Residents seek historic designation for black subdivision
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Carrie Mingo Douglas can rattle off notable families in her Pontchartrain Park neighborhood with ease: Henry B. Dejoie Jr., grandson of Louisiana Weekly founder C.C. Dejoie Sr., owns the red brick home near Congress Drive and Frankfort Street.
Civil rights leader Dr. William Roosevelt Adams and his wife Linda Adams once owned the “rambling ranch”-style house on Congress Drive on which they would string hundreds of lights at Christmas.
And former Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial, his wife Sybil and their children — one of whom, Marc, would also go on to become mayor — could once be found in the tidy Press Drive brick home they bought in 1961.
Now, Douglas and other residents of the city’s first suburban-style neighborhood for African-Americans hope to memorialize the area’s history with an official National Register of Historic Places designation.
The title would be honorific for the Gentilly subdivision, but it also would open up tax incentives for residents seeking to renovate some of the mostly ranch-style, single-family homes, some of which still house their original owners or their descendants.
“We thought (the designation) was a long time coming, because this park is a historic place,” Douglas said.
Even before Hurricane Katrina, members of Douglas’ Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association began eyeing the historic marker for the subdivision, which opened in 1955.
Pontchartrain Park was designed to give homeownership opportunities to upwardly mobile black families at a time when segregation was still both the law and the custom in housing, education and everything else in Louisiana.
But the project was stalled by the storm and by concerns from some residents about what limits the historic designation might impose on future building projects.
In fact, only designation by the city as a local historic district comes with restrictions on demolitions and renovations, said Danielle Del Sol, director of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, which is helping Pontchartrain Park with its effort.
“They want to go the national (designation) route, which means that people can still demolish their buildings without permission,” Del Sol said.
The National Register, which lists more than 90,000 properties nationwide, awards status based on the historical and architectural significance of a neighborhood, public space or building.
With the designation, property owners can receive a 20 percent federal tax credit for money spent toward refurbishing a rental residential or commercial property, if they agree to certain rules. If no federal funding or tax credits are sought, no federal restrictions are imposed.
And all federally certified historic properties, income-producing or not, are eligible for federal preservation grants.
The status also grants some protection from any federal action that could threaten a historic site, though it does not protect against local actions.
Getting on the register, however, is an arduous process. The neighborhood’s historic features must be documented extensively, including each of its more than 1,000 lots and 800 houses. The 18-hole Joseph M. Bartholomew Municipal Golf Course and the neighborhood’s three churches must also be described.
Del Sol’s group worked with Tulane University students last year to catalog about 80 lots. But it wants to train the area’s residents to finish the task themselves, so that Pontchartrain Park can more quickly join the 21 other city neighborhoods on the National Register.
“We believe that with their help and us being organized, we could go out there in just a few weekends and be able to do that work,” Del Sol said.
The documents they plan to send to federal officials will note the area’s historical importance, in giving “Negro families in New Orleans opportunities unduplicated in any other city,” and having “no sign of cheapness” in construction, according to a 1954 Times-Picayune editorial on the project.
Baton Rouge developer W.H. Crawford built the homes, which sold for at least $9,700 apiece and were available to black families who earned at least $255 monthly, the equivalent of about $30,000 a year today. That price point was close to what Crawford offered in the adjacent Gentilly Woods neighborhood, south of Pontchartrain Park, when he opened it to white residents just four years earlier.
Philanthropists Edgar and Edith Stern helped put up private financing for the Pontchartrain Park homes, which were originally two- and three-bedroom properties on spacious lots with carports and screened porches. Many of the brick, cedar shingle, wood and asbestos homes still stand, substantially unchanged.
A handful of the properties had swimming pools. There’s still one in retired schoolteacher and Carnival dressmaker Marigold Hardesty’s house on Mendez Street, where her former husband, Fats Domino’s longtime saxophonist Herbert Hardesty, also once lived, Douglas said.
Even the subdivision’s Congress Drive entrance off of Hayne Boulevard has a story: Most residents originally preferred using it to the separate Press Drive entrance, “because people felt uncomfortable going through Gentilly Woods,” she said.
About 1,000 Gentilly Woods residents signed a petition to block Pontchartrain Park the year before it opened, complaining that it would bring “undesirable” traffic to their neighborhood and diminish their property values, according to a news account at the time.
Despite the opposition, the new neighborhood flourished, with more than 680 families owning homes there within its first four years. And though the area was hit hard after Katrina, 80 percent of its residents returned.
“We’re gonna be a historic district,” said Curtis Perkins Jr., who took a break from cutting the lawn of his Press Drive home to talk.
Because of what the area symbolized for black progress in New Orleans, “we are historic already, regardless of whether it’s acknowledged or not,” he said.