Loss and Displacement at the Calliope

Jennifer Vitry and Jordan Flaherty
Date Published: 
January 12, 2006

Rebecca G. Brown has lived at 3317 Erato in the BW Cooper Public Housing Complex for 24 years. According to her neighbor, Dorris Johnson Frohm of 3316 Erato, she has “the loveliest house on the block, and always welcomes ya in.”

Last week, Ms. Brown stood in her doorway crying. Her home was destroyed -- not by flooding or wind damage, but by theft. Two beautiful mirrors that hung in her stairwell are gone. The computer that her son uses for college work is gone. Her TV and two DVD players are also gone, along with most of her pictures and valuables.

Nearby, Yasmond Perry, 13, and his 12-year-old brother Deseon, stood outside of their home at 3201 Erato, waiting for their mother, Josephine. “We haven’t been inside yet,” she says. “I’m kind of scared. Everyone’s been calling me saying that they are taking all of our stuff -- furniture and all. We were only here once right after the storm -- but I’m hearing people have been in here since.”


“Oh my God, they took everything!” The boys stare in shock. Surveying her home, Josephine goes down the long list of furniture items that is missing from their home - sofa, loveseat, television, table, and chairs -- all gone.


“How did they have time to take all this,” exclaims Josephine, who had been home a few weeks after the storm to check on her house. “It was fine really then. Not much different than I’d left it.”


During that visit, her son Yasmond “was standing on the porch and the National Guard pulled up within 5 minutes pointing guns at him.” She ran outside and showed the military proof that she lived there. “So, if they are here in minutes pulling a gun on my boy, how do people have the time to unload whole households without any notice? And, it’s not just me, it’s my whole block!” Upstairs, the rooms were turned upside down, with drawers and boxes emptied. In shock, the boys each grabbed two things and walked downstairs. “This is all I need I guess,” said Deseon with a grim look, “everything else is messed up.”


The B.W. Cooper Housing Development -- popularly known as the Calliope projects -- was home to 1,400 African American working-class households in 1,546 units on 56 acres of land. It is the third largest housing development in Louisiana and the largest tenant-managed housing development in the country. Most of the complex was not damaged in Hurricane Katrina or the subsequent flooding.


After Hurricane Katrina, residents were scattered throughout the United States, including many in shelters and motels here in Louisiana. Although most of these dispersed residents ache to return to their communities, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) posted a general notice in the projects informing residents that they may not move back, and some Cooper tenants report receiving notice that they have to clear out their possessions.


HANO has also hired a Las Vegas company named Access Denied to install 16-gauge steel plates over windows and doors at B.W. Cooper and other city projects, including the Lafitte projects in the Treme neighborhood. One housing activist remarked, "they finally invested money in the projects, and it’s to keep residents out."


In previous interviews with the Times-Picayune and other media, HANO spokespeople expressed concerns about “looting,” “troublemakers” and “squatters.” Although its true that there appears to have been massive theft from homes in these projects, in a recent visit to at least twenty homes that been broken into, most had their locks intact -- the apartments had been broken into by someone with keys and access. In several interviews, residents placed the robberies as having occurred within the last few weeks -- long after Mayor Nagin began urging people to return to the city, and weeks after the National Guard had finished breaking into homes to check for bodies.


More than four months after Katrina, public housing tenants are still facing displacement and victimization. Grassroots groups such as NOHEAT (New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team) and advocates such as the Loyola Law Clinic and grassroots Legal Network are calling for justice for public housing tenants, but for many residents, the city seems to be sending them a louder message -- “stay out.”


This fight is nothing new. For years, developers have coveted the city’s public housing projects, many of which occupy prime real estate. New Orleans real estate mogul Pres Kabacoff, who currently sits on Mayor Nagin’s rebuilding Commission, transformed the St. Thomas projects into condos and a WalMart. Kabacoff has made clear his designs on the Iberville housing projects, which occupy prime real estate near the French Quarter.


Now, more than ever, housing is the front lines of the battle for New Orleans, every day’s headlines are full of bulldozers vs. injunctions, and evictions vs. restraining orders -- words and phrases that have come to shape the daily struggle over what -- New Orleans will become.


Yasmond and Deseon desperately want to return to New Orleans. “The kids in Houston don’t like us. They treat us funny. I just want to come home.” Josephine had a meeting at her previous job. “They are offering us something to come back. I’d be happy to come back. I just don’t have nowhere to live.” Josephine is a cook, and before the storm worked at two jobs. “I don’t mind working, as long as the kids have a solid home.”


Josephine said she spoke with a woman identified as Ruth Hayes, assistant manager at the Calliope project office. “She told me to get my stuff out by December 31st or it would be thrown into the dumpster. Then, she said the deadline was pushed back two weeks.” Josephine cannot move her or her son’s possessions, as she has nowhere to store them. The boys don’t want all of their toys and books thrown away. “We don’t get a say I guess,” says Deseon.


Many of the residents and occupants of B. W. Cooper stayed during the storm. Rebecca Brown ended up at the Superdome for 5 days without food or water. “Oh, don’t even ask me about those days,” said Brown, “I am trying everything to forget them—it was so painful to watch people suffer and die.”


Five days later, Brown boarded a bus for Fort Worth, Texas. She and her family made their way to Arlington, Texas. From there they headed to Atlanta, Georgia. And, finally, landed in Houston, Texas.


While Brown was away, her daughter, Tanya Glover, returned about 2 weeks post-Katrina to check on her mothers’ home. She noticed the National Guard’s spray painted message, “0 dead—0 animals” outside. Her mother’s door was unlocked, but nothing had been stolen. She called her mother and reported the lack of any water damage, and that her valuables were intact. Tanya locked the house and left. Weeks later, Brown returned to the house to find the front and back doors again open. This time, her son’s computer was missing. She also noticed “a pair or two of Leon’s jeans missing,” but that was it. The house was not in disarray. She locked the front door and boarded up the back door before she left.


A week later, Brown received a call from her neighbor, Sylvia Hall, informing her that her door was open, and the house had been ransacked. “Someone stole my mirrors on the wall, went through my jewelry, dumped every drawer out, stole my kids computer and many other things. The storm did not hurt my house, someone with a key destroyed it.”


Brown also reports being told by HANO that she had to have her property out of her dwelling by December 31st, or “it would be thrown away,” and if she came back to her property after December 31st, she would be arrested for trespassing. Brown phoned HANO last week to let them know she had reserved a storage unit. They informed her, according to Brown, that she had an additional 2 weeks “because of the holidays” within which to “get everything out.”


Brown worries about many elderly residents who have no way of getting around. “Everything they have in the world is in that apartment. And, ‘cause of the storm -- they are in some other state, unable to get back.”


Reached by phone today, Ruth Hayes, an assistant manager at BW Cooper, confirmed, “we are experiencing a high volume of burglary. People are coming home and what they expected to be there is not there,” she said. However, Hayes had no other information on the robberies. “The crimes that were reported here reported their doors broken down,” she said.


As to whether and when people would be allowed back in, she had no information. “There is no policy at this time,” on when people may return. “There is no timeline,” on when a decision would be made. In addition, she said, "there is no plan, currently" to throw out peoples possessions. She did say that tomorrow HANO and BW Cooper management would be meeting, and its “possible” a decision on when or if people can move back could come out of that meeting.


Dorris Johnson of 3316 Erato was also busy sifting through her wrecked home.


“They trashed my house -- look at this. The storm didn’t do this!”


Last week is the first chance Johnson had to return to New Orleans. “I called HANO to find out what was going on. They told me to get my stuff out or it was going in the dumpster. Good thing I have a good son who could bring me all the way here.” Johnson wants her house back. “There’s nothing wrong with these houses. We could all be back living here.” Johnson’s house, like every other apartment on the river side of Galvez, did not get water. Only half of the development, located on the far side of Galvez Street -- commonly called “back-a-town” -- flooded on the first floor.


Johnson estimates approximately 2000 people lived on the dry side of the complex. “That’s 2000 people that could have housing tomorrow,” she said. Johnson and her son sifted through their apartment in search of pictures and memorabilia. “This is what I came for,” holding up a picture of her granddaughter’s graduation picture. “It was clean around here,” motioning to her area. “No kids sat on these steps. This was a family area. No drugs around here.” Johnson is saddened by the disregard and neglect of her neighborhood, and community. She is outraged by those that trashed her apartment: “I know that I come into this world with nothing and leave with nothing -- but let me decide what I get to keep in the meantime. I worked hard for those few things.”


In interviews conducted while walking through the neighborhood, family after family reported similar, heartbreaking, stories. Barbara Trymore and Caroline Clark, also Cooper residents, were told to get their items out of their homes before mid-January or it will be in the trash. They were told if they step foot on the project grounds to get their things after that date, they will be arrested for trespassing.


Despite the struggle they’ve been through, Trymore, Clark, and Brown all want to return to New Orleans -- if only they had a place to live.


We may never find out who broke into all of these homes in the Calliope. However, one thing is certain: if residents had been allowed to return, this massive theft would not have happened. Calliope is by no means a dream home, but it did offer a community for many people, and community brought a kind of security and comfort that is now notably absent from the city.


New Orleans, now more than ever, is a city with different laws for rich and poor, and for Black and white. We are supposed to accept that because people are poor, because they live in public housing, they have less right to return, less say over their housing decisions, than other people in the city. Somehow, it becomes ok for HANO, or the mayor, or the federal government, to make decisions, “for their own good.”


In a recent interview, Denny LeBoeuf, Director of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana notes, “these people have the right of return. This humanitarian principle is good for our NOLA folks as well as for Rwanda refugees. After the war, and the air clears, people have the right to return to their home. Poor people of color occupy 100% of the Calliope and other dwellings where return has been refused. These folks make our culture what it is -- whether thru music, or food, or other venues -- they connect us to this authentic thriving culture. They are the unbroken line of history to the 1800s.”


Ms. Trymore stares at her wall. She is missing her framed picture of Rosa Parks. “We saved to get that picture, ya know,” says Trymore. “It cost like $200. We didn’t have that kind-of money. But, we admire that woman, ya know. Now it’s gone. Who would steal that?”


Jennifer Vitry is a defense fact investigator for homicide cases and a death penalty abolitionist. She teaches forensics, and formerly worked with Sister Helen Prejean and the Moratorium Campaign. Jordan Flaherty is a union organizer and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. Jordan’s previous articles from New Orleans are at  www.leftturn.org/articles/SpecialCollections/katrina.aspx.