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New Orleans makeover: economic boost or loss of a historical legacy?

Post-Katrina, New Orleans looks to diversify its economy beyond tourism. But plans for a mammoth biomedical facility mean historic homes will be relocated, or razed.

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"You're not revitalizing your downtown," she says. "You're evacuating your downtown and calling it economic development."

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The city's fragile architectural heritage is also at stake. According to a June report by the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission, the "historic significance" of Lower Mid-City "lies not in an accumulation of mansions, but in the aggregation of iconic New Orleans building types" such as Creole cottages, shotguns, and camelbacks, most of which were built before 1900.

This is where the parade comes in. In September, Landrieu halted demolition, and more than 80 homes are being rescued thanks to a partnership between the city and Builders of Hope, a nonprofit organization in Raleigh, N.C., that advocates affordable housing.

Builders of Hope is redistributing the homes within a few miles of the neighborhood on lots owned by other nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity. The homes are intended to serve as good, affordable housing for low- or moderate-income residents.

Some $3.2 million allocated by the city pays for the moves, new foundations for the homes, and restoration of them.

Landrieu acknowledged to reporters at the time that "not everybody is going to get everything they want" but said the outreach was an attempt to find "common ground."

To usher homes down streets laced with electric wires, the roofs – most of them decrepit – are taken off; new green roofs will be added later. Structures with living space extending past 60 feet are shortened to allow them to be hauled.

Casius Pealer, Builders of Hope's Gulf Coast director, says he knows such alterations may not please preservationists. But they're necessary, he says, given the realities of uprooting the homes from their foundations and saving them from a landfill.

The organization has saved 59 homes as of Dec. 1 and hopes to rescue another 22 in the early part of December. The 19th move was scheduled for Dec. 7.

"Historic preservation is important to us, but everyone working together on this realizes we're all under constraints. This is everyone's Plan B," he says.

Soon, this area will be flat as a prairie. Everything that once was Lower Mid-City is being dismantled, including the streets, lampposts, curbs, electric lines, and sidewalks. On a day in early November, empty lots tramped by heavy machinery surrounded remaining homes. Although the homes' roofs were removed and windows and doors dismantled, they had signs of a former life – a lone bottle of dish soap on the kitchen counter, a ruby-colored sofa sitting crookedly against a wall.

While most homeowners accepted state money to start over, Doris Bahr had a different approach to her home – a double shotgun she spent more than $100,000 to renovate twice, once when she bought it in 2002 and then after Katrina. She's decided to follow the house to its new location and renovate it again. The state agreed to pay her the value of the mortgage.

Ms. Bahr has mixed feelings about what is happening to her neighborhood. In her eight years there, she felt she found a community, and Katrina bonded her neighbors together.

"We are not against a new hospital," she says. "I love the fact new jobs are coming in – but at what expense?"

Now, she says, "what's done is done." She was willing to accept living in her house in another location, because "in the end, I had faith."

"It's beyond money. My sweat, my tears, my blood is in that house," she says. "I just didn't want to give it away."


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