MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This week New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin rolled out an ambitious recovery plan for New Orleans, but many people in his city dismiss the document as an exercise in wishful thinking. They say the key decisions about the city's future are quietly being made in Washington. Nowhere is this more clearly the case than on the question of which public housing projects should reopen.
NPR's Martin Kaste has the story from New Orleans.
MARTIN KASTE reporting:
The St. Bernard housing project is a ghost town. There are still some toys and bikes lying around, but the hundreds of families who lived here before the hurricane are gone. The weird thing is, they visit, especially on weekends. Just wait a few minutes and you'll see the cars creeping through.
Mr. ERNEST RICHARDSON (Former St. Bernard Parish Resident): Well, the main thing that brings me here is just to see it in this condition, and when I come back here and I go over to my mom's apartment, I can actually see my mom sitting there.
KASTE: Just picturing the old neighborhood Ernest Richardson gets excited.
Mr. RICHARDSON: When I drive through here I can actually see people standing out, waving, hollering, hey, how you doing? A barbeque grill here, one there, a domino table up, a big old swimming pool, the DJ out, pool parties all over, you know. It's just fun.
KASTE: Some of the doors and windows have been sealed with metal shutters, but others are still wide open to the elements and anybody who wants to take a look. The project sat in a few feet of water after Katrina, but these three-story brick buildings seem essentially sound. And given the city's housing shortage, Richardson can't understand why these apartments are still empty.
Mr. RICHARDSON: Yeah, there's a little mold on the first floor. I don't think it's too bad to be replenished because me, myself, right now, I'm doing remodeling to houses and it can be stripped off. You know, it doesn't take much. I don't think they want to spend the money. I don't think they want it to exist anymore.
KASTE: Has there been an official decision to close the St. Bernard project? Nothing's been announced, but at another empty building nearby, housing activist Ayisha Smothers says people here have come to assume that most projects will remain shuttered.
Ms. AYISHA SMOTHERS (Housing Activist): The city may think that they're better off with these people gone, less crime. They just don't want these people to come back.
KASTE: But who's they? There certainly are plenty of people here who'll tell you privately that they're glad the storms emptied out the projects. But no city official has gone on the record saying so. Besides, they say, that's the feds' call. The Housing Authority of New Orleans is in federal receivership and that means the real boss is Orlando Cabrera, the Assistant Secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington. But Cabrera insists that local input does matter.
Mr. ORLANDO CABRERA (Assistant Secretary, Department of Housing and Urban Development): I think a lot of this has to do with what does the city of New Orleans want? The federal voice in this is not the only voice, and so we are working to enable their progress.
KASTE: But there's no escaping the fact that HUD is in charge. The local Housing Authority was flooded out of its offices and a skeleton staff operates out of sleepy temporary space where an overwhelmed elderly man fields calls from irate residents. They have a few crews out, slowly cleaning some of the buildings closer to the French Quarter. But as an institution, the Housing Authority barely exists.
When NPR tried to interview the local executive director, HUD wouldn't allow it. Still Cabrera insists that Washington has not made a decision to close anything.
Mr. CABRERA: We're not waiting, we're monitoring.
KASTE: He says HUD is monitoring the status of nearby schools, medical services and commerce.
Mr. CABRERA: We're watching to see how those things and when those things are reopened.
KASTE: But in New Orleans these days, it seems every decision maker is waiting for, or monitoring, decisions by other decision makers. City planners are waiting for new flood plain maps from FEMA, Congress has been waiting for a rebuilding plan from the city; the schools are waiting to see how many families come back.
Back at the St. Bernard project, more former residents roll through like visitors at a cemetery. Sharon Bowlston spent 30 years of her life here. She admits many people see this place as urban blight, but she says they're missing a simple truth.
Ms. SHARON BOWLSTON (Former St. Bernard Parish resident): They are at their homes. See, they can go to their house and relax and take off their shoes and eat in a, whatever they want, and they can do that. But we can't do that. This the only place people know as their home. This is the only place people knew.
KASTE: Another car drives through, Bowlston waves it down.
Ms. BOWLSTON: What you doing back here?
KASTE: It's an old neighbor visiting from Texas.
Ms. BOWLSTON: You see their fixing it up, huh?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
Ms. BOWLSTON: Ain't that sad?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
KASTE: Their talking about a partially erected chain link fence that's now going up around the whole project. It's the newest thing here and they see the fence as a sure sign that a decision about the St. Bernard project has been made by someone, somewhere.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans.