This month, eight families from the Lafitte public housing development trundled their belongings into brand-new apartments in an instant neighborhood dubbed Faubourg Lafitte, erected on the site of the demolished brick complex in the 6th Ward.
For residents, the new digs mean contemporary appliances, freshly finished ceilings and walls, state-of-the-art energy-efficient windows and doors that open onto newly cut streets that connect the development to its neighborhood.
For New Orleans, the complex's opening marks another step in a far-reaching, complicated and often contentious transformation of the housing that serves tens of thousands of the city's poor. In short, the architectural vocabulary of public housing is undergoing a meteoric metamorphosis in the Crescent City, and beyond, as the drawing-board idealism of an earlier era is erased and revised.
In the half-decade since the cataclysmic 2005 storm and flood, the Housing Authority of New Orleans' C.J. Peete, St. Bernard and Lafitte housing developments have been pulverized and hauled away to make way for eye-catching developments titled Harmony Oaks, Columbia Parc and Faubourg Lafitte respectively. Part of a fourth development, B.W. Cooper, was also demolished but nothing has reopened at the site yet.
Harmony Oaks and Columbia Parc are mixed-income complexes meant to place residents receiving public aid side-by-side with renters paying market prices. Faubourg Lafitte is a neighborhood of low-income rentals and affordable homes meant to be largely indistinguishable from the surrounding neighborhood.
Just as developers in the 1940s heralded the rows of severe raw-brick, barracks-style buildings as a remedy for the city's fire-prone slums, today developers are awash with optimism about how architectural and urban-design changes will improve residents' lives.
With varied success, the designers of all three developments have attempted to mimic 19th century New Orleans architecture. Without a doubt, the jaunty new structures that saunter along the streets in Central City, Gentilly and the 6th Ward are more individualistic than the brick buildings that once marched in lock step there.
But while some hail the transformation, others question the new faux-historical aesthetic, which they see as architecturally phony.
Style over substance
To the chagrin of many forward-thinking architects, the new developments are costumed in a nostalgic style meant to blend them with neighborhoods that took decades to develop.
"The kind of difference that's being produced now is quite false," said Scott Bernhard, a professor at Tulane School of Architecture, of Harmony Oaks. "Everyone can see that the buildings are being done all at once by one entity and given rather silly superficial differences to seem as if they're not."
The combination of 9-foot ceilings -- low by Crescent City standards -- with rails, balconies and other features meant for traditional New Orleans buildings produces a squat, disconcerting "Disney-scale" miniaturization, in Bernhard's view.
The impulse to architecturally revisit the past is a popular precept of 21st century American design, New Orleans architect Steven Bingler said. The trouble is, it may not advance architecture. And it can seem contrived.
"If some group of people decided to walk around in hoop skirts, we would probably look at them as being out of the norm," he said.
Reimagining public housing is not a new concept. The 60-year-old St. Thomas development was demolished in 2001 and replaced by River Garden in 2004 -- a faux-historical enclave anchored by a nearby Walmart store.
River Garden was one of New Orleans' first experiments with New Urbanism, a design philosophy that rejects suburban sprawl in favor of city-style compactness, pedestrian accessibility, public transportation and proximity of businesses and other services. New Urbanism seems to go hand-in-hand with the current passion for imitation traditional architecture. Just weeks after Hurricane Katrina, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff used the development to illustrate what he called "a creeping sense" that faux-historical architecture could eventually erode New Orleans' splendor.
As it happens, HRI Properties, which produced and manages River Garden, has teamed with St. Louis developer McCormack Baron Salazar, the company behind Harmony Oaks, to come up with a possible plan for redeveloping the aged Iberville, as part of a larger grant application for the new federal Choice Neighborhoods initiative complex.
But not everyone finds the River Garden architecture to be a blight. Resident Marsha Bright, who spent much of her childhood in the St. Thomas development, loves her two-story peach-colored house, with its contemporary kitchen and nice backyard. The open streets, she said, allow for more police patrols -- and thereby more safety.
Case for new public housing : Michael Willis, the San Francisco architect who helped produce the designs for the new Faubourg Lafitte development, says identical housing units, separated physically and architecturally from the surrounding city, however well-constructed, can denigrate residents.
Those structures, he said, told residents: "You should be grateful we've given you this plain but solid housing. We're not making allowances for you or your neighbor; you are beholden to this one idea of how you are to live and how you are to be."
Willis is more than an empathetic observer. He spent part of his childhood in one of the nation's greatest public-housing disappointments: the Pruitt-Igoe apartments in St. Louis. Designed by the same architect that drew up the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the 33 enormous, 10-story, slab-sided Pruitt-Igoe buildings stood as starkly as dominos in the low-rise cityscape around them.
Pruitt-Igoe was envisioned as what Willis calls "a grand vision for the underserved." Opened in 1955, the landmark was deemed unlivable, emptied of residents and imploded with dynamite by 1976. As Willis wryly pointed out, since then, "short of the Bible and Shakespeare, Pruitt-Igoe has created more Ph.D.s than anything else. ... People wanted to find out what went wrong."
In his slim but influential book "From Bauhaus to Our House," Tom Wolfe cited Pruitt-Igoe as the embodiment of the failure of modern, European-style worker housing, which he saw as inhumane.
Architectural variety and architectural integration are the keys to rebuilding successful communities, Willis said.
The uniformity of the dwellings in the old Lafitte and the common areas between them, isolated by closed streets, aimed to foster an idyllic communal lifestyle. But Willis noted that public spaces designed to belong to everyone can easily become areas that belong to no one -- leading to poor custodianship and crime.
Calling on his experience in Pruitt-Igoe, Willis said it's important not to create an artificial "everyman's land that equals no man's land."Willis said the conspicuous architectural disparity between most old-fashioned public housing developments -- including those in New Orleans -- and the surrounding neighborhoods can produce an "alien environment, like a space ship" and an unfortunate stigma.
Old-fashioned public housing provided shelter, Willis said, but "what they were also doing was creating a pathology that would show up in dysfunctional communities."
"What do poor people want?" Willis asked rhetorically. "The answer is, they want the same things you want. They want to be able to walk to schools, walk to services, connect with a green space and meet with their neighbors. So, in a way, it's back to the future. We're going back to the neighborhood patterns that have existed for hundreds of years, that make sense for people.
"It's been one of the joys of my professional career to reconnect these communities back to their cities," Willis said as he led a recent tour of Faubourg Lafitte.
Where is housing headed? By the last quarter of the 20th century, much of the nation's public housing was in a downward spiral. New Orleans' 1940s-era developments were no exception. Long before Katrina, many of the apartments in the deteriorated "Big Four" developments now in line for makeovers stood empty. The writing was on the wall for a sea change in public housing.
In the early 1990s, a new public housing philosophy took root in Washington, D.C. HUD's Hope VI initiative called for a switch to mixed-income urban communities, financed in part by private investors. Harmony Oaks, Columbia Parc and Faubourg Lafitte all reflect that philosophy to some degree. The fourth of the Big Four, B.W. Cooper, is slated to be redeveloped but is stalled financially.
The red-brick public housing in New Orleans may not have been devised with the high-density mentality of Pruitt-Igoe, but it suffered some of the same problems -- problems that Willis and other developers of the new complexes hope to mitigate by reshaping the living space and integrating it with its surroundings. "Lafitte belongs in Treme," Willis said. Identical brick buildings may fit nicely in other cities but not New Orleans.
"In a city like New Orleans," Willis said, "the thing that makes the neighborhoods unique is attention to elements that give character."He describes the array of architectural styles found in old areas such as the French Quarter as "a bouquet" and said that Crescent City variety "puts a higher value on the personhood of the resident."
Summing up the need for individuality in the Faubourg Lafitte architecture, Willis said, "Imagine if the Wild Tchoupitoulas wore the same thing. That wouldn't be much of a parade."