Iberville demolition marks end of an era

As a child in the Iberville public-housing development, Leander “Shack” Brown, 36, had three frozen-cup choices: Ms. Granny’s basic, 15-cent cup; Ms. Emily’s 25-cent, three-layer homemade popsicle; and the Cadillac of frozen cups, each with a gumball frozen into the bottom, sold by Ms. Carolyn from a balcony filled with flowers.

But by the time he was 14, Brown also had witnessed at least seven murders and 30 or 40 robberies within the complex, which is located blocks from the French Quarter.

Because he knows both the joys and sorrows of the Iberville, Brown has watched with mixed feelings in recent months as it has emptied out. Only 152 of 821 apartments are now occupied. The grassy, U-shaped courtyards are lifeless, lined by boarded-up brick buildings. Earlier this week, a youthful work crew tossed appliances into a dump truck to prepare for demolition.

When Iberville’s bricks tumble down, it will mark the end of an era.

“It’s the last of this city’s public housing,” said Lillie Walker Woodfork, president of the Citywide Tenants Association.

Just a few decades ago, one in 10 city residents lived in one of HANO’s sprawling complexes. What were first hailed as beautiful French Quarter-style buildings degraded into the ill-kept monolithic brick structures that for generations of New Orleanians were the city’s most recognizable ­— and ubiquitous — symbol of poverty.

There were periodic calls to tear down and redevelop the projects, and the early 2000s saw makeovers of Fischer, St. Thomas, Florida and Desire. Following an acrimonious debate after Hurricane Katrina, the City Council voted to demolish and transform the “Big Four” — St. Bernard, Cooper, Peete and Lafitte — into smaller, mixed-income communities.

That left Iberville as the last of “the bricks” still standing. Its impending demolition has sparked a larger discussion about how New Orleans public housing will be remembered: not only for high rates of poverty and violence, but also for music, food and tight-knit communities. Despite the urban ills that festered there, the projects were also simply home to tens of thousands of New Orleans.

Soon, nothing will be left but memories.

“New Orleans will stand as a national model for redeveloping urban neighborhoods,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. The mayor emphasized that residents of the old brick complex will be linked to services such as workforce training, education and health, even as physical improvements to housing, retail, school and public spaces strengthen a key neighborhood in the heart of New Orleans.

Launched two years ago by a $30 million federal Choice Neighborhood Initiative grant, the $600 million Iberville redevelopment plan spearheaded by the city and the Housing Authority of New Orleans encompasses nearly 2,500 new and renovated apartments within a 300-square-block area bounded by Tulane and St. Bernard avenues and Broad and North Rampart streets.

On the Iberville site itself, 16 of the 75 original brick buildings are slated to be rehabbed and preserved.

The plan is likely to spark a municipal renaissance, said developer Pres Kabacoff, a partner in the endeavor. Kabacoff believes the Iberville reconstruction is as important as the construction of the Superdome, the filling of the lakefront in the 1940s or the work done by his father, Lester Kabacoff, to revitalize the riverfront before the 1984 World’s Fair.

“Every 30 or 40 years, we do something dramatic in the city,” Kabacoff said. “And this is one of those projects.”

But former City Council President Oliver Thomas sees the plan as transformative only if poverty-stricken New Orleans workers are linked to opportunities for better wages, he said. “People are still retiring from hotels making $8 an hour,” he said. “Why is that acceptable?”

Ironically, Iberville’s cheap rent and proximity to the Quarter made that possible, Loyola University Law School Professor Bill Quigley said. “Iberville provided affordable housing to thousands of workers who cooked and cleaned for minimum wages the businesses and homes of many of the same people who criticized the place.”

Baby steps are being made to improve residents’ opportunities. To date, 333 of 485 Iberville households are working with case managers as part of Choice Neighborhoods. And 30 youths were recently hired into work crews for $8 an hour as part of a two-year HANO job-training program tied to the Iberville.

Crew member Jomira Jackson, 18, who grew up in the now-shuttered Florida development, knows plenty of residents who weathered public housing’s ills — violence, brazen drug slinging and dilapidated apartments — for one reason: low rent.

“People come to the projects because they’re low-income,” Jackson said flatly. “And Iberville is the last place they could come.”

Brown now owns his own home, but for the past few years he’s led Iberville children in a drill team and sports leagues at nearby Lemann No. 1 Playground. On weekends too, he occasionally passes through the complex, to say hi to a friend’s mother or simply reconnect to home.

“If my life is a game of tag, it’s my base,” he said.

Eyed for redevelopment

It’s perhaps surprising that Iberville is the last complex still standing. Its proximity to the French Quarter has made it a favorite target of redevelopment schemes over the years, with officials fretting privately about the Iberville’s effects on the Quarter’s tourism appeal. Others aren’t so delicate in their descriptions: French Quarter crime blogger Thom Kahler alternately describes the complex as “the criminals’ gateway to the French Quarter” and “that crime hellhole.”

In 2009, an outbreak of gun violence in the complex left residents rattled. Some begged to leave. HANO began more vigorous patrols, worked with the police department to get rid of problem tenants and installed crime cameras. For the past few years, it’s been largely quiet.

But as in many parts of New Orleans, gunfire is always a possibility. Just last week, as two men argued on the edge of a courtyard, mothers hustled their children away, saying, “Get inside before someone starts shooting.”

The stated aim of public housing redevelopment is to de-concentrate poverty and its related ills, giving residents a chance at a better life. Indeed, Urban Institute researchers tracking relocated Chicago public-housing residents over the past decade have found that most still wound up in disadvantaged neighborhoods, but in better, safer conditions.

Relocated children, however, weren’t always better off. Urban Institute’s analyses describe teens and children clashing with new neighbors or withdrawing socially because they lack a “protective network” of friends.

In New Orleans, similar dynamics played out when families from the Desire and St. Thomas developments, which were facing demolition, were transferred into the St. Bernard development in Gentilly.

Ed Buckner, who worked for 30 years at Willie Hall Playground, not far from St. Bernard, recalls constant fights.

“It was young men and young women trying to re-establish themselves in new neighborhoods and they weren’t welcome,” he said. “And sometimes it became so personal that somebody was dead.”

It’s undeniable that the city’s public housing complexes have been crime hotbeds. Growing up in the Desire-Florida area, Tyrone Yancy, 46, spyboy for the Yellow Pocahontas Indian tribe, witnessed murders and kidnappings and stabbings. “And I saw that by 10 years old,” he said.

But Iberville native Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, 28, says project crime is overstated.

“My grandmother lived in the Lafitte for 36 years and I never witnessed a day in my life where she locked her door,” he said.

With so many neighbors around, 30-year Iberville resident Patricia James, 53, also never feared a break-in. But she isn’t so sure about elsewhere. So last week, as she made plans to move out, she sat on her Conti Street porch with neighbor Lula Williams, 66, and debated whether she should, for the first time in her life, buy a firearm for protection.

Transition to Section 8

Mary McDaniel, 52, is in limbo while her Section 8 paperwork migrates through the HANO Section 8 department.

“We got our boxes packed. We’re just waiting for them,” she said, fretting that all of the good apartments downtown will soon be snatched up, leaving her and her neighbor Cynthia Jordan, also 52, “way far away, in eastern New Orleans or Chalmette somewhere.”

All residents receive Section 8 vouchers to help them pay rent on the private market. HANO has also hired movers and relocation advisers and is paying deposits for apartments.

But for many, the shift to vouchers will be difficult, predicts longtime Citywide Tenants leader Cynthia Wiggins, who heads Guste Homes in Central City and has been critical of Section 8 as a solution for the poorest public-housing families.

Inexperienced renters are more apt to rent from unreliable landlords who fail to keep up their properties, Wiggins said. Many residents will also find their bills — rent, plus light, gas and water — astronomical when compared with Iberville rents, which maxed out at $374 but could go as low as $50, depending on income.

Lifelong Iberville resident Morris Smith, 40, a kitchen manager in a prominent New Orleans restaurant, ended up in eastern New Orleans with his wife and daughter, who also work in hospitality-industry jobs a short walk from where they used to live. Unlike many Iberville residents, his family has a car, which they’re now juggling at all hours.

With nowhere to walk to, his wife feels sad and isolated. “She’s not feeling this distance thing,” Smith said.

In the Iberville, Smith was paying $373 in rent; he now pays nearly $850 in rent and utilities, putting the squeeze on other bills, he said.

Such struggles are seen across the nation, said Massachusetts Institute of Technology urbanist Lawrence Vale, whose most recent book, “Purging the Poorest,” examines national cutbacks in public housing. Because of that, Vale said, “I take little joy in the prospect of demolished public housing unless it’s accompanied by a clear commitment to finding better alternatives for displaced residents.”

Bonding through struggle

In 1941, on opening day for the Magnolia, the city’s first public-housing development, The Times-Picayune pronounced: “A new way of living began today for a dozen or so low-income and underprivileged Negro families of New Orleans.”

The Iberville opened to white residents shortly afterward, on what once had been the Storyville red-light district. One of the last Storyville buildings left standing, Frank Early’s Saloon on Crozat and Bienville streets, became Iberville’s go-to corner store, dispensing candy, snacks and cigarettes at all hours. At night, as is typical for stores near housing projects, clerks charged higher prices and took orders through a small bulletproof window.

In 1980, after a Houston conventioneer was killed during a botched robbery near the Iberville, a group of French Quarter activists demanded that the complex be torn down. By 1988, a report commissioned by Mayor Sidney Barthelemy determined that all of New Orleans’ public housing was unmanageable and beyond repair.

At the time, 55,000 New Orleanians lived in HANO’s poorly managed complexes, amid well-documented problems with mold, peeling lead paint, rodents and faulty plumbing.

The rotten conditions seemed to draw residents together.

“If people didn’t look out for each other, the project would have been way worse than it was,” said Jyren Dawson, 17, a work crew member who was raised by his grandmother in the St. Bernard. When families were short of money, neighbors were quick with “a handout” — cash or groceries to get them through, he said.

“In the projects, if one had meat and one had bread, you’d share,” said the Rev. Bruce Davenport, who has long run St. John No. 5 Faith Church on Hamburg Street near the St. Bernard.

Public-housing communities became extremely close-knit, Ed Buckner said. “Children with no blood kin became cousins and neighbors considered each other family,” he said.

That collaboration also made housing developments cultural hotbeds, Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill said. “If it weren’t for the projects, you wouldn’t have a James Andrews, a Trombone Shorty or a Trumpet Black,” Hill said.

His octogenarian grandmother Dorothy Mae Hill is the center of a musical family that includes his Andrews cousins and dates back to his great-grandfather Walter Nelson, who played with early jazz bandleader Alphonse Picou.

When rapper “10th Ward Buck” Horton, 32, was growing up in the St. Thomas, the projects were the hangout of most up-and-coming rap, hip-hop and bounce artists: DJ Jubilee, Katey Red and Mystikal in St. Thomas; Juvenile, Birdman, Lil Wayne and other Cash Money artists in Magnolia; Master P and his crew in the Calliope.

“But everybody’s goal was to get out of the project,” Horton said. “Everyone was rapping about helping their mama and getting their mama out of the project.”

Horton’s restaurant, Finger Lickn Wings on Jackson Avenue, today serves a mixed-race clientele, something he would have never imagined when he lived in the all-black St. Thomas, he said.

“At first I was against them taking the projects down. But it opened doors for me,” he said.

Now, when he runs into his former St. Thomas neighbors, he finds that they are in better housing, but that most of the struggles remain: a lack of afterschool programs, jobs that don’t pay enough, parents who can’t shake drugs.

“Soon, we won’t have the projects. But we still have plenty to rap about,” Horton said.