Thursday, August 1st, Mayor LaToya Cantrell met with residents of Gordon Plaza, a community that was built on top of a landfill that was classified as a superfund site by the EPA over 20 years ago.
In the decades since the City of New Orleans built the subdivision, many members of the predominantly black community have died from cancer. Residents have filed multiple lawsuits against the city, which built the subdivision and did not disclose to the homeowners the toxic history of the site.
At their meeting with Cantrell, the residents discussed their desire for fully funded relocation, and to be involved with the committee working to secure funds for fully funded relocation, as well as a firm timeline from the administration.
In the early 1900s the area was known as the Agriculture Street Landfill, also called “Dante’s Inferno” because it often caught fire. Though closed in 1952, the dump was reopened in 1965 to accept waste from hurricane Betsy.
The land was developed only a few years later in the late 1970s. the development included an elementary school as well as rent-to-own homes known as Press Park and the subdivision Gordon Plaza, which was built with funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The development was marketed to Black families as an opportunity for first-time homebuyers.
Confirming what residents had been saying for years, in 2019 a report published by the Louisiana Tumor Registry found the Desire neighborhood, which includes the Agriculture Street Landfill, had the second-highest cancer rate among all Louisiana census tracts from 2005 to 2015. This includes the parts of Louisiana along the petrochemical corridor on the Mississippi River, colloquially known as “cancer alley”.
“I hear you. I’m listening to you and your outcry. I want you to know that my administration is actively working on a resolution,” said Cantrell in a statement posted to Instagram on July 6th.
The statement came after members of the Gordon Plaza community and the People’s Assembly of New Orleans worked to spread awareness of the resident’s plight to Essence Fest Attendees during one of the busiest weekends for tourism of the year. The coalition hand-delivered a letter of support for fully-funded relocation to the Mayor that had been signed by 40 different community groups and non-profits.
Thursday’s meeting was the first time that Mayor Latoya Cantrell met with the residents since assuming office. The Residents of Gordon Plaza allege that Cantrell pledged support for their cause during her campaign, only to go silent on the issue once in office. In March, a group of community members and activists attempted to meet with the mayor in her office in City Hall, only to be turned away by members of her staff.
“All I can tell you is this: You matter and I’m listening and actively working on a solution,” said Cantrell in the July video.
After decades of struggle, Gordon Plaza resident and organizer Shannon Rainey has said that her fight, and that of her community, will not be over until they have finally been given compensation from the city to purchase new homes off of toxic soil.
The Gordon Plaza residents and their struggle will be featured in an art exhibition at the Newcomb Museum in September at Tulane University, co-hosted by the New Orleans People’s Assembly. You can learn more about the project at an event at 4 pm Saturday, August 10, at Popps Bandstand in City Park.
Jesse Lu Baum is a queer writer and cartoonist originally from Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Antigravity, Medium.com, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Mid-City Messenger and Preservation in Print. Aside from writing, she has also worked as a non-profit home repair person, a theater bartender, and a research assistant.