A curious article appeared in the sports section of The New York Times last weekend. Headlined “How a Golf Course is Reshaping a New Orleans Neighborhood,” the piece led with a photo of a black woman and her 9-year-old son, smiling with golf clubs in front of a row of neat brick townhouses.
The story went like this: After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, a local real estate developer toured a golf club in Atlanta. We learn that Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club, much like the flooded City Park golf course in New Orleans, was once located near a crime-ridden public housing development. The tour gave the developer an idea. After overcoming the objections of sentimental protesters, the developer and his friends successfully restored the City Park course and replaced the St. Bernard public housing development with a mixed-income complex. In this urban real-estate success story, proceeds from the golf course go towards community programs, including teaching golf to young black boys who might otherwise find themselves up to no good.
There are some significant problems with the Times narrative. Mainly: It is the exact sales pitch used for the last decade by New Orleans’ business elite and outside Republicans to sell a massive transformation effort that, in the wake of Katrina, barred the city's poorest black residents from returning to their homes.
Ed Goetz, a professor of urban planning at the University of Minnesota, told The Outline that the article “whitewashes that entire history of the forced displacement, the forced dismantling of affordable housing” and for that it was a “deplorable piece of journalism.”
Endesha Juakali, an activist, lifelong resident of the neighborhood around the the St. Bernard public housing development, and onetime resident of the complex, was more blunt. He referred to the story as “that piece of propaganda shit.”
To understand how the Times article failed, we must first look into the long, fraught history of public housing in New Orleans. Back in 1936, Louisiana, buoyed by the New Deal and the progressive populism of Huey Long, committed to the idea of public housing a year before the federal government did in passing the Louisiana Housing Act. The legislation grew out of a movement to provide decent housing to “Negroes” whose “crowded and unsanitary” “slums” were blamed for the “social ills” of “this race of people,” according to a 1962 Housing Authority of New Orleans annual report. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously referred to this type of thinking, which proposed that architecture alone can solve social problems, as “the doctrine of salvation by bricks.” In 1938, New Orleans was the first city to spend its millions in federal housing funds. The city cleared neighborhoods of rough-hewn houses and built six stately brick projects, two white-only and four black-only.
Fast forward to the 1990s. Public housing across the country was in disrepair following decades of disinvestment. In New Orleans, the projects and the city's astronomical murder rate were the subject of grim Times articles with headlines like “Children Strike Fear Into Grown-Up Hearts” and “As Urban Blight Worsens, Victims Find Their Isolation Is Deepening.” The bricks of public housing alone couldn't stop the decline of the city's port, the erosion of its tax base, the mass lead poisoning of its poor children, or the utter failure of its education system, which has left more than a third of the Greater New Orleans population reading below a fifth-grade level.
But the projects could still house people. In the article from last weekend, the Times describes the St. Bernard complex as “being ruined by floodwater,” but that is an egregious oversimplification. After the federal levees crumbled under the weight of Katrina's storm surge, the projects came out in better shape than much of the city.
Built out of brick — whereas most of the city's housing is one- and two-story wooden structures, often on cinderblocks —the projects flooded to varying degrees, but the four largest developments sustained little structural damage. The Housing Authority of New Orleans itself determined that rehabbing the existing 1,330-apartment St. Bernard complex would cost $41 million, plus another $90 million to substantially improve it. At the time of the flood, 400 of the development’s apartments were in such disrepair that no one lived in them. Demolishing the complex and building fewer homes in its place, the Housing Authority determined, would run $197 million.
After Katrina, the projects were in better shape than much of the city.
“The big thing is that people habitually miss when they write about public housing, affordable housing, and public housing in particular, is that public housing was really towards the end designed to fail,” said Breonne DeDecker, program manager for the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a New Orleans affordable housing group. “The federal government repeatedly refused to commit the money to provide upkeep. They didn't fund social services. They set it up to justify the erasure of these communities.”
Apart from a single interview with Judith Browne Dianis, the director of the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit the Advancement Project, which sued to stop the demolitions, the Times seems to have done little here to understand the fight over the fate of public housing.
Even before the late 2007 city approval of the demolitions (mistakenly referred to by the Times as happening in 2006), as demonstrators camped out around the St. Bernard, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded a contract and $120 million in tax breaks to Atlanta-based developer Columbia Residential to tear down the St. Bernard and build a mixed-income complex called Columbia Parc in its place. The new golf course was part of Columbia's pitch, and the package came heavily backed by local developers and the Bush family, among others.
Construction of Columbia Parc ultimately cost $440 million. While it was being built, Alphonso Jackson, the housing secretary under George W. Bush, resigned under federal investigation into that and other contracts. The projects were bulldozed with former residents’ belongings still locked inside.
Columbia Parc opened in 2010, its 685 units home to just 125 of the 920 households who formerly resided in the St. Bernard projects. In all, 493 units at the new complex are now rented at below-market rates, including some to tenants with Section 8 vouchers. However, to qualify for an apartment, prospective tenants must have a job and pass a credit check and a background check. In the incarceration capital of the world, and in a city with a black male unemployment rate of 44 percent, a city where inflation has outpaced income gains since 2000, these requirements keep out all but a tiny sliver of the very poor.
“The amount of people who are back is about one-ninth of what it was before,” said Evan Casper-Futterman, a Ph.D candidate in urban planning and policy at Rutgers University and co-producer of Land of Opportunity, a documentary that focuses in part on New Orleans redevelopment schemes. “Okay, does anybody give two fucks about the other 800 [families]? No, because they're poor and undeserving, and some of them are probably not even in New Orleans.”
Other sinister forces were at work in the displacement of the city’s black residents after Katrina. Almost immediately after the storm, then-Mayor Ray Nagin appointed the city’s business leaders to the Bring New Orleans Back Commission to plan the future of the city. In January 2006, with 70 percent of the city flood-damaged and much of its population scattered around the country, the commission released what came to be known as the green dot plan, so-called because it marked some low-lying neighborhoods with green dots indicating they should be returned to nature.
The plan sparked outrage, and for good reason: the historic core of New Orleans and a few rinds of natural levee extending up and down the Mississippi River are home to the city's affluent white people. Those areas were spared, which makes practical sense, because they’re above sea level. However, a confluence of factors including red-lining, white flight, and overtly racist housing covenants shunted much of the city's black population into housing built in the last century on drained swamp, which meant that around 80 percent of those people who would be barred from rebuilding under the green dot plan were black.
“I think we have a clean sheet to start again,” developer and commission leader Joseph Canizaro said at the time. “And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities.”
Not brought in for the dot treatment was Lakeview, a neighborhood that, at five to eight feet below sea level, flooded catastrophically when the levees broke. Lakeview also happens to be overwhelmingly white and wealthy.
The green dot plan ultimately failed, but if its aim was, as Juakali asserts, "ethnic cleansing," the commission still got its way to a large degree.
There are 111,000 or so fewer people in New Orleans today than there were in 2000. One hundred thousand of those who never returned are black. Thousands of them are former public housing residents.
So what does this all this have to do with golf? According to the Times, in Atlanta, the combination of razing public housing and building the East Lake Golf Club changed everything. To wit, as the article reads: “Proceeds from hosting the [PGA] Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club are funneled back to the foundation for community programs. The effect on the neighborhood can be measured in a drastic reduction in crime, high employment rates, and improved academic scores and high school graduation rates.”
Gary Solomon, a venture capitalist, cofounded the Bayou District Foundation with other bankers and developers to replicate this sales pitch in New Orleans, with the foundation as the shepherd of Columbia Parc and the new golf course. In Land of Opportunity, he explained the connection between golf and public housing. He started by explaining what he had seen in Atlanta following the demolition of a project he called “Little Vietnam” (and not, presumably, because of its large Southeast Asian population):
Golf is an interesting sport in that it teaches you discipline, it teaches you honesty. It teaches you manners. And so it's a very etiquette type sport. And it's a sport that's open to very few under-privileged, um, economic, um, hardship people.
He continued, “So it opened up this amazing relationship between the very, very wealthy whites” — he leveled one hand above his head to illustrate their status — ”and the very, very poor blacks” — he leveled the other hand way down low, then caught himself — ”And poor Hispanics, and, whatever — white” (hand high) ”poor” (hand low).
The new golf course charges $89 to play in a city where the median income is $37,000.
Gerard Brousse, Solomon’s partner at the foundation, explained a little further what golf programs can do for economic hardship people, saying that after golf, “What you see is not only somebody that's learned a sport and skill, but learned life skills and learned how to treat people with far more deference, in a far more dignified manner.” (The Bayou District Foundation didn't return a call seeking comment for this article.)
The golf course opened last month. Like the nearby housing development, it was built over the objections of protesters, this time upset about the loss of a swath of park that, in the decade after Katrina, had become an inviting wilderness. The reporter on the Times story, golf writer Adam Schupak, dutifully mentions this, but omits the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers fined the state $20,000 for illegally destroying over an acre of wetlands during golf course construction.
The existence of three other working golf courses in the city of New Orleans, including one directly next to the new one, did not merit a mention from the Times. Nor did the fact that the new golf course charges $89 to play in a city where the median income is $37,000.
The new facility is supposed to generate $500,000 a year to be contributed to a Bayou District Foundation-run head start program and golf programs for kids, some of them poor, among other unspecified “community programs.” The course's actual reason for existing is the other $800,000 it's projected to bring in annually.
In reality, City Park's golf course has about as much impact on the day-to-day lives of people living in Columbia Parc as Central Park's boathouse does to residents of a random apartment complex on the Upper East Side. Less, even: Columbia Parc is about a mile away from the golf course; getting there requires crossing a bridge over a bayou; and people in New Orleans's spread-out neighborhoods don't walk much.
“There is absolutely no connection at all between that golf course and the redevelopment of what they choose to call Columbia Parc,” Juakali said. “If any resources that's coming from the golf course have been used to impact the life of any resident that was also the resident of the St. Bernard public housing development, then they need to come up with a name and a definite person that they've helped.”
Since Columbia Parc opened, it has made headlines for its opposition to a second-line parade held by neighborhood residents, including some former St. Bernard residents, along a route that includes the streets of the former project. Ahead of an annual parade last year, lawyers for Columbia Residential sent a letter to the second-line’s social aid and pleasure club organizers threatening to “to hold your organization liable for any and all property and other damages.” The letter followed an aborted attempt to get the police to block the parade entirely from streets through the development.
Reporter Katy Reckdahl, who covered the second-line controversy and used to cover poverty issues for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, said that had Schupak dug deeper, he would have found that Columbia Parc had the lowest rate of return as of 2010 of original public housing residents of the redeveloped projects, and was the last to hire a social services provider.
The salvation-by-fairway storyline used by the Times may sound nice, but it's fiction. A new golf course can't be inextricably tied to improving the fate of a neighborhood's poor people if almost all of the poor people from the neighborhood are gone.
“I've been in contact with people from the St. Bernard,” Juakali said. “They're still poor, broke, and miserable. They're just poor broke and miserable somewhere else.”