In “I’m Carolyn Parker,” the documentary film directed by Jonathan Demme and produced by Jonathan and myself among others, the Semmes school is a hulking presence. Standing in ruins on a block in Holy Cross, it’s pointed out as a landmark, its roof put on by Carolyn’s last true love with the help of their daughter, Kyrah.
In my about-to-be-published book, “The Fight for Home,” Semmes school is a regular, haunting presence. Named after a segregationist, Civil War-era lawyer, Semmes casts a dark shadow. Over five years, while neighbors struggle to rebuild their nearby homes – some successfully moving in, others forced to sell and raze their homes – Semmes stands there rotting: its windows broken, its interior half-gutted, its playground overgrown.
This week – too late to be included in ether the movie or the book – we begin to understand why this particular blighted property has stayed blighted.
· Semmes school is owned by a not-for-profit called the Ninth Ward Housing Development Corporation (Ninth Ward)
· Ninth Ward is controlled by Jon Johnson, a New Orleans City Councilman.
· After Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) offered disaster relief funds for private non-profits, and in 2006 Ninth Ward received about $140,000 for gutting and removing debris from the school.
· According to the United States of American v. Jon Johnson, filed in a US District Court this July, 2012, Johnson created “false and fabricated invoices,” and the FEMA money went, instead, to pay for his 2007 campaign for the Louisiana Senate.
· Immediately after the indictment, Johnson abruptly resigned from the City Council and will be facing charges.
Meanwhile, Carolyn Parker and her neighbors live next to a three-story abandoned school in a neighborhood where such buildings are regularly used by drug users and thieves. In the fall of 2010, a man sprung out of a nearby abandoned building and raped a 16-year old schoolgirl. A block in the other direction, a woman was found dead in her home under mysterious circumstances.
It’s been a long, excruciating recovery for neighborhoods like Holy Cross. Seven years after the floods, blocks are still a patchwork of occupied and abandoned homes. That’s partly due to a governmental response so slow that it borders on the criminally negligent. But beyond the institutional neglect, Semmes school offers an example of a more personal kind of corruption.
As Carolyn and Patsy and Mark put in years of work trying to resurrect their block, the politician they elected to represent their interests is accused of using public money not to improve the neighborhood, but for his personal gain.
Next time you’re asked why the recovery of New Orleans has taken so long, you might start here.
“I’m Carolyn Parker” will be screened in exclusive theatres over the coming month and broadcast on PBS TV’s POV series in September. http://imcarolynparker.com/
“The Fight for Home” will be published August 6th, 2012. http://www.amazon.com/The-Fight-Home-Parts-Orleans/dp/1608194795