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Gordon Plaza residents demand relocation from toxic neighborhood

Residents of the cancer-plagued development met with the mayor on Thursday

A woman wearing a blue patterned shirt stares into the camera while standing on her porch near a strip of grass and a sidewalk with a dilapidated home in the background.
Shannon Rainey, pictured in 2014, is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit calling for New Orleans officials to relocate residents from the Gordon Plaza neighborhood.
Julie Dermansky/Getty Images

For more than three decades, residents of Gordon Plaza have fought with New Orleans officials and the courts over their futures in a neighborhood plagued by toxic land.

On Thursday, August 2, Mayor LaToya Cantrell met with several Gordon Plaza residents who came to plead their case. Some of those residents are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in April 2018 in which they demanded that the city pay for their relocation. Residents of the neighborhood have been suffering from high cancer rates for many years.

Administration officials said Cantrell’s office is working toward a resolution but declined comment on the meeting due to the pending litigation.

The neighborhood’s history reaches back to the early 1900s, when a lot on Agriculture Street was established as a landfill. It often caught fire, earning it the nickname “Dante’s Inferno” that lasted through its five-decade existence. In 1965, following Hurricane Betsy, the lot reopened as a dumping site.

The nearby land was redeveloped in the late 1970s, paving the way for construction of an elementary school, shopping area, townhouses, apartments, and Gordon Plaza, a grouping of single-family homes funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and advertised as an affordable option for black homeownership.

But trash often resurfaced in the neighborhood and residents began to report high lead levels and rates of cancer, leading 54 of the area’s residents to file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in 2018 that called for the city to move them out of harm’s way.

An April report from the Louisiana Tumor Registry found that the Desire neighborhood in which Gordon Plaza is located had the second-highest cancer rates among all Louisiana census tracks from 2005 to 2015. The report recorded a rate of 745 cancer cases per 100,000 residents within the neighborhood. Last year, demonstrators lit candles outside City Hall to recognize more than a dozen Gordon Plaza residents who died of cancer.

In a video message posted to social media last month, Cantrell told Gordon Plaza residents her administration is crafting a resolution to respond to the crisis.

“I’m listening to you and your outcry,” she said. “My administration is actively working on a resolution. As soon as that has been developed, I will have more to share with you, but at this time, all I can tell you is this: You matter and I’m listening and actively working on a solution.”

The New Orleans Peoples Assembly is hosting a September art exhibition at Tulane University to promote the Gordon Plaza relocation efforts. Participants can learn more about the project at an event beginning at 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 3, at Popps Bandstand in City Park.

The Peoples Assembly has also called on Cantrell to identify members of a committee to discuss the future of Gordon Plaza, set up meetings between that committee and Gordon Plaza residents, and commit to funding residents’ relocation.