I was standing in line for the next teller in the bank the other day when a familiar face walked right up behind me. I turned slowly and looked at her. Yup. “You're Rose Jefferson,” I half asked and half said.
“Uh-huh.” I could tell by the way she was looking at me that she was trying to place my face somewhere back in her memory.
“I'm Darwin. I helped you clean your apartment a couple years back. We put that generator on your neighbor's porch; Sam and I changed the locks and gave you all keys, and, well damn we lost didn't we? But we put up one hell of a fight.”
Rose was a resident of the CJ Peete (a.k.a. Magnolia) housing development, one of New Orleans' big four public housing neighborhoods that was demolished in 2008. She was the strongest and most stubborn of CJ Peete's tenants that I can remember. Rose and quite a few others resisted demolition of their homes almost till the very end. They had reoccupied their apartments on several occasions and cleaned them up with help from organizers like me. I remember her telling me she raised two kids in Magnolia. I can still see the bedrooms in her apartment with their big wooden bed frames fit tightly into little comfortable rooms. Her place, right on the development's south side fronting Washington Avenue, hadn't flooded in the storm. When we came by one day in 2006 to clean mold off the walls and floors we were wiping up small patches of rot that was pretty much entirely due to the fact that the Housing Authority had locked people like Rose out of her home.
Rose asked me, “what are you up to these days?” I told her I was doing the same old stuff, trying to help public housing residents fight for affordable housing in the city. She smiled and said “okay.” I couldn't tell if she thought I were foolish or headstrong. Perhaps both. She always seemed like a hard-headed realist to me. Rose fought for her home and for her community until she saw the writing on the wall. A lot of CJ Peete's residents did. But when the City Council vote ensured demolitions, Rose and others pulled back from the demonstrations, meetings, and direct actions. Life is a struggle and people constantly measure the risks they take against their chances of success. When the game is up, it's up. People know when to take a different path and pick new battles.
I asked Rose, “are you going to get one of those new apartments their building where Peete was?”
She growled, “oh no! I'm not trying to mess with that no more.”
“You still live over there though?”
“Yeah, I'm still back in the neighborhood [Central City around Washington and La Salle] but I don't want nothing to do with that new development. They can have it.”
Rose is like a lot of public housing residents, from the Desire to St. Bernard, who have been so abused and harmed by the Housing Authority and the developers that they have given up. The authorities and redevelopment corporations promised them happy, new “mixed-income” neighborhoods, but only after being locked out of their homes for years, followed by mass demolitions, several more years of planning and reconstruction; in the end the new developments will only take on a small fraction of the former residents. Many tenants will simply not qualify for a public housing apartment in the ridiculously named new urbanist villages companies like Columbia Residential are building.
Many more like Rose so distrust the Housing Authority, the developers, and the city at large that they have given up on believing in a democratic city. They've moved on to struggle quietly against the odds, for now.
[Note: "Rose Jefferson" is not her real name. A pseudonym is being used to respect her anonymity.]