Sunday, May 25, 2008

Busy Week to Save Charity and its Community

This past week was busy in New Orleans. Just as the rain came down in a big way on Thursday afternoon, two pivotal decisions for healthcare access and the recovery of the Crescent City were handed down over the course of this week.

On May 20th the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Charity Hospital and the adjacent neighborhood to its list of the 11 Most Endangered historic sites in the nation. Each year, the Trust lists eleven sites that are of historic importance and in danger of being lost. This past Tuesday, Charity Hospital was added to that list in a move that may prove to be monumental in the fight to preserve the Art Deco building on Tulane Avenue, and the surrounding community.

Just a few months ago LSU announced plans to demolish not only Big Charity, which LSU deemed unfit to house a medical facility, but also around 200 homes in the adjacent neighborhood that fell into the "footprint" for development of a new medical complex. The decision to further displace many families who already suffered the trauma of the initial displacement of Katrina is all the more controversial because of the existence of a nearby site that is uninhabited. Many of these homes were built before 1880, and warrant the same protection as other treasured historic sites in the city. This battle to save the neighborhood has been arduous for the many residents who are committed to retuning to their homes. A city ordinance has been enacted to deny many homeowners building permits to begin re-construction of their homes. Some residents had returned to their homes prior to that ordinance, so streets like Palmyra, where the Trust held its press conference announcing Charity's inclusion in their 11 Most Endangered list, have spotty re-development if at all.

There are residents in exile who are determined to return home, and continue to live in their neighborhood that families have called home for generations, yet they are being blocked from doing so by the same government who called for them to return home when the outlook for the future of the city was at its bleakest. To paraphrase the remarks of one resident, those that have called the neighborhood adjacent to Big Charity home have been left hanging in the air, unsure of whether to stay, go, or sell.

This announcement adds yet another voice to the call to save Charity and the neighborhood that surrounds it. Walter Gallas, director of the New Orleans field office of the Trust remarked that LSU needs to have transparent plans for the development of this area, as many of the proceedings to this point have been shrouded in secrecy. He also commented that this battle to preserve the area and the hospital is not an attempt to block progress and preclude the population from obtaining 21st century health care, however there should be responsible development that does not disadvantage residents, but engages them.

On Friday morning, two key decisions were handed down in Orleans Parish Civil District Court. The first hearing for the litigation against the LSU Health Sciences Center-New Orleans for the closure of Charity Hospital was held in Civil District Court this morning. The defense argued that the wrong party was being sued, and that the LSU Board of Supervisors should be named defendant in the suit instead of LSUHSCNO, and as such the case should be heard in East Baton Rouge Parish instead of Orleans. Judge Ethel Simms-Julien disagreed on both counts, ruling that the correct party was named in the suit and that the case will be heard in Orleans Parish. Among the reasons cited by attorneys for the plaintiffs was the fact that all of the operative decisions, actions and facts related to the case took place in New Orleans.

After the successful hearing an informational session was held to give a summary of the day's developments and to discuss the ongoing process of the suit. Tracie Washington, LJI President and CEO introduced to the audience the attorneys working on the Charity litigation, and discussed how this case ties hand-in-hand with the organizing and preservation work for Charity and the surrounding community.

During the session Leonard Aragon and LJI's Steve Jupiter cautioned that though today's rulings are a step in the right direction, there is much work left to be done. In summarizing the current health legislation, Brad Ott noted, "Healthcare is being paraded as a commodity that we have to buy and sell," however health is an inalienable human right that should be afforded to all. To close the meeting, Steve Rosenfeld stated that though the legal argument in this case is a good one, "a good legal argument by itself never toppled a large institution." Rosenfeld stressed that in order to prevail; a coalition of concerned citizens must join together and provide a human face. That coalition should not be comprised solely of New Orleanians, but residents from around the state.

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