Issues

Safe Zones

Mar 26 2003

An Open Letter To The Mayor

Dear Mayor and Councilmembers:

While your Safe Schools Initiative may have noble goals, the demolition of housing in our neighborhoods will not make children any safer.

We have several vacant lots in our neighborhood—the Faubourg Marengo, in Councilperson Gill-Pratt’s district. They do nothing to keep children safe. What they do is attract trash, rats, people shooting up, packs of violent stray dogs,and drug deals. Every few months, the neighborhood association cleans them up, but that makes almost no difference. By the next week, people have dumped garbage, old tires, and other hazardous waste in them.

It’s not that we want blighted housing in our neighborhood. We have written, to no avail, to Councilperson Pratt and NORA many times, trying to get action on various blighted buildings in the neighborhood. We do not want these bulldozed, we want them sold to families. There is great demand for these, believe it or not. People want to renovate them, move in, and add to the neighborhood. Knocking the blighted buildings down is not the answer— selling them to devoted homesteaders is. Why are you trying to destroy a valuable resource, one which will bring the city money and strengthen New Orleans’ fragile neighborhoods? It is a strong neighborhood, not vacant lots, which will help the children of New Orleans.

Please direct your efforts towards programs that will return these blighted buildings to productive commerce. This will not only make our children safer but will add to our tax base and make our neighborhoods stronger.

I appreciate your consideration and am eager to hear your thoughts.

Sincerely,

Anne McKinley

Demolition-Three Tableaux

One.

Last week, City Councilmember Jay Batt folded in the face of the “prominent citizens” who have their children at Stuart Hall School by allowing the school to demolish 5 houses in the Carrollton neighborhood surrounding the school. In a departure from the tradition of “block voting” by the city council, Councilmember Thomas dissented with the group by voting with neighborhood residents. Councilmember Batt even disregarded his colleague Gusman’s suggestion that the council withhold the permits to demolish the houses until the city approves the school’s expansion plans. No word on when Stuart Hall plans to start work, or even if they already have the funds in hand for the planned $6.3 million expansion.

Two.

In the area of Elysian Fields and Florida Avenue, developers Greg Clayton and Robert Merrick were granted preliminary approval to demolish 20 homes on Spain Street and many of the city’s “big-box” laws were waived to build 134,000 square foot retail space and all 550 parking spaces requested. At the same time, bargain hunters are culling through the last discounts at the soon to be closed “Big K” Kmart at 4700 Old Gentilly Road. Plans, if any, are not known for the soon to be vacant and very large retail space.

Three.

Last week, scores of letters, e-mails and phone calls were made to Mayor Nagin recently over the administration’s proposal to create 5 square block “safe zones” around public schools and the use of this status to demolish blighted or abandoned housing. To date, not one person has reported actually receiving a response from the mayor’s office. Criticism of the plan by the public and neighborhood associations has increased dramatically in the past week, as many realize that 5 square blocks times 125 public schools is over 3,000 blocks of the city that potentially could be demolished. And while some city council members have announced their vigorous support for education recently, no one has provided a compelling reason why this plan will actually help our public schools.

From the Mayor to the Marigny

Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association received the following letter from Mayor Nagin after its board sent a letter expressing concern over plans to demolish blighted houses in a five block radius around public schools:

Thank you for your letter of March 31 concerning our recent plans to battle blighted properties in New Orleans. I am grateful for your organization’s ongoing attention to this matter.

I would like to clarify the aim of our current blight initiatives. Restoring our neighborhoods will require a strategic balance between blight renovation and blight demolition. I do agree that demolition should be a last resort. In the case of the areas around schools, the safety of children is at stake. In these cases, we cannot justify the hazard long enough for the properties in question to be resold and restored. In these cases, immediate demolition is necessary, however sadly.

Our city’s dedication to aesthetics is one of its greatest cultural strengths, especially where architecture is concerned. Please know that we are working hard to save New Orleans’ unique housing stock. I hope that we can demonstrate that committment as we tackle over 26,000 blighted units throughout the city.

In the mean time, let’s keep working together to make New Orleans as beautiful as it deserves to be.

Sincerely,

C. Ray Nagin, Mayor

It can be inferred that the mayor is saying “thanks for your input, but we’re steaming right along.” Fortunately for the Marigny - unlike its less tony, and less organized, neighbors in places like St. Roch and New Marigny - the neighborhood has fewer homes in a condition that would be subject to demolition by executive order. Most plans to demolish houses seem to bear hardest on those least prepared to stop them.

The Faubourg Marigny, although troubled by recent crime problems, is one of the many stories of individually funded, sweat-equity neighborhood revitalization in New Orleans. One has to wonder what the Faubourg Marigny would look like today if some enterprising mayor, perhaps a Landrieu or a Morial, had a similar plan 25 years ago. What would the Marigny look like today?

And Then, He Turned Water Into Lemonade

The recent passage of state legislation based on the amendments to the New Orleans city charter is an encouraging sign for democracy in New Orleans. A bill authored by outgoing State Senator Lambert Boissiere Jr. tidies up the legal structure to assure that New Orleans voters will get the final say on whether or not to accept any privatization of the Sewerage and Water Board. It is plainly obvious that the voters will give any privatization scheme the spanking it so richly deserves. This is why the Nagin administration has been trying to arrange an “end-run” around a voter referendum. The mayor has also recently excised more board members still willing to cast a vote against privatization.

The mayor should use his oft-touted business skills to effect a restructuring of SWB operations like San Diego, Miami and Phoenix have successfully accomplished. A restructuring now would save the citizens of New Orleans millions of dollars, maintain local control of a strategic and vital resource and help the mayor turn his political lemons into lemonade.

Fish in a Barrel?

The Urban Conservancy will always carry those crazy stories about the big-box retailers and the mayhem they create in our country and increasingly in others (locals in Cancun, Mexico can now grab the public “Wal-Mart” bus to do their shopping), but it has almost gotten too easy to complain about them. From their regressive store policies pandering to the lowest common denominator to the effect on communities, to their treatment of employees and the workers who make their goods, the list of excesses is almost too great to list. Everyone who wants to know the truth has a pretty good idea what the big boxes are all about, not just the ones from Bentonville, but the ones from Austin, Charlotte and Atlanta too.

But someone still shops there.

The next step in tackling the big box menace is to enact proactive solutions that support locally owned and operated business. New Orleanians have an enormous amount of pride in their city. In the same way we still favor local restaurants, we can nurture a respect and ethic of supporting all our local businesses. It’s high time that we take the next step. Even if Wal-Mart were to abandon its plan for a store on Tchoupitoulas, other big box stores will continue to grow as a force in our local economy be they Target, or Lowe’s, or gulp - Whole Foods.

What can we do? Try shopping local. It’s not always perfect, not always the cheapest and certainly not every local business is a good one, but when you spend your dollars locally, they tend to stay closer to home and that’s good for everyone.

Map Blast

The mayor’s “Safe Zone” initiative proposes to demolish blighted or “public nuisance” housing in a five block area surrounding schools. Just what does five blocks around the public schools in New Orleans look like?

5 Block Radius

Map showing schools and their surrounding 5 blocks

Dropping Some Knowledge With A Wrecking Ball

While most residents of the city were attending carnival festivities and preparing for Mardi Gras, the Nagin administration unveiled a new policy aimed at increasing the safety of New Orleans’ children. The administration announced it would begin immediate demolition of blighted buildings within a five-block radius of school buildings. While the goal of protecting our children is laudable, this misguided policy not only fails to achieve its stated goal, it will—to the extent it is implemented—have precisely the opposite effect.

While most residents of the city were attending carnival festivities and preparing for Mardi Gras, the Nagin administration unveiled a new policy aimed at increasing the safety of New Orleans’ children. The administration announced it would begin immediate demolition of blighted buildings within a five-block radius of school buildings. While the goal of protecting our children is laudable, this misguided policy not only fails to achieve its stated goal, it will—to the extent it is implemented—have precisely the opposite effect.

Demolishing a Crack House

How do we know this? Because this policy has already been tried. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the crack epidemic reached its peak in America, municipalities across the country struggled to find ways of curbing its devastating effects. One of the policies adopted in several cities - New Orleans among them - was to demolish “crack houses” under the theory that this would help make the neighborhoods safer. It didn’t work.

King Wells and Councilman Lambert Boissiere Confer At The Scene Of Crack House Demolition, 1990 Courtesy, New Orleans Public Library

Already, twenty-four buildings are already slated for demolition in the Central City area. It appears that the new policy is only being implemented in Renee Gill Pratt’s district at the moment, but the plan will eventually target the entire city: all 125 schools in the city. As one observer noted, “A five block radius from 125 schools is a lot of blocks and a lot of houses.”

What makes a safe community? Do we feel safe walking past weed-choked, trash strewn vacant lots? Will the city maintain these vacant lots? Do the owners of the blighted houses still own them? The problems with this approach are legion. On the other hand, we know what makes communities safe: residents. Empty lots are no better than empty houses and in fact are worse. Empty houses - especially historic houses like our communities possess - are a draw for many people. Rather than knocking them down, the Nagin Administration should be implementing policies designed to expedite the blighted housing seizure and resale process. They should be working on creative ways to transform these properties into viable housing for people of all income levels. And they should be examining ways to capitalize on the urban revival taking place all across the country.

Let’s look at that other side of this policy. In most areas of the country, proximity to a school increases property values. The Nagin administration would be wise to start with this fact and work backwards to determine why blighted buildings exist in such close proximity to our public school buildings. They might then find that the state of the publicly owned buildings and their grounds are doing little to strengthen the surrounding community. We recently spent some time working at a public school in our neighborhood - the Colton Middle School on St. Claude Ave. While we would like to feel good about scraping the walls and preparing them for a fresh coat of paint, seeing the water damage from neglected roofs, broken glass in classroom doors, and extensive structural termite damage left us with a profound understanding of the city’s failure to maintain a descent environment for our children.

In the case of the demolition of “crack houses,” most municipalities eventually acknowledged that the problem was not in the buildings but in the communities. Accepting this reality means accepting that our communities need help in ways that are not simple or easily remedied. Denying it might provide some photo ops and feel-good moments but it will never make neighborhoods safer for our children.