Excerpt from Gambit cover story, Dec. 1, 1987: “Desire and Dejection” by Robin Kemp

This story relied heavily on the following background sources, which were acknowledged next to the article and which I recommend to those genuinely interested in the issue:

John W. Blassingame, Black New Orleans: 1860-1880, U of Chicago P, 1973;  Johnathan Laws, HANO Public Relations; Peirce F. Lewis, New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape, Ballinger Publishing, 1976; and especially Martha Mahoney, “The Housing Authority of New Orleans: A Study in the Limits of Applied Reform,” unpublished paper, U of New Orleans, 1982.


Desire and Dejection

By Robin Kemp

Some are run down, others breed lethargy and crime, but to thousands of people, the city’s public housing projects are also home. 

Ten percent of New Orleanians are living on less than two percent of the city’s total land area. They are the residents of New Orleans’ housing projects. In the next five years, most of the households will be headed by young black females who are single parents.

For some observers, statistics like these have lost their shock value. In the course of conversation, the question “what can be done about the projects?” has taken on an aura of being one of the great mysteries of life, causing much discussion and argument that nearly always ends in someone throwing their [sic] hands up and sighing in exasperation, “I don’t know. Why don’t they just tear them down and start over?”

That’s what happened in the early twentieth century.


It is important to understand the racial settlement patterns of New Orleans, since their effects are still felt whenever one crosses a street that has Greek Revival mansions on one side and slums on the other.

Plantations and prime settlement areas, like the Vieux Carre’, were located on the natural levees of the Mississippi, the major route for transport of goods and people over long distances. White antebellum homes were built on natural ridges and connected by major boulevards; slave quarters were built behind them. After the Civil War, more blacks came in search of family members who had been sold into slavery at the New Orleans market. The old slave quarters were populated by free black servants, and groups of smaller homes populated by poor blacks and whites sprang up behind those buildings. The resulting “checkerboard pattern” of black neighborhoods bordering white neighborhoods still exists.

[n.b.: This was in 1989–I’ve seen settlement maps that indicate increasingly-segregated neighborhoods since integration, undoubtedly attributable to huge “white flight” from Orleans (the city proper) to surrounding parishes. Many of those who took part in “white flight” became absentee landlords, contributing to a huge stock of run-down rental housing, which is where most New Orleanians of whatever race live.]

(I’ll scan and post this monster. It’s really long, has several sidebars, and includes maps and photos.)

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