Right of Return
Public housing is struggling to recover in New Orleans, the victim of long-term decline and a sustained conservative attack that has been going on for years. "What Katrina did is give these folks a scapegoat," a young black man called Collins Jasper told me this morning. We were standing in the blazing mid-morning sun outside his home, separated from it by a length of 7ft barbed-wire fence that stretched off into the distance. He showed me around St Bernards project, the community where he grew up and the place from which he is now barred, physically kept out by spiked metal and political inaction. With tens of thousands of public housing residents displaced and dispersed by Katrina, HANO (The Housing Authority of New Orleans) and HUD (The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development) have spent over a million dollars boarding up units that were barely flooded and hiring security personnel and guard dogs to keep the legal inhabitants out. The Housing Secretary recently announced that 5,000 units would be destroyed, accelerating a gutting of the area's affordable housing stock that began years before Katrina.
Being made of brick (instead of wood, which is riven with mould after flooding), most of the housing units were left relatively undamaged after the waters rose. In many cases, the putrid swamp that enveloped the city barely reached the ground floor. So why the forced closures at a time when New Orleans is supposed to be encouraging and welcoming its scattered citizens back home? Some city officials argue that with only sporadic incidicences of residents returning to the developments the authorities cannot devote the basic services and amenities required to serve people in all areas of the city - it's hard to organise healthcare, schooling and waste collection to regions of the city where there are only isolated pockets of inhabitants.
But the residents, who have set up a small but moving 'tented city' on the other side of the road from the units, disagree. They believe the powers-that-be are seeking a smaller, whiter city with no place for people like them. "Who's gonna do their cleaning, their waitering, their greeting when we all gone?" snorts Collins mother Sharon, a 57 year old who has been living in Houston, Texas for the past year. The public housing projects have always been seen by many as a byword for crime and poverty - Republican Congressman Richard Baker, from nearby Baton Rouge, infamously declared in the storm's aftermath that "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." - and there is real anger amongst the residents that they are being forced out of their own communities because they are seen as undesirables. "Look at these places," says Collins angrily as he pressed his head against the fence, "these places fine. We wouldda moved back in the next day if we could, because we don't need no lights, no gas. We can get candles. But this is our home. We want the nation to see this is something they are stealing from us - they are stealing our heritage, our pride, our homes."
Him and Sharon have no truck with the notion that it is unsustainable to try and rebuild communities in this poorer areas. "My elementary school was just three blocks away," says Collins, pointing down the deserted street "Anyone had any problems, they go talk to Dr Wiley over here," he nods, jerking his finger in the opposite direction. "And see Bynums over there? I weren't even a wet dream when that family moved into the neighbourhood. We are a community, but we are being denied that community because how can we live and maintain ourselves when the government keeps out out of our homes?" "This is it for talking," agrees Sharon soberly. "It's time for action."
The derelict pharmacy opposite St Bernard
Back in downtown, our guide round the projects - a relief worker called Sean who is living over in the lower ninth ward - gets in to some light-hearted banter with a fellow Wisconsin Packers fan who walks out of the Sheraton hotel. "What you folks doing over here anyway?" the man asks Sean after they have finished discussing the team's prospects for the coming season. "We're with a non-profit organisation helping with the reconstruction," replies Sean. "Hey, I'm helping with the reconstruction too!" grins the man, pointing at a cap emblazoned with the words 'Roof Krewe 2006'. "We're building the superdome roof. But we're definitely for profit!"
There are thousands of out-of-state businessmen and workers making a fortune from the huge contracts put out to tender for the recovery effort. None of the money is going to the projects. As the mans lopes off, Collins parting words come back to me: "They say you can't understand a man before you've walked a mile in his shoes. You need to swim a mile with us in this toxic water before you can even begin to appreciate the mental anguish these people are going through," he said, gesturing towards the small huddle of residents sitting in a clump of shade by the fence. "We'd do anything just to be home."
Collin and Sharon by the barbed wire separating them from their home