Photographer Stephen Hilger has spent the past three years documenting the destruction of Lower Mid-City, a New Orleans neighborhood chosen to serve as the site of two new hospitals. The controversial project touches on many of the key issues which the city has grappled with while struggling to rebuild after Katrina: history vs. progress; cultural distinctiveness vs. economic growth; poor vs. rich; black vs. white.
When Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Charity Hospital, a massive art deco buildng which had provided health care to the majority of the city’s uninsured for decades, made national headlines as several hundred patients and healthcare workers were trapped inside for days without food, water, or electricity, with dead bodies stashed in stairwells. After the storm the facility was shuttered, leaving many city residents unsure where to turn for medical attention.
Meanwhile, Louisiana State University and the Department of Veterans Affairs had been discussing plans to build new hospitals. The groups sought support and funding for their plans on the grounds that Charity was no longer usable, arguing that two new state-of-the-art facilities would attract medical talent to the area and create jobs for city residents. Their proposals were approved, and a 70-acre section of Lower Mid-City, a residential neighborhood near the central business district, was chosen as the site for the new buildings.
A number of community activists and historic preservationists strongly disagreed with the plan. Rather than destroy a neighborhood, they claimed, the city should modernize and reuse Charity. They hired the architectural firm RMJM Hillier to conduct a full independent assessment of the existing hopsital, which was declared fit for renovation into a state-of-the-art facility. The architects also said that restoring the existing structure would be significantly cheaper and faster than building from scratch, and made the case that a functioning, centrally located Charity could play a pivotal role in revitalizing the city’s struggling downtown.
Many also found the choice of Lower Mid-City as the site for the new hospitals problematic. With a colorful history stretching back over a century, the area was in many ways classic New Orleans—a vital working-class neighborhood where New Orleans culture had been created and lived for decades, with a rich architectural, musical and artistic legacy. Hit hard by Katrina, it had seen many of its residents return to painstakingly rebuild their homes, businesses and communities.
In addition, the demographic makeup of the population slated for removal made the new hospital plan politically suspect. In recent years, approximately 90% of neighborhood residents have been minorities, with around half living below the poverty line. The socioeconomic dynamics led the National Trust for Historic Preservation (which in 2008 named Charity and Lower Mid-City among the 11 most endangered historic sites in the country) to criticize the hospitals project for following “a classic Urban Renewal clear-the-land model, demolishing vast numbers of homes in a city desperately in need of more housing.”