It was probably my second day in New Orleans and I decided to go visit the common ground legal clinic. I had heard they were providing free legal advice and a mini computer lab for local residents who want to get informed about their rights and perhaps how to manage property issues that have emerged after Katrina. After some nice emailing with one of the spokespeople… I figured going there would be an interesting experience.
As usual I drove around in circles, distracted every five minutes by another neighborhood of abandoned or destroyed houses. Eventually I found the legal clinic on a very lovely and typical new orleans street with the nice trees growing in the middle island that people seem to refer to as neutral territory. A large house with a dry cleaners on the ground floor, as I pulled up I could already see lots of people hanging out using their computers… I knew I had come to the right place.
Fast forward an hour or so, I’m sitting on the front porch sharing a little plastic table with a pretty young lady on her laptop, both of us typing away franticly.
At some point I strike up a conversation. She’s a law student from Seattle… as are many of the volunteers at the legal clinic. They come down in waves whenever they can, and right now it was spring break. When I asked her what tasks she was working on, she held up a stack of photocopied newspaper pages.
“You see these… they look like classified ads don’t they? These are printed in the big local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, everyday. Thing is, they’re not classified ads, they notices of properties that are considered abandoned, warning people that they will be evicted from their property if they don’t do something about it.”
I looked at the tiny print and the neverending list of properties, each one representing a life, or probably a family. Looking up at the young law student, I asked if this was legal?
“It’s the way the city is taking people’s properties. Legally they only have to publish the bulletins in an official document three times, and this newspaper counts as an official document.”
I sat there discussing this issue with her and I started thinking about how this will work: tons of families… lets say thousands upon thousands, have not returned to new orleans. Many probably can’t afford to, as their ticket was a one way ticket to some far off state, including such places as ALASKA, several people told me. In other cases they haven’t come back for a whole host of other reasons, or maybe they’re still working on getting back, or they just haven’t figured out how to handle their damaged house versus their current situation in a new state.
At the same time, it’s not likely they read the newspaper everyday. Maybe online if they’re committed enough, but even there Im not sure they’re publishing these lists of warnings. Meanwhile they might think their house, though damaged, is still there.. waiting for them, while the city publishes the warning for the third time.. poof.. goodbye house.. lean on the property.. a little more time and the city will have reclaimed countless land and they can do with it whatever they please… including selling it to the highest bidder.
Voila, a strategy to get rid of abandoned houses, poor people, and change the demographic of the city while generating some big money.
Ok I’m done speculating. Eventually she and I stopped talking and went back to typing. She reached into her bag and pulled another stack of copies. More listings.. these were from last week, I sat there wondering how many people had no idea of what was happening to their neighborhood back home.
Hopefully we will find out more about this topic in a few upcoming podcasts.