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

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.

“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.

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.”

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.

Where will the displaced poor live? No one seems to have answered that question, but they will not be in New Orleans, since the 1000 “market rate” apartments that are slated for construction will cost $400,000 each.

Calliope was home to 1,400 working class African-American households before the floods of August 2005. Many—perhaps a majority—were headed by women. The brick project sprawls over almost 60 acres and contains 1,546 individual dwellings. Calliope is noteworthy for its status as the largest tenant run housing development in the United States. It is also infamous for violence, murder and drugs in recent years.

The story of Calliope has played out over the other projects slated for demolition and it is no wonder there is a sense among the displaced that the City of New Orleans is using the “shock doctrine” of disaster capitalism to depopulate low income housing, thereby making room for new development. After Katrina’s floods scattered the poor throughout the country as so many seeds in the wind, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) posted paper notices saying residents were not allowed to move back. In a twist of linguistic irony, HANO hired the Las Vegas firm “Access Denied,” to install 16 gauge steel plates over windows and doors at Cooper and other projects. The excuse for this largesse was “protection” from looters and thieves. Reports in the Times-Picayune and other local publications quoted residents who said robberies occurred with key access and that thefts happened AFTER Mayor Ray Nagin urged people to return.

Jill Soffiyah Elijah, the deputy Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School, went far beyond condemning gentrification. “It is our view that the US Government has committed crimes against humanity, particularly in relation to its failure to maintain functional levees that should have protected the City of New Orleans,” Elijah said in summary statements after hearing 30 hours of testimony given by hurricane survivors and experts in August 2007.

Racial discrimination, vigilantism, and violations of human rights involving the rights to adequate housing and education were the most egregious findings of the international tribunal. Among others, the ACLU of New York, the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition, and the National Lawyers Guild joined representatives from nine countries at the hearings.

Affordable housing, jobs that pay a living wage and quality healthcare and education are constant hot-button issues post-Katrina. Amnesty International southern regional director Jared Fuer has gone so far as to state that “To demolish affordable housing without sufficient remaining low-income housing stock is not only irresponsible, but a violation of international human rights standards.”

Kali Akuno of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund charges studies prove that flood survivors with home insurance have not received compensation or aid. Rents and utilities have increased, while wages remain the same. Rentals once priced at $600 to $700 have increased on average to about $1,600. Restoration of the infrastructure in hard-hit neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward, Gentilly and Gretna is lagging and in some places non-existent. Many homes are facing winter without water or gas service.

Cyril Neville quotes from the book, The Second Battle of New Orleans by Liva Baker, and lists A.P. Tureaud as one of his heroes. Tureaud was a black Creole lawyer who peacefully but relentlessly fought for civil rights and integration in Louisiana. The subtext of the iconic reference to the 100 year effort to integrate Louisiana’s schools as The Second Battle of New Orleans can certainly be applied to the current reconstruction crisis. The Second Battle of New Orleans is being waged this week and Cyril Neville thinks that heroes like A.P. Tureaud “are what New Orleans needs today.”

To drive the point deeper, Neville quoted James A. Colaico’s book, Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July Oration, “When the happiness of some is pursued to the detriment of others, the general welfare standard of the Preamble (of the Constitution) is violated.”

On the twelfth day before Christmas the Constitution will be tested, and New Orleans will face a decidedly different future if bulldozers roll through the projects as scheduled.

Georgianne Nienaber has been an investigative environmental writer for more than thirty years and wrote a column for the Rwandan New Times. She lives in rural northern Minnesota. Recent articles have appeared in India's TerraGreen, COA News, The Journal of the International Primate Protection League, Africa Front, The United Nations Publication, A Civil Society Observer,, and Zimbabwe's The Daily Mirror. Her fiction exposé of insurance fraud in the horse industry, Horse Sense, was re-released in early 2006. Gorilla Dreams: The Legacy of Dian Fossey was also released in 2006. Read other articles by Georgianne, or visit Georgianne's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Melissa Gutierrez said on December 17th, 2007 at 5:11pm #

    This story is all wrong.

    For starters, everyone on this city remembers how the Nevilles turned their backs on the city for the first few years after the storm. You can’t change that now, Cyril.

    Here’s what he said (which contradicts this article) after the storm:

    —Neville said he has no desire to return to a New Orleans that will never be the same. —
    —“My new home is here in Austin,” he said.

    Why didn’t they play Jazz Fest? Why did he and the other Nevilles rag the city for a couple years? And, no, they weren’t only ragging the “authorities.” This city is going to have a long memory about where the Nevilles stood after the storm.

    As for being “born and bred in the bricks,” he may have been born in the projects, but I don’t know how much time he actually spent there. It’s common knowledge that the Nevilles grew up on Valence St., miles from any projects. Don’t believe me? Go look at the Nevilles’ own website:

    –[Art]He still lives in the same Thirteenth Ward block of Valence Street where he and his siblings were raised in New Orleans.– click here.

    As for the projects, they were absolute hellholes that only a lunatic would want to bring back. Don’t take my word for it, YouTube the words “new orleans” and “projects” to see what they were really like.

  2. Georgianne Nienaber said on December 18th, 2007 at 1:19am #

    Frankly, I should not give a D#@^, but since Cyril was brave enough to step forward in solidarity with the dispossessed, I will break my own rules and respond to this post. Please find the archives of the Times-Picayune on November 16, 2007. There is an extensive discussion of the “hard feelings” towards the Neville Brothers. I did not interview the brothers, I interviewed Cyril. will note that Aaron and Cyril did lose their homes. Charles has lived in MA since the 1990’s.They did not perform in 2006 because of one of the brother’s asthma, but Art did perform with another group in 2006. 2007 was canceled because Aaron’s wife had a relapse of cancer. She died in January and Aaron returned to NOLA for the first time since Katrina to bury her. Art also had near fatal back sugery in 2007. There is more, but why go on? Is that enough heartache and heartbreak to satisfy the vile comments psoted here?

    The writer of the previous post is so filled with hatred that one can only wonder at her motives, if he/she is areal person.

    As far as the state of the projects, readers of this blog should go to and check out the information including video testimony that many of the projects are totally livable. I have seen one that is, in person.

    I was born and bred in Chicago and consider it home, even though I have not lived there for 40 years.

  3. New Orleans News Ladder said on December 18th, 2007 at 8:32am #

    Mellisa, let us not kick someone when they are still down, wherever they hang their hat~~but rather let us rip out their heart, stomp it into the broken pavement and drag it through the filthy streets to Crucifixion in the City That Care Forgot and the Presidente left for dead…Jeeez Louie!~viva de Maid du Orleans~écrasez l’infâme~chere’yat Bourgeois Nievete!