Props to Barnes & Nobel’s Leo Riggio from New Orleans!

New Orleans Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong, and in this case, I’m glad to not only say it, but offer some heartfelt praise to Leo Riggio of Barnes & Noble and family for having done the right thing for the right reasons in the right way for the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans in having made sure 101 houses were built in helping bring back the neighborhood.   To be clear I had never bad mouthed the project or in fact said a word about it, but I had doubted it was anything more than another vanity fling and had simply written it off in my mind, not even mentioning it at all in my recent book, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster (www.socialpolicy.org), despite the fact that I now realize it could have been a perfect example of what needed to be done to rebuild that was not done.

I’m eating crow quietly to celebrate the nice piece on the 101st house being finished by Project Home Again and the nice piece written about this event in The Times-Picayune by Rebecca Mowbray.   Not to make excuses, but part of the reason I had missed the boat on this great work because after the storm with a lot of fanfare and way too much nay saying about the rest of the rebuilding efforts, a big time MIT planner had trumpeted his connection with Riggio and the “blank check” he was claiming, and had gotten in the middle of the muddle between the contending arguments by planners and architects between “new urbanism” and “modernism.”  By 2007 when I did the first draft of The Battle this effort had still not gotten off the ground and looked like it would never happen, so I had forgotten about it mainly, though I don’t know how that happened since I drive through the Gentilly neighborhood down Franklin Avenue between my home in Bywater and my mother’s in Lake Oaks across from the UNO campus every Sunday to visit her when I’m in town.  We never fail to comment on the construction that we have seen rising in recent years with big smiles, but I had not been putting two and two together and coming up with Riggio.

He seems he made it work but sticking to the basics and remembering the New Orleans he knew and loved from his connection to his wife’s grandparents who had settled here when they came over from Italy.  Mowbray outlines the fundamentals well:

“Unlike the Make It Right project in the Lower 9th Ward, in which famous architects submitted designs that aimed to push the boundaries of environmental friendliness and energy efficiency, or Habitat for Humanity, which built scores of homes for musicians using largely volunteer labor, Project Home Again strived for designs that blend into the neighborhood and targeted people of modest incomes who had been homeowners before Katrina.

Although all the homes have been built, not all of them have been given away. To participate, people must earn less than 120 percent of the local median income, or less than $73,320 for a family of four; have a job; pass credit checks; go through homeownership training; and have no liens on their original property. Once accepted into the program, they give their original lot — with or without an unrepaired house — to Project Home Again, and Project Home Again gives them a brand new house in return and lets them pick out furniture to go with it.

All new homes are assigned a value of $150,000, and $30,000 of the mortgage is forgiven each year, so the participants own it free and clear after five years. If the lots that people turned in were well located, Project Home Again would build new homes on them for other people; otherwise, the group swapped the properties with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority for other lots that were closer to each other or other Project Home Again houses to create density.”

No fuss, no bother.  No big headlines, just sound, solid homes clustered together to really zip the community back together.  I’ve driven by scores of them and other than the fact that they rise high above the ground to deal with the potential of future flooding, they look, well, like houses should look like in Gentilly.

Having lived in Gentilly from the time my dad was transferred into the city and made us into New Orleanians, until I got out of high school, I especially liked Riggio’s reasons for focusing on the neighborhood because it was not iconic or sexy or classic New Orleans, but in his words, because:

“The major objective was to protect the working class of New Orleans. Very clearly, they represent the culture of this great city,” Riggio said. “In effect, we’re helping these families to get to a point where they have financial stability for years to come, and generational wealth.”

This is one case where someone put their money where their mouth – and mind! – was, and made it happen.  It was a $20 million dollar gift to Gentilly, so it’s not like Riggio doesn’t have some money, but there’s obviously still something to this guy.

The story claims he comes back regularly to New Orleans to enjoy the Fair Grounds race track, catch a good meal, visit Jazz Fest, and whatever.

Brother, you are stepping within blocks of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse when you make those rounds, and there’s a big cup of whatever great coffee waiting for you on the house, you just tell them, Wade said “he owed you one,” and it’s on the house!

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