Hollis Price: Heartfelt Desire

By George Schroeder Published: August 31, 2005
NEW ORLEANS - Sometimes, Hollis Price looks across the vast, open expanse and marvels. From the corner of Higgins and Alvar streets, you can clearly see a Mississippi River bridge and the downtown skyline.

Once, the view was obscured by Price's home, a place named Desire. But in 1999, the nation's second-largest housing project was razed.

Less than five miles away, just the other side of the skyline, sits the Superdome, site of the Final Four this weekend. Until a week ago, Price's goal was to end his Oklahoma Sooner career there.

"That's something that only happens in fairy tales," he said.

As it turned out, Hollis was right.

OU's loss to Syracuse denied one of the best and most beloved Sooners a storybook ending. But nothing could obscure Hollis' real-life story of deliverance.

Guns and drugs had turned the housing development into a place of decay and death. The year Hollis turned 15, his neighborhood was plagued by 40 murders.

But for Hollis, unlike many others, Desire never became despair.

"I was one of the chosen ones," he said. "I was one of the lucky ones that stayed on path."

Born to a single mother who has long struggled with drug addiction, Hollis seemed likely to become a statistic.

Instead, he was raised by loving grandparents determined he would avoid their daughter's fate. Shielded by the beat cop who took an interest in an "extraordinary" youngster. And polished by the school that nurtured a hungry student.

Hollis emerged a favorite son of Desire.

"He is so genuine and so special," said Eddie Compass, superintendent of the New Orleans Police, "that he blesses an entire community. He's the kind of kid you pray your son grows up to be."

A community named Desire

Hollis saluted his hometown often during his four seasons as a Sooner, flashing nine fingers to signify New Orleans' Ninth Ward, the meanest part of a mean city.

Mention Desire - once the largest landmark in the Ninth Ward - and some suggest you stay away. And yet, Johnny Jackson stood well after sundown in Sampson Park, two blocks from Desire, eating red beans and rice and talking about life in the development.

"There is this image of Desire," said Jackson, a former Louisiana state representative and New Orleans city councilman. "But for those of us raised in the community, we always knew the good far outweighed the bad."

Desire Street, which is around a river bend and 15 blocks from the lower edge of the French Quarter, first gained fame in Tennessee Williams' play, "A Streetcar Named Desire."

The streetcar line ran from the intersection of Canal and Bourbon along Desire Street, which was lined with working-class homes. But Williams' fictional vision of the seedy neighborhood inhabited by immigrants Stanley and Stella Kowalski didn't begin to approach the real squalor created a few years later.

The last Desire streetcar ran in 1948. In the mid-1950s, at the intersection of Desire and Pleasure, the federal government built a sprawling public-housing complex on a 97-acre tract - an area only slightly smaller than the French Quarter.

Hemmed in by railroad tracks, Interstate 10 and the Industrial Canal (which connects the river and Lake Pontchartrain), Desire was a labyrinth of 262 long, low-flung buildings that housed 1,832 apartments.

At one time, nearly 14,000 people called Desire home; official capacity was around 8,500, but almost every apartment was overcrowded. Hollis' grandfather, George Carraby, moved into the project when he was a teenager, shortly after its construction. He said it was once a solid, tightly knit community, a place to desire.

"It looked like a beautiful, college campus," he said.

Carraby's recollection was echoed by others. But over time the buildings - wood frames with brick facades - deteriorated, and so did the atmosphere. By the time Hollis was born in 1979, the Desire complex had earned notoriety as New Orleans' worst neighborhood and one of the nation's toughest housing projects, a chaotic gumbo of intense poverty and frequent violence.

Even the street names seemed to be someone's idea of a cruel joke. In the project, Desire was intersected by Benefit, Pleasure and Abundance; nearby were Humanity, Piety and Industry.

Crack cocaine arrived in the early 1980s to hasten Desire's descent. As residents began moving out, fleeing the physical and social decay, abandoned apartments provided convenient places to stash drugs; drug deals and shootings were commonplace. Desire's alleys and courts became a place where life was sometimes worth less than a pair of basketball shoes.

Former residents, including Compass, said Desire wasn't as bad as its reputation.

"There's some great people who come from the development," said Compass, who has the jersey of another former Desire resident, former NFL MVP Marshall Faulk, framed on his office wall at police headquarters. "Sometimes, the development gets stigmatized because of the nefarious acts of a few. But most of the people in there were good people."

But there were plenty of nefarious acts. For several years, Compass commanded a police substation in Desire. After a spate of arrests in the mid-1990s, drug dealers firebombed his car.

A snapshot of tragedy: In 1994, 421 murders were committed in New Orleans, more than in any other U.S. city. Forty of the killings occurred in Desire and the neighboring Florida Avenue project, a smaller development just across the railroad tracks from Desire's southern edge.

Jackson, the former state representative and city councilman, is Hollis' godfather. He has a longer view of Desire's deterioration.

When he arrived in Desire in 1957, disputes were settled with fists.

"But at the time Hollis came up, people settled their disputes by shooting," he said. "And they weren't drive-by (shootings). They were walk-bys."

A firm foundation

Hollis was born Oct. 29, 1979, to Cheryl Price. His father, Hollis Brent, had been a standout athlete at nearby Carver High School and a quarterback at Grambling; Brent moved to Austin, Texas, when Hollis was 6 and was not involved in raising him.

Cheryl Price struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine. Carraby said his daughter, once a softball player at Southern University of New Orleans, began living "a faster pace than she needed," and began "dipping and dabbling" with drugs.

"It ain't no oops with drugs," said Carraby, a counselor at Desire Narcotics Rehabilitation Center since 1986. "You can taste some things and go, 'oops,' and fix it and make it right. But when you go fooling around with certain drugs ...

"Cheryl's a good person, too. She just fell victim to drugs. It's sort of gotten the best of her."

Hollis said Cheryl Price was "in and out of jail" as he grew up. A year ago during the NCAA Tournament, he told reporters he was proud that his mother was clean and again a part of his life. She attended several of OU's games last season.

Last week, Hollis said he hasn't spoken with his mother in several months. Ora Price, Hollis' great-grandmother, said she recently wanted to pay Cheryl's airfare to Oklahoma City to watch the Sooners.

"But I didn't know where she was at the time," she said.

And the family knew what that meant: a relapse.

"We tend to think that sometimes when she stays away, that's an indication she may not be doing what she needs to be doing," Carraby said. "Right now, it's up in the air and questionable as to what she's doing."

Carraby and Ann Dennis, Cheryl's mother, raised Hollis for most of his life. Hollis and his younger siblings - sister Makiba, now 21, and brother Lorenzo, now 19 - thrived under their care.

"Our family was not built like a whole lot of other families," Carraby said, "but we've got something a lot of folks don't have. We've got love for each other."

Hollis said his grandparents were strict but loving. Carraby said he taught his grandchildren to carry themselves carefully, to respect others.

"If you don't stay on top of your kids, they don't grow up to be kids with good, strong moral character," Carraby said. "If you sort of just let 'em hang loose, they can become a victim of their circumstances.

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This story was originally published in the April 6, 2003, edition of The Oklahoman.

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