9th Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana

“If it were white folks back here, this would be all gone.”

In fall of 2018 I took a long walk through a neighborhood in New Orleans Upper 9th Ward called Press Park. I was just taking pictures and enjoying a Sunday afternoon stroll but when I got home and started reading about some of the streets I was walking on I found the above quote.

In an interview with Julie Dermansky some five years ago, Gordon Plaza resident Shannon Rainey was distraught. She’d been trying to relocate from the Gordon Plaza/Press Park neighborhood ever since she found out it was a Superfund site. Such a site has been determined by the feds to be rife with toxic waste and in need of serious remediation.

The neighborhood where Rainey had put down roots was established as a city dump in 1909. The Agriculture Street Landfill would run as such til 1957 when the city built its Florida Avenue incinerator. After Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965 the dump was reopened for one year to accommodate the debris rendered by the storm.

In the late 60s, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) entered into an agreement with Drexel Development Corporation to develop the former landfill. From 1969 to 1971, 237 Press Park Townhomes were constructed and residents began a “lease to own” program.

No remediation was done on the site, and HANO never informed the new residents that they were leasing to own a property constructed on a former landfill.

A decade later, the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development decided to begin construction on what would become Gordon Plaza. In a bit of a twist the bureaucrats did soil testing and required the developers to put down a layer of fresh topsoil before beginning construction.

By the end of 1980, 67 homes comprising the Gordon Plaza development were constructed. None of the new residents were informed they were going to be living on top of a former dump.

Following Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) testing in 1993, 140 toxic and hazardous materials were found in the soils of Press Park and the surrounding area.

In 1994 the neighborhood was declared a federal superfund site, meaning that chemicals present posed threats to human health.

The neighborhood went into a revolt. Imagine spending decades building equity in your home only to find out that the municipality that sold you the home had lied to you.

And your health and the health of your children was at stake.

Remediation was proposed. The residents demanded buyouts so they could move to safer neighborhoods in New Orleans. Their calls were rejected and from 2000 to 2001 $42 million dollars was spent on fresh topsoil with the proviso that residents would be responsible for future maintenance of said soil.

The churn from Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the remediation and brought with it a toxic sludge of heavy metals and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons burbling to the surface.

Next came the lawsuits.

I pored through some legal documents relevant to the affair:

“The trial court found that the city was negligent in its actions and inactions that resulted in the conversion of its own former municipal landfill into a residential area that the EPA deemed unreasonably dangerous in 1994.”

“HANO was found negligent under Civil Code Article 2317 as it existed prior to 1980.”

“On appeal, we reduced the trial court’s awards for emotional distress damages by 50% and affirmed the remainder of the judgment.

“As for the Press Park properties, the trial court averaged the appraisers‟ pre-Katrina values for each property and awarded 20%. The trial court utilized the pre-Katrina valuations because HANO has prevented the Press Park townhome owners from entering and rebuilding their property. The Press Park townhomes remain fenced off, blighted, and inaccessible.”

Residents eventually prevailed and won their lawsuits in 2006 and by 2015 some had received their moneys. The longer it takes for the payouts to arrive the more residents are falling ill and/or passing away. The cynical may suggest that the longer the city waits to pay the less it will be required to.

You can’t pay someone what you owe them if they’re in the grave.

The attorneys did quite well. $5.7 million was divvied up between Suzette Bagneris, Joe Bruno, Linda Harang, George Roux and Stephen Murray.

I spent a few hours wading through a 26 page legal document to pen this story. If you’d like to take a crack at it it can be found here.

more research

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We’re currently working on an article on Liberty Terrace, another 9th Ward neighborhood in the Press Park, Gordon Plaza area.

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