In 1964, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans published the results of “A Survey of the Recreational, Social, and Economic Conditions of the Negro Population of the William S. Guste, Sr., Homes and the Adjacent Areas.” The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) recently opened the Guste Homes and housed a population of 2,443 residents, not including the high-rise home for elderly residents that made up a part of the project. Many saw such housing projects as an important first step in addressing the needs of low-income residents of the City. However, the report recognized that housing covered only one aspect of neighborhood revitalization; of those 2,443 residents, 1,731 were young people, and the report emphasizes that for them “recreational and cultural opportunities in the area [were] woefully inadequate.”
Surveys like the one produced by the Urban League can give important glimpses into the demographics and social conditions in the neighborhoods that organizations identified as slums. In the seven tracts of the census considered part of the Guste area (roughly the blocks bounded by Dryades, Claiborne, First, and Calliope Streets, encompassing the Guste Homes and the adjacent areas) the overall population consisted of 28,293 people, 77% of whom the census classified as “Negro.” Streets other than major thoroughfares were unpaved, inadequately lit, and “cluttered with debris.” The survey deemed the tenement buildings adjacent to Guste Homes occupied by renters as “overcrowded and hazardous.” According to the survey, a woman with a family of seven children complained of rats almost as big as cats in the Melpomene neighborhood, saying that several of her children had been bitten and that the rodents occasionally invaded her broken ice box.
Of 103 households the Urban League surveyed in detail, only 29 had lived in New Orleans all their lives. Many of those living in the Melpomene neighborhood recently transplanted to the city from rural parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, and felt isolated from social life and economic opportunities in the city. Ironically, many cited the improved educational opportunities for their children as a reason to move to the city, but the two schools that served Black children in the neighborhood, McDonough No. 36 and No. 38, were so overcrowded that students attended in what was called the “platoon system,” splitting the student body into two groups, each attending only half a day, switching over at lunch time. For working parents, this was a hardship, and many residents complained about the adverse effects the lack of childcare facilities and community centers had on young people in the neighborhood.
Naturally, residents were not happy about these conditions. Tenants complained about the conditions of housing and their inability to get absentee landlords to make needed repairs, though the survey noted that the few owner-occupied properties showed “care and pride” in their upkeep. Many renters felt that landlords overcharged for rent, creating cycles of poverty from which it was almost impossible to escape.
Underlying all of this was segregation and structural inequality. A racist social, political, and economic structure -- meant to keep Black residents of the city in permanent second class citizenship -- limited their choices about where to live, where to work, where to go to school, and even where to shop and socialize. Soon enough, the Guste area would become one of many centers of organizing for the Civil Rights struggle in New Orleans. But the inequalities within it were not inevitable. The Melpomene neighborhood that became the Guste Homes was always a site of struggle for residents of the city, and we can trace those struggles over generations of change in the neighborhood.