By Christopher Tidmore, [email protected]
It looks like a wasteland. The open bare earth is dotting with signs promising the advent of a new state of the art $800 million Veterans Administration hospital. Today, though, the 19th Century, predominantly African-American neighborhood in Mid-City that defied the floodwaters of Katrina and countless Hurricanes before now is as bare as if those hundred year old homes had never stood.
Only the prophetically named Outer Banks Bar stands sentinel at the edge of construction holocaust. It and the handful of remaining houses between S. Galvez and S. Rocheblave will be gone soon as well, making way for a two billion dollar 424-bed medical teaching facility, part of the LSU/VA complex that government leaders aim to anchor the BioDistrict New Orleans, a medical and science corridor that one day is expected to span 1,500 acres.
The demolition of historic buildings, many logged on the National Register, is defined by leaders from Governor Jindal to the Mayor Landrieu, as a necessary step if the city wants to attract businesses and become nationally recognized as a home for science and technology.
The pleas of community advocates and preservationists to reuse the "Big Charity" building for the new hospital, or to build on another site, at first went unheeded, and now, are irrelevant--at least on the Veterans Administration site. The LSU MedCenter footprint from S. Galvez to Claiborne Ave remains to be cleared, but most of its anchor property-holders had departed. One of the final holdouts, the Deutsches Haus completed its annual October Fest, then closed down nearly a century of history in Mid-City in late November, decamping for a temporary location in Jefferson Parish.
There have been a few victories for preservationists. In September, Mayor Mitch Landrieu halted the demolitions, so that more than 80 homes could be rescued thanks to a partnership between the city and Builders of Hope, a nonprofit organization in Raleigh, N.C., that advocates affordable housing.
Carried on flatbed semi-trucks, the creole cottages are literally transported on to open plots owned by nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, just a few miles from their current Lower Mid-City locale--thanks to $3.2 million grant from by the city and the efforts of Builders of Hope. The homes are earmarked as in-fill development in these other historic neighborhoods to serve as good, affordable housing for low- or moderate-income residents.
In an effort to maneuver the houses down streets transversed by low-lying electric wires, the roofs – the majority already decrepit – are removed in favor of new green roofs to be added later. The shotgun houses with living space extending past 60 feet are shortened of their camelbacks to allow them to be hauled.
The partnership has saved nearly 70 homes, with ten or more in the process of being moved, out of the 265 of iconic Creole cottages, shotguns, and camelbacks, that had stood on the a 30-acre area recognized by the National Register of Historic Places from before 1900.
In an effort to fight what Sandra Stokes, executive vice chair of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana in Baton Rouge, called "suburban sprawl in the most culturally significant urban environment in the US", Mayor Landrieu did get the LSU/VA Medical Center board to allow some of the plots, originally earmarked to become ground level concrete parking lots, to serve as greenspace until needed for future construction.
And, in one of the most significant victories in recent weeks for preservationists, the historic Dixie Brewery will remaining standing on Tulane Ave. Its owners, the Bruno family, had worried that the property might be ripped down after a letter for LSU President John Lombardi, so implied. According to the VA, however, the brick landmark, with its silver dome and loft like architecture, will be rehabilitated for Medical District use.
Amanda Jones, spokesperson for the Veterans Administration told The Louisiana Weekly, "Design development of the new VA medical center concluded in January 2010 Historic elements of the Dixie Brewery building are incorporated into the design of the research facility. However, VA has yet to gain access to assess the building’s structural integrity. If it is not possible to rehabilitate the structure, we will integrate significant features of the historic building in the design of the new VA medical center. The Campus design also includes adaptive reuse of the Pan American Life Building and four historic homes currently in the footprint."
She added, "Dixie Brewery is on the site where the VA medical center will be and there is no plan to tear it down at this time. It is still being incorporated into the design of the VA medical center to be used primarily as a research center."
While most homeowners accepted state money and simply moved away, some are following their homes to their new resting places. Doris Bahr who owns a double shotgun that she has spent more than $100,000 to renovate twice, once when she bought it in 2002 and then after Katrina, decided to follow the house to its new location and renovate it again. The state agreed to pay her the value of the mortgage.
Ms. Bahr told the Christian Science Monitor that she has mixed feelings about what is happening to her neighborhood. In her eight years there, she felt she found a community, and Katrina bonded her neighbors together.
"We are not against a new hospital," she explained. "I love the fact new jobs are coming in – but at what expense?"
Now, she says, "what's done is done." She was willing to accept living in her house in another location, because "in the end, I had faith. It's beyond money. My sweat, my tears, my blood is in that house. I just didn't want to give it away."