Part of what I’m doing on my US ‘housing road trip’ is making snap judgments about places I’m visiting briefly and don’t really know. That’s always a hazardous activity, but it hasn’t stopped me in the past! When it comes to New Orleans, I’m feeling a bit more cautious, for two main reasons. Firstly, thinking and writing about a place that was the Silicon Valley of slavery needs a bit of circumspection. Secondly, the issues around Hurricane Katrina, as the tenth anniversary approaches, demand sensitivity. All of this will require exceeding my usual 500-word limit!
Slavery, along with the Holocaust, forms a large part of my political psyche and motivation. I’ve read and thought about both a lot, but am no nearer to understanding either. Visiting places where appalling things happened can only go so far in explaining them, but just as I’m ‘glad’ I’ve visited a concentration camp, so I’m ‘pleased’ to be in the city where humans were bought and sold as chattel. Walking the streets of New Orleans, with its huge antebellum mansions and remnants of faux gentility, is to fully appreciate the wealth generated by 250 years of a ‘peculiar institution’ that, in my opinion, continues to inscribe and haunt America.
On Friday I went to a meeting to discuss the city’s housing situation, particularly post-Katrina, in a building on the site of a slave market. I’m not using this coincidence to make a crude link, but to the extent that the US is still deeply troubled by race and racism, the connection between New Orleans’ more and less recent history is pertinent. For the people I’ve met there’s no question that Katrina was and remains a disaster that not only disproportionately affected working class African-Americans, but was deliberately exploited to do so.
One way to describe what’s happened here is to see Katrina as a super-accelerator for a pre-existing housing and urban policy agenda. As with every other place I’ve visited on this trip, New Orleans has been pursuing a strategy for systematically running-down and privatising its public housing stock, replacing it with contentiously defined ‘mixed income’ developments and shifting those who still needed and qualified for subsidised housing into the private rented sector via a voucher system. Inner-city areas previously inhabited by working class and largely non-white communities were increasingly vulnerable to displacement resulting from a recolonisation of the urban core driven by speculative property development.
All of this was happening in New Orleans prior to 29th August 2005. From a stock of 13,000 ten years before Katrina, New Orleans had 7.200 public housing units (2,000 of which stood empty) the day the storm struck. It now has 2,500. There were 9,400 people with housing vouchers before Katrina, there are now 18,000. As in other places, assessing the true scale of housing need is difficult. The public housing authority doesn’t keep an open waiting list, but when it last invited new applications in 2009 it received 32,000, up by approximately a third since before Katrina. Street homelessness, the starkest indicator of housing need, is similarly difficult to assess because in New Orleans, as in other cities, the authorities go to great lengths to conceal it. When I arrived here I was struck by how few people there were sleeping rough compared to other places I’ve been in the last four weeks, but on the day I arrived there was a ‘sweep’. The homeless were herded in to shelters and the places where they’d been power-hosed. (There are significantly more street homeless visible three days later, indicating the futility of this Canute-like exercise.) Apparently sweeps often happen before big events like football games or this weekend’s ‘Cajun Tomato Festival’! According to people I’ve spoken to who give legal support to the homeless, some of the shelters have echos of the Victorian workhouse, with restrictions on movement and religious moralism a condition of shelter.
As with other places with big tourist industries, the sense of parallel universes in New Orleans is palpable, as described by a long-time local resident and campaigner:
‘New Orleans may have been party-town for conventioneers and the City’s tourism and marketing bureau, but it was hard times with long months and short money for the vast majority of people living in the city’s neighbourhoods, trying to make it through the crumbling infrastructure of a broke-ass town.’ (Rathke 2011, ‘The Battle for the Ninth Ward’)
Walking the city’s streets, away from the tourist traps, is quite shocking. Some of the roads are virtually unmade tracks and the pavements are uneven or non-existent. Significantly, Rathke is saying that the infrastructure was crumbling before Katrina.
Counting housing need in New Orleans is further complicated by the city’s dramatic population churn. Prior to Katrina the city had 450,000 residents and falling steadily. Almost everybody left after the storm. According to the 2010 census, the figure has recovered to 350,000. Within these numbers lie devastating trauma for the city’s African-American community. Nobody knows exactly how many people were permanently displaced (or killed) by Katrina, or where they went to, but there was significant relocation to other southern cities like Houston, Atlanta and Baton Rouge. The ‘right to return’ remains littered with barriers, from the cost of removal vans to lack of schools and rising housing costs. Many people lost their jobs after the flood. Some are still, ten years on, waiting for government re-building grants. The latest census still records New Orleans as a majority ‘black’ city, but people I’ve spoken to say it is getting ‘whiter’, with a significant influx of new arrivals attracted to the city’s unique atmosphere and (perhaps) the potential of a housing market that is rising, but still cheaper than other places. Yesterday I saw a house on sale for $30,000. To use a bit of academic jargon, New Orleans doesn’t so much have a ‘rent gap’ as a rent chasm. The number of dilapidated, relatively inexpensive, but beautiful buildings could make New Orleans a gentrifier’s paradise. It’s already happening in the 9th Ward and the Treme district where I’m staying.
The latent question in this brief summary of a very complex urban picture is to what extent Hurricane Katrina was used by ‘the authorities’ to advance the redesign of a struggling city. Various conspiracy theories abound about how a ‘natural’ disaster was deliberately engineered, from the weakening of flood defences in certain areas, to the placement of barges to raise the water level and the discriminatory use of public money to ensure that certain areas – and people – recovered before others.
The worse affected area of the city was the 9th Ward, to the east of the commercial downtown and famous French Quarter. It’s a particularly low-lying area that was almost entirely African-American since desegregation and ‘white flight’ in the late 50s. I visited yesterday and spoke to some local campaigners who vividly recall that the immediate advice from the City’s Mayor after Katrina was ‘Don’t come back’. There was some talk that now the city would be able to ‘shrink its footprint’, a bizarre twist on the urban policy aspiration to create ‘compact cities’, a theory that in my view is generally code for whiter, wealthier cities.
If you thought New Orleans was too black, too poor, too sprawling and too expensive to maintain then Hurricane Katrina offered a quick fix. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but there is a conspiracy. The people on the grassy knoll are those with power who increasingly use housing and property as a device to make more money for themselves while re-creating cities in their own image and blighting the lives of others. As a local resident said to me yesterday, ‘The more pots they’ve got their hands in, the more they can take out.’
Here’s some photos:
This is Charles outside the house where he’s living in the 9th Ward. It has a generator for electricity, but no running water. He said ‘I take care of my hygiene elsewhere.’ Charles is looking after the place while his family put together the money to restore it. With classic American optimism he added ‘It’s just a stepping stone.’
Up the road from Charles, but what struck me about this image is that, apart from a few architectural clues, it’s one I could have seen not only in other parts of New Orleans, but other cities in America that haven’t been hit by a hurricane. Worth noting though, that the house next door is in much better condition suggesting that the damage to the nearest home was not caused soley by the storm and/or that recovery from catastrophe is always unequal.
Also in the 9th Ward, the first school in the Deep South to be desegregated, now closed and boarded up, like many others I’ve seen in similar areas.
Iberville Homes, Basin Street in central New Orleans. 800 homes from the first generation of US public housing (originally for whites only), now being redeveloped, but for ideological not flood-damage reasons. Again, something I’ve seen in every US city I’ve visited.