Amid the crumbling concrete, smashed sinks, and forgotten baby clothes left by the last residents at the abandoned Woodlands housing complex, DJ’s spin music for the crowd and lines form behind food trucks.
It’s a surreal hybrid of blight and block party that’s been attracting hundreds of visitors most Saturdays since November in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans as part of ExhibitBE, the brainchild of local street artist Brandan Odums. In an unlikely partnership between property developer and tagger, Odums and a handful of other street artists were allowed to take over a five-story apartment complex, filling its abandoned rooms with art and covering its face with soaring murals. Bordered by a failed public housing project, the exhibit, a colorful oasis in a desert of urban blight, has attracted public acclaim but private city condemnation, and new plans to build over the site’s dramatic history remain in limbo.
“We wanted to make people talk about what happened here and what could happen here,”
Odums (a.k.a. bmike) says of ExhibitBE, which is part of the Prospect.3 art biennial. “We hope that, with this, we get people to see blight differently. To see that it’s connected to something larger than just that physical space,” he says. “Each piece of blight is connected to someone’s story and that story deserves respect and deserves honor and deserves some consideration.”
While Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been on a blight-eradication mission since taking office, decrepit property is by no means a rare sight in New Orleans. As of 2013, around 30,000 properties were still considered blighted, many of them destroyed and never reclaimed following Hurricane Katrina. The blight issue continually comes to the fore here in light of the city’s rocky history with public housing and, more recently, skyrocketing rental prices that are straining the poor.
The Woodlands has a tumultuous history at the center of many of those trends. Once a white middle-class enclave known as DeGaulle Manor in the ’60s, by the eighties it was a crime-ridden crack den. Under the ownership of Anthony Reginelli, Jr., it became the Woodlands in 2000, a mostly black, low-income apartment complex that fell back into disrepair. The complex sustained damage during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, but never flooded, and some residents didn’t return in the subsequent months, replaced instead by squatters.
It was then that the complex became a staging ground for a mostly white, anarchist-leaning volunteer corps run by Malik Rahim, a community activist and former Black Panther party member. According to Rahim, Reginelli had enlisted his help in cleaning the place up and agreed to eventually sell it to him for $5 million. Over the next several months, Rahim used the building as a base for Common Ground Collective, a volunteer organization he founded in September 2005 and that provided health services to thousands and managed 19,000 volunteers in the two years after Katrina.
Drawing on his previous experience as community director at a nearby (now demolished) public housing project and setting up clinics while with the Black Panthers in 1970s San Francisco, Rahim ran drug treatment, high school training, and homeownership education programs, among other things. The site housed over 200 white volunteers that had traveled from out-of-state to New Orleans to assist in recovery and he planned to purchase a neighboring building to set up a permanent clinic. Rahim claims that due to his outreach and treatment programs crime dropped to nearly zero, even in the chaotic months following Katrina.
“It was the only time that community was integrated, crime free, and where people were living there were about to become homeowners,” says Rahim. He attracted prominent do-gooders looking to help and met with Brad Pitt in the early days of the actor’s Make It Right Foundation, a housing non-profit. “All of that was influence that came out of the Woodlands housing project,” he says.
Meanwhile, Rahim had raised over $500,000 from Hollywood celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, Dave Chappelle, and Michael Moore to fund operations. He was also working with economic development group LISC and Stanford University students to develop building purchase and business plans. University of Virginia engineers volunteered to design an off-grid solar and biodiesel power system. It was an ambitious plan that fell apart when Reginelli sold the complex to another developer in October of 2006, called for a Thanksgiving Day eviction, and disputed any previous agreement with Rahim.
Rahim says he was never able to reclaim any of the nearly $1.2 million in cash that he put into the building. He also claims his Black Panther affiliation was the reason he could never get a lawyer to take up his case and that “it’s the reason why right now there is no recognition for the work that we’ve done,” he says. “In two years we served over 240,000 people and never received not even a thank you card from the city, state, or federal government.”
In developing the plans for ExhibitBE, Odums sought to portray the ups and downs of the site’s history and encouraged his team of painters to do the same. “Immediately the responsibility of what this space represented came upon me,” Odums recalls. “This is more than just painting pretty pictures on the wall.”
A portrait of Rahim, painted by Odums, adorns the one-story community center, along with black history icons, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X. For Rahim, the exhibit has been a chance to tell the Woodland’s story to a population that likely wouldn’t hear it otherwise. “What [Odums] has accomplished through art is way more valuable than anything I could ever say,” he adds. “The whole thing is about hope.”
As for the future of the site post-Exhibit BE, plans to develop a $40 million athletics, hotel, and retail complex are in limbo, according to Bill Thomason, Director of RDLN Foundation and the property’s latest owner. Though the exhibit was been publicly received as an innovative art project, the city is instead classifying it as a code violation. Thomason is currently fighting New Orleans officials on blight statutes that allow the city to fine building owners and even repossess property for un-remediated graffiti.
“I’m learning a lot from this whole experience,” says Thomason. “Hopefully [city] officials are seeing that there is tagging, and then there’s art. To see what these guys can do in 20 or 30 minutes with a can…I was totally amazed.”
Thomason was so impressed with the turnout for ExhibitBE–which attracted 3,000 people in just five hours on opening weekend–that he quickly reversed his original plan to open it for just one day. A closing celebration is planned for this weekend, and Odums, who has been hosting school tours almost every week since the opening, and RDLN’s board are considering keeping all the art up in their final development plans.
If they can get it built. Besides the quibble over the so-called graffiti blight, Thomason says the project is currently being held back by a fight with the city over eight years of back taxes accrued before RDLN took ownership last year. “It’s coming to the wire,” Thomason wrote of the project’s future, in an email sent earlier this month.
For Rahim, the fate of the development carries significant weight for a community. “This is going to be the last chance,” he says. If Thomason’s project fails, Rahim believes, “we will have to deal with the ramifications.”
Odums, who grew up near the Woodlands, is now focused on continuing to spread free art across the city, on blighted property or elsewhere.
“Instead of getting people to come to the museum,” he says, “let’s take the museum to them.”