“Welcome to the Third World!” More than one person said this to me when I moved to New Orleans in 2001. Living there, I learned to tell direction, not by north or south, but by upriver or downriver. I learned a new vocabulary of pirogues, po’ boys, second-lining and making groceries. I learned what Mardi Gras was really all about. And I learned something about what it meant to live in one of the poorest cities, in one of the poorest metropolitan areas, in one of the poorest regions of the country.
Hurricane Katrina was not the big storm that New Orleanians had long feared. But it was big enough to breach the levees that were built to withstand most Category 3 storms. When the levees fell, the lake rushed in to fill up the below-sea-level city like a bowl, trapping tens of thousands. Over the next days, television news showed those trapped on their roofs, in the Superdome, in the Convention Center. And for a brief while, we talked about how they were overwhelmingly black and overwhelmingly poor, and how Katrina had made us see the racial and economic divide that had always been there.
Because of Katrina, the nation and the world had a shocking reminder of the vulnerability of the poor. We were reminded that, while a hurricane is natural, the shape and extent of its damage is largely determined by man-made factors. For example, while more than a quarter of New Orleanians did not own a vehicle, the evacuation plan was based on residents having private transportation. Those without were to be helped by those who did (this was termed the “Good Samaritan” plan) or were to seek shelter in the Superdome. What followed was as horrifying as it was predictable. And it had been predicted.
In fact it had happened, in part, before. During Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the predominantly black and working class Lower 9th Ward was catastrophically flooded when the Industrial Canal levee was breached. I heard the story many times: it is commonly believed that the levee was intentionally blown by the Army Corps of Engineers, in order to spare other, whiter neighborhoods. The Corps denies this, but that the story is so believable to everyone in the 9th Ward is significant. The community knows that, in the eyes of those in power, they are expendable.
This time, the destruction wrought by a hurricane was more widely spread. But even as our attention is focused on the immediate demands of relief and recovery, we need to remember that it did not take the hurricane to destroy lives.
Poverty and Inequality in The Big Easy
New Orleans had a poverty rate of 28 percent in 2000. About 70,000 people, 14 percent of the city, lived in households with incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line. Two-thirds black, New Orleans was deeply segregated and marked by racial division in its economy and politics. With its economy chronically stagnant and its population shrinking, it was a city short on adequate housing and health care and well-paying jobs. Its education system was so poor that it is estimated that 40 percent of the adult population was functionally illiterate. Before the hurricane, it was already a large-scale humanitarian crisis.
In the end poverty means a lack of resources, and that means vulnerability. The poor, near-poor and sometimes-poor of New Orleans were vulnerable every day. Living on low-lying ground was not the only environmental hazard they faced. Industrial pollutants, high lead levels and toxic waste sites were all concentrated in their neighborhoods. And before they were left behind in the path of the hurricane, they were left behind in educational and economic opportunities. A small everyday disaster, like a medical emergency, can take out a family as surely as a hurricane.
The cruel machinery of poverty and inequality of opportunity that devastated lives across the vast swaths of low-income neighborhoods in New Orleans did not begin with Katrina. It was always there, and it was always causing mass suffering.
Tourists rarely saw this New Orleans. They were warned not to leave the French Quarter: “don’t cross Rampart Street!” Now the dominant voices in the debate on rebuilding are once again dismissing the New Orleans across Rampart Street.
Some community activists are calling the recovery and redevelopment efforts the “ethnic cleansing” of New Orleans. Is this hyperbole? The Wall Street Journal reported that Baton Rouge Congressman Richard Baker told lobbyists, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson openly predicted a smaller, whiter city. And many residents have posted their approval in the online discussion forums of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
The dramatic inequality in New Orleans that prompted comparisons to the Third World was racial as well as economic. This was more than a legacy of past discrimination; it was also a product of contemporary public policy and private actions. There were “salt and pepper” neighborhoods, but the overall pattern had clear lines, black or white, and discrimination in housing was commonplace. Schools were officially integrated, but in practice public schools were for low-income black families. Whites and middle-class blacks sent their children to private schools. As a result, parishes in the New Orleans area have among the highest proportion of students in private schools in the country. The same pattern held in all areas: private services for those who could pay, underfunded public services for the rest. It was no surprise that Charity, the public hospital serving low-income New Orleanians, was the last to be evacuated, while privately owned hospitals had hired helicopters to rescue their patients and staff.
This pattern was repeated on a large scale in the metro region. When suburban law enforcement officials stopped those trying to evacuate by way of a bridge across the Mississippi by firing guns over their heads, according to media reports – it was a crude metaphor for the more subtle policies and attitudes that were a daily fact of life.
Rebuilding New Orleans
The question of how to rebuild New Orleans is being actively debated. Should low-lying neighborhoods revert to the cypress swamps they were when the city was founded? Should redevelopment be high-rise, high-density? What role for transit, for green building, for open space, for mixed-income development? How to handle historic preservation and what architecture and urban design standards will be best? In much of these discussions, it is implied that New Orleans is a blank slate, wiped clean by the flood waters: empty land, or effectively so, on which to play out dreams and ideals of a new city.
There is a question, however, that must be answered first: who is to decide?
Decisions made will likely take into account the desires of the residents who return. The question, then, is inseparable from another: who will be able to return? Neighborhoods that were spared flooding were located on the strip of high ground along the Mississippi. They contained mostly white and middle class residents, much of the central business district and the heart of the tourism industry. These residents and business owners will be the first to move back, and their voices will likely be the loudest in the local debates on rebuilding, due to their proximity as well as their relative privilege.
The gentrified French Quarter and the “tourism sacrifice zone” of Bourbon Street can continue, at least in its corporatized form, without the rest of the city. With the historic buildings spared, a packaged and preserved version of New Orleans could continue to be sold. And make no mistake, many are dreaming of doing just that, in a new New Orleans where tourists don’t have to be warned not to cross Rampart Street.
The smart money may be on the success of large connected developers and the tourism industry to make this happen. But it is not yet a done deal, and of course it must be fought. The culture for sale in the French Quarter, in a much richer, more complex form, was living, changing and being created anew every day in the New Orleans beyond Rampart Street. The people of that New Orleans have as much of a right to determine their city’s future as anyone else.
There are many voices that need and deserve the support of those of us not in New Orleans. They include such grassroots and community-based groups as ACORN, Community Labor United (CLU) and the Peoples’ Institute for Survival and Beyond. New efforts have sprung up: CLU has formed the Peoples’ Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition, for example. We are just beginning to learn of the many ad hoc groups formed to take care of immediate relief needs, such as Common Ground in Algiers and the Soul Patrol in the 7th Ward, some of which are beginning to look toward the long-term work of organizing and agitating for their New Orleans. The Soul Patrol now defines its mission as Rescue, Return and Restore.
Much will be said in the coming weeks and months about how to restore New Orleans. But the principle of the full participation of all the people and communities of New Orleans can give us some idea of where to start.
• The future of New Orleans must be decided by all its people, even those unable to live there right now. Commissions of business and political leaders are being created to guide the rebuilding. History suggests that we should have limited faith that the results will be equitable. Instead, New Orleans needs a community-based oversight body that includes representatives from all the neighborhoods, and all racial, ethnic and income groups within the city. We must ensure that the traditionally voiceless are not left out again.
• Families without the financial resources to evacuate before the hurricane are unlikely to have the resources to return. Yet to date, no mention has been made of any plans or resources aimed at helping to get those families who were sent to Houston, Utah or Oregon back home. The New Orleanian diaspora must have a right of return, and the aid to implement it.
• There should be a preference in hiring, and training as needed, for local residents. The labor force for immediate and long-term reconstruction is already being brought into the city, with no apparent effort to include locals. Efforts must be made to bring back displaced New Orleanians for these jobs. Beyond this, prevailing wage requirements and preferences for contracting for small, local and minority and women-owned business need to be vigorously enforced, not waived.
• Rebuilding should be sustainable and environmentally just. This will include full clean-up of environmental hazards in all neighborhoods, and the development of adequate, equitable, regional public transit, in addition to wetlands restoration and an improved levee and flood-control system.
• Rebuilding, in whatever form, must include large amounts of affordable housing, in proportion to the number of affordable units lost. No right of return, and no equitable New Orleans, will be possible without this. We should not recreate the concentrated poverty and racial segregation of old, but allow residents of all income levels to live throughout the city – and throughout the metro region. Private developers will press for new high-rise, upper-income condos, just as they did before Katrina hit. Instead, we must use such tools as inclusionary zoning and limited-equity developments to break the old patterns of exclusion.
The disaster of Katrina presents us with a clear and unavoidable challenge: can we continue to accept the inequality and vulnerability that afflicted New Orleans – or that afflicts any of our cities and metro regions? There is much work to be done. As Diane “Momma D” Frenchcoat of the Soul Patrol says: “It’s more than just saving a life. It’s saving the spirit.”