Past the discarded needles, broken porcelain and stench, there’s an eerie sign painted in red on one of the walls of the dilapidated double shotgun house at 3038 St. Claude Ave.: “Suicide Squat.”
On Wednesday night, the Suicide Squat nearly lived up to its name, as a mattress fire sent smoke billowing out of the windows and neighbor William Cruz racing for his garden hose.
The fire was a reminder of what this corner of Bywater used to look like before the arrival of gentrifying forces like the contemporary Red’s Chinese restaurant two doors down, which offers mesquite pastrami and piña colada daiquiris.
A partnership of real estate developers is preparing to renovate the rundown building. For Cruz, change can’t come quickly enough.
“If this goes, I go,” said Cruz, who lives next door. “Close it back up or tear it down. Do something with it … because that could happen again.”
Firefighters were dispatched to the scene to put out the mattress fire about 7:13 p.m., according to New Orleans Fire Department Capt. Edwin Holmes. Seven units and 21 firefighters took 38 minutes to extinguish the blaze. Police briefly shut down several blocks of St. Claude Avenue eastbound just past the Press Street tracks.
The old building has been vacant since before Hurricane Katrina, Cruz said. About three years ago, he said, he went to the city to get it boarded up. At some point since then, the boards were taken down.
The burned mattress and hypodermic needles littering the house are evidence of the human occupation that’s followed.
The fire appeared to have done little damage beyond the acrid remains of the mattress. Within minutes of firefighters’ departure, a man was back to sleeping on a pile of blankets on the building’s front porch.
There were roughly 1,900 people on the streets of Orleans and Jefferson parishes on any given night in 2014, according to a nonprofit survey.
Cruz said that while the transients next door rarely bother him, he does worry about the house. “Somebody could get murdered and nobody would know,” he said.
Developer Ben Jacobson is one of the partners in a limited liability corporation that bought the house in June. He said code liens and the property’s poor state have complicated the process of fixing it up, but he hopes to have it done in the next six months.
“It was on the FEMA demolition list at one point. We got it off there,” Jacobson said. “We like to save and restore, not tear down, buildings.”
Jacobson said he is not sure whether the developers will lease the property for residential or commercial use.
Until the renovation is finished, Cruz said, he will keep a wary eye on the Suicide Squat.
“We got lucky this time,” he said.