Following the passage of the United States Housing Act of 1937 (the Wagner Bill) low-rent public housing developments started being constructed in New Orleans. Originally, the Florida Development was to be occupied by wartime laborers, and ran by the federal government.
That never happened as the project was not completed before WWII ended. It would be 1946 before the Florida Development’s initial phase was finished.
The 18.5 acre site saw 47 two and three story brick apartment buildings built out containing a total of 500 units. In 1953, 234 units were added. When you mention the development to long-time New Orleanians people just shake their head. The area was known to be one of the most rough and tumble in the entire city.
Then Betsy came. On Sept. 9, 1965, the storm roared into the 9th Ward breaking the levees. Some 57 New Orleanians lost their lives and the Florida neighborhood was soon under six feet of water.
A ragtag renovation began and would not be (partially) completed until 2004.
Katrina came calling in 2005.
The Florida area was decimated and soon returned to its roots as a cypress swamp with few structures left standing. Dianne Conerly, a resident of the neighborhood and community activist fought like a tiger for nearly a decade before ground was broken on a 51 unit re-development in 2013.
That’s a far cry from the 700+ units that once held sway over the area.
Today the Florida neighborhood is still slowly recovering. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board are spending $280 million on widening the Florida Avenue Canal that represents the northern boundary of the district.
A few months ago a teenager came hammering through our neighborhood in a stolen SUV with a half a dozen cop cars in hot pursuit. He crashed into a telephone pole and took it on the lam. I doubt he realized how big the canal was when he leaped off the lip. Upon landing he was easy bait for the law and they quickly apprehended him.
A broken leg will do that to a man.
Occasionally a body is found floating in the same canal.
Rolling gun battles are less frequent now than they were in years past.
Improvements are being made.
Today Florida Avenue is one of the most impressive streets in all of New Orleans. At 438 feet in width it’s the widest dedicated street in the city.
But it will take many more millions of dollars and deepened community activism to shape the Florida neighborhood into something more than merely being the home of a grand roadway.
Give it another 50 years or so, things move slowly in the swamps of southeast Louisiana.