THE FADE OF CHARITY: New Orleans’ Closed Hospital, Booker, and the Present’s Odd Friend--The Past
From Louis’ benevolence, the first Charity Hospital was erected on the then-outskirts of town, the land between present day Rampart, Basin, St. Peter, and Toulouse Streets. Named St. John Hospital, by 1737 it had 5 patients and “served a dual purpose of hospital and asylum to the indigent poor.” Services and structure grew over the next 40 years, only to be destroyed by the hurricane of 1779. The effects of its loss can be seen in the laments of the Spanish Governor Miro: “Many sick paupers are now wandering throughout the city in quest of shelter and succor and are hourly exposed to perish up the very streets, or in some obscure by-corner.”
In the wake of the destruction, Miro was encouraged and supportive of a new benefactor, Don Andreas de Almonaster y Roxas, who offered to fund the rebuilding of Charity and direct its operations. For the great amount of $114,000, he had one provision: that the material salvaged from the wreckage of the old hospital should be used in the construction of a new structure. Apparently this struck many New Orleanians as utterly ridiculous, and the public rebukes of Almonaster were harsh enough to bring a defense from Miro:
And why should this worthy alms-giver be looked upon in so questionable a light? If, at the time when the building was still standing, someone would have offered to build an annex to it, would any objection have been made, had one of its walls looking on the improved side been utilized in the same construction?....It is not less surprising that you should have taken this matter in hand at the very time when unexpected assistance is being tendered from other quarters, and which might be withdrawn, were I to acquiesce in your pretentions to have this worthy gentleman appear before you, and beg your leave for the accomplishment of a work of public utility. 2
Three years after the hurricane, ground was broken and the building was completed in 1784. Soon after Miro left for Spain, Almonaster struggled for control of the hospital and fell into dispute with the new governor, Baron de Carondelet. The contest went all the way to the court of the colony at Havana and finally to the King of Spain, and ended with Don Almonaster losing his founders rights. By 1792, a letter from Pontalba to Miro, now in Spain, noted that Don Almonaster “is entirely disgusted with being benevolent.” Almonaster died in 1798 and his remains were interred in St. Louis Cathedral in what is now Jackson Square. **
One Saturday in April 2008, I spend the afternoon on the lawn of the shuttered hospital, sitting and thinking about James Booker, the great piano player. I do this at lunch some days, whenever I have the time and bent. This time I’ve brought a new camera. A few months ago, barbed wire fence went up and I can no longer walk to the main entrance or ascend the wheelchair ramp to the emergency room door. The focus of the lens is my recourse for detail.
As I put the camera back in the van, a truck pulls up on Tulane Avenue. An older man with white hair and a short goatee and sunglasses sits in the driver’s seat. His passenger is a younger guy, close-cropped brown hair and green eyes, a little edgy.
“We’re looking for Charity Hospital,” the driver says with a smile. “That’s it,” I say, thumb over my shoulder, “but it’s closed.”
“It’s closed?” He asks.
The passenger visibly sinks in his seat, lets out a low groan.
“Thank you.” They pull away.
The Charity Hospital that stands vacant in New Orleans today is the 6th structure to carry that name, erected for the same purpose as its predecessors—providing welfare for the indigent. Previous buildings had either burned or were worn out. The 5th edition closed in 1937, replaced by the present giant on Tulane Avenue. Like so much of life in Louisiana at that time, the transition to a new hospital played out under the shadow of Huey P. Long.
In 1933, the hospital applied for federal Public Works Administration funding for a replacement. The boiling feud between FDR and Senator Long stalled what might’ve been an easy process. Long’s prohibition of federal aid to the state, passed by the Long-controlled state legislature, effectively killed the application until Huey himself was assassinated in September 1935.
By the following year, the Roosevelt administration and Baton Rouge were on good terms again, and the money began to flow. FDR even made a stop at Charity during a visit to New Orleans as part of his reconciliation with Long’s successors. The construction of a new building was approved in September 1936. Demolition of the old hospital was complete by February of 1937. In a fitting turn on Almonaster’s clause of 1779, building materials from the old Charity were spirited away by Long’s circle, ending up in new mansions on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. The ensuing scandal–or rather this scandal’s place in the larger ménage of scandals–brought down several of the Long faction, including Governor Richard Leche (whose name graces the cornerstone of the current Big Charity).
What rose in place of the plundered ruins was the second largest hospital in the US. The architects followed the design of the New York City Hospital (now known as New York-Presbyterian), with some modification: separate floors for black and white patients.
According to the hospital’s 1942 Annual Report, the leading causes of death at Charity in 1939 were diseases of the heart, influenza and pneumonia, nephritis, cancer, and tuberculosis. The statistics are broken out into columns for Total, White, and Col., or Colored.
It is nothing to say that Charity resembles a fortress; that is obvious yet out of date. Now it is a fortress-turned-ruin, or, rather, a ruin in the making, whose original purpose is still clear, reachable. Little imagination is involved to conjur the original condition. Much more for a vision of a future. Dark plywood closes off the front door, one of the handrails lies toppled on the steps. Closer to the curb stand two guard posts, one on each side of the sidewalk. Blanched mini-blinds remain on the windows of the right post, hang down its glass door. The left building is knocked open at one end, the tile walls off-white, bared to nature. The plywood covering the windows is so light it blends into the pale limestone. All of it behind barbed wire fence.
The hospital’s face is smeared with a black soot, uneven and rough, like swipes of charcoal. The whole neglected body seems to loiter, shamed and unemployed. Really, the neglect of so much of the city is what leads to any permanence, not direction or purpose. We grow long grass, plastic bags, chipped brick, and wildflowers. Not just daisies, but little pink things. New Orleans: fading to agrarian all over the banged up landscape. I move down to the path to the entrance, and sit on one of the empty planters. After a few minutes, I realize a large caterpillar is riding on my arms, and I shudder and brush it off. This is where people used to smoke, I think. **
The hospital is closed because a new hospital must be opened.
Charity is within the Louisiana State University hospital system. One of the centerpieces of the planned recovery is a new LSU teaching hospital, with “high-end specialty care that can also attract private-paying patients.” (TP 5/29/08). Mayor Nagin and his recovery chief, the star-crossed Ed Blakely, are onboard, and an historic residential neighborhood may be demolished to make way for this great biomedical beacon. In his May 28th State of the City speech, Nagin asked the audience to travel with him to the future, where “[Y]ou pass through the biomedical district, where researchers and residents are leaving their offices after a hard day’s work of cancer or diabetes research. You pass beautiful mixed income housing developments and a state-of-the-art justice complex….”3 The old Charity must rot until the yellow-brick road to its replacement is clearly laid.
Like much of the so-called recovery process, it didn’t have to be this way. Yet, from the first days of Katrina, the writing was on the wall—Charity had to go. According to a doctor who worked through the storm, morale at Charity remained high, despite countless challenges, including the total loss of power, rampant diarrhea, and sniper fire:
At the suggestion of our nursing co-director, we made a banner from sheets — "9 West has a big heart, Katrina can't tear us apart" — and hung it out the fire escape. In 24 hours, 15 more banners followed on other units. One night, we hosted a flashlight-illuminated talent show, to which we invited everyone — including the patients with tuberculosis, who donned N95 masks.
This doctor also watched
… helicopters ceaselessly evacuating insured patients from the roof of nearby Tulane Hospital while our 250 patients were evacuated by twos or threes in boats said to lead to buses that sometimes did not appear. These halting efforts were interrupted for hours by gunfire. No National Guard was in evidence, other than as intermittent rescue personnel. Even colleagues at the neighboring Veterans Affairs hospital were unaware of the desperate conditions at Charity. Because our unit had a functioning telephone line and I had friends with media connections, I was able to communicate our situation to television and radio reporters. I received calls offering helicopters and one from CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta. When I sought clearance for him from hospital officials, they gruffly asserted: "He can film whatever he wants; the media is our rescue plan now." When television cameras were pointed at us, the help came faster and more effectively.5
After the storm, a team of doctors, volunteers, and military personnel worked to clean up several floors in the hospital for temporary use. Citing a ruined electric system and the effects of the heat on asbestos (ironically, derived from the Greek for “fire resistant”), LSU refused to open the floor or take any steps toward repairs. In January 2008, a group of uninsured residents filed suit against LSU, charging that the hospital refused to allow independent inspectors to investigate the hospital and the possibility of salvaging it. As one activist noted, “Basically, you have the state and other government entities getting out of the business of delivering any public services,” to people in the city.6 **
Booker was born and died in Charity. His ghost and the ghosts of thousands have the hallways and stairwells and wards to themselves. The poor of the now get the underside of an overpass and a clinic in a double-wide, if they’re lucky. The story is that Booker was left at the hospital that day in 1983, left maybe by a frantic coke buddy, perhaps someone he’d just met at a bar on Orleans Avenue, and then left again by the hospital staff, to die unattended in the waiting room. Booker always wore a patch over one eye, and the story goes that the nurses assumed his eye was the ailment that had brought him to the emergency room, and so didn’t think his was an urgent case. The story also goes that Booker lost his eye after a money dispute with the, um, unsavory crew of Ringo Starr. (This was his explanation for the sequined star on the patch.) Booker told friends that Ringo had beat him out of session pay, but Booker’s friend Dr. John told me that Booker had scammed to get paid 3 consecutive times over the course of a few hours, preying on the Starr crew’s acid-addled short term memory. On the third try, the crew got wise and Booker lost his eye.
I guess I believe Dr. John.7 **
One description of the characters who frequented that waiting room in the 1980’s includes the story of an old fellow who
…repeatedly came to receive care for asthma and for foul-smelling, severe leg ulcers covering his ankle and calf areas. He used various home remedies for his asthma and leg ulcers and insisted on wrapping his lower legs with some form of foliage that appeared to be banana leaves. One day, after receiving his usual treatment of antiseptic soaks, slight debridement, and topical antibiotics, he mentioned that ‘roach tea’ helped to retard the progression of his asthma and his leg ulcers. When asked how the tea was prepared, he said: “You goes to the kitchen late at night and turns on the light quickly and grabs up the roaches before they can run away…. Then you puts them in boiling water to make tea.” 8
Within a year of completion, the new Charity began to sink into the marsh of New Orleans. “By January 1939, it was nine [inches] below its starting point, more than two and a half times the average settlement in the city.”9 The pilings that formed the footprint of the building should have clued the architects into the coming “settlement.” According to one eyewitness, “It was really something to see when only one blow of the pile driver would send even one of the long pilings completely through the muck on which the foundation was being laid. They would disappear right before your eyes.”10 Rumors spread that the first floor had disappeared into the soil, so that when you walked in the front entrance, you were in the second floor. This wasn’t the case, but the sinking continued until 1943, when the building settled at 17.86 inches deep.
James Booker belonged to the first generation of babies born at the new Charity. He came into the world on December 17, 1939, when approximately 13 inches of the first floor had sunk into the mud.
In May 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared Charity Hospital and its surrounding neighborhood one of the “11 Most Endangered Places” in the US. The trust’s director noted:
The reuse potential as well as the architectural and cultural significance of Charity Hospital should not be ignored in the process of determining the fate of this historic treasure. We cannot afford to stand idly by and allow the loss of such a valuable and architecturally significant building, along with the destruction of a large portion of the nearby historic neighborhood.11
Other places on the list include California’s National Parks and the Lower East Side.
A block down Robertson Street, between Tulane & Canal, there sits a bar. Surrounded by parking lots, the bar is one of those narrow, rowdy, isolated spots we love down here. Sometimes I sit on that back deck and stare at the ashen face of Charity. The Art Deco symmetry is supplemented now by dashes of coppery green below most windows.
A faded red curtain hangs in a corner window. The floodlights mounted atop the guard’s post appear intact. On one of the flagpoles, the cord is still attached, waiting on a flag. The LSU sign is in good shape. “Charity Hospital of New Orleans” is engraved in the limestone in an Art Deco font. Above both guard stands, in the same font: “Visitors.” The branches hang down low over the sidewalk, and would impede an ambulance, or a speeding car.
Booker must have been someone’s emergency. How did it happen? Was he taken up the emergency room ramp on the side of the building, or dumped at the curb, or did someone grab a wheelchair, rush back out and take his slumped body out of the car, then wheel him in and dash?
Earlier, when he was born, Booker must have lain among all the other newborn black babies in the black ward, and screamed. In that scream was the voice I listen to late at night. The hands he balled up in the crib would grow into the hands of “The Bayou Maharaja,” “The Black Liberace,” “The Piano Prince of New Orleans.” Booker was a phantom genius, one in a beautiful, tortured line that began before there was any such thing as a state, or a nation.
He was born and died at Charity Hospital. Where would he be born now? Where would he die?