NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans East neighborhood has been plagued with issues for more than a decade.
Lack of businesses, blight and problems with crime in some of the neighborhoods remain a problem.
Some feel there is a lack of police presence compared to other parts of the city, while others sympathize with law enforcement. Many are just tired of the negative perception and are taking it on themselves to help bring the East back.
Caresse Jackman spent the past few months exploring all of these issues, looking at the neighborhood’s past, the present and the potential future in a four part series we are calling “The Forgotten East”
Part 2: Blight
Driving us around town is Ronald Walker. Walker has been a resident in New Orleans East since the 1980’s.
When he goes through his neighborhood, Walker feels a range of emotions, but mostly irritation. He looks around and sees abandoned buildings, left and right.
“That’s the old LaQuinta Hotel,” Walker points out.
From abandoned schools to the Six Flags theme park, the East has become a haven for empty lots.
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Those who grew up in New Orleans East remember the Lake Forest Plaza as the place to be and the place to shop. Sitting off of Read Blvd and I-10, the center was already on the decline when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, leading to a commercial casualty that never bounced back.
Eyewitness News stopped by the old LaQuinta Inn to take a closer look around. Hotel doors are wide open, windows are cracked. Graffiti covers the walls. Walker says buildings like this are visible reminders of why he feels the East has been forgotten. It’s not just abandoned places, he is also concerned about the lack of businesses.
“These are your places to dine: Wendy’s, KFC, there is a Burger King," Walker said.
He adds that there are very few major restaurant chains.
“A lot of people would just and say ‘Hey, I’ll just go to Chalmette.’ There’s nothing out here,” Walker said.
That’s become common. If you want a good bite to eat or somewhere to shop, many residents leave the East.
Just to compare two neighborhoods, Walker sent us on a short trip over Lake Pontchartrain to Slidell.
“Look at the signs for food. Cracker Barrel is right over here. Look at the apartment complexes,” Walker said. “Look at all of these stores. See, you’ve got a Five Guys restaurant on this side, Dick's Sporting Goods, Kohl’s. You’ve got everything!"
Slidell has seen a steady amount of commercial growth.
Slidell is one of the fastest growing areas in St. Tammany Parish.
Walker says seeing the economic differences between the two communities disgusts him.
“We had all of this,” Walker said.
Another eyesore recently discussed was the Grand Theater. The vacant theater sat off of Read Boulevard and the I-10 Service Road. Eventually murals by artist B-Mike gave the old building a picturesque site with a positive message, but still, people wondered why it was taking so long to tear the old building down.
That was until a fire in May 2019 gave the city the green light to have it demolished.
“Even the Grand Theater, I had to move towards foreclosure there,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said. “Those processes, that people don’t see, but have to be done and followed according to the law. So that I can go ahead and get the eyesore out of people’s eyes and turn that lot and those lots around for development for New Orleans East.”
Eyewitness News also sat down with District E Council member Cyndi Nguyen to talk about bringing the East back, starting with the abandoned lots.
“There is still a legal process that we have to go through,” Nguyen said.
One way of going through that process is working with the property owners to get their land either cleared or back up and running, like the old Holiday Inn High Rise, which is located on Chef Menteur Highway.
“The Holiday Inn is a historic landmark. Just got the designation in March of this year. We’ve been working very closely with the property owners. Very supportive," she said.
Nguyen says the building is a historic landmark because it’s more than 50 years old.
“When I got into office, we discovered that and I worked with him and with the application and we’re happy that he got the designation. That’s gonna help him with some additional tax credits to help rebuild the area,” Nguyen said.
As for those vacant properties still standing, Nguyen encourages property owners to take responsibility.
“It’s to the point where these properties are a huge nuisance to the community and we cannot allow that to continue,” Nguyen said.
She also says they are pushing to get more restaurants.
“We’re promoting opportunity zones, which are very heavily in the East, as well as the Lower 9th Ward,” Nguyen said.
Opportunity zones are designed to help struggling communities with economic development by providing tax benefits.
“I also know that, access to capital is a challenge to minority communities --particularly our entrepreneurs. So we’re also looking at how can we engage our financial institutes to being more sensitive to making capital accessible to minority communities," Nguyen said. "And so there’s a huge disparity in reference to that. And so it’s not just about just providing incentive, but also making sure that there’s capital availability as well."
But there are some people who feel like those opportunities are so far away, people like the youth in New Orleans East.
Forgotten East is a four-part series by Reporter Caresse Jackman. To see the rest of the series, follow these links