Our Views: A new focus on community

Sometimes it is difficult to wade through an official statement and figure out what it is all about.

Take this example from the public housing director in New Orleans: “Iberville is a very significant link in a much bigger picture of the revitalization of downtown New Orleans, which can be stimulated by the investment of transforming a public-housing development into a mixed-income community. And we are excited about expanding the scope of public-housing redevelopment beyond the bricks of a building, while integrating revived infrastructure, linking educational and workforce opportunities, and making social services available to the entire community.”

This is, unfortunately, not a particularly suitable epitaph for the Iberville housing project, mostly to be demolished over the course of the next few months. If we can boil down into a single word both the history of the old projects and the goal of the redevelopment of them, it is “community.”

While David Gilmore, administrative receiver of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, was wordier in his statement, we believe he and others in public housing are on the right track in the new paradigm of revitalizing communities, not just building blocks of apartments.

Public housing authorities in Louisiana and across the United States have adopted similar redevelopment projects. The demolition of much of Iberville, except for some of the most historic red-brick structures from the 1930s, is funded with a federal grant from a Choice Neighborhoods Initiative.

The goal of community is to be achieved by integrating the location of Iberville with the blocks around it, putting some public investment into infrastructure as well as new units for the elderly and the disabled who need public housing the most.

In some quarters, there is nostalgia for the genuine community that developed in Iberville when its most historic buildings opened in 1941. But over decades, that community was eroded by social forces that eventually overwhelmed the old fabric.

Catastrophic mismanagement at HANO for years did not help, which is a long story that leads up to why Gilmore’s title is administrative receiver.

In today’s new vision, which we hope will be successful in Iberville, is public housing that is indistinguishable from the private sector construction in adjoining rental units or town homes. Other old projects in New Orleans, like many of their peers around the country, already belong to the past.

With Mayor Mitch Landrieu and many others who have worked on these redevelopment plans, we hope that the ambitious goals of redevelopment will be attained.

The some 300 blocks around the Iberville site stand to benefit, as do public housing tenants, with investment coming from federal, city and state funding sources.

At the same time, we are glad that some of the historic structures will be preserved, as it is not the structures themselves that are a community. It is the focus on people that cannot be lost in the drawings and plans.

Those buildings can serve a new and larger community that the redevelopment projects hope to promote, part of the still larger and vibrant city that New Orleans is becoming. But we acknowledge that this process is only beginning, and it is a process: social services as well as architecture, effective public services as well as new urban designs.

In the fullest sense, community is more than even Gilmore’s statement embraces. We are optimistic that the visions of progress that animated the builders of Iberville in the 1930s will be achieved in this new day.