Sunday, July 3, 2011
Only the wisest and the stupidest never change.
It is 93 degrees Farenheit and my colleauges, boss, and I are standing on a grass street divider, directly under the blazing sun in the middle one of the major arteries in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. Before our eyes is a bulldozer, well in the process of demolishing a decrepit, two-story commercial building that stood in Central City for decades. It is the culmination of over six months of much legal, real estate development, and social work involving just about everyone in the office. And at this very moment, the shell of the building is being reduced to a collection of dried siding, crushed up like burnt out matchsticks.
When it stood, at various points in time the building housed Woods' Barber Shop, a handful of small commercial businesses, and possibly a handful of apartment units. By the time it was purchased from a local church by my place of employ, a local nonprofit housing developer, it was for the most part a behemoth of a building, with barely a facade; the rear of the building had fallen out long ago. But Mr. Woods' barber shop, an institution through the decades, remained, as did a squatter in the unit over the barbershop.
Months ago when its file landed on my desk after closing, the building caused a stir. In addition to the building, on the premise also stood a trailer the size of a small house from which a local business sort of operated, a non-operational pick-up truck, and a cargo container full of just about anything imaginable including medical equipment. The sole proprietor of the trailer had begun demolishing the structure himself and removed his items two weeks before closing but then suddenly abandoned his efforts without notice. By the time my workplace had closed on the building, he was nowhere to be found. The staff construction manager arranged the proper demolition of the half burnt-out trailer and removal of the truck. I reviewed the closing documents, finding no evidence of a lease, and referred the matter to legal counsel for consultation on the legally proper procedure for eviction of the squatter. Simultaneously, two to three other staff members assiduously made contact with the squatter to connect him with alternative housing and case management services. Arrangements were made for the elderly barber to move shop to the neighboring building which was in the process of redevelopment and slated for operation in another three months. But three months turned into four, five, six...
An elderly man, Mr. Woods supported numerous children through university, with the same hands, now calloused and hardened, that continue to hold clippers and shears today. On any given work day, one can still spot at least three cars parked in front of his shop, middle-aged children escorting their elderly parents with walkers to get a haircut from the only acceptable barber in all of New Orleans. Little more than a couple of barber chairs behind a window with the words Woods Barber painted on them, for decades Mr. Woods and his patrons have withstood the test of time and maintained their places in the world. Both Mr. Woods and the squatter above were loathe to relocate, despite the obvious hazards to their well-being posed by decay of the building itself. It was rumored that the squatter's dog fell through the floorboards prior to my work's acquisition of the place.
Eventually, both parted ways with the building, Mr. Woods relocating to his new location just next door. So too left the squatter, with sadness but without hostility. Within months before demolition, the squatter was spending little time in the building himself, but his personal possessions remained, in some strange sort of way staking his claim at a life which seemed to match the building in its phases of decay. Eventually he moved out his belongings, making as many separate trips back as possible, for papers, odds and ends, empty keg containers.
On this scorching afternoon, the demolition crew conduct the procedural check through the structure to find it empty. And I wander around it as well, relieved that this attractive nuisance and eyesore no longer has a chance to cause harm. In less than a year at this job, I have come to find solace in the demolitions of structures blighted beyond repair that scourge the city.
But I recognize that this sentiment towards demolition is not always shared. I wasn't with my parents in California ten years ago when the burned out remnants of their home of over twenty years was demolished after a fire. And I wasn't living in New Orleans yet when three of the crime-ridden public housing projects in Central City were demolished, the homes of thousands of families. Having partnered in the rebuilding efforts of one of those projects as mixed-income rental apartments, I am well aware that the efforts of my workplace are not unanimously greeted with open arms, regardless of subsequent drops in crime or any improved quality of life for low-income residents.
But when the building crashes down into rubble, my attention is immediately diverted to the mailman who is standing behind me on the sidewalk. He is clapping hands, a quiet smile on his face. Passing cars are honking and cheering.
As the din of the bulldozer continues, I look behind me at the Flint-Goodridge Building. Formerly an African-American hospital with the only African-American medical doctors in New Orleans, it currently houses senior citizens, at least a dozen of whom have pulled out chairs in the past twenty minutes and are now perched under the shade of an oak tree. Their expressions are inscrutable and I cannot tell if they are glad or mad at the spectacle before them.
Driven by heat of the sun to join them in the shade, I stand amongst them, a fish out of water, saying nothing other than the initial exchange of polite greetings. Though it is pretty obvious, I volunteer no information as to my involvement in this change and quietly enjoy the cool of the oak tree's shadow.
For the next fifteen minutes, a running commentary ensues. Some of the men nod their heads, others project which pieces of the buildings will fall next.
"Yeah, I knew there was nothing holding that part up," says one man.
"I won't have to keep my curtains shut no more," says another.
From the corner of my eye I see Mr. Woods quickly peak his head in and out of his new shop.
This month marks my one year anniversary in New Orleans. I moved here for the music, but I decided to stay for so many other reasons. On this blistering hot day, it occurs to me that perhaps one of those reasons is because the city is constantly pulsing. Smalltime explorers like me are frequently cursed with short attention spans, and change has a constant allure. Admittedly I am a nester, quick to cull together a home in all the crazy caves I've lived in, and I am also a creature of habit, searching out similar haunts in all the cities I've at one time called my home. Yet there is nothing more frightening to me than seeing nothing change in the world around me. Movement is the oxygen in the little fishbowl worlds I create for myself wherever I live.
In the past year, already I've witnessed blight come and go in this town. I've seen new restaurants with new ideas take the city by storm; I've also seen some old ones revived and reliving. As much New Orleans history, society, and architecture has remained the same, just as much in public housing, public education, and public funding in this town has changed. Whether it is for the better or worse is a longer conversation.
Later in the day, the staff discusses the plans for redevelopment of a small commercial building on the same site. Possible vendors are proposed: a small coffee shop run by an existing neighborhood nonprofit, a police substation, a used bike shop, business incubators for local entrepreneurs. And then, amongst the excited discussions of new plans, I am reminded that nothing is so simple.
"I got my haircut the other day," interjects one colleague.
"Mr. Woods says he is looking forward to moving back in when the new building is ready."
Photos taken by Ben Trussell and used with permission