Abundance, Benefit, Humanity, and Pleasure streets crosscut Gordon Plaza with surgical irony. Developed in the late 1970s as lower-to-middle income housing for Black New Orleanians, Gordon Plaza sold the abundance of the American Dream. Tucked away behind the Desire housing projects and bounded by Almonaster and Florida avenues and Higgins Boulevard, it promised to be an oasis in the Ninth Ward: single family housing—owned and not leased. But the benefit, like so many others promised to Black New Orleanians, was a chimera—Gordon Plaza was built on toxic soil.
The Agriculture Street landfill operated from 1909 until its closure in 1957; it is the site Gordon Plaza was built on. The landfill had been a repository for the city’s waste, including medical waste. Underground fires burned there for years, earning it the name “Dante’s Inferno.” Powerful pesticides were also sprayed at the site to kill the rampant rats and flies. The City would have been hard pressed to find a more toxic site to build on. But with federal funding, the City-planned housing moved forward. By 1981, the first homeowners moved into the new development, and by 1987 the Moton Elementary School had opened in Gordon Plaza. Then the cancer came, and the inexplicable illnesses. Children began to show signs of lead poisoning and gastrointestinal disorders, while others developed cancer and respiratory diseases. By 1994 the EPA had declared Gordon Plaza a Superfund site. The agency’s response was to try to remediate the soil by removing the top layer and adding a barrier and clean fill. At no point was it suggested that the residents should be relocated, reimbursed, and Gordon Plaza demolished.
So residents took matters into their own hands and have been fighting for a fully-funded relocation ever since. Earlier this year, the EPA announced that it would not help fund a relocation for the residents, leaving it up to the City to act. On June 23, the City finally approved a $35 million payout to relocate the residents, but as of yet the money has not been allocated to the residents, with disputes over the proper appraisal process being cited.
One of the leaders in this fight against environmental racism and for justice for the residents of Gordon Plaza is Jesse Perkins, who has called Gordon Plaza home for over three decades. In our conversation, he discusses the past and present of Gordon Plaza, as well as the future of a fully realized and funded relocation for its residents.
How long have you been a resident of Gordon Plaza?
I moved into Gordon Plaza May of 1988, so, approximately 34 years.
Did you grow up in the Ninth Ward?
Grew up in the Ninth Ward, lived in the Ninth Ward my entire life, except for leaving and going on some military duty and whatnot. Other than that, I’m a lifelong member of New Orleans and a lifelong member of the Ninth Ward. I grew up in the Desire Projects, approximately seven to eight blocks away from where I currently reside.
You went to Carver?
I went to George Washington Carver Middle School, George Washington Carver High School.
So you’re a Ram all the way.
I am a mighty Ram for life. Yes.
When they designed Gordon Plaza, what did they try to sell it as?
Affordable, low-income housing for primarily Black people… you know, homeownership. Always a step up. It’s the so-called American dream, [but] our American dream actually turned out to be a nightmare.
And how soon after you got into Gordon Plaza did you know something was wrong?
I want to say in and around 1990, maybe? There was a guy by the name of Pat Bryant, that was associated with GTO, the Gulf Coast Tenants Organization, and I remember very clearly, he came into the neighborhood and they brought awareness that, “Hey, you know, y’all live on top of toxic soil.”
What was the first sign that you saw that something was really wrong? Because I’m sure they told y’all that they remediated the land.
Well, from firsthand knowledge. I’m retired from the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board. I worked there from 1981 to 2016. Started out a laborer, retired as a project manager, a zone manager. I periodically went into the neighborhood with my crews and we made repairs there. Upon excavations, we found stuff that was not found in most neighborhoods. Actually, no other neighborhood that we ever went into: broken glass, car tires, car fenders. The soil in some spots was reddish looking, like, had a red look, tint to it. It was just not normal fill for a residential neighborhood.
Did you see any kind of toxic marked things?
No. No indication whatsoever.
Gordon Plaza’s one of the most cancerous areas in the whole state. How many people do you know directly that passed away due to living on that soil?
OK, before I give that, I want to just state for the record that, according to the cancer registry or the tumor registry of Louisiana, Gordon Plaza and the Desire neighborhood is the second-highest cancer-causing neighborhood in the entire state of Louisiana. How many people have died, possibly, due to the carcinogens or the cancer-causing agents that lie beneath us? Too many for me to count, but I do know many that I could actually name. I’ll name a few if you don’t mind.
Mr. Robert Anderson died approximately two-and-a-half years ago. About five houses down from Mr. Robert Anderson, Miss Lilly, she had multiple cancers and she succumbed to it. Right behind me a year-and-a-half ago, Tammy McCormick died of breast cancer. Mr. Sam’s wife, she died of cancer, multiple myeloma. The house next door to her, young lady by the last name Lewis, she was the first to die. She was 16 years old, many, many years ago, probably over 30 years ago. On the other end of that block, he was a Vietnam veteran, he died about nine months ago, colon cancer. Three people on one block. But there are so many to name, I don’t want to try to name them all.
Gordon Plaza’s kind of a textbook example of what we’d call environmental racism, would you agree with that?
100%. Yes. The consensus amongst the residents in Gordon Plaza is that if there were one white person living there, we wouldn’t be going through this right now. Today it would be resolved.
Recently, the City Council finally allocated $35 million for relocation. But it has not been disbursed yet. What’s the holdup?
OK, right now, what’s going on is: June 23, the City Council voted unanimously to allocate the funds. The administration chose Liberty Bank, you know, as the holder of the funds and it’s been sitting in Liberty Bank for some time now waiting to be distributed. What’s the holdup is the City’s unwillingness to do a proper appraisal as far as the residents of Gordon Plaza is concerned. The mayor even announced during the meeting with her that if we accepted what they were trying to lowball us with, that she could distribute the money as early as next week.
What kind of offer did the City make you? And is it the Council or the mayor’s office that’s causing the pushback?
Actually, it’s the mayor and the administration. They want us to take half of what we fought to have allocated, which is $510,000 per household.
And there are 60 households?
There are approximately 65 now. When the neighborhood was initially built, there were 67 homes. There are two homes that were demo’ed and they’re on my block. I live on Benefit Street, the 2900 block, so that makes it 65 homes with 55 of those homes actually being occupied. Ten are uninhabited, or vacant.
And at one point, you had the Moton School there; you had a whole community there. And now, it looks almost like you’re living in a demilitarized zone the way they have it back there.
How are your City services back there compared to the rest of the city?
I would probably say we suffer, probably at the hands of the City, in regards to grass cutting. They didn’t even cut the grass at some point in time, OK? We had to fight fiercely to even get them to demo the old Press Park townhomes, OK? And then, when they did, it was just slabs left there, overgrown grass, and then the City decided at some point—they had [an] ulterior motive—and they decided to start cutting the grass, but it literally looked like we were just abandoned back there. So we don’t get the same services, I don’t believe, as the rest of the city.
Do you think the City has a plan for the land and that’s why they want to buy you out cheap?
They want to do a solar farm and I think that’s the reason why they began to cut the grass.
So what was it they offered y’all for each house?
They wanted us to take around maybe half of $510,000; around $245,000 to $248,000 is my understanding of it.
Given the gentrification and the rising housing prices in New Orleans, that wouldn’t even allow most residents to relocate within the city, is that correct?
Absolutely not, with the cost of housing going up astronomically it would leave people in a hardship, OK? It would leave people worse off than what they are now. And people would probably ask, “What you mean, worse off?” Well, first of all, it wouldn’t make people whole. People’s homes are paid for, for the most part. Most people’s homes are paid for and people want to move on into healthy homes of their choice. In order to move into healthy homes of their choice, we have to be compensated appropriately in order to do so.
Has the City reached out with anything to help the physical and mental health of the residents?
Not once ever that I know of. No one has ever reached out to anyone in my community in regards to mental health. No.
Because I know at one point at Desire and Florida they had—I believe it was a crisis center, a mental outreach center—over in that neighborhood and that’s long gone.
Long gone since before, I want to say, Katrina? Yeah.
So you served your country but your city and your country hasn’t served you. How does that leave you feeling?
Absolutely horrible. There’s a few of us: There’s Mr. Clarence who served during the Korean conflict; there’s Mr. Glenn Anderson, a Vietnam veteran; Lionel Youngblood, a retired Navy guy, went in during the Vietnam era. Quite a few… Mr. Floyd. Quite a few veterans back there who went on to serve their country, you know, to give everyone the freedoms that they have, and this is the payback that they get—or we get—for serving our country.
Unless you’re kind of in the Ninth Ward area, I don’t think a lot of people really know even where Gordon Plaza is. You feel forgotten about sometimes?
Absolutely, yes. That we are in the heart of the city and in the midst of this storm, and all of these folks that go throughout their daily lives don’t have a clue what Gordon Plaza is or where it’s at. So yes, it makes us feel like, hey, we are all out there alone, at times.
This City Council seems to have been more proactive than past City Councils in trying to work with you; is that a fair assessment?
Well, I’ll say yeah, but we also have to acknowledge that the previous Council was the ones with the president of the Council, Helena Moreno, actually getting the line item in the capital improvement budget for the $35 million to actually initiate this all, so I have to acknowledge that. But yeah, in addition to that, yes, this Council has really, really, really been in favor of getting this thing moved along for the residents. So yes, they are definitely in our corner.
But even with that being said, y’all have had some problems with City Council meetings, right? Where they’ve been a little hostile towards you as a group? Or, I think I read this, there’s been some people removed from City Council meetings because they feel like the Gordon Plaza residents aren’t acting respectfully. Is that something that happened?
Now, we have had our disagreements, the residents and the Council. I mean, we’re on the battlefield. We don’t expect everything to go picture perfect, you know? It’s a process. However, I don’t know who it was that… [called] the police on the residents. The first time, the lights were turned out on us and we were sitting in the chambers, and when we walked out into the lobby of City Hall there were 12 cops out there staring us down like we’d committed a crime. We go outside City Hall to meet with reporters, they’re all coming in from behind bushes…
The second incident that occurred was we were in the chamber, and there was some hostility in there, but it wasn’t actually due to the residents. There was a guy that was exercising his constitutional rights that got up and spoke, and the residents backed him up on some of the things that he was saying… After this occurred, we see police in bulletproof vests standing behind us. Oliver Thomas, councilmember from District E called them up: “Hey, you know, we don’t need security in here, let me talk to you all,” and they left. Well, I was called by someone a few minutes later in the rear of the chambers [who] said, “Hey, there’s like a hundred police officers out behind City Hall…” They said that the residents incited a riot, and that there was a dead body in the chambers, OK?
Now, who was so irresponsible to do this, I don’t know, and really at this point, I don’t really care… But the people who called had to be someone associated with the administration, someone associated with City Hall in some way, form, or fashion and no one decided to do due diligence to find out if this was true. First of all, this thing is live-streamed; second of all, there are chief of staffs there to every councilmember, OK? There’s councilmembers in there, there are police on duty in there… nobody decided to check to see if this was even true? They send the troops at us like, you know, a bunch of Black people in there turning things upside down… That was horrible.
It’s kind of ironic because if you actually call the police and you need them to come to your community to help with something, they would never show.
Actually, I made that statement in the chamber. I said, when there’s an emergency, you can’t even get a cop out until the next day. But yet, there’s a bunch of Black people in there, veterans, disabled people, handicapped people standing on crutches, people on scooters, sick people, cancer survivors, the elderly and infirm people—and this is who you call the cops on? Shame on you, City of New Orleans. It’s disheartening, it’s heartbreaking what they did to us.
So, I know that there’s got to be some optimism mixed in with some pessimism. How do you feel about where you are in the process right now?
The optimism is that first of all the residents of Gordon Plaza is solid. They’re standing in solidarity with one another and they’re not backing down. We’re not retreating. So that’s the part that gives us the optimism. A little pessimism is the City’s unwillingness to move this thing along like it should be moved along and just go ahead and use the correct methodology.
Let’s talk about that for a second. You all had your own appraisal done with Tulane, is that right?
What Tulane did was they did a technical analysis report. And what we came up with resulted in each household getting the $510,000.
And the City wants to use their appraisal.
The City wants to use fair market value, which may be fair to someone else, but it’s not fair to us… What the mayor and the City are saying is that the process that we are telling them that they should use is illegal, OK? What they’re saying is that they have to follow the law by using appraisals, and we understand that you have to follow the law by using appraisals. We don’t have a problem with the word “appraisal.” What we have a problem with is the way that they’re trying to use the word, the appraisal, OK? In this case, they want to use fair market value, which will again devalue property and use discriminatory practices against us. What we’re saying to the City is that there are three different types of appraisals and the appraisal that fits our situation is the cost approach analysis or appraisal, which is in line with replacement cost. That is the key point here.
And as far as legality goes, the City didn’t seem to care that much when they built a development on top of a toxic landfill.
Absolutely, I am glad you made that point. OK, when they developed the neighborhood, the law went out the window. They broke the law when they put us on this toxic soil, now all of a sudden you’re concerned about the law and staying within the confines of the law? When we’re telling you, you’re not breaking the law, you use an appraisal that will actually fall in line with Tulane’s analysis, alright? The technical report.
And they suggested the fair market value approach which undervalues your property by about $250,000?
According to the technical analysis report from Tulane, yes.
How do you gauge fair market value if it’s a house you can’t ethically resell?
Exactly. OK, first of all, fair market value also will devalue our property and use discriminatory practices in the process, which will do us great harm. So we say no to fair market value, it is not the process, it’s not the appraisal that the City should be even entertaining at this point.
It seems like the $35 million would be enough to cover 60 houses at $500,000 apiece.
Let me say this: It will. It will actually compensate each household. But keep in mind, no amount of money will really make this truly right because of what the residents have gone through: the loss of life, the loss of neighbors, the loss of our loved ones. It will never make it right. And the City of New Orleans is acting like we all are gonna walk away, riding in the sunset, wealthy people, when that’s not so.
Do you think, on a personal level, most of the residents, if they get $500,000, will stay in New Orleans? Or do you think a lot of people are ready to move on after this?
I really don’t know personally what’s on people’s minds in regards to, you know, their plans to move forward. I do know one thing though: They want to move forward and get out of this neighborhood and find a place that they can call home again, a healthy home of their choice.
Do you think you’ll see that money anytime soon?
I do. I do. Yes I do. A resounding “Yes.”
For more info, including the history of Gordon Plaza and updates, go to gordonplaza.com.
Transcription by Michelle Pierce