ALISON STEWART, host:
Now, as we've talked about at the top of the show, the New Orleans City Council voted 7-to-0 to approve the federal government's demolition of 4,500 public housing units of the city's four largest housing developments: B.W. Cooper, St. Bernard, Lafitte and C.J. Peete.
The aging and dilapidated homes that provide shelter to some of New Orleans' poorest residents will be torn down to make way for new developments for mixed-income and some lower-income families.
Now, like many issues in New Orleans, race, class and money create a cloud of suspicion and uneasiness in the Big Easy.
Bart Everson lives in New Orleans and writes the blog, B.Rox: Life in the Flood Zone. He's been following this proposal for the entire year.
Mr. BART EVERSON (Blogger, B.Rox: Life in the Flood Zone): Hello.
STEWART: Hey, you wrote on your blog that you've been sort of on the sidelines of this issue, watching it all unfold and not picking sides. Let me just get a couple of basic observations from you. Tell me what kind of shape were these developments in - pre-Katrina and then post-Katrina.
Mr. EVERSON: Well, you know, there - there's a whole lot of housing stock in the public housing. And it was - there was a lot of variation. There's some stuff - some units that were pretty nice, actually, and a lot of units that were pretty dilapidated. And you might look at them and say that's not an even inhabitable.
Mr. EVERSON: But that didn't mean that it wasn't actually inhabited.
STEWART: And how did the hurricane changed the structures themselves? Were they in worse shape after the hurricane or were they in pretty bad shape beforehand?
Mr. EVERSON: Well, again, a lot of variation. But for the most part, the - a lot of these housing developments came through pretty well. Some from - you know, a lot of them didn't flood. A lot of them flooded only on the lower floor or only a little bit. And quite a few of these - quite a few of the units were built back in the '30s — inhabited, having made some reconstruction. There was just, you know, the hurricane winds didn't affect them at all.
And so, really, you could look around at a lot of these projects today and see that they're still in pretty good shape, because it's seen from the street.
STEWART: Sure. Now, the government - the federal government took over control of some of these projects before Katrina - I believe it was in 2002. Is that because they were mismanaged?
Mr. EVERSON: Yeah. Actually, I think that it was HANO - the Housing Authority of New Orleans — was mismanaging and squandering funds and, basically, was very corrupt. And so they went into refurbiship(ph) and basically HUD had been running it for, you know, a dozen years or more.
MIKE PESCA, host:
And we should also point out that with New Orleans, the federal government had to oversee the schools and also had to oversee the police - so this isn't unusual.
Mr. EVERSON: True.
STEWART: Now, the housing units that we're talking about, these four - the largest units - the Cooper, Bernard, C.J. Peete - I hope I'm pronouncing this correctly. Were people actually living in these units or had they been abandoned?
Mr. EVERSON: They haven't - you know, it's funny to say that they were abandoned. I guess you could say that. Really, what it was is that - they were shut out after the hurricane. The one was closest to my house was the Lafitte.
Mr. EVERSON: And you can go there, even now, and see that there's big steel pipes over all the doors and windows, preventing residents from coming back. And those were put out very quickly after the hurricane, and that - to me, anyway, that, wow, they're really serious about shutting these things down. In a lot of cases, I believe they didn't really even allow the residents to come back and get their possessions.
PESCA: Also, the people who are living there would sometimes be the people least able to come back just because of finances.
Mr. EVERSON: Absolutely true. We got a lot of residents who are still displaced quite far away in, you know, other cities. They are in Houston and Atlanta and just all over the place.
STEWART: Now, you've been following this story for the better part of the year, and obviously there is a big split here. You've got the mayor and the city council saying, yes, redevelopment of these areas, that's the way to go. You have the protesters making their voice very clear, saying, no, this isn't cool. So as far as you are concerned, for somebody who lives there and has been watching this play out, what's at the heart of the disagreement?
Mr. EVERSON: I would say distrust and suspicion is really at the heart of it because, you know, not only is HANO - the Housing Authority of New Orleans - you know, proved itself to be unreliable, but HUD who is now running HANO, has a pretty bad type of track record, too, as far as a lot of people are concerned.
And Alphonso Jackson is under investigation for corruption now, and he's the head of HUD. And so when people hear about plans that they have, that this federal entity has for the housing projects and they look at the past track record, they don't have any faith that what they're proposing now could possibly be any good. And so I think from the perspective of the residents and activists and so forth, they just have no faith.
STEWART: So we all saw the protest yesterday. And there's lots of different ways to protest. Everything turned pretty ugly quickly.
Mr. EVERSON: Yeah, it sure did. Well, the…
STEWART: Why do you think that?
Mr. EVERSON: Well, for one thing, the city council, you know, they knew that this is going to be a big deal and that lots of people are going to want to come. And they only let 278 people into the city council chambers and that's not - you know, apparently, that's the fire marshal's regulation or whatever. But that had never been enforced before that anybody can remember. It always left people stand, you know, standing room, in the aisles and against the walls and so forth. But all of a sudden, they decided to kind of change the rules on people. And that got people upset. There is also, you know, there were fights breaking out in the chamber, but then they closed off the chamber and wouldn't let more people in.
And so the couple of hundred of activists and protesters and people who were interested in coming in, you know, were blocked at the gate. And I think that's probably what's been making the headlines and so forth. It was as if they tried to tear down the gate, and then the police came with the pepper spray.
STEWART: So lack of access, coupled with already a sense of suspicion just made a very potent brew.
Mr. EVERSON: Yeah. People were really, really angry. People were, you know, calling all kinds of names and so forth. One of the council people, after it, she's being called a racist devil and stuff like that, and she - so she blew kisses to the person who is saying that to her. And then other people said that, you know, that she started the riot by blowing those kisses, which…
PESCA: But the people outside couldn't have even seen that.
Mr. EVERSON: Well, certainly no. But inside - there were fights inside too. I mean…
Mr. EVERSON: …people were coming to blows just before the meeting even began.
PESCA: Bart, very quickly, just because reading the comments on the NOLA blog, a lot of people who are against the protesters questioned - who are they? These are not people who even live in public housing. They're outside agitators. What do you know about that?
Mr. EVERSON: Well, I mean, that's largely true because we were saying - the public housing residents, for the most part, aren't able to be here. They're - it's widely rumored anyway that they've been threatened if they do show up at protest. That they'll lose their voucher or whatever, you know, housing benefits that they have.
And so it's kind of like, you know, like Martin Luther King said, in the United States, there should be no such thing as labeling somebody as an outside agitator. We're all Americans. We all have, you know, a right to participate in simple discourse. It's just that it hasn't really been that simple.
STEWART: Bart, I need to ask you one more question. The city council is made up of four white members and three black members. It was a unanimous vote. How do you think the racial composition of the council has affected the vibe in New Orleans today?
Mr. EVERSON: Well, I think that a lot of people were worried that there were going to be further division and that the council was not going to, you know, come together on this. And I think that that would've even further exacerbated these bad feelings that people have. So in a way, you know, it feels kind of good that they had unity.
STEWART: That this was unanimous. Bart Everson lives in New Orleans and writes the blog, B.Rox: Life in the Flood Zone. Hey, thanks for sharing your observations with us, Bart.
PESCA: And check out our blog. We link to really interesting aspects of this story from NOLA and other sources. Also coming up on the show, we'll talk to pollster Andrew Kohut. This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.