Desire Neighborhood

Federal concertina wire.
Federal concertina wire.

I generally return to the scene of the crime. Mostly just to see what happened since I was there.

There are two things to know.

First, the only thing that has changed in about six months is the graffiti. Oh, and it’s winter. Not summer. Second, normally the phrase “return to the scene of the crime,” is just a little saying. Not this time. If you dig into the Storyteller archives, or just go to  you can read my original reporting. The story is long and complicated. It involves the Federal government not following through or making good on the rules that govern an EPA Superfund site.

Yes. This place is horribly polluted. It’s the results of years of The City of New Orleans dumping garbage there, and then building a neighborhood and housing projects over it without really cleaning anything. We are talking about serious toxins. Junk from the late 1800s and most of the first 50 years of the next century that has been percolating underground and just waiting to surface.

Many people were forced to move. Or, were given just enough money to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, but not enough money to make them whole if they bought property anywhere else in the city. Many had no choice but to stay on this land. The housing projects were even worse. By the time they were finally completed, he were already sinking into the ground because they were built without pilings or sub-floors. Black, gooey stuff seeped right into people’s living rooms. Dining rooms. Kitchens.

There are two end results. So far.

Every time a big storm blows through and dumps a lot of rain out there, black tarry, oily stuff comes bubbling out of the ground because the land was only scraped a few inches and then just covered with a thin layer of dirt. The second is less physically apparent. At least immediately. It emerges after a few years. It’s Cancer. Yep, the neighborhood has a very high incidence of various forms of Cancer. The link from the former junkyard site to resident’s illnesses has been established.

I took a friend of mine, who happens to be a very good photojournalist, on the usual “Ray’s Tour of Hell.” You know the one. The one where I show my visitor the really abandoned and ruined side of the city. I only take people who are interested in this sort of stuff because not everybody wants to see it. They come to New Orleans for other, more happy, reasons. Like music. Food. Festivals. Beer.


I think I scared him when we were there. I always feel creepy when I visit this neighborhood, or what remains of it. He seemed really spooked. I think it got confusing. Look at the brightness of the light. Listen to the story. It’s incongruous. It doesn’t make sense.

He suggested that I do a kind of art project in this place. He thinks I should interview the remaining people and just let their words, combined with my pictures, tell the story. He thinks that their words would be powerful if I just used giant quote blocks. Like a long caption.

I don’t know.

I’m not so big on long form projects. And, I need a real target… somebody who will actually publish my work in a place that a big audience can see it. Then it matters. Then it’s not a vanity project. It could actually help somebody.

Or, not.

It seems, these days, that there is so much noise that you can’t hear the signal.



  1. This would be really excellent as a project, BTW. I think about doing things like this around Boston all the time. I don’t know what might be done to encourage you to follow through with it.

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