5

WELCOME TO JAZZLAND - NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

In August of 2009, Ray Nagin, then mayor of New Orleans, announced that kids’ entertainment channel Nickelodeon signed a deal to redevelop Six Flags of New Orleans into the TV channel’s first stand-alone theme park.  

"This is huge," he said. "I don’t know what we could have done better… I don’t know if we could have found a better partner. Anyone who owns land in New Orleans east is probably sitting pretty good right now."

In the mid-’90s, the city of New Orleans took out loans totaling $25.3 million dollar from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to construct the park. Jazzland, its original moniker, opened with much fanfare in 2000. It only operated for two seasons before filing for bankruptcy. A few years later, desperate to find a company to take over operations, the city added on some $15 million in additional loans to help finance Six Flags’ takeover. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina left the park stewing in 12 feet of floodwaters for two weeks. Abandoned and decaying, the park sits in the marshes of New Orleans East, the tops of its roller coasters visible for miles.

The Nickelodeon deal required an initial investment of $165 million dollars. Financing hinged on capturing Gulf Opportunity Zone Bonds (GO Zone Bonds), a federal program that offered low interest rates to businesses investing in storm damaged areas of New Orleans. Despite the endorsement of the city’s Industrial Development Board, the bonds never came through, and the developers did not secure other financing options. Nickelodeon dropped the project within a few months.

Other discarded plans include everything from a baseball complex to a water park. The most recent redevelopment scheme was an upscale outlet mall, complete with a boardwalk where patrons could ride on the remaining roller coasters. Approved by the city in March of 2012, the $40 million dollar mall would be largely paid for with tax increment financing (TIF). TIF is a form of public-private financing where the up-front development costs are subsidized by public entities, creating long term municipal debt. This debt is then paid for by the anticipated tax revenues generated by the redevelopment once it reenters commercial activity. The majority of the sales taxes and increased property taxes would go towards debt repayment rather than city or state coffers.

At a public meeting debuting plans for the mall, some residents pushed back on using TIF dollars. According to the Times Picayune, David Garcia, a lead developer of the project, responded that anyone claiming to be able to redevelop Jazzland without TIF was “lacking in either expertise or honesty.” The site is too damaged and risky for developers to be willing to wholly finance any project themselves, he added. Ultimately, the debate was moot. The plans were dead a year later. The city would instead support building an outlet mall on the Mississippi River, less than half a mile from the French Quarter and 17 miles from Jazzland.

Before the storm, Jazzland was an economic loss for the city. Now it’s an economic drain, siphoning funds without even providing jobs. Currently, New Orleans pays $1 million dollars annually on the original construction loan. Meanwhile, city funding for children’s athletics, the library, and substance abuse counselors gets slashed due to a protracted budget crisis.

The arguments for redevelopment mirror the arguments for building such a monument in the first place—we need jobs, we need development in the East. But if it’s true what David Garcia said—that rebuilding Jazzland necessarily means leveraging TIF dollars, mushrooming municipal debt and earmarking taxes away from public ledgers—then it seems like a poor bet for anyone to make, especially for the city. Redevelopment could mean New Orleans over-extends itself financially again. Another natural disaster or bankruptcy would leave the city with a bigger annual debt payment, and kick off another round of redevelopment roulette, with firms trotting out new proposals. No matter what glittering designs the plans depict, though, the promises will be the same: jobs, tourist dollars, and higher property taxes for everyone in the East. The question is whether or not low wage jobs, which dominate the labor economy of shopping malls and theme parks, are worth the price of admission.

* * *

Breonne DeDecker was born near the headwaters of the Mississippi River and now resides at the end of it. She has degrees in photography and sustainable development. Currently, she is working with partner Darin Acosta on The Airline is a Very Long Road—an experimental biography of Louisiana, which you can find at airlinehighway.tumblr.com.

10

NORCO, LOUISIANA

Shell Oil erected their catalytic cracking unit in the early 1950s during a multimillion dollar expansion boom. The unit itself was 16 stories high, a “colossus of the petroleum industry” as described by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The new machinery grew outwards and upwards from the old tiers of the refinery, consuming 3,178 tons of structural steel, 27,500 cubic yards of concrete, 8,000 valves of all shapes and sizes, and thousands of pilings driven deep into the deltaic mud. By 1955, the enormous expansion was complete. The small river town of Norco, Louisiana now had an industrial skyline, and the cat cracker was its most impressive spire.

As decades passed, however, the unit became just more steel in the bizarre landscape of the town. It was a single component in a system of petrochemical production that was growing ever more complex. More variables, more hazards. A new chemical agent was introduced to the daily production process of the machine, but the corrosive properties of the agent weren’t adequately tested. Over the course of six months, it began to wear away a pipe elbow deep inside the machine. The corrosion formed a hole, and through the hole, hydrocarbons poured into a confined chamber of the unit. It created a dense, combustible ball of gas; and on the predawn morning of May 5th, 1988, within the chamber something sparked.

The shockwave blossomed out in a 30 mile radius, shattering windows across the region. Some Norco residents describe being catapulted entirely from their beds, hitting the ground along with the glass and debris. Doors blew completely off their hinges. Ceilings collapsed. Large shards of window panes shot like daggers across rooms and penetrated sheetrock. The neighborhood dollar store crumbled to its foundation, along with the cinderblock wall of the hardware store. The east wall of the grocery store littered the expanse of the adjacent parking lot. The flames raged on for hours at the explosion site, hampering rescue efforts, and casting a catastrophic glow across the town’s wreckage.

I was two years old when the explosion happened. My family’s home was five blocks from the industrial fence line, and less than half a mile from the catalytic cracking unit. My bed was situated beneath a window that faced east. The blast shattered all the window panes, and the broken glass rained down onto me. My parents entered in a panic. The room was dim and pulsing red from the refinery light. They discovered me sound asleep, covered in glass, and were convinced that I was dead. My father gingerly picked the glass off me and breathed a sigh of relief as I began to squirm. He led my family through the lights and sirens of the evacuation zone to my grandmother’s house 10 miles up Airline Highway. We stayed there for several days, but my father returned to our house to assess the damage. It was relatively minor, only broken windows—a ubiquitous mark of destruction across the town. But upon his return and for many months following, he felt haunted and uneasy in our home.

All told, there were seven casualties, all of them Shell employees who were onsite at the time. With the flames raging and the debris piled high, their remains were difficult to recover. Search teams wearing protective clothing and oxygen tanks scoured the disaster site. FBI agents visited Norco in the days following to assist in the forensics investigation as they pulled bodies from the charred rubble and twisted steel.

The intensity of the blast was 1/20th the size of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. If it occurred in the middle of the day, one could imagine customers dead in the dollar store, crushed where the ceiling met the floor; concussed in parking lots; or laid out in the aisles of the hardware store. There would have certainly been more workers moving about Shell’s premises, more people walking through their homes. But thankfully, the town slept through the blast.

Words & Map - Darin Acosta; Images - Breonne Dedecker

Archive: The Times-Picayune

* * *

Darin Acosta has spent his entire life exploring and documenting the wetlands, oil infrastructure and forgotten blight of South Louisiana and studied urban and environmental planning at the University of New Orleans. Breonne DeDecker was born near the headwaters of the Mississippi River and now resides at the end of it. She has degrees in photography and sustainable development. 

Their current work, The Airline is a Very Long Road, is an experimental biography of Louisiana, which you can find at airlinehighway.tumblr.com.

10

PROPOSED RAM COAL TERMINAL - IRONTON, LOUISIANA

Audrey Trufant Salvant’s father is buried less than 50 feet from her front door, in a little mausoleum that sits like an ornament in her yard. As we walk towards it, we pass no fence, road, or anything else to signify that we’ve left her property and entered a communal gravesite. She stops a few feet before the tomb and begins to speak above the wind of a coming storm that passes through the scattered single-wides of the town. Her family, she explains, has been living in Ironton for five generations. “This is home for me,” she says. “My dad’s buried here. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

Ironton is a tiny working class black community, just three large blocks spread out along the natural levee of the Mississippi River in the coastal parish of Plaquemines. There are perhaps 60 standing structures in the whole town, many of them mobile homes placed among the devastated ruins of Hurricane Isaac. Standing at the grave, Audrey boasts about the pastoral appeal of the town. We glance around and see small homes, thick woods just upriver, and open fields that run along the distant highway. A slim boy in sportsman’s camo hikes his way over the nearby levee to hunt the batture woods along the Mississippi River. A neighbor nods to us as he washes his car. For all the industry that’s encroaching on this hidden place, you’d never know it just by looking.

The Phillips 66 Alliance oil refinery is located less than two miles upriver; and the Myrtle Grove Midstream Terminal—a mid-river grain elevator—less than two miles towards the coast. A coal export terminal, characterized by massive piles of exposed coal, is three miles downriver. United Bulk, another enormous open air terminal, is right across the river from that. On rainy days, pet coke and coal runs visibly from these terminal sites and into nearby ditches and waterways. Scott Eustis, an environmental wetlands specialist who oversees coastal use permits for the Gulf Restoration Network, captured this image, showing coal runoff making its way into the Mississippi River. On dry days, the wind catches sheets of pulverized mineral dust from the massive piles that sit bare along the river and spreads them for miles around. A film of grain, coal, and particulate from other surrounding industries is evident everywhere in Ironton: on cars, on porches, and inside homes. This dust, many environmentalists and residents worry, contributes to asthma rates in the community.

After returning to Audrey’s house, we settle around her dining room table as she laments the coal-dust piles, smoke stacks, and grain elevators that surround her community on all sides. “We feel that it’s environmental racism,” she says after a pause. “You don’t see this kind of thing anywhere else in the parish other than black communities. I mean,” she stands up to run her finger along the chandelier that hangs above the table, and holds out her hand to reveal a thick cake of dark grey dust on her fingertip, “I justed dusted this thing last week.”

And the situation, she fears, may soon get worse. In 2011, RAM Terminals LLC bought 602 acres of land just north of Ironton with the goal of building yet another coal exporting facility, significantly increasing the amount of coal surrounding the community. Air monitoring by community members indicates that the air particulate pollution levels in and around Ironton are already higher than what is deemed safe by international standards. There is tangible anxiety that the construction of yet another open-air coal terminal will only continue this trend.

RAM also plans the extension of a local railroad line to make transportation faster and easier. This would mean open coal cars traveling throughout Plaquemines Parish, potentially contributing to the dust and overall air pollution. The company and the local government have not yet decided where the new rail line will go, but during a community meeting convened to discuss the plan, two of the three options presented to the community would have the train routed directly through the heart of Ironton, yards away from residences.

As this drama plays out in the small Louisiana parish of Plaquemines, domestic and international demand priorities within the coal industry are shifting. The U.S. is slowly phasing out coal-fired power plants, while coal consumption in other regions of the globe is on the rise. Coal is one of the cheapest energy sources available, and many developing nations argue that it is the fastest way to modernize their infrastructure and bring power to their population. Rapid industrialization in Asia, especially in China and India, means that the long-term survival of the U.S. coal industry is increasingly linked to consumers thousands of miles away.

Read more and hear from Ironton residents in Part 2.

* * *

Darin Acosta has spent his entire life exploring and documenting the wetlands, oil infrastructure and forgotten blight of South Louisiana and studied urban and environmental planning at the University of New Orleans. Breonne DeDecker was born near the headwaters of the Mississippi River and now resides at the end of it. She has degrees in photography and sustainable development. 

Their current work, The Airline is a Very Long Road, is an experimental biography of Louisiana, which you can find at airlinehighway.tumblr.com.

10

HURRICANE ISAAC, ONE YEAR LATER - LOUISIANA

A year ago today, Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans. The city was largely spared. Power outages darkened the streets, but when day broke, it revealed little flooding, and no damage from the storm surge. At the far reaches of the metropolitan area, in decaying exurbs and working-poor agricultural communities, the storm was far less merciful.

On the east side of Plaquemines Parish, which sits wide open before the Gulf of Mexico, the surge came down like a chop saw. A wall of water tore apart the town of Braithwaite. It ripped tombs from the cemetery and spread them miles around. They were flipped and tumbled into all sorts of odd arrangements. Some sat in piles. Others were leaning vertically against trees with their caskets exposed. People walked amongst the ruined graveyards, scrawling their names and phone numbers on the tombs of their deceased kin. Houses were lifted up and deposited on the crest of the twenty five foot levee that ran along the Mississippi River. Every little thing in sight was waterlogged and broken. The air was heavy and stank of rot, insinuating the number of dead animals deep in the surrounding woods.

From Braithwaite, the storm continued west. LaPlace is a community on the opposite side of Lake Pontchartrain. It’s a vast horizon of parking lots and low-rent strip malls. Subdivisions blossom out across the hollowed bottomlands like nebulous dust. Following the initial surge that took out Braithwaite, Isaac entered Lake Pontchartrain and gathered a second surge, building strength and racing towards Laplace.

Though the survivors have moved on and memories have faded, there exists a rather dramatic precedent for Isaac’s path.

In 1915, a hurricane came out of the West Indies. It hit the coast with force, spared New Orleans, and cut a line across Lake Pontchartrain, building a surge as it bore toward the west side of the lake. It exploded onto the cypress shores with indescribable fury, annihilating the small German settlements of Frenier and LaBranche. All the homes were blasted and strewn across the lake. Many of the villagers died. A few were able to survive by taking refuge in a stalled boxcar even as the train trestle it rested on began to disintegrate.

Today, Frenier is a sparsely settled fishing outpost and LaBranche is a cypress swamp that hasn’t seen any residential development since that tragic storm. But things could have been different. In the 1970s, during a rapid stage of St. Charles Parish’s industrial growth, land speculators were pushing hard to turn LaBranche into the diffuse exurban landscape that the nearby town of LaPlace is today. Speculators were buying up huge tracts of land all across the swamp. These investors believed that the Army Corps of Engineers would build a hurricane protection levee along the shore of the lake, thus making their properties eligible for federally subsidized flood insurance. Wetland preservation policies forced the Army Corps to reroute the levee, which now runs roughly parallel with Airline Highway and less than a quarter of a mile to its north, making development of the LaBranche Wetlands financially infeasible.

The day following Hurricane Isaac, Breonne and I visited the Wetland Watcher’s Park, near the site where the extinct town of LaBranche once stood. The park benches, anchored in cement, were ripped up from the ground and strewn about. Boardwalks that previously traversed the cypress swamps had completely collapsed into the water. Mud and sediment carried by the storm surge clung to every surface. The storm’s strength and intensity were evident, but since the area has remained mostly undeveloped since 1915, we witnessed little destruction. I imagined if LaBranche was the enormous lakefront suburb that many had hoped it would become; if rather than upturned benches and felled cypress trees, there existed the dream homes of Lakeland Gardens, or the office complexes of the LaBranche Industrial Park. The concrete slabs of these developments would have rested on the literal bones of the extinct village of LaBranche. Would it have met the same fate? Would Isaac have overwhelmed the neighborhood’s flood protection levee like Katrina did to the Lower Ninth Ward? Would the pumping system have failed, as has happened countless times in communities across south Louisiana?

From LaBranche, we continued on to LaPlace, where those notional scenes of suburban devastation became reality. Standing water covered the streets. Home-interior detritus lined every curb, some of it stacked eight feet high. We were unable to see the most extensive devastation because the streets were too flooded to continue. Red Cross emergency relief shelters along Airline Highway were packed. Hundreds of households were destroyed. Millions of dollars in damage had been wrought.

Nearly a century divides the West Indian Hurricane of 1915 from the storm that devastated Braithwaite and LaPlace on August 29th of 2012. The parallels between these two storms are a large component of our research into the cycles of creation and destruction that occur socially, economically, and environmentally in south Louisiana. Highways, storm drains, oil pipelines, floods, flames, and the decline of the late American suburb are all netting in the tangled web that marries these two storms. Our research continues forward, but we wanted to use this anniversary as an opportunity to share where we’re at so far.

Words & Map - Darin Acosta; Images - Breonne Dedecker

Guide Notes:

* * *

Louisiana Guide Darin Acosta has spent his entire life exploring and documenting the wetlands, oil infrastructure and forgotten blight of South Louisiana and studied urban and environmental planning at the University of New Orleans. Louisiana Guide Breonne DeDecker was born near the headwaters of the Mississippi River and now resides at the end of it. She has degrees in photography and sustainable development. 

Their current work, The Airline is a Very Long Road, is an experimental biography of Louisiana, which you can find at airlinehighway.tumblr.com.

10

NEW LLANO, LOUISIANA

We are looking for the ghost of the longest running secular socialist commune in American history, a town named New Llano that lies some twenty miles north of DeRidder.  On some maps it is Newllano. In some mouths it is pronounced New YAW-no, but many locals say New LAN-no. Confusion around basic details- the spelling, the pronunciation-seems to be a defining characteristic of the place. The geographic roots are also muddled. In 1914, the commune was born as the Llano del Rio Corporation in the California desert, and struggled there for three years before decamping to this rural corner of Louisiana. In 1917, Llano del Rio purchased the entire town of Stables, Louisiana from the Gulf Lumber Company, dreaming of a fresh start in the fertile South. Out of the 900 people living at Llano del Rio, only 65 journeyed from California to Louisiana. They re-christened the town New Llano, but the new name did not change the massive organizational and social problems within the community.

The historical record surrounding the colony is strange. Much of what can be found speaks of New Llano, of Llano del Rio, in glowing terms. Colony members, and outside supporters, claimed New Llano was the first step towards dismantling capitalism, a community designed to share burdens and successes, a place where no man exploited the weak or favored the ruthless. All community members had equal say in how the town was run. The children and the elderly were well cared for, and no one wanted for food or clothing. These were all lies.

This is an excerpt from an article by our new Louisiana guides, Breonne DeDecker and Darin Acosta. 

Read more. Trust us.

(Archival Images: Birds-Eye View of the Llano Cooperative Colony. Artist Unknown. Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University; As Picket Sees It. Llano Colonist. August 28, 1937. Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University.)

* * *

Darin Acosta has spent his entire life exploring and documenting the wetlands, oil infrastructure and forgotten blight of South Louisiana and studied urban and environmental planning at the University of New Orleans. Breonne DeDecker was born near the headwaters of the Mississippi River and now resides at the end of it. She has degrees in photography and sustainable development. 

Their current work, The Airline is a Very Long Road, is an experimental biography of Louisiana, which you can find at airlinehighway.tumblr.com.

youtube

THE WEST INDIAN HURRICANE OF 1915 - LOUISIANA

Longtime St. John Parish resident Donald Tregre tells stories from the West Indian Hurricane (1915) and Hurricane Isaac (2012). Most footage was filmed in the parishes of St. John, St. Charles, and Plaquemines at or near the time of Hurricane Isaac, which made landfall just southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River one year ago today.

* * *

Darin Acosta has spent his entire life exploring and documenting the wetlands, oil infrastructure and forgotten blight of South Louisiana and studied urban and environmental planning at the University of New Orleans. Breonne DeDecker was born near the headwaters of the Mississippi River and now resides at the end of it. She has degrees in photography and sustainable development. 

Their current work, The Airline is a Very Long Road, is an experimental biography of Louisiana, which you can find at airlinehighway.tumblr.com.

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