Ever since it took over the public housing projects of New Orleans more than a decade ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been itching to tear them down.
Now, after years of lawsuits and delays, it looks as if the agency will finally get its Christmas wish. The New Orleans City Council is scheduled to vote on Thursday on whether to sign off on the demolitions of three projects. HUD already has its bulldozers in place, engines warm and ready to roll the next morning.
Arguing that the housing was barely livable before the flooding unleashed by Hurricane Katrina, federal officials have cast their decision as good social policy. They have sought to lump the projects together with the much-vilified inner-city projects of the 1960s.
But such thinking reflects a ruthless indifference to local realities. The projects in New Orleans have little to do with the sterile brick towers and alienating plazas that usually come to mind when we think of inner-city housing . Some rank among the best early examples of public housing built in the United States, both in design and in quality of construction.
On the contrary, it is the government’s tabula rasa approach that evokes the most brutal postwar urban-renewal strategies. Neighborhood history is deemed irrelevant; the vague notion of a “fresh start” is invoked to justify erasing entire communities.
This mentality also threatens other public buildings in New Orleans that can be considered 20th-century landmarks. If the government gets its way, a rich architectural legacy will be supplanted by private, mixed-income developments with pitched roofs and wood-frame construction, an ersatz vision of small-town America. That this could happen in a city that still largely lies in ruins is both sad and grotesque.
Scattered across the city, the housing complexes involve more than 4,500 units. HUD plans to complete the demolitions within the next six months.
Despite the rush to raze the complexes, none of the designs for new housing are complete. And federal officials did not give developers the option of preserving part of any of the complexes in plotting the new projects.
Few would argue for preserving every one of the projects as it exists today. The facades of a 1950s section of the B. W. Cooper housing complex, for example, are monotonously repetitive. Its claustrophobic lobbies are in sharp contrast to the more private, individual entrances found in some of the older apartments, and the overall quality of construction is low.
But the best of the projects, built as part of the New Deal’s progressive social agenda, feature many elements that are prized by mainstream urban planners today.
At the Lafitte housing complex, a matrix of pedestrian roads fuses the apartment blocks into the city’s street grid and the fabric of the surrounding neighborhood. Low-rise apartments and narrow front porches, set around what were once beautfully landscaped gardens, are intended to encourage a spirit of community.
The quality of the construction materials would also be unimaginable in public housing today: Their concrete structural frames, red-brick facades and pitched terra cotta roofs would seem at home on a university campus.
The problems facing these projects have more to do with misguided policy and the city’s complex racial history than with bad design. The deterioration can be attributed to the government’s decision decades ago to gut most of the public services that supported them.
In the last few months the public has been able to judge firsthand how hollow HUD’s argument for demolition is. Just a few miles from Lafitte, the developer Pres Kabacoff is completing a renovation of the five remaining two- and three-story apartment blocks at the St. Thomas housing project, a complex that was partly demolished before the storm. The apartments, which are similar in scale to Lafitte’s, were renovated at a cost of under $200 per square foot — roughly what new construction with lesser materials would have cost.
Their handsome brick facades, decorated with wrought-iron rails and terra cotta roofs, are a stark contrast to the generic suburban tract houses that surround them on all sides. (And they are likely to be far more durable in the next storm.)
The point is that HUD’s one-size-fits-all mentality fails to take into account the specific realities of each project. The agency refuses to make distinctions between the worst of the housing projects and those, like Lafitte, that could be at least partly salvaged. Nor will it acknowledge the trauma it causes by boarding up and then eradicating entire communities in a reeling city.
In an eerie echo of the slum clearance projects of the 1960s, government officials are once again denying that these projects and communities can be salvaged through a human, incremental approach to planning. For them, only demolition will do.
The difference between then and now is what will exist once the land is cleared. If the urban renewal projects of the 1960s replaced decaying historic neighborhoods with vast warehouses for the poor, HUD’s vision would yield saccharine, suburban-style houses. And the situation is likely to get worse. The government has identified some other historically important public buildings for demolition as part of its push for privatization. Charity Hospital, an Art Deco structure built downtown in the late 1930s, was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, and its fate is uncertain.
The Thomas Lafon Elementary School, a sleek Modernist structure from the 1950s, is destined for the wrecking ball. And there has been talk of tearing down the Andrew J. Bell Junior High School, an elegant French neo-Gothic building completed in the late 19th century.
Blow after blow, in the name of progress. Cast as the city’s saviors, architects are being used to compound one of the greatest crimes in American urban planning.