The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

City in Exile

Katrinaâ€TMs Displaced Move to Defend New Orleans from Elite Visionaries

Part One of a Series

by Michelle Chen

Concerned that the mayor’s well-to-do special-planning board will recreate only the worst aspects of the city’s former character, activists and advocates are pushing for grassroots participation in NOLA’s renewal.

*A correction was appended to this feature article after initial publication.

This is the first in a series of articles by staff reporter Michelle Chen examining the challenges and tensions in the rebuilding of New Orleans. Part Two, "Safety Places a Distant Second in Race to Repopulate New Orleans," ran on October 14. Part Three, "New Orleans’ Displaced Struggle for Housing, Jobs, Neighborhoods," ran on October 21.

Oct. 7, 2005 – Day after day at the shelter in Gonzales, Louisiana, the big charter buses rolled up to the storm-battered crowds. To people who had lost everything, a ride out of town – to Utah, Indiana, as far from the Bayou as they could imagine – might as well have been Noah’s Ark. Lured by promises of jobs and housing, hurricane victims clambered aboard, bound for unfamiliar destinations.

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Tanya Harris, a New Orleans refugee, watched anxious fellow survivors "just leaving, trying to find some sense of stability, trying to get out of shelters."

But at a time when keeping communities intact was more vital than ever, Harris was troubled that people were being pushed further and further away from their neighborhoods and from each other.

"It’s a concern," she said, "for anybody who wants to go back to New Orleans and wants New Orleans to thrive, if its residents are displaced all over the country."

The rebuilding of New Orleans promises – and threatens – to be the most massive social engineering project in recent history. Suspecting that government and corporate interests have their own designs for a privatized, top-down urban renewal, grassroots advocates are attempting to create a political axis in place of a geographical center.

From the point of view of a growing coalition of activists, the city’s physical reemergence parallels their sojourn in exile. Before houses are razed and bricks laid, they are demanding the right of displaced residents of all backgrounds to come home. And they want something to come back to – starting with a voice in the rebuilding of their communities.

Assessing the Damage

For community groups familiar with New Orleans’ racial and political climate, the atomization of the population after the storm reveals that what the government really aims to rebuild are historically entrenched barriers of race and class.

With most of its residents scattered in shelters and other temporary living arrangements, New Orleans seems similarly adrift after the flood. The advocacy group National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that Katrina washed out over 140,000 housing units, including rentals as well as owned homes.

Officials have hinted that the poorest areas might not be worth rebuilding. Alphonso Jackson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has told reporters that, due to the scope of the damage, the population of New Orleans will be smaller and less black than before. Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who has slated the 98-percent black Lower Ninth Ward as the last section of the city to be reopened, has suggested in public statements that authorities might simply demolish the worst hit areas.

But in response, civil rights organizations like the NAACP are advocating for the equal right of all survivors to return and rebuild. NAACP Chief Administrative Officer Georgia Noone told The NewStandard that even those whose homes have been completely destroyed "should have the right to own a home a second time, and they should be allowed to do so in the community in which they lived previously."

Inside and outside the city’s borders, New Orleans activists are turning the population’s dispersion into a broader form of political solidarity.

To Harris, a Ninth Ward resident and homeowner, the restrictions on merely entering her neighborhood suggest that certain returnees are less welcome than others. "We just want to look at our properties to make sure everything is okay," she complained. "So why aren’t we allowed to go in?"

Displaced homeowners from her neighborhood, said Harris, are incensed that "they can’t seem to have a say in what’s happening. And you know, you’d that think that the one thing that makes you somebody in this country is… home ownership."

For community groups familiar with New Orleans’ racial and political climate, the atomization of the population after the storm reveals that what the government really aims to rebuild are historically entrenched barriers of race and class.

"The dispersal is deliberate," commented Malcolm Suber, an organizer with the New Orleans advocacy network Community Labor United. "And it plays into the plans of the rich, white uptown rulers who don’t want all of the poor black people to come back to the city."

Staying Away, or Locked Out?

Urban planning experts and alarmed residents say that on the question of whether to return home, unmet needs and exclusionary policies may make the choice for people.

Jim Schwab, a senior research associate with the liberal think tank American Planning Association, predicted that given the extent of the disaster, "there will be people who simply choose not to return." On the other hand, he noted, "where they choose to go in these circumstances is kind of limited by what resources they have."

"Limited" is an understatement, say advocates. Low-income affordable housing made up approximately nine in ten of the rental units ruined by the hurricane. At current funding levels, Louisiana’s unemployment programs, including Disaster Unemployment Assistance, could force many returning families to start over from scratch – far below the poverty line. Even those with jobs may not fare much better, since the White House recently repealed laws mandating standard local wages for recovery construction workers.

Some planning experts fear that if developers get their way, New Orleans will be reincarnated as a bland, soulless shell of a once-great southern city.

Dwight Kirk, a communications associate with the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, said that unless the recovery plans offer equity to dislocated families, "people will choose not to come back to New Orleans, because they will recognize they’re coming back to something worse than what they left."

Resurrecting New Orleans

Some planning experts fear that if developers get their way, New Orleans will be reincarnated as a bland, soulless shell of a once-great southern city.

Scott Bollens, a professor of planning, policy and design at the University of California–Irvine, sees moneyed interests steering the city toward a "corporate-led," gentrified urban model, without "any sort of public interest or set of public goals that is driving the reconstruction."

Bollens said that the government has a responsibility to include displaced residents as decision-makers in the reconstruction planning. Economic and racial diversity should be prioritized throughout the process, he said, and compared to pre-Katrina, "the same proportions of races and ethnicities should be represented in the new New Orleans."

But as politically connected federal contractors and a business-friendly mayor converge over Katrina’s ravages, displaced residents fear they will be forced to watch from a distance as corporations twist the wreckage into profits.

The mayor’s first major recovery initiative, a 17-member commission called Bring New Orleans Back, is a Who’s Who of business and civic leaders, with little significant representation from grassroots groups. Moreover, the initiative may turn out to be short-lived if Nagin loses the upcoming election, which is slated for early next year but under state law may now be haphazardly postponed.*

But as politically connected federal contractors and a business-friendly Mayor converge over Katrina’s ravages, displaced residents fear they will be forced to watch from a distance as corporations twist the wreckage into profits.

Bill Spriggs, a senior fellow with the progressive Economic Policy Institute, said that now is in fact the best time to churn the political leadership -- before officials have a chance to implement unilateral development policies and possibly sweep areas like the Lower Ninth Ward off the map altogether. "Before we get people trying to disenfranchise folks by fiat," he said, "maybe we better hurry up and hold the election."

Sheila Tully, a professor of American studies at San Francisco State University, said that with developers at the helm of the recovery efforts, "what local folks have to do is to make it very, very difficult for any project to move forward without accountability to local activists and local communities.… That’s going to require a high level of organizing."

Homeward Bound

Inside and outside the city’s borders, New Orleans activists are turning the population’s dispersion into a broader form of political solidarity, framing the displacement within national issues of race, labor and "social justice."

When Harris saw buses scattering New Orleanians throughout the country, for example, she moved to defend her home turf by proxy. A longtime activist with the national low-income advocacy group ACORN, she and other members formed a special committee to track Katrina survivors as they moved to other states.

ACORN now maintains a network of thousands of New Orleanians in about 40 states. The group has also facilitated town hall meetings for displaced survivors in various locations to help members connect with organizers and learn about the situation in their hometowns.

Similarly, the NAACP is partnering with direct service providers to assist survivors with basic housing and financial needs, while also using Katrina as a platform for civil rights advocacy on a national level. The organization is pressing officials to guarantee absentee voting rights for evacuees, and to set aside half of recovery contracts for the local workforce, so the displaced have a civic and economic stake in returning.

"Ultimately," said Noone, "we know that if you have a large number of minorities that move out of the city, it’s going to change the demographics of voting posture."

The labor federation AFSCME is advocating for the creation of a public works employment program, modeled on the Depression-Era Works Progress Administration. Union spokesperson Jodi Sakol said that such a move by the federal government would both advance the recovery and bring economic security to survivors, by "putting evacuees back to work rebuilding the Gulf Coast."

ACORN organizers are also trying to cultivate a post-Katrina workforce in exile. In shelters, said Harris, "we’re talking to plumbers, electricians; we’re talking to people who have skills that can be very useful to the rebuilding process, and these people have no jobs… Put them to work!"

Community Labor United has established the Peoples’ Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition, to carry out advocacy and direct aid for underserved survivor communities. The Coalition’s goal, said Suber, is to galvanize "the collective wisdom" of displaced residents into a political infrastructure that can hold government officials accountable.

Right now, Suber said, "committees are being formed, moneys are being spent, and we are challenging the assumption of the government that they can go ahead and reorder people’s lives without them having any input." The specific demands that he has heard so far from survivors are basic ones: an improved public school system, quality housing, and solid jobs.

But like New Orleans itself, those ideas will remain hollow unless put into action by concerned people, and activists are now focused on reaching a critical mass of survivors bent on redeeming their right to return.

Noone said that the majority of hurricane victims the NAACP has worked with hope to return to their communities; others remain unsure, still grappling with their trauma. But she said organizers are confident that when "people have moved away from the immediacy of it, they’ll see that it is home. You know, a lot happened, but it’s home."

CORRECTION

Minor Change:

The original version of this article stated that the New Orleans mayoral election had been postponed until early next year. In fact, the election remains on its original schedule, slated for early next year. The state government, however, has enacted its authority to postpone local elections due to the disaster and has pushed back the city's upcoming fall elections.

 | Change Posted October 12, 2005 at 18:23 PM EST

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


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Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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