Democratizing Development through Creative Collaboration

The distressed houses left behind are not eyesores; they are heirlooms of New Orleans’ collective history and seeds for the future

A majority-black, working class neighborhood and home to an abundance of creative energy, Lower Mid-City/Upper Tremé of New Orleans has battled disinvestment by the city for more than five decades. Generations of population decline, business closures, and falling property values have worsened after Hurricane Katrina left a deep scar of blight, and the neighborhood stands facing “urban renewal strategies” by top-down development schemes that are rocking up property values and alienating people from the decision making process. Led by Lisa Sigal, Imani Jacqueline Brown, and Carl Joe Williams, Blights Out is a collaborative and creative initiative to unite residents, artists, architects, and organizers in the design of a new, inclusive model for development. By pulling together resources and reconciling communities, Blights Out hopes to provide an effective model for ethical investment and preservation of the cultural heritage of New Orleans neighborhoods, equipping people to lead rather than be led or pushed by the development.

Therefore, Blights Out’s research can potentially reverse the negative impact of gentrification and create solutions for permanent and affordable housing. Allowing people to sit with abandoned houses, photograph them, and experience the sensory environment, Blights Out’s experiential method of “performing architecture” brings people together to understand the region’s history and how development actually functions in the city, so that blighted properties will not become merely renovated, modernized structures that will uproot historically black neighborhoods, but respectable architecture full of potential life true to the region’s indigenous ecosystem. Drawing on New Orleans’ traditions of performance, storytelling, and community organizing, Blights Out uses art to facilitate civic engagement with blight, disinvestment, and housing through programming, and now works to purchase, design, and restore a single blighted structure in Lower Mid-City/Upper Tremé, New Orleans, into a cultural resource center. Moreover, Blights Out will partner with local Community Land Trusts (CLTs) to share the tools and inspiration for New Orleans residents to build the destinies of their own neighborhoods. Ultimately, the Blights Out initiative can be employed in cities across the country to promote collective investment in a place, uniting newcomers with long-time residents to share intellectual, creative and cultural property.

Blights Out’s objectives include:

  • To Purchase and Restore a Blighted Property in the Lower Mid-City/Upper Tremé Neighborhoods: One of the main and the most urgent goals for Blights Out is to purchase and transform a blighted property into a community cultural organizing and resource center. Authored by the people who will use the center, this property will serve as a site that will host art, culture, and education, to help participants find out what resources are available in the neighborhood, what needs are unmet, and what dreams people have. By partaking in the development process, people with variety of backgrounds and expertise will come together to create toolkits for others to use to acquire a property of their own.
  • To Partner with Local CLTs: “What challenges does the CLT bring to an individualist concept of ownership? How does the CLT function? Why and how would one form a CLT? What is the legal structure of the CLT?” are some of the questions that Blights Out researches to understand its origins and history. By realizing its implications, Blights Out hopes to organize educational materials and creative programming on alternative land use models.
  • To Record, Visualize, and Amplify the Voices of Lower Mid-City/Upper Tremé: Utilizing public art, neighborhood storytelling, architectural intervention, and research true to New Orleans tradition and culture, Blights Out will present the voices of the past, present, and future of Lower Mid-City/Upper Tremé in creative, experiential, and relevant ways.
  • To Document and Present the Process: With collected data, research, and collaboration, Blights Out will document and present the development process creatively and clearly as a replicable model for future action through the publication of a People’s Development Toolkit. This document will also index scattered resources on housing, lending, and blight remediation in New Orleans, thus serving an unmet need identified at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center 2015 Annual Fit for King Conference.

Bio

“If left unabated, the continued alienation of people from policy will achieve yet another victory in the long con to uproot historically black neighborhoods. The distressed houses left behind are not eyesores—they are heirlooms of our collective history. They are not empty; they are vessels full of future life. It is of vital importance that this new life have a symbiotic—not parasitic—relationship with the indigenous ecosystem.

Blights Out operates according to the principle that each of us—artists, architects, urban planners, gardeners, masons, cooks, organizers, parents, students, musicians, lawyers, sanitation workers, and other stakeholders—holds a piece to the fragmented puzzle of development. By working together through an experiential learning process, we can demystify and democratize development for ourselves and for the city-at-large.”

-- Imani Jacqueline Brown and Lisa Sigal

In June 2015, Blights Out entered its second year. In this short time, Blights Out has formed a coalition of communities who have not ordinarily been in dialogue in New Orleans—natives and transplants, young and old, and peoples of all races, economic strata, backgrounds, and professions.

Blights Out was born in June 2014 during the lead-up to Prospect.3 (P.3) New Orleans International Art Biennial, and was conceived by P.3 artist Lisa Sigal, P.3+ artist Carl Joe Williams, and P.3 Curatorial Associate and cultural activist Imani Jacqueline Brown. It was birthed out of the recognition that Sigal’s project for P.3—Home Court Crawl (HCC), which wheat-pasted on blighted homes lines from a series of one-act plays addressing emptiness, abandonment, and gentrification—needed to be the beginning of a long-term conservation and committed investment in a neighborhood beyond the biennial timeframe in order to have a sincere impact.

The three founders then immediately initiated dialogue with residents and property owners in Lower Mid-City/Upper Tremé through canvassing and letter-writing, presented their proposal at community meetings, such as the Justice and Beyond Coalition, and met with potential partners who would provide expertise on the varied aspects of the project. They began to host workshops where they could mine the definition of words like “community” and “gentrification” and explore alternative models to a flawed system; they hosted community dinners where they shared food and conversation; they hosted Story Circles where they grew closer. Most importantly, they implemented an organizational structure and series of charrettes to ensure that the project would be collaborative, open, transparent, and lead to the sharing of skills, knowledge, and opportunities.

Currently, Blights Out has a team of about 40 people in four working groups: Property, Ownership (Community Land Trust), Sustainability, Creative Community (performances, art events and interventions), for a more inclusive, honoring, and healthy process of development.

For more information, visit http://blightsout.org/

Founders:

Lisa Sigal, Artist/Curator, The Drawing Center
Carl Joe Williams, Artist/Curator
Imani Jacqueline Brown, Cultural Activist

Affiliate Personnel:

Advisory Council
Bryan Lee, Civic Design Director, Arts Council of New Orleans
Stephanie McKee, Director, Junebug Productions
Bob Snead, Director, Press Street
Dan Etheridge

Shana Griffin, Founder, Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative
Willa Conway, Resource Generation
Steven Kennedy, CEO, RAO
Sue Press, Founding Member, Ole & Nu Style Fellas Social Aid and Pleasure Club

Videos

Awards

Exhibition at Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University, Spring 2017

Collaboration with artist Jan Mun, A Studio in the Woods Artist Residency, Tulane University professor Howard Mielke, and A Community Voice, Spring 2016

“Controls and Counteractions”, exhibition at Antenna Gallery, November 2015

Workshop at National Organization of Minority Architects Annual Conference, October 2015

Featured non-profit beneficiary, The Foundation Gallery, September 2015 Exhibition

Presentation at The Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies Community Uprising Conference, August 2015

Invited to New Orleans City Council Community Development Committee, chaired by Councilperson LaToya Cantrell

Invited to Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance Leadership Board and Community Engagement Working Group

Presented at Creative Change: Gulf South, an invite-only conference organized by the Opportunity Agenda and hosted by Foundation for Louisiana, Spring 2015

Recipient of the 1st Platforms Grant, a re-grant from Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual Arts, Spring 2015