By Lolis Eric Elie
What to make of Karen Gadbois, a cancer survivor art dealer who found something suspicious in the high number of demolitions performed in the wake of the levee failures? Gadbois followed that thread until it became clear that the demolitions were just one aspect of the shady dealings of the administration of Mayor C. Ray Nagin in the years immediately following Hurricane Katrina. With an investigative reporter's instincts and tenacity, Karen helped unravel the scandal at the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership agency. Moreover, she helped uncover many other inappropriate and illegal actions of the Nagin administration. Using Karen's work as the starting point for his own, television news reporter Lee Zurik won a Peabody Award for his investigation of NOAH.
First on her blog, Squandered Heritage and now on The Lens, the investigative news website she helped found, Karen continues to be a valuable watchdog in a city that can't have too many of them. Karen's work was a source inspiration for us as we wrote the story lines for Desiree and Nelson Hidalgo this season. Many was the time when we called her to clarify some detail of what actually happened in that city agency. Here's the story behind our story.
What brought you to New Orleans?
Karen Gadbois: I met my former husband, the artist Jon Schooler while traveling in Mexico in the late '80s. We married and had a daughter, Aida. When I was pregnant with her in 1990, we stopped in New Orleans to visit with some friends. At that time we almost bought a house here on Cambronne Street near Oak, but decided to return to Mexico instead. We promised ourselves when the time came to return to the U.S. for Aida to further her education, New Orleans would be our destination; we may be the only people who actually moved to New Orleans for secondary education. In 2001 we made that move when she was entering 7th grade, buying a home not far from where we first looked in 1990. She attended Ben Franklin and NOCCA and is a full scholarship student at the Kansas City Art Institute.
Mexico, a country I love and the place my daughter was born and raised, has much in common with New Orleans.
What were you doing prior to Hurricane Katrina?
Karen Gadbois: While living in Mexico I had a textile design business as well as a gallery. I have always been involved in the arts. When we moved here I renovated my home, then contracted cancer shortly before Katrina and was not working at that time. In fact I had my second chemo treatment at Charity Hospital a few days before we evacuated. When we flooded, all my work got drenched.
How did you come to start Squandered Heritage? Why did you choose that name for the website?
Karen Gadbois: When I came back from evacuation I had to continue chemo for a year. At that time the chemo lounge at Ochsner had wifi, so I would take my computer to play around. While we were evacuated I enjoyed finding and reading blogs. When we returned I met with a number of local bloggers and because of the concern I had about the large numbers of demolitions that were floated by [disgraced city technology chief Greg] Meffert, I thought it would be of interest to document the houses. At the very least to serve as a memory project.
The name comes from a series in the Chicago Tribune by Blair Kamin and Patrick T. Reardon about the squandered heritage of Chicago.
Was there anything in your background that prepared you for your work as a citizen-journalist?
Karen Gadbois: In the art world, the term “investigate” is often used to describe the ways an artist finds their way around a material. I always enjoyed making materials do things they are not supposed to do. And a blog was in many ways similar to creating fabric. So there was that inclination I had to be nosy.
Were you successful in reversing the plague of demolitions that beset the city during that time?
Karen Gadbois: There were a number of people across the city who helped to reverse that trend. It was a genuinely collaborative effort by people who were concerned not just with preservation but with conservation and "viability," especially in flooded neighborhoods where we were tasked with "proving" we were viable. A neighborhood full of vacant lots is no longer viable. We wanted to keep neighborhoods whole.
What is The Lens? What is your role with the website?
Karen Gadbois: The Lens is the first nonprofit newsroom in the city of New Orleans. Ariella Cohen and I began The Lens and then with the guidance of Jed Horne, we were able to build out a newsroom. Jed brought Steve Beatty to the project and we have grown steadily over the past two years. The collaboration I began at Squandered Heritage continued with our moving into the WVUE newsroom. My role is to continue to contribute to a Squandered Heritage page we have as well as focus on the growth of The Lens and its role in the media landscape. I do everything. [Laughs]
Mayor Nagin is no longer in office. He may even be facing indictment on corruption charges as some of his old cronies have. Is there anything left for a citizen-journalist to investigate?
Karen Gadbois: While Ray Nagin played a colorful and often damaging role in the years after Katrina, I don’t think he alone was responsible for the corruption and dysfunction of the city, anymore than I believe he was responsible for all the wonderful things New Orleans has to offer. There are and always will be corruptions of systems. Maybe New Orleans has more colorful corruption than most, but for years I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, and they were no slackers in that department.
Now that your daughter is away at college, what keeps you in the city?
Karen Gadbois: In many ways New Orleans is now my anchor. My daughter told me once she thought I believed that if the city recovered, I would recover from my cancer ordeal. New Orleans has aggravated and infuriated me; she has loved me and healed me. I returned to New Orleans the very same day I finished my radiation treatments. My hair was just beginning to grow back so what my daughter said was in many ways true: We recovered together. I can't imagine another place where I would find the same level of passion and dedication.