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Baghdad on the Bayou: Cyril Neville Talks About the Threatened Projects and Losing the Home He Loves

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Cyril Neville Talks About Going Home and the New Orleans Projects

“I left because my life had been devastated by the storm and its aftermath. Up until that time, for 57 years I had stayed in the city I love—and I love it no matter what—I love its people and it is where the bones of my mother and father lie. It is home.”

--Cyril Neville December 13, 2007

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Cyril Neville lost his home in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans in August 2005 when the levees broke and hurricane Katrina’s flood waters drowned lives, destroyed dreams, and shattered hopes for hundreds of thousands. Power lines still dangle from utility poles overgrown with vines and kudzu in Gentilly, and black and blue plastic tarps snap smartly in breezes that blow through empty neighborhoods, abandoned homes, broken windows and the mean streets of 2007.

Neville told us that he has been “informally back" and trying to fix his home since October of 2005. Like many other returning residents whom we interviewed, Neville was “ripped off” by contractors, “to the tune of $19,000” in his case, and he has had all of the copper wiring stolen—twice. It is important to Neville that people understand that he hasn’t exactly been “gone” from New Orleans for the last two years.

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“I left because my life had been devastated by the storm and its aftermath. Up until that time, for 57 years I had stayed in the city I love—and I love it no matter what—I love its people and it is where the bones of my mother and father lie. It is home,” Neville wrote in an early morning email to us. “Home” was capitalized and underscored.

Cyril Neville is part of the “heartbeat” of New Orleans, but his own heart is heavy. He knows the despair and vulnerability experienced by the displaced. Neville is one of 200,000 people who have not returned full time to New Orleans, and wants to show his solidarity with those still besieged with uncertainty, indecision, and fear. Neville may have resettled in Austin, Texas, but he misses the old neighborhood, the ability to get up in the middle of the night and drive to the market for a Hubig’s Pie, and the convenience of walking a few blocks to visit family and friends. Quite simply, Cyril Neville misses the neighborhood.

Anyone who has followed New Orleans politics since Katrina understands why
Neville has been hesitant to come forward about recent public housing controversies and conflicts. Comments he made in interviews and in print about the way local, state and federal governments failed to respond to the needs of the displaced drew fire from many quarters, and Neville has been reluctant to take a public stand since. However, truth prevails with time, and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have issued statements that vindicate Neville and indict rescue and reconstruction efforts in New Orleans as being too little and too late—slow at best—and wrought with malfeasance and racism at worst.

“I think it's important that the people involved in this struggle know that I stand with them and that the song I speak of here is a rallying song for this monumental movement. After all, I am a charity hospital baby from the Calliope projects, born and bred in the bricks,” Neville said in a statement.

The song Cyril Neville wants the world to hear is called The Projects. He insisted that we link to it here.

“Born and bred in the bricks…we played with toys, not guns, and there wasn’t much dope.”

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The lyric reminisces about growing up in “the bricks,” watching his brothers play music, and enjoying their youth. It is the recollection of a grown man facing today’s grim realities of life in New Orleans.

I love New Orleans, I love my culture, and I love my country,” Neville told us pensively.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has underscored the “struggle” Neville speaks of with plans to demolish the four largest public housing projects in New Orleans on Saturday. If officials at (HUD) have their way, bulldozers will rumble through Lafitte, St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, and B.W. Cooper (Calliope)—drowning the sounds of bullhorns and protesters that are sure to greet them. Gentrification will destroy the heart and soul of New Orleans; Neville knows it, and wants to say so publicly.

Despite the fact that 200,000 residents, of all colors, are still displaced, HUD is authorized to spend $762 million in US taxpayer funds to tear down 4600 public housing apartments and replace then with 744 units. The math is easy. Where are the rest of the families supposed to go who occupied the 84 percent of the housing units that will not be rebuilt? Neville is convinced that the loss, through depopulation, of the “gumbo” of New Orleans will leave an empty, soul-less shell of “urban development”—a city designed and planned for the wealthy.

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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, the Huffington (more...)

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