Iberville overhaul slowed by remains found on site

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Charmaine Williams, second from left, goes for a walk with her grandchildren Keah Williams, 15 months, left, and Richard 'Ricky' Farrell III, 3; and daughter, SaYann Williams, 16, right, Tuesday, in the Iberville public housing development in New Orleans. The development is across the street from St. Louis Cemetery No. 2.
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Charmaine Williams, second from left, goes for a walk with her grandchildren Keah Williams, 15 months, left, and Richard 'Ricky' Farrell III, 3; and daughter, SaYann Williams, 16, right, Tuesday, in the Iberville public housing development in New Orleans. The development is across the street from St. Louis Cemetery No. 2.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists work­ing on the grounds of the Iberville pub­lic hous­ing de­vel­op­ment have found cas­kets and human bones, laid to rest by fam­i­lies a cen­tury or more ago.

The Hous­ing Au­thor­ity of New Or­leans and its part­ner, the city of New Or­leans, had planned to begin de­mo­li­tion this fall in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a mas­sive over­haul that will redo the 10-block com­plex and cre­ate nearly 2,500 mixed-in­come apart­ments in the sur­round­ing 300-block area.

The es­ti­mated $589 mil­lion re­de­vel­op­ment of what is called the “Iberville-Treme” dis­trict was kicked off in Au­gust 2011 by a fed­eral Choice Neigh­bor­hoods grant of $30.5 mil­lion.

HANO has had to re­jig­ger de­mo­li­tion and con­struc­tion plans to con­form with state law that re­quires al­low­ing the dead to stay buried. A fed­eral law re­quires ar­chae­o­log­i­cal study of his­toric sites, ceme­ter­ies in­cluded, be­fore they can be re­de­vel­oped.

HANO ad­min­is­tra­tive re­ceiver David Gilmore es­ti­mates that the pro­ject is about six months be­hind sched­ule, but the grave­yards are re­spon­si­ble for only a few months of the delay. Ad­vised last spring that there likely were re­mains in the area, Gilmore ap­proved an agree­ment with Earth Search Inc. ar­chae­ol­o­gist Jill-Karen Yaku­bik, who “dug and dug and dug and dug every­where,” to be sure her re­search was com­plete, he said.

That a ceme­tery lies be­neath a part of the com­plex, just blocks away from the French Quar­ter, comes as no sur­prise to many res­i­dents of the 821-unit Iberville, the last of the city’s big pub­lic hous­ing com­plexes to be re­de­vel­oped in a city that once had eight sprawl­ing brick com­plexes and nearly 14,000 pub­lic-hous­ing apart­ments.

Res­i­dent Char­maine Williams re­mem­bers being told about the graves as a child, she said as she and her daugh­ters sat on their front stoop in the Bi­enville Court, a part of the de­vel­op­ment that com­mands a view of the tombs of St. Louis No. 2 Ceme­tery, the city’s sec­ond-old­est necrop­o­lis.

“This grave­yard tells a lot of sto­ries,” Williams said.

Liv­ing so near to all these tombs, a per­son can’t es­cape tales of spir­its, Williams said. A friend of hers watched as a large pack of dogs ran through the ceme­tery gates, then van­ished into thin air. “It was late at night — maybe spir­its wan­der­ing in an­other form,” said Williams, who views the neigh­bor­hood spir­its as a benev­o­lent, pro­tec­tive force.

The Iberville is brack­eted by No. 2 on one side and by the smaller and older St. Louis Ceme­tery No. 1 on an­other. But his­toric maps show No. 1, which now takes up one city block, once had a much larger foot­print. Iberville ar­chae­ol­ogy re­ports are not yet com­plete, but the as­sump­tion is that the area con­tain­ing the newly-found cas­kets and bones was part of it.

“Ceme­ter­ies are al­ways larger than you think they are,” said Mary Man­heim, who heads up the Foren­sic An­thro­pol­ogy and Com­puter En­hance­ment Ser­vice Lab­o­ra­tory at Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity. She has ex­am­ined hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of his­toric re­mains from New Or­leans and other parts of the state.

Like the city’s com­plex cul­ture, New Or­leans soil is often de­scribed as a “gumbo,” a mix­ture of or­ganic mat­ter and clay that pre­serves bones well, she said.

Part of No. 1 was cov­ered by the Sto­ryville red light dis­trict be­fore it was closed a cen­tury ago. Most of what re­mained of Sto­ryville was razed to make way for con­struc­tion of the Iberville, just be­fore World War II.

Yaku­bik said it’s not clear who was buried in the area that’s now part of the Iberville, but at least some of the bones and cas­kets likely were part of the ceme­tery’s Protes­tant sec­tion, eme­tery ex­pert and tour guide Robert Flo­rence said.

Louisiana law en­acted 30 to 40 years ago bars new con­struc­tion on bur­ial grounds. The idea is “once a ceme­tery, al­ways a ceme­tery,” said Angie Green, head of the non­profit Save Our Ceme­ter­ies, which ad­vo­cates for preser­va­tion of the city’s 42 his­toric bone yards.

Pre­vi­ously, ceme­ter­ies had been less sacro­sanct. The subsur­face St. Peter Street Ceme­tery, the city’s first, stood on high ground, bounded by North Ram­part, St. Peter, Bur­gundy and Toulouse streets. After cat­a­strophic fires, floods and epi­demics filled St. Peter to over­flow­ing, the church in 1789 opened St. Louis No. 1 on what was then the outer edge of a swampy city but also con­ve­niently close to Char­ity Hos­pi­tal, which stood on North Ram­part in those days. The St. Peter site was then re­de­vel­oped in some­thing like its pre­sent form.

The hous­ing au­thor­ity has dealt with sim­i­lar dis­cov­er­ies as other com­plexes were re­de­vel­oped.

At one point, plans to con­vert the for­mer C.J. Peete de­vel­op­ment into the Har­mony Oaks mixed-in­come com­mu­nity in­cluded plans to re­build the storm-dev­as­tated Thomy Lafon School. Dis­cov­ery of re­mains be­neath Lafon as­so­ci­ated with the Lo­cust Grove pot­ter’s field scut­tled that idea. The bone yard is now a grassy park, a per­mit­ted re-use under state law.

Park­ing garages for the New Or­leans Cen­tre and the Su­per­dome stand on what was once the above-ground Girod Street Ceme­tery, a Protes­tant os­suary es­tab­lished in the early 1800s and de­con­se­crated in the late 1950s. The re­mains were moved else­where, but some Saints fans blamed a string of los­ing sea­sons on there being a for­mer grave­yard below the grid­iron.

Dur­ing the 1980s, Man­heim stud­ied roughly 300 re­mains re­moved from what had been a Char­ity Hos­pi­tal ceme­tery in order to widen Canal Boule­vard. As a re­sult, she said, we un­der­stand a bit more about how peo­ple lived dur­ing that time: the dis­eases they suf­fered, for ex­am­ple, and the pos­ses­sions their fam­i­lies thought im­por­tant enough to bury with them.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists began dig­ging in the Iberville sev­eral months ago, as part of the his­toric re­search re­quired by fed­eral law. Upon com­ple­tion of the re­search, HANO and the city can roll back­hoes onto the site and begin the phased de­mo­li­tion and re­con­struc­tion. One-third of the 74 brick build­ings will be left stand­ing.

Since the bones were found, ar­chi­tects have re­drawn their plans for the new­found ceme­tery area to in­clude only per­mit­ted uses: green space and preser­va­tion of ex­ist­ing build­ings. The same num­ber of planned apart­ments – 913, roughly one-third of them pub­lic hous­ing — won’t change, Gilmore said.

A legal al­ter­na­tive pre­ferred by some de­vel­op­ers is to move bod­ies from old ceme­ter­ies rather than re­vamp con­struc­tion plans.

When 15 coffins were un­earthed in the course of con­struct­ing a swim­ming pool be­hind a North Ram­part Street res­i­dence, prop­erty owner Vin­cent Mar­cello opted to have the re­mains stud­ied at Man­heim’s lab and re­buried in an ex­tant ceme­tery.

At the Iberville, Yaku­bik mapped her find­ings but left them in their final rest­ing places. “If we came down on a cas­ket, we stopped,” she said. “If we found bones, we stopped.”

As the post-Ka­t­rina over­haul got un­der­way, res­i­dents watched closely — and war­ily — as Yaku­bik and her team dug in se­lected spots in the Iberville court­yards. No one says they’ve ac­tu­ally seen a ghost, but every­one grew up hear­ing the story of the teenage boy who dated one.

As the local leg­end goes, the apple of his eye left her purse in his car the night he took her to his school prom. When he brought it to her house to re­turn it, the girl’s mother said that she’d died years ear­lier and had been buried in the very gown he de­scribed her wear­ing to the prom.

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