq. ft. McMansion rumored to have six bathrooms on each side and a sister building right next to it, so poorly planned that a giant oak sits where a driveway entrance should be.

Stay tuned.

Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led...