Moms and Kids Engaged in Learning/ Lafitte- 1940s
Many New Orleanians remember the days when housing projects were safe havens to visit or places to live in while growing up in this city. Life was quite different from what we’ve seen and heard about on the news media in more current times. One such place was the Lafitte Housing Project which was built in 1941 and located in the historic 6th ward.
Lafitte was said to have been, at that time, the largest and finest U.S. Housing Authority low- rent project in the South, as well as the second largest in the nation for Negroes. By Tuesday, August 19, 1941 it was completely filled with tenants. Occupying 16 city blocks, bounded by Lafitte, Orleans, North Claiborne, and Dorgenois Streets; the Lafitte had 896 units and housed approximately 3,000 tenants.
WPA Workers Laying Drainage Facilities at Lafitte-1941
Before construction began, workers leveled the entire area between North Rocheblave, North Claiborne, Orleans and Lafitte in order to make room for the new project. An editorial in the Louisiana Weekly welcomed the demolition of all these homes because of the deplorable living conditions that its tenants were forced to live under for so long.
“All the Negroes in the city, by no means, live in houses below the accepted standard. There are numerous families whose houses will compare favorably with any in the country, but there are thousands who are not so fortunate, who despite all the progress that has been made in raising the housing standards in New Orleans, find themselves the victims of bad living conditions. It is hoped that the construction of the housing projects will stimulate in the entire Negro population a desire for better homes, and unwillingness to tolerate the dingy hovels that unscrupulous landlords rent for exorbitant prices.”
In selecting applicants for living in Lafitte, the Housing Authority specifically chose (1) those that had formerly lived on the site, provided their yearly income was low enough; and (2) those living in substandard homes.
Costing over $4,000,000, the project was completed in little over twelve months. R.P. Farnsworth &Company was selected as its general contractor with the actual work being carried out by local craftsmen who have been given credit for the Lafitte structures as being considered some of the fittest in the nation.
The Lafitte was the 5th of 6 local housing projects to be built in New Orleans. The first was the Magnolia followed by St. Thomas, Calliope, Iberville and Lafitte. The final one was the St. Bernard which was completed in January of 1942. (Read: The Opening of the St. Bernard Housing Project-1942) St. Thomas and Iberville were constructed for white tenants only… while the other four (Magnolia, Calliope, Lafitte and St. Bernard) were for people of color.
The first family to lease an apartment in the Lafitte was that of Emile August. Upon entering any of the buildings, families found sunny rooms with plenty of space, bedrooms with casement windows plus wood block floors, and bathrooms equipped with tile and porcelain. Kitchens had gas stoves and electric refrigerators and each family had their own private entrance. Each apartment building had wire fencing and the structures occupied three/fourths of the land while the rest was landscaped to provide play space and family gardens. Even today, many older citizens speak of the beautiful gardens that once occupied the grounds of the Lafitte and the pride that families took in their homes.
In 1941 when the Lafitte Housing Project opened, rent varied according to income. A person making $450.00 a year paid $8.25 each month. The highest rent was $22.00 for a family earning around $1,474 per year with three children.
Many families saw life in the housing project as a means to an end. They looked forward to the day when they could save enough money to be able to buy homes of their own. Many of the early occupants had no intentions of making the Lafitte their permanent dwelling place and many middle class families in New Orleans today can attest of that fact.
(Left to Right) Mrs. Marie Paul, Mr. L.L. Hoffman, Mr. Sheldon C. Mays, Miss Daniska DuConge
The Lafitte was managed entirely by Negro personnel. Mr. L.L. Hoffman, 32 years of age was the manager. He had previously been a public school teacher at Albert Wicker Jr. High for 8 years as well as the book keeper- cashier at the Calliope Project.
Mr. Sheldon C. Mays was appointed cashier-book keeper. He came into this job from Gilbert Academy where he taught Negro and World History.
As one entered the office, you were greeted by two very efficient secretaries. They were Mrs. Marie Paul, formerly an insurance company employee; and Miss Daniska DuConge, a graduate of Xavier University who received her business training from the YMCA School of Commerce.
Mr. John Lee, a Dillard University graduate and local insurance company employee, was appointed clerk. Two maintenance men and four janitors were also on the staff to help ensure the cleanliness and maintenance of the buildings and grounds.
Gulotta’s Food Store [Click to enlarge]
The Lafitte, as expected, stimulated businesses in the area as thousands of dollars were spent by residents in and around the project. For instance, Gulotta’s Food Store at 2039 Orleans Street was the place to “make groceries.” Dominick Gulotta, the proprietor, was one of the only businessmen who did not close down once the Lafitte was erected. He simply went across the street, planned a new building, hired Negro mechanics and laborers and erected the present modern, up-to-date food store. Nearly every other business went to other sections of the city or discontinued entirely.
Corbeau’s Service Station [Click to enlarge]
Right on the corner of North Galvez and Orleans was Corbeau’s, a big discount service station, which supplied tires, batteries, radio tubes, auto and home radios, gasoline, kerosene and furnace oil.
Up through the 1950s, residents of Lafitte were supported by a network of social services from nursery schools financed by the WPA to onsite medical care, adult education programs, Boy Scout groups, and gardening clubs. But as the middle class fled to the suburbs of the 1960s, these services were gradually stripped away, transforming entire areas of the inner city into ghettos for the black underclass. By 2002, conditions had worsened. The richly landscaped gardens were gone and many of the lawns were paved over and replaced by basketball courts while huge garbage bins were scattered across decaying lots. After Hurricane Katrina, Lafitte was rat infested, boarded up and closed.
It wasn’t until 2012 that a group known as Urban Design Associates was given a Charter Award for a new housing project to develop on the old Lafitte site. It was named The New Faubourg Lafitte and would become a redevelopment of the twenty-seven acre public housing that had been closed for the past seven years. The new 812 units would provide affordable, mixed-income housing with both rentals and for-sale property. It would give an opportunity for former Lafitte residents to return to their neighborhood while welcoming new working families. Some of the main physical features of The New Faubourg Lafitte are:
(1) New housing was raised four feet off the ground and the extra height was hidden behind plants, front porches and facades. (2) Parking on site was located inside the area to avoid disrupting the street fabric. (3) Different architects designed houses with varying stylistic and typological characteristics. (4) Sidewalks and paths allow for easy and pleasant access to each unit. (5) Culturally, the houses fit in with the landscape of Old Treme neighborhoods… porches up close to the sidewalk with small front gardens. (6) Three of the original buildings were renovated and must remain with the newer structures.
Sources: Times-Picayune, 28 April 1940 p.69; Louisiana Weekly, 16 August 1941(Editorial) +p.4; Times– Picayune, 09 May 1940 p. 11; www.nytimes.com/ 2006/11/19 Week in Review; www.faubourglafitte.com/partners.html; www.cnu.org/cnu-salons/2014/06/photo-blog-new-faubourg-lafitte-new-orleans; www.nutrias.org (WPA Drainage Photographs)
Lolita V. Cherrie