Gentrifying Disaster

In New Orleans: Ethnic Cleansing, GOP-Style


In a recent email to Louisiana officials, FEMA curtly turned down the
state’s request for funding to notify displaced residents that they could
cast absentee ballots in the city’s crucial February mayoral election.
FEMA also declined to share data with local authorities about the current
addresses of evacuees.

In the eyes of many local activists, FEMA’s refusal to support the voting
rights of evacuees is consistent with a larger pattern of federal inaction
and delay that seems transparently designed to discourage the return of
Black residents to the city. As one Associated Press dispatch presciently
warned, “Hurricane Katrina [may] prove to be the biggest, most brutal urban-renewal project Black America has ever seen.”

Ethnic Cleansing, GOP-style

In the weeks since Bush’s Jackson Square speech, FEMA has alarmingly
failed to advance any plan for the return of evacuees to temporary housing
within the city or to connect displaced locals with reconstruction jobs.
Moreover for lack of a tax base or emergency federal funding, local
governments in afflicted areas have been forced to lay off thousands of
employees and are unable to restore many essential public services.

Bush’s promise to promptly help the region’s unemployed—282,000 in
Louisiana alone—has turned into slow-moving House legislation that would
benefit less than one-quarter of those made jobless by Katrina. The
powerful House Republican Study Group has vowed to support only relief
measures that buttress the private sector and are offset by reductions in
national social programs such as food stamps, student loans, and Medicaid.

The Republican leadership accordingly has blocked bipartisan legislation to
extend Medicaid coverage to all low-income hurricane victims and has imposed
unprecedented demands for loan repayment upon local governments. Katrina’s victims, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, have been “nickel and dim[ed]” to an extent that casts grave doubt over whether large-scale reconstruction “will really materialize.”

In the meantime more than two-thirds of FEMA contracts (according to
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco) has gone to out-of-state firms, with a
blatant bias toward Halliburton and other Texas-based investors in Bush
Inc. Simultaneously, unscrupulous
employers have saturated Latino neighborhoods in Houston and other
southwestern cities with fliers advertising a cornucopia of jobs in New
Orleans and Gulfport.

With Davis-Bacon and affirmative-action requirements suspended by
executive order, immigrant workers—housed in tents and working under
appalling conditions—have flocked to jobs sites in the city, largely
unaware that tens of thousands of blue-collar evacuees who would relish
these jobs are unable to return for lack of family housing and federal
support. Ethnic tensions are artificially inflamed by speculations about
a “population swap” and impending “Latinization” of the workforce.

New barriers, meanwhile, are being erected against the return of evacuees.
In Mississippi’s ruined coastal cities, as well as in metro New Orleans,
Landlords—galvanized by rumors of gentrification and soaring land values—are beginning to institute mass evictions. (Although the oft-cited
Lower Ninth Ward is actually a bastion of blue-collar homeownership, most
poor New Orleanians are renters.)

Civil-rights lawyer Bill Quigley has described how renters have returned
“to find furniture on the street and strangers living in their apartments
at higher rents, despite an order by the Governor that no one can be
evicted before October 25. Rents in the dry areas have doubled and
tripled.”

Secretary of Housing Alfonso Jackson, meanwhile, seems to be working to
fulfill his notorious prediction that New Orleans is “not going to be as
black as it was for a long time, if ever again.” Public-housing and
Section 8 residents recently protested that “the agencies in charge of
these housing complexes [including HUD] are using allegations of storm
damage to these complexes as a pretext for expelling working-class
African-Americans, in a very blatant attempt to co-opt our homes and sell
them to developers to build high-priced housing.”

Minority homeowners also face relentless pressures not to return.
Insurance compensation, for example, is typically too small to allow
homeowners in the eastern wards of New Orleans to rebuild if and when
authorities re-open their neighborhoods.

Similarly, the Small Business Administration—so efficient in
recapitalizing the San Fernando Valley in the aftermath of the 1994 Los
Angeles earthquake—has so far dispensed only a few million dollars
despite increasingly desperate pleas from tens of thousands of homeowners
and small business people facing imminent foreclosure or bankruptcy.

As a result, not just the Black working class, but also the Black
professional and business middle classes are now facing economic
extinction while Washington dawdles. Tens of thousands of blue-collar
white, Asian and Latino residents of afflicted Gulf communities also face
de facto expulsion from the region, but only the removal of
African-Americans is actually being advocated as policy.

Since Katrina made landfall, conservatives—beginning with Rep. Richard
Baker’s infamous comments about God having “finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans”—have openly gloated over the possibilities for
remaking New Orleans in a GOP image. (Medically, this might be considered
akin to a mass outbreak of Tourette Syndrome, whose official symptoms
include “the overwhelming urge to use a racial epithet.”)

Republican interest in reducing the Black Democratic vote in New Orleans—the balance of power in state elections—resonates with the oft-expressed
desire of local elites to purge the city of “problem people.” As one major
French Quarter landowner told Der Spiegel, “The hurricane drove poor
people and criminals out of the city and we hope they don’t come back.
The party’s finally over for these people and now they’re going to have to
find someplace else to live in the United States.”

Nor are downsizing and gentrification necessarily offensive to Democratic
neo-liberals who have long advocated breaking up concentrated poverty and
dispersing the black poor into older suburbs. The HOPE VI program, the
showpiece of Clinton-era urban policy, demolished traditional public
housing and ‘vouchered out’ residents in order to make way for mixed-use,
market-rate developments like the St. Thomas redevelopment in New Orleans
in the late 1990s that has become the prototype for elite visions of the
city’s future.

There exists, in other words, a sinister consensus of powerful interests
about the benefits of an urban ‘triage’ that abandons historical centers
of Black political power like the Ninth Ward while rebuilding
million-dollar homes along the disaster-prone shores of Lake Ponchartrain
and the Mississippi Sound.

The New Urbanism Meets the Old South

Into this fraught and sinister situation now blunders the circus-like
spectacle of the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU): the architectural cult
founded by Miami designers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.

Twenty years ago, when Duany was first barnstorming the nation’s
architectural schools and preservation societies, the New Urbanism seemed
to offer an attractive model for building socially diverse and
environmentally sustainable communities based on a systematization of
older ‘city beautiful’ principles such as pedestrian scale, traditional
street grids, an abundance of open space, and a mixture of land uses,
income groups, and building forms.

In practice, however, this diversity has never been achieved. Duany and
Plater-Zyberk’s Seaside—the Florida suburb so brilliantly caricatured in
the 1998 film “The Truman Show”—was an early warning that kitsch would
usually triumph over democracy in New Urbanist designs.

Despite the populist language of the CNU manifesto, moreover, Duany has
always courted corporate imaginers, mega-developers, and politicians. In
the mid-1990s, HUD under Secretary Henry Cisneros incorporated New
Urbanist ideas into many of its HOPE VI projects.

Originally conceived as replacement housing for the poor, HOPE VI quickly
morphed into a new strategy for replacing the poor themselves.
Strategically-sited public-housing projects like New Orleans St. Thomas
homes were demolished to make way for neo-traditionalist townhouses and
stores (in the St. Thomas case, a giant Wal-Mart) in the New Urbanist
spirit.

These “mixed-use, mixed-income” developments were typically advertised as
little utopias of diversity, but—as in the St. Thomas case—the real
dynamic was exclusionary rather than inclusionary, with only a few project
residents being rehoused on site. Nationally, HOPE VI led to a net loss
of more than 50,000 units of desperately needed low-income housing.

Smart developers accordingly have been quick to put New Urbanist halos
over their otherwise rampant landgrabs and neighborhood demolitions.
Likewise, shrewd conservatives like Paul Weyrich have come to recognize
the obvious congruence between political traditionalism and architectural
nostalgia.

Weyrich, the founding president of the Heritage Foundation, recently wrote
that the “new urbanism needs to be part of the next conservatism,” a
conservatism that remakes cities by purging their criminal underclasses.
(After Katrina, Weyrich castigated New Orleans for “its welfare state and entitlement mentality… a prototype for Liberals” and questioned whether it should be rebuilt at all.)

Weyrich was the spiritual bridesmaid during the recent nuptials between
the CNU’s Andreas Duany and Harley Barbour, the sleazy former tobacco
lobbyist and Republican chair, who became governor of Mississippi by
wrapping himself in the Confederate battle flag.

Barbour, long King of K Street, is nobody’s fool, and he is trying to
extract as much long-term political and economic advantage from Katrina as
possible. One of his declared priorities, for example, is bringing the
casinos ashore into larger, more Las Vegas-like settings; another is to
rapidly restore shoreline property values and squelch any debate about
resettling the population on defensible higher ground (north of I-10, for
example).

It was thus a rather brilliant stroke for Barbour to invite the CNU to
help Mississippi rebuild its Gulf Coast “the right way.” The first phase
was the so-called “mega-charrette,” 11-18 October, that brought 120 New
Urbanists together with local officials and business groups to brainstorm
strategies for the physical reconstruction of their communities.

Duany, as usual, whipped up a revivalistic fervor that must have been
pleasing to Barbour and other descendants of the slave masters: “The
architectural heritage of Mississippi is fabulous…really, really
marvelous.”

With Gone with the Wind as their apparent script, the CNU teams spent a
frenzied week trying to show the locals how they could replace their
dismal strip malls with glorious Greek Revival casinos and townhouses that
would rival any of those that once existed on MGM’s backlot. The entire
exercise stayed firmly within the parameters of a gambling-driven
‘heritage’ economy with casinos “woven into the community fabric” and
McMansions rebuilt on the beach.

In the end, however, what was important was not the actual content of the
charrette, nor the genuine idealism of many participants, but simply the
legitimacy and publicity that CNU gave to Barbour’s agenda. Duany, who
never misses an opportunity to push his panaceas to those in power, has
foolishly made himself an accomplice to the Republicans’ evil social
experiment on the Gulf Coast.