Tripod: New Orleans at 300 returns with a look at the Desire community, then and now.
If you’re from New Orleans, or you’ve lived here for a minute, you know how often locals identify themselves by their neighborhood. Before Katrina, for thousands of New Orleans residents, these neighborhoods were public housing developments: the Magnolia, B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, the Calliope. All those developments are now gone; they’ve all been demolished, and so they’re not part of what’s been this ongoing citywide Tricentennial conversation. But these communities remain super important parts of thousands of people’s lives and this city’s history. So, for one of our final TriPod episodes we decided to hear from residents of one of those neighborhoods: The Desire.
Leonard Smith grew up in the Desire community. He’s giving me a tour of his old neighborhood. He used to roller skate here as a kid. “During Christmas time, Alvar Street closed down because everybody got skates during Christmas—skates and bikes. And so they would skate along. It would be hundreds of people out there roller skating.”
I wanted this tour from Leonard, because I had never been to the neighborhood. And apparently I’m not alone. “A lot of people never even been back in Desire, some who have lived in New Orleans all their life,” Leonard told me.
Being there, it felt remote. And pretty bare. Lots of empty lots, tall grass, blighted homes. Driving around, we were physically closed in by train tracks on two sides and an industrial canal on a third. This part of the Upper 9th Ward was supposed to be industrial; it wasn’t meant to be residential. It also actually used to be a city dump. The landfill was made in 1909 and became a dump for both residential and industrial waste. Now, fast forward to the housing act of 1949, which authorized new construction. People saw this area as an opportunity to build a housing development on cheap land.
The dump closed, and new homes were built, marketed specifically to black World War II veterans. “And they would always be advertising in the Times-Picayune as real estate for coloreds,” Leonard says. “‘Hey Mister G.I., hello Mister colored G.I.’ And this is the first time this has happened in the south.”
By the 1960s, houses were made available for anyone, not just veterans, and Leonard’s family made their move from Uptown in 1964. “It was the first opportunity for my parents to be here to purchase a home. So we moved on Metropolitan Street which was around the corner from my grandmother, my mom’s mom and dad.”
Meanwhile, as the homeowner’s side was developing, public housing was built across the street. There were other public housing developments in New Orleans already: the Magnolia, St. Thomas, the Florida, but they needed more housing in a big way, especially for the African-American population. And so, they built the Desire development (public housing) across from Leonard’s house.
The Desire was the last public housing project to be built in the city and the largest. Dan Perkins grew up in the Desire development. He was one of more than 13,000 residents living in 1,860 units.
“We could’ve had our own parish, actually, we were so big.”
Dan’s household was big, too. He lived in a three-bedroom apartment, with ten other kids. And he loved it. His mom cooked all day for her family, along with anyone else that came through.
“She didn’t turn nobody away. I’d go in the pantry to get something, and I’d see somebody else I didn’t even know getting some cornflakes. ‘Who are you?’ ‘The door was open.’ That was the kind of heart she had. Because her heart was open, she kept her doors opened.”
Remember, there are at least 13,000 people living on 100 acres. And 10,000 of them were kids. And for 10,000 kids, there was one playground.
“Just imagine, one playground with just about three or four swings and one sliding board and one merry-go-round for 13,000 people,” Dan said. “So we had to wait our turn to get on the swing—sometimes we had to wait two days to get on a swing!”
When Dan got older, he started to realize the scope of the development and how few resources there were to share. He also realized how isolated they were from the rest of the city.
“Think about where we are located—between train tracks. And if there’s a train on the east side of the apartment complex, the ambulance and security or whatever couldn’t get in until the train had passed. Sometimes a train might take two hours. They’ll stop, they’ll rest before they can cross. So we were locked in, in emergency situations. Many people died.”
There are now two overpasses that can get you over the tracks when there’s a train, but not when Dan was growing up. There was only one way in and one way out. He said it was like a booby trap. And then there was that dump, the Agriculture Street Landfill, that had been open since 1909 and then sealed shut in the late 1950s.
When Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965, they opened it back up to drop all the debris from the entire city. This was just a year after Leonard moved in. His house got a few feet of water, and the public housing apartments were also flooded. Detached porches, collapsed roofs. It was bad. So while the neighborhood is trying to clean up, the city was dumping all its trash right on top of them. Leonard says they would burn stuff on the dump.
“You know, back then we used to hang clothes on the clothesline outside. But on those days that they were burning the trash on the dump you had to bring the clothes in, because otherwise they would have that smell.”
Even with the burning trash and waiting two days for the swing set, Leonard and Dan have pride in where they come from. It’s who they are.
“We were poor, but we didn’t know it!” Dan explains. But then, they did. Both boys went to George Washington Carver High School and played in the famous Carver marching band. Leonard also played basketball, so he was extra popular. It wasn’t really until they’d leave the Desire to go play another team, that they realized they had a reputation.
“We really didn’t know all of the negative things until we started traveling with the sports team and with the band and that type stuff,” says Dan. “I even recall on the basketball team when we would go to different places to play around the city that we had a reputation, that people were scared to play us.”
It wasn’t just Leonard. He told me a friend of his mentioned he didn’t know that he lived in the ghetto until he heard it on the TV.
Adrian Woods also grew up with Dan and Leonard. “Regardless of how you felt about yourself, it was the stigma of living in the Desire. You were seen as poor; you were seen as underclass. And I didn’t want to be seen like that.”
Adrian went to Southern University in New Orleans, and students couldn’t believe she was from the Desire. “They just couldn’t believe it. You know. Oh my gosh. It’s a horrible place. And, you know, people live on top of each other, and then I’m always explaining, well no, not really, because it’s only four families in each building.”
Buildings ranged anywhere from four to 16 units in size but were all just two stories high.
“So it wasn’t like we had 100 people, like some of the buildings they had in Chicago, for example. But I just got kind of tired of explaining that.”
Because that wasn’t her experience. She also has great memories growing up in the Desire with her whole family surrounding her.
“My oldest sister lived on the second porch. And then the second oldest sister lived in the porch behind us, and my grandmother lived downstairs from us. And most of the people in that area, it was more like family, you know, it was very family oriented. Whether they were related to you or not, everybody was your cousin.”
Adrian says people felt totally safe.
“I mean we walked to the park dusk to dawn, and nobody felt any fear.”
“Most people thought they were shooting up Desire all night. But people walked the streets all night long. And nobody was concerned about anybody robbing them or anything like that.”
But for some reason, Desire still had a bad rap. People saw it as super dangerous and avoided that part of town. I asked Leonard why he thought people had this negative perception, and he thinks part of it is because of how Desire looked. Just a few years after the development opened, parts of it already looked run down. There’s a reason for that. Desire was the only one out of all of the developments that was actually built with wood. All of the other public housing developments were built on top of cement foundations, but Desire, built on a landfill in a sinking swamp, had wooden foundations. All the other developments were made out of brick, but Desire? Brick veneer—fake bricks. Just six years after folks moved in, they saw problems.
“You had ceilings that were coming down,” Leonard remembers. “You had steps that were moving from the foundation, you had holes in floors and that type stuff, but it was because it was on a wooden foundation as opposed to a cement foundation. And so of course over time with New Orleans’ humidity and dampness and living in a swamp, you know, it’s just a matter of time.”
It was the largest project built, the last project to be built, and the cheapest. The Housing Development of New Orleans, HANO, cut a lot of corners on construction, but officials still came by a few times a year to do inspections. Dan Perkins says they were terrible. “You know the way they would treat my mother…I was so tempted to tell the inspector lady where to go. But that would get my mother in trouble and get us in trouble.”
Adrian Woods also hated these inspections.
“Every so often this lady who works for the housing authority would come, and they would inspect your house to make sure it was clean, make sure that there were no chalk or writings on your wall. And most importantly they checked to make sure the people who you say you were living in there, were living in there.”
This was a major rule for housing eligibility. To get an apartment in the Desire, you had to be below a certain income bracket, which led to many of the apartments being single parent households. Inspectors were coming around to make sure boyfriends, girlfriends, whoever, weren’t living in the apartments, unregistered. And Dan says there were lots of other things HANO made sure weren’t in the apartments. “A toaster, iron, air conditioning. Because they figure, if you could have that, then you’re not qualified—isn’t that something?”
According to Dan, if the HANO inspector saw you could afford certain electrical appliances, then she thought maybe you could afford to live on your own. Great for morale, right? Not to mention image. But these inspections didn’t stop Dan’s mom.
“My mother had toasters, we had a coffee pot, we had electric stuff. We had to hide them. I wanted to pull those things out so bad and show the inspector and say ‘yeah, we have it.’ Now what do you want to do? But I know what happened if you put us out. We’d have been on streets. We weren’t allowed to have things that other people had because we were a project. We were in the hood, in the ghetto, you know that’s where they wanted to keep us.”
Year after year, Dan watched his mother resist. They weren’t allowed to have chickens—she raised chickens. They weren’t allowed to have a dog—she got a dog. And after 15 years of living in the same apartment, she felt ownership over the place. She put up a white picket fence.
“I helped build it. And then when the inspector saw it, he told my mother, ‘I want that fence taken down.’ She came back and told the inspector, ‘why don’t you take it down?’”
She won that one. She even put a swimming pool in her front yard.
“We made fun. We found pleasure. We were determined to have a desire to be where we were. We had no other choice. And we made our own pleasure, and we found out that we were human just like everybody else. They always say no good thing came out of this project, but they were wrong.”
Leonard Smith is working on a documentary about the Desire. His whole motivation is to have people who actually grew up there tell their side of the story and disrupt the negative image that people on the outside perpetuate. It made me wonder whether there was any legitimacy to the negative image. Leonard says, definitely—the Desire did become increasingly dangerous, especially after the famous Black Panther shootout in 1970 (which is a whole other story—go look it up). He says the neighborhood really started to change with Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, which he declared in June of 1971. He dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and launched mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.
John Ehrlichman, a former advisor to Nixon, later admitted to the press that Nixon had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. Ehrlichman said: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war, or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Leonard says that’s when the community really started seeing crack cocaine. “And that’s when a lot of people, you know, lost their minds. It got very serious there, and the crime went up then. But that’s only natural, because that’s what happens.”
Throughout the 70s and into the 80s, the War on Drugs was taking its toll on the community. Some people were moving out, and a lot of people, mostly black men, were being locked up, and so the population shrank. Then, in 1996, with a HOPE VI grant, the public housing was demolished to make way for a new mixed-income neighborhood called The Estates. Katrina devastated The Estates. Driving around the neighborhood with Leonard recently, that devastation is still clear as day. There are gaping holes in houses, many of which are missing entire facades. From the street, I could see straight into second stories, straight into bedrooms, with clothes still in the closet.
“You look at this city after Katrina, and look at all what has happened downtown, how beautiful it is,” Leonard says. “It’s amazing when you look at the rest of the city and look at how great things have become since Katrina, and then you come back to a community like this, and say ‘wow, looks like the storm hit yesterday.’”
If a neighborhood falls off the radar, what does that mean for the people who are still there?
Driving through the neighborhood, we slow down to greet a woman who’s just running out of her house, in slippers, to grab her mail. The woman is Shannon Rainey, the president of The Residents of Gordon Plaza. Gordon Plaza is a little neighborhood that was developed in the late 70s, during Mayor Dutch Morial’s administration. It was built on the old city dump, which was officially covered over with sand and soil, and redeveloped as a residential neighborhood. Mayor Morial championed this as another opportunity for low-income African Americans to qualify for home ownership.
“This was my very first house I ever bought,” Shannon says, turning to look at her front door. That was more than 40 years ago, when Shannon Rainey was 25 years old. As soon as she moved in, she started planting a garden. “And that’s when we discovered different types of cans and ties and drums with the X’s and skeleton heads on it.”
This is how Shannon learned she had bought a home on top of a landfill. No one had told her or the other homeowners the history of the site. But an independent study of the soil went on to find 154 different toxins, 50 of which cause cancer. The EPA would go on to give the area Superfund status in 1994, which is when Shannon and her neighbors started fighting for a buyout. Numerous residents have died of cancer that trace back to the toxins. Residents can’t sell their homes and move somewhere else, because the property has no value.
Shannon says nobody wants to take ownership of the problem and traces the blame back to Dutch Morial. She was equally disappointed by how his son Marc handled the situation when he became mayor. Next, Sidney Bartholeme, then Ray Nagin, and then Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
“And he says that before he’ll relocate us, he’ll build a jail. And that he did.”
Now, Latoya Cantrell is mayor. Shannon Rainey says that on her campaign trail, she promised to help relocate the 54 remaining households in Gordon Plaza. But these days, “we can’t even get her to come and walk through the community to give us a meeting.”
The mayor’s office has told reporters that because litigation is pending, the Mayor is unable to make specific comments on the status of Gordon Plaza residents. But they’re still fighting. “We’re not gonna stop until we get relocated,” Shannon tells me, as we wave goodbye.
For now, Shannon and her neighbors live day after day surrounded by abandoned buildings and empty lots, breathing in toxins, with nowhere to go. As Leonard and I drove away, we saw a group of kids with backpacks hanging off their Carver uniforms. We slowed to let them cross the street. They were walking home from school.
TriPod is a production of WWNO in collaboration with the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at UNO.