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The last days of Lower Mid-City

Stephen Hilger's Back of Town captures the disappearance of a neighborhood

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Stephen Hilger sees New Orleans through the lens of a document-ary photographer.

  "There's a lot of beautiful, rich visual sights and traditions," the photographer says of the city. "At the same time, there's a lot of unfairness and things that have been lost, people and places that have been overlooked or disenfranchised."

  In Back of Town, Hilger documents the disappearance of Lower Mid-City to make way for University Medical Center and the VA Medical Center.

  Hilger, who now lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Pratt Institute, began the project while teaching at Tulane University. He signs the black-and-white photo book at Ogden After Hours Thursday at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

  The photo study profiles the diverse working-class community that rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods only to be razed a few years later, displacing more than 600 residents. Since then, the 70 acres of homes and businesses comprising the historic neighborhood have been supplanted by hospital complexes. Prior to their removal via eminent domain, Hilger photographed the people and architecture that embodied the neighborhood.

  "I often work this way, in which I'm trying to photograph something before it's too late," Hilger says.

  In 2008, he was working at Tulane when he learned of plans for the demolition of more than 200 homes to make room for two hospitals.

  "When I heard that the neighbor-hood that came to be known as Lower Mid-City was going to be dismantled and destroyed, it seemed important to go and look for myself and try to understand something about the place before it was gone," he says.

  The controversy surrounding the makeover of Lower Mid-City was especially fraught given the new complex's proximity to Charity Hospital, shuttered since Katrina. Protests to reopen the historic hospital were unsuccessful.

  "I'm drawn to hierarchies that exist in a city, the class or power hierarchy that exists between government and residents that can result in a drastic social and visual change," Hilger says. "It's a historical view of a neighborhood, but it's not depicting its heyday. It's the last chapter."

Bar: Men patronize a Lower Mid-City bar that will be demolished. - PHOTO BY STEPHEN HILGER
  • Photo by Stephen Hilger
  • Bar:
    Men patronize a Lower Mid-City bar that will be demolished.

  Some of Hilger's photographs show the blight characteristic of many New Orleans neighborhoods. Cat's claw vines cover an abandoned home. A front door is scrawled with the post-flood declaration, "gas off." A photo of two men seated in a neighborhood bar evinces the everyday happenings of the place.

  "Up until the end, people were continuing to go about their daily lives," Hilger says. "There were just a lot less of them. Eventually there was less architecture as the space was dismantled piece by piece. And then it was gone.

  "I was working in the city I was living in, but I was always conscious of the fact that I was visiting. It wasn't my neighborhood. I wanted to treat it with dignity and respect, and I also wanted to make sure people could see the pictures and know what happened there."

  By 2012, Lower Mid-City was con-

verted into a blank slate. An aerial

photograph of the barren neighbor-hood is one of the most striking images in the book. He described the area as "partially a burial site, but also a construction zone."

  "I know there's so many wonderful and glorious things about the place," Hilger says about New Orleans. "This is the contrast."

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