It’s easy to forget there was once a modest working-class neighborhood along South Galvez Street, where twin billion-dollar hospitals now stand. The stretch of Mid-City was flooded by the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Blocks of homes were demolished to make room for the medical complex that was envisioned as a health care industry boon. Homeowners were bought out, renters relocated, some historic structures uprooted and rolled away. In the end, no New Orleans neighborhood changed more completely.
Artists Monica Rose Kelly and Nik Richard hope that the artwork they’ve installed along the South Galvez neutral ground between the gleaming hospitals will remind passersby of the bitter price of progress. The Arts Council of New Orleans commissioned the creative team to produce the 22 metal panels that stretch from Canal Street to Tulane Avenue, between the University Medical Center that opened in 2015 and the New Orleans Veterans Affairs Medical Center that opened in 2016.
Each 6-foot panel is laser-cut into an elaborate silhouette as delicate as an old-fashioned doily. The panels are made from an especially weather-resistant sort of steel known as Cor-Ten, which exudes a rust-red patina that makes painting unnecessary.
The project was conceived by designer Bryan Lee for the Arts Council of New Orleans. Lee is best-known for his “Paper Monuments” project, a series of public artworks that drew attention to African-American history. The suite of stencil-like steel panels, titled the “The Spirit of Lower Mid-City,” cost $50,000. The project was paid for by the city’s Percent for Art program that dedicates 1 percent of municipal improvements to artworks.
Symbolically, the multipart artwork depicts the history of the 70-acre lost neighborhood that once surrounded it, from the earliest colonial times to the present. In Kelly and Richard’s telling, the hospitals were well-meant, but were also a source of injustice.
It was standing-room-only in the big hall at the Sheraton Hotel, and the mood was tense.
Richard said that the goal of the project is to “encourage a sense of empathy” for the former residents, “not disdain” for the hospitals.
“We want people to appreciate the sacrifice that had to be made for people to come here and get the medical treatment that they’re getting,” he said.
Kelly said that in her view “the worst insult that can be dealt is not just to be displaced, but erased.”
“The Spirit of Lower Mid-City” is meant to keep neighborhood memories indelible.
Richard was born in Gentilly and Kelly moved to New Orleans from Philadelphia nine years ago. They researched the neighborhood’s history and interviewed former residents to formulate their designs. Strolling the neutral ground, onlookers will discover images of St. Joseph Church, a statue of a World War I soldier, a midcentury Pontiac dealership, a place called Billy Goat Park, the tangled intersection of South Claiborne Avenue and Interstate 10 and other historic neighborhood sights.
Some, like the historic Deutsches Haus German community center, are now gone. Some, like the Dixie Brewery tower, were spared. Humbler architecture is also part of the picture.
After the Hurricane Katrina evacuation was lifted, Lower Mid-City neighborhood property owners began returning and repairing their tattered roofs and waterlogged ground floors. But the government’s decision to level the neighborhood made their efforts moot. Kelly and Richard draw attention to that irony in panels that depict the laborious rebuilding of individual homes.
Several panels illustrate the controversial closure of the state-owned Charity Hospital that served the city for seven decades before its basement was flooded in 2005.
Based on the pointed imagery in their artwork, Kelly and Richard clearly believe that Charity, which was built in 1938, should have remained a hospital.
Charity may be a few blocks outside of the South Galvez Street neighborhood, but those who advocated for the one million square-foot facility to remain in operation point out that if Charity had continued in service, there would have been less pressure to bulldoze residences for a new hospital to replace it.
The backstory involves the cooperation of city, state and federal agencies.
A tentative proposal to replace “Big Charity,” as it was known, with a 21st-century teaching hospital in Lower Mid-City was in the air before Hurricane Katrina. The flooding of the old hospital’s ground floor seems to have cinched the plan, especially as Federal Emergency Management Agency increased its damage estimate from $23 million just after the storm to $150 million in 2008, and finally $475 million in 2010. Those funds helped underwrite the new University Medical Center hospital to come.
Meanwhile, $79 million in federal hurricane recovery grants were dedicated to acquiring the land across S. Galvez for a new state-of-the-art Veterans Affairs Medical Center to replace the VA hospital on Gravier Street that also closed after Hurricane Katrina.
In view of the jobs and the and general economic benefit the hospitals promised, the fate of the neighborhood was sealed. Though, in 2010 the city embarked on a well-intended, but ill-fated $3.2 million effort to relocate 81 historic homes from the path of destruction. Less than half of the houses were ever used again.
In 2011 ground was broken on Charity’s replacement and by 2013 work had begun on the new VA.
The 20-story Art Deco Charity Hospital remains unused, though in October officials approved a $300 million renovation that will re-purpose the Great Depression-era landmark into a blend of residences, retail space and other uses.
STAFF PHOTO BY TED JACKSON
Mary Howell, a New Orleans activist-attorney who championed the continued use of Charity hospital and the preservation of the neighborhood, said the Kelly and Richard’s artwork is an accurate lament of loss.
“This artwork brought us to tears,” she wrote via email. “It is a beautiful and powerful evocation of the origin and development of what had become a diverse, racially integrated, New Orleans working class neighborhood over the course of many years and generations, with many close ties among families and neighbors. It is also a sobering and painful remembrance of the vulnerability and fragility of an established, historic neighborhood …”
Brad Ott’s portrait appears at the bottom right of one of Kelly and Richard’s panels. Like Howel, Ott was a post-Katrina activist who unsuccessfully advocated for Charity’s continued use and the survival of the neighborhood. He wrote his master’s thesis at the University of New Orleans on the closure of Charity hospital. Ott said he was honored to be included in the S. Galvez artwork.
“It is awesome,” Ott said, “I feel humbled about it.”
Ott did not live in the area before it was leveled to accommodate the hospitals. But he believes that the same sort of destructive decisions took place across all of New Orleans in the post-Katrina recovery.
“The historical memory is really important,” he said, referring to Kelly and Richard’s artwork.
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