The backhoes and bulldozers knocking down the abandoned Southwood Patio Homes in Algiers are an outward and visible sign of the fight against blight in metropolitan New Orleans. But the real story is behind the scenes, in the extremely complex path toward dealing with eyesores such as the 132 abandoned residences.
For residents, it’s a sign of progress in blight that is tangible. “Properties like this are unacceptable,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “They are unsafe, attract crime and depress property values.”
All that and more, but just knocking down properties isn’t the only issue. In the case of the Algiers property, a coalition of government, nonprofit and community partners will result in a neighborhood garden and park space, not just open land.
Landrieu and his allies on the City Council are rightly proud of the 10,000 properties either demolished or fixed up to return to commerce. The staggering dimension of the blight problem in the hurricane- and flood-ravaged areas was not unique to the New Orleans region; the Lake Charles area was devastated, too, by hurricanes Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008. But the enormous problem in the Crescent City area was extraordinary in the history of the United States.
That said, the process in the fine print is not one that usually makes the papers.
What was involved were not only the physical issues — as Landrieu said, Southwood was cited again and again for its problems — but the intricate web of legal protections against seizure, the even more intricate web of ownership problems and ascertaining responsibility for blighted properties, and the related issues of funding a change. All those issues had to be worked through and it takes time and energy to do so.
State and federal agencies worked with the city and the nonprofits, notably the Louisiana Land Trust, to pay for $800,000 or more for Southwood’s demolition. The neighborhood had to get involved as well.
So if the visible sign of progress lately is the Southwood demolition, the lessons in collaboration and community that make the demolition possible are an underlying positive for not only that area but the city.
We hope the institutional lessons of what regulations and processes work are learned, because of course New Orleans or other areas of the state might face future challenges from storms and flooding. But the underlying grace of Southwood is that people had to work together to get rid of it. That spirit and sense of purpose can be applied a hundredfold to make the city of New Orleans the greater place than it can be.