An Important Piece of the Puzzle: A Response to “Some of Us Shall Not Be Moved”

In her recent Shelterforce online review of We Shall Not Be Moved, my book about post-Katrina recovery efforts in five New Orleans neighborhoods, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs argues that the book presents “a skewed portrait of the rebuilding process, while claiming to tell the city’s story broadly.” Pelot-Hobbs asserts that by focusing primarily on stories of neighborhood leaders, the book largely ignores the plight of renters and glosses over stories of homeowners who may have been dissatisfied with neighborhood leadership.  She also maintains that by featuring stories from five select neighborhoods, the book reinforces the flawed (and widely held) notion that “neighborhoods that were able to successfully rebuild have done so solely because of their desires and hard work.” More broadly, she argues, the book misses important structural stories about the city’s recovery, including “the concerted, racialized project led by alliances between business interests and government actors to close down and privatize public infrastructure, particularly at the expense of working-poor and working class communities of color.”

Pelot-Hobbs is concerned with vital aspects of the New Orleans recovery, but her critique ignores core elements of the book’s story and mischaracterizes its underlying message. The book is not a comprehensive account of the entire city’s recovery, nor does it claim to be. However, it tells a critical piece of this story. We Shall Not Be Moved focuses on resident-led recovery efforts in five very different neighborhoods, narrating the ways in which these movements emerged, strove, and struggled in the years after the levee failures. By telling these stories, the book sheds light on initiatives that helped homeowners and renters alike, illustrates important structural dynamics that hindered recovery, and—despite Pelot-Hobbs's claim to the contrary—counters prevailing narratives that certain neighborhoods rebuilt faster because their residents were more hardworking.

Pelot-Hobbs’s claim that the book “never discusses the challenges facing non-homeowners in their attempts to return” is misleading. 

After Katrina, residents of flooded New Orleans neighborhoods—both renters and homeowners—wrote comprehensive recovery plans, founded community schools, opened volunteer centers, raised funds to rebuild fire stations and libraries, created social service agencies, and did everything else in their power to help tens of thousands of their neighbors come home. Most of these initiatives directly aided both renters and homeowners. Even those that did not, such as assistance to homeowners for federal “Road Home” grant applications, were broadly beneficial because they helped to repopulate areas whose fates hung in the balance. Landlords were more likely to repair housing units in quickly recovering neighborhoods, and many renters were able to return because of the efforts profiled in this book.

Pelot-Hobbs rightly points out that neighborhood associations often represent narrow constituencies, but as the book shows, post-Katrina recovery created extraordinary circumstances. The hundreds of neighborhood leaders I met were, to a T, anxious to help all former residents of their neighborhoods return home—a reality I do my best to portray in the book. Residents realized that by helping their neighbors, they were also helping themselves. “It doesn’t do me any good to come back if nobody else is here,” notes Lakeview resident Terry Miranda. “I’m getting something out of [my work]. I’m getting a neighborhood.”

To be sure, these are not simply feel-good stories of harmony and self-help, and the book does not portray them as such. For example, Terry complains bitterly after his neighborhood’s governing body approves a plan to rezone his block for commercial use. More broadly, the book makes it clear that the unprecedented neighborhood recovery efforts it profiles were necessary only because of profound government neglect and dysfunction. The toll these efforts take becomes clear when one of the book’s main characters, Pam Dashiell—who was president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association (HCNA) in the Lower Ninth Ward (and was herself a renter)—literally works herself to death on her neighborhood’s behalf, passing away at her computer in late 2009.

Indeed, Dashiell’s tragic death is emblematic of a larger structural dynamic that the book lays bare: People in every New Orleans neighborhood worked tremendously hard to recover, but neighborhoods were dealt different hands. This is a central theme in We Shall Not Be Moved, and its presence calls into question Pelot-Hobbes’ claim that the book shows a systematic “inability to situate individual stories within a broader framework.” For instance, the book shows that parishioners at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church were able to begin gutting and rebuilding their waterlogged houses less than two months after the flood, whereas thousands of Lower Ninth Ward residents had no houses to which they could return. Residents of predominantly white, middle-class Lakeview felt comfortable opening their homes as recovery centers for use by strangers, while in Hollygrove, a formerly working-class neighborhood whose residents had slipped into poverty and fallen victim to high crime rates after decades of citywide job losses and economic decline, people were understandably more reticent to open their homes. The book does not suggest that anyone had it easy in the flood’s wake—residents of flooded neighborhoods universally experienced the months and years after Katrina as a desperate struggle—but it does show that different neighborhoods faced radically different challenges, some of which were too overwhelming for even the best-organized resident driven efforts to overcome. It also argues that neighborhood organizing alone was neither a fair nor an effective way to bring the city back. “Leaving communities to fend for themselves after a disaster was a travesty,” the book maintains, “not a silver bullet for recovery.”

Pelot-Hobbs suggests the books Race, Place, and Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina and Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six, along with the documentary Land of Opportunity, as better resources for curious and concerned readers. These are important contributions to discourse about the recovery, shedding light on post-Katrina demolition of public housing, public health inequities in the recovering city, flagrant human rights violations in Louisiana prisons, and a host of other topics that We Shall Not Be Moved does not even attempt to address. But conversely, these sources do not tell the important stories of neighborhood mobilization featured in We Shall Not Be Moved—stories that will remain vital to understanding citywide dynamics for decades to come. It is impossible to understand LaToya Cantrell’s recent city council victory over a vastly better-funded opponent, for example, without understanding the extent of LaToya’s work as a neighborhood organizer in Broadmoor—work that many news outlets failed to grasp and that the book narrates in depth.

Recovery is the struggle to recreate every aspect of life in a place, and narrating such a vast undertaking necessitates a tapestry of stories. I argue that We Shall Not Be Moved is one important piece of this tapestry. Because resident-driven efforts shouldered no small part of the recovery work undertaken in New Orleans, and because other books to date focus on other aspects of the recovery, I believe that We Shall Not Be Moved makes a unique and vital contribution to accounts of the flood’s aftermath.

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