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Unoccupied homes primed for art project -- for now

To listen to Laine Kaplan-Levenson's interview with Karen Gadbois on WWNO radio, click here.

Art, preservation and reconstruction are three highly visible efforts seen throughout New Orleans that remain an integral part of the city’s culture and resilience. But things don’t always go according to plan, and sometimes projects are abandoned midway. This is a story of preservation gone wrong, one group’s response, and a look toward the future. 

Hoffman Triangle houses are boarded up -- prettily, for now, thanks to United Saints and KidsmART.

Hoffman Triangle houses are boarded up -- prettily, for now, thanks to United Saints and KidsmART.

The Hoffman Triangle is a small residential enclave that sits between Broadmoor and Central City. It’s actually a triangle if you look on the map.

Karen Gadbois, a reporter and co-founder of the investigative newsroom The Lens, says the area was blighted before Hurricane Katrina, with many vacant lots spread throughout the neighborhood. She has been following an attempt  to put homes on some of those vacant lots.

Almost four years ago, 73 houses were lifted from their foundations to make way for the $1.2 billion Veterans Administration hospital. Originally slated for demolition, the city decided to move the houses in the name of preservation. A quarter of the homes were transplanted to the Hoffman Triangle. But in the process of relocation, the houses got face lifts. And not good ones.

'They took the backs off the houses, took the camelback off — no matter the actual dimension of the house, they chopped it down to meet the dimension of the truck," Gadbois says. "So, they're pretty awkwardly poised."

The homes were so badly marred in the move that no one stepped up to take responsibility for them. So, instead of vacant lots, the people already living in the Hoffman Triangle now have more blighted homes.

Panels under way at John Dibert Community School.

Panels under way at John Dibert Community School.

On a drive through the neighborhood, Karen points out a particularly devastated structure:

"This house, it didn’t have a roof for a year, so the interior collapsed," she says. "You can see all the boards are sailing off of it — it's there, but it's not there no more."

The movers claim the city hasn’t paid them, so they won’t do anything. They city claims the movers didn’t do the job properly, so it’s not a government problem. And the non-profits that were promised money to rebuild the houses are still waiting on their checks.

"So these houses are, I guess you could call them orphans really," Gadbois says. "In terms of historic preservation, I don’t think they resemble anything that you would call 'historically preserved.'"

But they do now resemble a large-scale art installation. That’s thanks to the United Saints Recovery Project, a nonprofit that works in various communities throughout the city, maintaining vacant lots and helping to restore homes.  Development director Chris Schottland was doing a scan for vacant lots when he stumbled across these orphaned homes by accident.

"I was trying to confirm the addresses of two lots, and on satellite they were empty lots, and I was scratching my head saying, 'I was just there, and there were houses on those lots.'" he says.

Expecting to collect stray tires, pick up trash and mow the tall weeds, United Saints decided to take on these unexpected, blighted homes. Schottland says that United Saints is an independent organization, so if they decide there is problem they must act on, they just go ahead and act on it.

KIPP Central students get in on the house panel project.

KIPP Central students get in on the house panel project.

From Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard you can see what they have done. United Saints teamed with another nonprofit, KidsmART, to turn these vacant, purgatorial homes into canvases for art. They painted murals on plywood boards and then installed them to cover the gaping facades or to board up the windows.

The murals are colorful. You can pick out human figures, musical instruments, abstract shapes and designs.

"Our goal was to find an area that really needed some positive activity, and this was just another piece of that puzzle," Schottland says.

Karen Gadbois discovered the murals on one of her regular visits to the neighborhood.

"It's nice," she says. Although, "[I] think it would be nicer if they were houses with people living in them."

In fact, one mural does have silhouettes of people doing things that actual residents might do if they lived in that home: cooking, dancing, sitting down. That’s Daryl Kiesow’s favorite piece. He’s United Saints’s Executive Director.

"Our goal is definitely not to have these homes remain as an art display — our goal is to secure the property for now, and the art is a way for us to lighten it up a little bit," Kiesow says. "I mean, it's right in the middle of the city — it's not out in the country or something — so put people there, have people live there. That’s the personal solution."

But the question has been raised as to whether the neighborhood is in favor of the art. United Saints’s Schottland believes the answer is yes.

"It hasn’t been vandalized, which would be our first sign that someone doesn’t like it," he says.

Gadbois appreciates the initiative, but is quick to acknowledge it as a "Band-Aid" solution.

"The answer to what’s going to happen to these houses is: Who knows?" she says. "It’s a big question mark."

In a city that faces so many uninhabitable homes and other forms of blight, it seems a shame to let these homes — which the city has already made an investment to save, go down that same path.

 Journalist Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a producer for WWNO public radio; she creates NolaVie articles as companion pieces for  some of her on-air work for  WWNO.

Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a producer at WWNO, The Moth and Listening Post and cofounder of Bring Your Own.