Op-Ed: New Orleans - One Year After Katrina
Op-Ed: New Orleans - One Year After Katrina
New Orleans is a special city. The fragrant and appetizing smells of simmering red beans and rice hang in the air. Members of social clubs dance in the streets on the way home from funerals. Radio announcers have names like Jack the Cat, Ernie the Whip, Doctor Daddy-O, and Poppa Stoppa. This New Orleans gave the world Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Jelly Roll Morton. It is the site of neighborhoods like the Faubourg-Treme, the longest continuous free Black neighborhood in the nation, a community whose residents helped each other build their houses years ago, and a place where mutuality, self help, and neighborhood pride still reign supreme.
It was in New Orleans where Homere Plessy and other creoles of Haitian ancestry challenged Jim Crow segregation in the 1890s. Thirty years later, Black nationalist Audley “Queen Mother” Moore defied threats and defended Marcus Garvey’s right to speak in the city by stationing a group of armed blacks around his lecture podium in the Longshoreman’s Hall. In the 1960s, relentless and courageous activism by the Ninth Ward Civic Improvement League produced the desegregation of local schools and the provision of street lights and police protection for Black neighborhoods.
Most tourists do not know this New Orleans. The city many tourists flock to is a place for binge drinking, lurid sex shows, and partying to music that simulates the golden age of Dixieland jazz. In their eyes, New Orleans is not a place that people live in, but rather a place to visit for relatively anonymous revelry. The city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana have spent billions of dollars promoting this tourist vision, not only through advertising, but by building the expensive money-losing Superdome for NFL football, by establishing casino gambling at the foot of Canal Street, and by decades of redevelopment projects that have reduced the already limited supply of housing for low income and working class people in favor of highways, luxury apartments, and, most recently, a Wal-Mart store where the St. Thomas Housing Project once stood.
Seeing New Orleans only through the eyes of tourists inflicts harm on us, on our morality and on democracy. The impending first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina underscores this. Current rebuilding projects will not rebuild a vital and diverse New Orleans. They aim to depopulate the city, to exile permanently much of its poor and working class Black population, by refusing to rebuild the dwellings, neighborhoods, and communities they lost in the aftermath of the storm. Instead, the government will extend massive subsidies to developers to build big box stores, shopping malls, and housing units primarily for upper middle class and wealthy tenants. According to their specious theory, these subsidies to the rich will trickle down to the working class and the poor.
This vision omits everything that is special about New Orleans and its history. It sees people as interchangeable parts, as isolated owners, investors, and accumulators who will move anywhere to secure increased property values. It ignores history, heritage, and tradition. It asks people to abandon family ties that extend across generations, to leave neighborhood networks that function as crucial means of mutual aid and self help for poor and working class people.
Perhaps the most pernicious part of the official story about the rebuilding of Katrina comes from demonizing the city of New Orleans and its residents. Advocates of making the world safe for tourism depict a city plagued by violent crime, failing schools, and dilapidated and unsalvageable housing stock. Things are so bad already, they tell us, that New Orleans has nothing to lose from the “creative destruction” of redevelopment.
Yet it is precisely redevelopment that has caused the problems of New Orleans. No city in the nation has suffered as much from the destruction of viable neighborhoods in the creation of freeways, luxury housing, and tourist attraction. It is no accident, that the miserable victims of official malice and neglect during last year’s storm found themselves incarcerated in the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome, only to be eventually “rescued” by being transported to the Houston Convention Center and the Astrodome.
New Orleans does not need more tourist oriented luxury development. It does, however, need democracy. Grass roots organizations like the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Committee are demanding a meaningful role in rebuilding. They want housing, jobs, and representation on all boards making decisions about the expenditure of public money. They deserve our support. At a moment when lives are being lost and huge amounts of money expended purportedly to spread democracy overseas, it would be tragic to abandon it at home.