Gordon Plaza Exhibit Opens at Newcomb Art Museum

Residents of Gordon Plaza pose at the Newcomb. Photo Credit: Jesse Lu Baum

Thursday, September 5—The Newcomb Museum hosted an opening reception for two new exhibits focusing on Environmental racism. One exhibit, by artist and activist LaToya Ruby Frazier, focused on the ongoing Flint water crisis (“Flint is Family”). However, the other focused on an issue here in New Orleans: Gordon Plaza.

The exhibit is called “The American Dream Denied: The New Orleans Residents of Gordon Plaza Seek Relocation.”

Built in the 1970s with funding from the Federal government, Gordon Plaza was placed in the upper 9th ward of New Orleans on the Agriculture Street Landfill, which was last used in 1965.

The homes within the subdivision were marketed to working-class African American New Orleanians as a chance to become first-time homeowners. However, shortly after moving in the residents began uncovering evidence of the former landfill as waste started to surface in their yards. In 1994, the site was declared a highly contaminated site by the EPA, earning a place on the national “superfund” list where it remains to this day. Over the following years, there have been piecemeal attempts at environmental cleanup, but the area still has one of the highest cancer rates in the state—including the area colloquially known as “cancer alley”.

Altar to the Ancestors- made by the People’s Assembly of New Orleans and the residents of Gordon Plaza. Photo Credit: Jesse Lu Baum

“The American Dream Denied,” features sculptures, portraits of the residents of Gordon Plaza, and videos of the resident’s protest movement to be relocated. In collaboration with Tulane Students, the residents of Gordon Plaza, and the New Orleans ‘Peoples’ Assembly, the exhibit tells the story of the community, following the timeline from when the residents bought their homes, to finding out their homes were on a landfill, to their current movement for relocation.

Currently, the residents of Gordon Plaza are asking the City of New Orleans to compensate them for the full value of their homes, so that they can relocate to homes that will be safe for themselves and their families.

The exhibit’s opening reception packed the Tulane Museum’s halls full of Gordon Plaza’s residents, allies, art aficionados, and members of the Tulane community. A panel discussion at the opening was filled to standing room only.

Portraits of current residents of Gordon Plaza. Photo Credit: Jesse Lu Baum

In an interview featured in the exhibit, resident Samuel Egana says: “I’m bitter about not getting out because I do feel that it cost my wife her life… I’m still here, you know, and I have children… I have grandchildren. Who the hell wants to leave something to their children or grandchildren that you think may cost their lives if they live here?”

In a recent forum in the upper 9th ward centered on affordable housing, Mayor Latoya Cantrell told residents that she was considering sites to move the residents to—despite their demand for money for relocation, so that they may choose their new neighborhoods and housing for themselves.

Artist LaVonna Varnado-Brown poses with her sculpture Microflora Cornucopia. Photo Credit: Jesse Lu Baum

In an interview with the Critical Visualization and Media Lab at Tulane, Gordon Plaza resident and activist Lydwina Hurst said: “Right now it has been three decades we have been fighting this, and it’s not fair. No, it’s environmental racism at its highest… We’ve been fighting this through six different mayors… we have been abused long enough, too many times, and it’s time for that to stop. We want to be involved in whatever plans they have for us.”

“The American Dream Denied: The New Orleans Residents of Gordon Plaza Seek Relocation” will be on display in the Newcomb Museum until December 14, 2019. Admission is free and open to the public.

Jesse Lu Baum is a queer writer and cartoonist originally from Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Medium.com, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Mid-City Messenger and Preservation in Print. Aside from writing, she has also worked as a non-profit home repair person, a theater bartender, and a research assistant.

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