"It's finally coming down, after all these years," sighed the elderly Mrs. Thomas -- she declined to give her full name -- as she watched a city excavator claw into a blighted pink house at 1213 N. Rocheblave St. Until last week, the dilapidated building had separated her house from the John McDonogh High School gymnasium. "Too bad, it took somebody getting killed," Thomas said.
On April 14, two gunmen -- one armed with an SKS assault rifle -- avoided school security and metal detectors by slipping through a hole in a fence behind the blighted house. The gunmen entered the gym and fatally shot Jonathan Williams, a 15-year-old McDonogh student. Stray bullets wounded three coeds. Two hundred students stampeded for an exit, injuring a pregnant schoolgirl.
Police say Williams was slain in retaliation for the April 7 killing of 18-year-old Hillard Smith IV, in the 2300 block of Dumaine Street. The gangland style attack at McDonogh -- which Mayor Ray Nagin learned of during an Easter egg hunt in front of City Hall -- made news as far away as Australia.
Carlos Hampton, owner of Carlos Construction, says city officials contacted him on the morning of the shooting and asked him to put in an emergency bid to raze the long-neglected shotgun house on North Rocheblave Street. Two days later, Hampton's crew demolished the house in the Esplanade Ridge/Treme Local Historic District, which was owned by a city redevelopment agency.
Preservationists said the building was a historic home. The city called it a nuisance. To neighbors, it was a hangout for vagrants. The mayor's office alerted news media to record its destruction. "It took about 15 minutes," Hampton said of the demolition. "It will take the rest of the day to haul it away."
Winston Reid, director of code enforcement at the city Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development (DHND), acknowledged the shooting contributed to a "collaborative effort" among governmental agencies to raze the house. However, he and other city officials stressed the house was already slated for demolition under a "Safe School Boundary" program recently announced by Mayor Ray Nagin and District B Council member Renee Gill Pratt. A joint effort between the school district and the city, the initiative aims to eradicate blight within a five-block radius of all public schools. When the program got underway Feb. 27, Mayor Nagin said the goal was to "increase the quality of life for the community, the schools and most importantly, the students."
DHND director Alberta Pate says the city is working to demolish 24 more dilapidated houses near eight schools. City officials could not offer a timetable or provide names of the designated schools by press time. The first three blighted properties demolished under "Safe School" were located near Joseph Clark High School, where Hillard Smith was a student -- until he was shot to death five weeks later.
But late last week, it was McDonogh's turn for extra city attention. A city street-sweeper brushed the surrounding streets. A worker pressure-washed the school's front steps on Esplanade Avenue. Others applied new chains to a fence on the side street. Mrs. Taylor, who is addled by arthritis in both knees, asked city inspector Reid to remove several trees on the condemned property that were intruding on her well-kept yard. He took her by the hand and escorted her to the demolition site, so she could give more specifics on the work that needed to be done.