TOPICS > Politics

Extended Interview: Cynthia Hedge-Morrell

April 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Councilwoman, why did the council vote so overwhelming to approve tearing down all these projects?

CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL: You know, Katrina taught us that we have to look at things differently. And when we can’t go back and just accept status quo, to move people back into some of these housing developments where we know there are health issues — asbestos, lead paint because they were built in the 1940s — would have been criminal, because you’re putting children back into this kind of situation.

And so sometimes you have to make the tough decision, and I think that probably in my career, that’s going to be one of the toughest decisions I had to make because there are a lot of people — I equate it to someone who’s been married and one of the spouses was abusive. But then you know you get divorced, and after a while you might have some problems and you start thinking, well you know maybe he wasn’t that bad. And it’s because you have that nostalgic look at the situation and for some reason it looks like it wasn’t as bad.

Now, the same people that are fighting us on this were the people that prior to Katrina were fighting us about the conditions of this. They were telling us that it wasn’t a good place for children to be. You know, they were concerned about lead. They were concerned about asbestos. They were concerned about the fact that the kids around here never got out of this complex. They went to elementary school here, they went to junior high school here, they went to senior high school. So there were many, many, many problems and I’m not even getting into the drug issues and other things because I think sometimes people that live in public housing they become the pawn of other people.

So you know I’m not saying the people that live in public housing, that that’s the reason they have a problem, but I think that what we want to do is moving forward, we want to make sure that every person, no matter what their income level has an opportunity to have safe and healthy housing, have an opportunity to better their circumstances, and better the life changes of their children.

Mixed-income housing

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When you look at the numbers, let's take for example River Garden. There were maybe 2000 people formerly living in St. Thomas. They replaced only 122 units for poor people.

CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL: But we've got a voucher system. The mindset in the city has been rental, rental, rental. It's never been about what the rest of the country knows, that if you really want to get somebody moving it's about homeownership, first house, because once you own a house, then you have something that can move you forward. If your kid's going to college, by the time they're going to go to college you've got equity in the house.

I understand the concern that people have, but I think that at the same time that we're doing this mixed income use, and we're trying to make sure that people with disabilities and people that are seniors have a place to live, we also need to look at not using this model for every person that lived in public housing.

There were some people that lived in public housing that had that had jobs and with a little help they could be homeowners, so my idea is not that we're going to try to put everybody that lived in public housing back in public housing, I'd like to see them go a step beyond public housing, like the young lady that came up here and said "my grandmother was born here, my mother was born here, I was born here, my son, but I was able to step out and it's a better situation now for me and my son." Well, we need to close that gap to where it doesn't have to be 3 and 4 generations. It needs to be now.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Private developers are going to be running places like a River Garden. Have you thought about the whole concept? Private companies running public housing.

CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL: But what we have to look at is that if you look at River Garden, the maintenance of the St. Bernard housing project was deplorable. That was because the government was running it. There's a lot more because you're doing mixed use, that means that all of these apartments are going to have to be maintained. The level of the problem with government -- it depends on what's on the radar. And right now public housing's on the radar because we're changing the model. We're changing the paradigm.

What's going to happen 10 years from now when the government pushes somewhere the other way and they don't want to maintain these buildings and we've seen -- I mean this is the best proof of it. This is what happens when you don't maintain something and the problems are insurmountable. One of the big factors that I looked at was safety. Safety, improving the life chances of children and the other thing I looked at was the ability to integrate people into society, and you can't do that from public housing the way we have it.

Helping the working poor

BETTY ANN BOWSER: People who are upset about this say that one of the goals here -- and that maybe the city council unknowingly voted for this not realizing it -- is that there's some of the people in the mainstream community, business community, the political community that simply don't want to have such a poor city and they want to change the demographics and make it more difficult for more poor people to live here.

CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL: The one thing that we know in New Orleans that we experienced right after Katrina is that you have to have workers and maybe that might have been a segment of the population that felt that way, but you can't operate our restaurants, you can't operate this city without working poor.

And what you want to do is make sure that while the working poor are helping keep New Orleans the city that it is, you're improving the chances for their children to have better opportunities. Right now we're working on education as well as working on trying to improve the conditions that people are living in and that's moving in the right direction.

But I think that myth -- and it wasn't a myth in the beginning -- and I think that there were some people saying, well now we can have a new New Orleans. We're going to shorten the footprint and everything. But now what they found out is you can't run this city without workers.

I mean [...] right after Katrina Burger King was paying $10 an hour and they were offering a $2,500 bonus if they stayed with them. You know they're back to paying $7 an hour because there are more people coming back. Our population is almost up to 300,000. We were only at about four [hundred thousand] prior to this happening. So I think that you're right, that might have been the goal of some people but that's not the goal now. We have to have workers. We have to have workers. We don't have enough hospital beds, you know, you've got a tourist city. There are many jobs that are minimum wage. And this city will always have to take care of the workers that help keep the city running.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How do you think the mixed income concept is going to work?

CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL: I think it's going to work well. I think once they start really developing this, they're going to find that the schools that they're going to have, the different chances that they're going to have for improvement are going to be good. But we're going to monitor it. We're going to stay on top of it.

New Orleans in 10 years

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Paint a picture of New Orleans in 10 years.

CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL: Oh, in 10 years, I think New Orleans is going to be on her way, very strongly on her way back to being the queen city of the South. I think that the type of life that we're going to have here -- we are finally addressing our schools. You know we're not trying to repair all of the schools. We're tearing them down, we're building new schools, state of the art. We are really trying, we are really upscaling our education system and looking at a new paradigm there.

I think what you're going to see is a lot of entrepreneurial businesses. You're going to see the port, there's going to be a big push for the port to come back to where it used to be. You know now Mobile gets more business than the Port of New Orleans, so that's going to be much different. But I think the one thing you're going to see is the opportunity for people to live good stable lives and to improve the life chances for their children. It's going to be much better.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And where do you see poor people fitting into this picture?

CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL: The poor population of our city is the backbone of our city. They're our cooks, they're our musicians, they are the integral part of the culture of the city. The Mardi Gras Indians, the Step Club, everything that makes New Orleans unique is based on the mixed income. I mean before, it's really sad, but before integration, you had mixed neighborhoods in New Orleans for years.

You know, sometimes people get upset when you tell them they have to do something but I think what's going to happen now is you're going to see a rebirth of the New Orleans that everybody nostalgically looks at. I just think people are going to have an opportunity to come to New Orleans and get a decent job, live the kind of lives that they want to. [...] This has been a very slow process, but I have to say that I think the history books are going to show that we actually did the best job we could in making sure that the end result was going to be better than what we started out with.

Do the ends justify the means?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you have to think sometimes like Machiavelli that the ends justify the means?

CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL: Maybe. Maybe. But I do think that there's some things that were very wrong in New Orleans, the education system, the way we treated people, especially our poor. Life chances here if you were poor to get out of poverty were slim to none, and I would hope that when we finish rebuilding this city, the life chances for people are going to be a lot better.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A lot of housing people around the country, regardless of how they feel about mixed income or what HUD wants to do, are looking to see what happens in New Orleans.

CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL: I think one of the things that New Orleans is going to show people is how to have planning happen with citizen participation. And that's something that maybe wasn't done before. Maybe it was dictated from the federal government or state or whatever. And people in New Orleans got together real early and made up their mind that they were going to have a say.

I think that there was no blueprint for rebuilding a great city. This has never happened in the history. Well it's happened before, but not in our lifetime [...] I think the decision that you had to make was did you want people to come back to something better? Or did you want them to come back the same that they left? And actually what they left New Orleans with was a dying city. So here's a chance for rebirth, and you're right, there are some people that are not happy with it, but in this case I do think the ends are going to justify the means.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: OK, thank you.