Recovering from the Recovery

"Happening to a city near you" is the unsettling tag line for Land of Opportunity, a film that takes an intimate look at post-Katrina New Orleans and the interrelated struggles of those navigating it.

Land of Opportunity, directed by Luisa Dantas, 2011

Land of Opportunity, directed by Luisa Dantas, delivers a disturbing critique of Katrina recovery by following eight people — five New Orleans residents, two Brazilian immigrant laborers, and one of the many urban planners who helped city communities draw up plans for renewal — over five years, unveiling the changed destinies of all involved. Most of these destinies belie the film’s title.

Dantas’s choice to follow five African-American residents of New Orleans allows her to craft a nuanced picture of why, as of the 2010 census, over 100,000 black residents had not come home: either the recovery hindered their return or they chose to stay elsewhere for the “opportunity” found there.

The film also unveils a sobering portrait of the poverty fostered by a low-wage service sector that leaves resident workers generationally reliant on public housing, and an exploitive post-disaster recovery economy that leaves migrant laborers virtually empty-handed.

The hardship endured by the majority of these protagonists creates a through line from the neglect the nation witnessed during the weeks of the flooding to the structural, protracted ways people of color and the poor experienced neglect through much of the recovery. Yet Dantas captures the deep humanity and determination for justice that the film’s subjects wield in face of crushing odds, allying the viewer with their struggles and their aspirations for home.

Tr’Vel Lyons joins this drama at 12 years old, displaced with his mother to Los Angeles, where he finds a vastly improved school environment. Though his father stays behind in New Orleans to keep his business alive, Lyons and his mother stay through his high school years to ensure a better future than they think New Orleans can provide. He is the one clear victor in this tale.

The other four residents’ dramas reveal the fate of three distinct New Orleans African-American neighborhoods — the Lower Ninth Ward, a blue-collar homeowner community built out after the 1920 Industrial Canal was dredged; Gentilly, the first African-American mostly middle-class “suburb” of the city, built starting mid-century on filled swamp; and a Mid-City public housing neighborhood (the city’s largest) built in the 1940s.

Vanessa Gueringer, a community organizer with ACORN from the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, rounds up her scattered neighbors and convinces them to get over their distrust of the system to participate in the citywide planning process that is requisite for recovery resources to follow. Flamboyant New Urbanist planner Andres Duany wins a bid to work with the Gentilly community to help draw up their plan. Duany wants to see the building codes of the French Quarter extended to the flooded strip mall of Gentilly to transform it into a vibrant town center. He meets resident Al Aubry, stuck with his family of four in a tiny FEMA trailer for years while trying to navigate the bureaucratic recovery gauntlets and finding his salvation in gardening on his empty lot.

Sharon and Kawana Jasper unveil the story of post-Katrina public housing as they face an intransigent housing authority (under federal receivership) and a hands-off mayor who have locked the residents out and move forward to demolish their relatively undamaged St. Bernard public housing apartments — despite the loss of over 200,000 homes to flood and hurricane damage. Shocking footage of police force at the City Council hearing conveys the tenor of the struggle, with residents on the losing side.

Land of Opportunity also follows two of the many immigrant workers who are doing the dirty work of the recovery for big firms that have won millions or billions in construction contracts.

Dantas’s film will resonate with those identifying with and organizing the 99 percent. It captures protagonists caught in a system of disaster capitalism that Noami Klein so aptly defined in The Shock Doctrine — largess to big development and disaster firms, and too little, too late for large swaths of the African-American community.

Dantas also captured the reaction to this structural disenfranchisement: the protagonists of this film all played “good citizen” roles (much like today’s 99 percenters). They fostered civic participation, organized for the community benefit, and contributed unpaid years of their lives to move their historic and new communities forward. Their love of the place and their people is self-evident throughout. There were hundreds like them, with thousands of allies contributing on all fronts: marching, cleaning, gutting, organizing, filing lawsuits and injunctions, planning and building new places, pressing policy.

The end of the film gives a nod to the fact that as filming closed, the Obama administration began to address both the pace and the racial impacts of the recovery. Where justice and opportunity have played out, it is largely due to the likes of the leaders that Dantas showcases, pressing for fairer outcomes.

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