Thursday, September 29, 2011

Portraits of the Stalwarts: Sandra Stokes

No other figure has done more than Sandra Stokes to galvanize the effort to re-use Charity Hospital and avoid the destruction of an historic New Orleans neighborhood. Her relentless pursuit of a better way forward has kept the issue alive for years. No other person has brought the same mixture of persistence, people skills, strategic thinking, and righteous indignation to the cause. A Board Member with the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, Sandra illustrates the New Orleans phenomenon of "preservationist as all-around good government watchdog" to a tee. Her work on making the RMJM Hillier/FHL report on adaptive reuse of Charity also provided the key point of argument about a true alternative to the destructive plan that has since extinguished a neighborhood.

Brad V: Very briefly, what got you involved in the Charity Hospital/LSU/VA fight at the beginning?

Sandra S: I got involved when our organization, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, was charged by the Legislature with conducting a feasibility study on reusing Charity Hospital.

It was a unanimous vote of the Legislature. I was naive back then and believed that they really wanted this study to reuse Charity. Little did I was a done deal - and they never really wanted it at all.

Brad V: What really got you involved? What made you decide to take up this challenge to the extent that you have?

Sandra S: Up until now, I believed in justice. I believed in fairness and the goodness of people. And, the more I heard the stories of the doctors, the military cleanup, these military men who came in and did what they were supposed to do. They said this was the least damaged place. It would have been cherished in any other country. But in Louisiana, they shuttered it and left it for naught.

I mean, it was cleaned up and ready to go. Ready to receive patients. And through this hoax, they've shut it all down. And left people without healthcare for, now, six years.

Brad V: So, at this point, we're looking at a largely destroyed site here at the UMC. And behind us, the VA site has been almost entirely cleared. What are your thoughts about this whole affair at this point in time?

Sandra S: I still can't believe it's gotten to this point. It still brings me to tears to be out here. I can't believe people have lost their homes and their community. People have lost their lives without healthcare. We're killing off downtown New Orleans. We've killed off a neighborhood. And we still don't have the money to rebuild. It's just injustice at every level. And it's about a bad plan that some people came up with and pushed through at all costs, no matter what the logic, no matter what the reasoning.

And for me, it's also a loss of innocence. I did believe in justice. I did believe that the right thing - and common sense - would prevail. And it hasn't. It's just insane.

It's the idea that you had all these building downtown that you haven't reused. You could've had the jobs back. You could've had the buildings reused. You could've had the vital resources of New Orleans intact.

The you come into a neighborhood and you take down all the houses. You've destroyed the community - and taken that resource away. You've taken healthcare away, you've taken the teaching hospital away. This all could have been stopped. This all could have been fixed. We could have had a hospital in three years - a hospital open now.

Instead, we have a destroyed landscape. We've moved people out of houses rebuilt with federal money. We don't have the jobs, we don't have the healthcare, the teaching hospital. And they don't even have the money to build the hospital.

It's insane.

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