Peter Pringle's America : Bleak project named Desire

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New Orleans is several cities under one name. There is the French Quarter, with its tiny streets, fine French-style buildings and buggies and mules. Then there is greater metropolitan New Orleans, which gives the city's fine old name to the spread ing modern suburbs along the Mississippi and the coast that are like other housing developments in Ohio or the next big city down the highway. Then there is the Garden District of elegant old mansions in the Greek revival style, some occupied for generat ions by moneyed Southern families. And finally there are the Projects.

The Projects are where the other inhabitants of New Orleans live. They are mostly black and entirely poor and they survive, or try to, in public housing that is a kind of no man's land in endless ghetto warfare. Shootings have catapulted New Orleans intothe record books. In the first six months of this year, it had the highest homicide rate of any city in the United States. There were 48 deaths per 100,000 population - compared with 34 in Washington DC. New York, Los Angeles and Miami were not even in the top 10.

Homicides rose 37 per cent in the city in the first half of this year, and rapes went up by 30 per cent. About one-third of all the killings in New Orleans took place inside the Projects, and about one in five of those killers was a juvenile; the younge s t was 11. Elsewhere in the city, however, violent crime fell. Muggings for tourists' purses - the typical violent crime in the French Quarter - were actually 11 per cent fewer.

One of the Projects is called Desire, on the street made famous by Tennessee Williams. It was built in 1954, three years after the making of the film, A Streetcar Named Desire. Battered and neglected by its owners, the New Orleans Housing Authority, the

Desire soon became one of the least desirable places to live. Only the St Thomas Project was worse.

Sixty years ago, when the St Thomas Project was built, it was a series of three-storey buildings with wrought-iron Southern balconies overlooking courtyards shaded by huge oaks. Now St Thomas houses 900 black families, but many of the old houses are abandoned, and those that still operate are overwhelmed by gangs of youths who trade drugs by day and bullets by night.

A sign in the neighbourhood laundry says, "No smoking weed, No selling dope", but the drug-taking and the illegal commerce is, for many youths, the only active part of their day.

The St Thomas project has been used repeatedly by the media as the most potent symbol of the nation's troubled young. Local social workers such as Don Everard, who lives and works in the St Thomas, say the media's image is overstated. "It's bad, but not that bad."

Part of the problem for the youth of New Orleans is the tradition of corruption in Louisiana - among politicians, officials in the local government and the police. How can you redevelop buildings when corrupt politicians will not release federal government funds, and corrupt contractors keep raising the price of their contract? the social workers ask. How can black teenagers be expected to behave under the rule of law when the 1,500-member police force is always fending off scandals, mostly ove r drugs?

This year, 115 officers have been suspended and 24 fired for taking money from people they arrested, using excessive force, snorting cocaine - and even murder. This month, nine policemen were charged with accepting bribes in an FBI cocaine sting operation. One of them is accused of ordering the killing of a woman who saw him beating a teenager.

But Everard and others have been working on a solution that, as good liberals, they would not have dreamt of a few years ago. It is to sell off the project to private developers as mixed-income housing. This is not exactly Newt Gingrich's idea of handingover the nation's entire public housing to the likes of Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley, but it is going down that route.

As Everard notes with some resignation: "It's something the Republicans approve of."

The plan is to allow investors to be given a tax break for putting money into developing places like St Thomas and Desire. The level of funds required in St Thomas is $25m over five years, not a large sum for a group of fat cats from the Garden District near St Thomas where residents hire off-duty policemen to follow them home from late-night parties and check their homes for burglars before they go inside.

Giving poor families a clean home without rats and garbage on the front doorstep is obviously one way to encourage children to live more normal lives and to stop killing their schoolmates. It is worth a try.

After the Projects are renamed Trump Town or Helmsley Homes and become places where people can live as human beings, not as caged and frightened creatures, maybe then something can be done about the guns.

Then New Orleans could be known, once again, more for its jazz, its Mardi Gras and its Creole cooking than for its murder rate.