Nothing’s simple in the Big Easy
The rebuilding of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina is a mixture of racial tensions, conspiracy theories and indomitable spirit. Jack Shenker reports from the Crescent City.
‘In London they say if two people stand on a corner, a queue forms. In New Orleans, a parade starts.’ The observation is as true today as it was when local writer Marda Burton made it six years ago. In a city that can be languid and demented in equal measure, fizzing with drama and mired in dormancy all at the same time, one thing has remained constant in the year since Katrina: the tendency for music, dancing and costume to burst out and hit you in the face when you least expect it. ‘That hurricane didn’t weaken the culture or strengthen the culture,’ says Sylvester ‘Hawk Mini’ Francis, whose backstreet museum showcases the flamboyantly colourful outfits of Mardi Gras Indians. ‘Culture is culture. Ain’t no hurricane that’s gonna change that.’
Like the Mardi Gras Indians who painstakingly begin working on a whole new suit as soon as each year’s festival comes to an end, the people of New Orleans are rebuilding from square one with few complaints. After a flurry of international interest in their story at the time of Katrina’s anniversary, they have been left to get on with it for another year. Bells were briefly rung, silences were carefully observed, and a humble George Bush dined at a local pancake house before flying back to Washington. Then, like the floodwaters that overwhelmed the city a year ago, media presence in the Crescent City subsided, leaving residents to reconstruct their lives here just as they have been doing since the storm hit – stutteringly, defiantly and through the help of one another rather than the support of the state. And now the anniversary has come and gone, the real story of post-Katrina New Orleans is only just beginning.
Collins Jasper is standing in the blazing midday heat pressing his head up against a seven-foot metal fence, crowned with rolls of barbed wire. Tomorrow the city will stop and remember the 1,500+ lives that Katrina stole from them; today, Collins is remembering how the aftermath of the hurricane stole his home. ‘Look at these places,’ he says, gazing across at the apartment where he used to live. ‘These places are fine. We wouldda moved back in the next day if we could, because we don’t need no lights, no gas. We can get candles. But this is our home.’ His mother Sharon nods in agreement. ‘We want the nation to see this is something they are stealing from us – stealing our heritage, our pride, our community.’
A day later, and Allan Mercadel – a 28 year old whose family have been homeowners in the Lower 9th Ward for seven generations – echoes Collins’ anger. ‘These are people who spent their blood, sweat and tears building their homes,’ he says quietly, gently banging a tambourine against his thigh as he surveys the ravaged neighbourhood. ‘A year later the place still looks like the city dump. A year later, and there’s still debris on the streets. We’re being left behind for a reason.’
The two men have never met, and their grievances with the city authorities are very different. Yet they are both a part of a complex and murky picture of post-Katrina reconstruction in New Orleans, ridden with accusations of discrimination, fear of cultural gentrification and the ceaseless reiteration of conspiracy theories. Hundreds of thousands of residents are still scattered across the country, crashing with friends or relatives in Vermont, Colorado or New Jersey, or holed up in trailer parks in Texas, Alabama and Arkansas. Together, they constitute almost half of the city’s pre-Katrina population. From preservation experts to property developers, the consensus is that the city needs most (although not necessarily all) of these New Orleanians to return if the city is to recapture the vibrancy that made it such a unique element within an increasingly-homogenised urban America. But after a succession of false starts, a regeneration programme that has been handled with varying degrees of incompetence and insensitivity – with only rare touches of efficiency – is only now working towards what is known as the ‘Unified New Orleans Plan’, an interconnected vision of what the Big Easy needs to do to recover, and how its going to do it.
The fear of many former residents is that this vision does not include them, and that the New New Orleans will be shorn of many of the communities from which its famous spirit is drawn. Many developments have helped generate this fear; some are borne out of the city authority’s ineffective government over the past year, others out of the actions of businesspeople seeking to profit from the disaster, others still from the inevitable controversies thrown up when a patchwork city of diverse cultural neighbourhoods is redesigned almost from scratch.
One pillar of the reconstruction effort that spans all three is the contentious plan to redevelop the city’s public housing stock. Twelve months on from the hurricane and all but a fraction of the public housing units – home predominantly to black, working-class New Orleanians – remain closed, shuttered up and fenced off despite the buildings sustaining little flood damage. Residents of these housing projects remain displaced in far-flung towns and states, victims of what they believe to be a brazen plan to write them out of New Orleans’ future.
But the current attack on public housing is nothing new. In 1996 there were over 13,000 publicly-funded, affordable housing units in the city; by the time Katrina struck, that had been steadily reduced to 7,100 – many of which were uninhabitable. Now, with New Orleans facing the greatest shortage of affordable housing in its history, the Department for Housing and Urban Development has announced plans to permanently demolish 5,000 of the remaining units. ‘What Katrina did was give these folks a scapegoat,’ says Jasper, who has lived in the St Bernard housing project ever since he was born. ‘They been trying to get at us for as long as I can remember.’
From the perspective of the city authorities, the storm has handed New Orleans a golden opportunity to clear up the problem of public housing once and for all. The official plan is to replace public developments with ‘mixed-income’ complexes that accommodate both poorer, working class residents who are subsidised by the state, and wealthier residents who can pay the market rate. It’s a bold move, and it’s being pioneered in New Orleans by Pres Kabacoff, an influential local property developer, whose ‘River Gardens’ construction is being used as a model for the regeneration of low-income housing.
The charge against Kabacoff is that by levelling the public housing projects, the city is making it impossible for those that lived there to return. There are dark rumours of developers eyeing up the prime real estate that some of the projects sit on (such as Iberville, only a few blocks north of the French Quarter), and the numbers of affordable housing units available in mixed-income developments simply don’t stack up. And running through all of this is a constant fear that certain groups are simply being squeezed out. ‘We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did,’ said Republican Congressman Richard Baker in an infamous comment made after the storm had struck. Many residents fear it reflects the real priorities of the business and political elite – to rid the city of its poorest communities.
It’s a charge Kabacoff vigorously denies. ‘What the international community knows of the city (the French Quarter, the business district, etc.) is still intact, it wasn’t damaged by the storm,’ he says. ‘But what we’re missing are the characters that give the city its life, and as a city we need to make sure we bring that culture back. And what’s more we need to recognise that the city’s workforce is of course comprised of poorer residents as well, and we need them back for economic reasons.’ So why stop people returning to the projects? ‘We cannot recreate the ghettos of the past. Previously we segregated poor housing away from wealthy and gated communities but we’re now working with the federal government and the Louisiana Recovery Authority [tasked with overseeing the state’s recovery from Katrina] to change the rules of that game.’
The idea sounds laudable – integrating New Orleanians into communities that aren’t defined by the spending power of their residents. On the face of it, such a plan certainly seems preferable to replicating the projects as they were before Katrina, with disproportionately high crime rates and abject poverty. Yet one only has to look at the much-vaunted (and equally maligned) River Gardens to see what can go wrong with mixed-income developments. The complex replaced over 1,500 units of public housing at the St Thomas development, yet only a fraction of the new units will be ‘affordable’, displacing many families who have lived in St Thomas for generations. A Wal-Mart was thrown into the equation for good measure, making a mockery of the idea that the new development would foster an independent, socially vibrant community full of small enterprises. What’s more, as part of the deal, the revenue from Wal-Mart’s sales tax goes directly back into subsidising Kabacoff’s enterprise, giving nothing back to the city.
There has been no shortage of experts willing to condemn the idea that River Gardens could provide a model for integrated and affordable housing in the post-Katrina New Orleans. ‘It’s really a worst case scenario, to have to demolish completely and start building all the way up again,’ says Patty Gay, director of the city’s Preservation Resource Centre. As a campaigner for the preservation of New Orleans’ distinct architectural styles, styles which have evolved organically over countless generations, she believes that River Gardens is a perfect example of the dangers posed by large-scale planning, the type of which is enormously prevalent in the city today as it pursues a swift reconstruction. ‘What we think really makes a neighbourhood and a city is incremental development, with people buying their own house and fixing it up themselves, or working with smaller developers. There’s certainly a role after a disaster like this for big developers but for me it should be a last resort.’
For James Perry, a housing and civil rights advocate who heads the city’s ‘Fair Action Housing Center’, the debate over public housing and mixed-income developments goes to the heart of the tension that New Orleans is straining under, with incompetence, mistrust and some genuinely visionary ideas all being thrown into a volatile cocktail. ‘The principle that guides us – indeed, the principle that guides civil rights legislation in this country – is that separate cannot be equal,’ he says. ‘The goal is integration, for people from different cultures and different neighbourhoods to live together in the same neighbourhoods and go to the same schools.’
Consequently his organisation is finding itself torn between support for African-American public housing residents seeking help in resisting the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO)’s plans, and support for the city authorities who claim to be trying to end the economic and ethnic segregation that public housing inevitably creates. ‘Our goal is integration, so this is a very tough call for us. If we don’t side with the housing authority we miss out on a one-in-a-lifetime chance of integrating housing in the city of New Orleans. But where mixed-income developments have been used, such as in River Gardens, the residents have been cheated.’
He shows me some of the cases the Centre are looking into involving former residents of the St Thomas Housing project who were promised homes in River Gardens. One has spent the last twelve months sleeping in a car; another is shelling out $1800 a month on private accommodation, leaving her barely enough money to eat. ‘The suggestion that this is the system our post-Katrina housing system should be modelled on scares me to death. Residents simply don’t believe the promises made about mixed-income housing because of what’s happened in the past – all these lofty goals, and nothing was achieved.’
Whilst the city talks, public housing residents are acting. Some have joined a class-action lawsuit against HANO, whilst others have taken to direct action, arming themselves with boltcutters and power generators (electricity to the projects has not been reconnected) in an attempt to reoccupy their homes. Several protests and reoccupation attempts took place in the weeks after the Katrina anniversary; few were given any serious coverage in the local or national press.
‘That’s my apartment right there,’ Diane Allen told me at one such incident at the CJ Peete development. Grandchildren danced around her feet as she blinked back tears at the sight of police officers, tipped off about the attempted reoccupation, standing guard over the door to her apartment, in the project she has lived in for 27 years. ‘How does it make me feel to have police standing in front of my home? It makes me feel bad, bad that I can’t walk up my own steps, stand on my own porch, turn my key in my own door.’ She is currently living in Houston; others aren’t so lucky. Fellow CJ Peete resident Kenneth Washington, who is 50 years old, is currently homeless. ‘Man it feel like they took everything off my back, like there’s no breath left in me,’ he sighed. ‘When this happens in Sudan, they call it ethnic cleansing, when this happens in Rwanda, they call it ethnic cleansing,’ added protest organiser Mike Howells. ‘When it happens here, they call it planning the “New” New Orleans.’
The public housing battleground is just one element of a larger debate over what should be retained and what should be abandoned in the updated Crescent City, a debate that becomes most saturated in suspicion and vitriol when it touches on the future of the Lower 9th Ward, the poor black neighbourhood that took the biggest hit from Katrina after the levee separating the area from the Industrial Canal gave way and billions of gallons of water flooded in.
I visited the Lower 9th on the day of Katrina’s anniversary, with 28-year-old Allan Mercadel, whose family have lived in the Lower 9th for seven generations, as my guide. He spent the morning jostling amongst the crowds at a commemorative rally, enthusiastically shaking his tambourine in time with the music and shouting greetings at passers-by. ‘Love you all too, take care of that little one now,’ he grinned as a smiling pregnant woman pushed past the non-descript patch of grass we stood on by the canal. ‘And don’t fall!’ he yelled after her, slapping the instrument against his legs in delight as she made her way down onto the muddy path below. ‘I’ve been knowin’ her all my life, she a childhood girlfriend from 7th grade,’ he confided. He gave the tambourine a final, more doleful shake and added softly: ‘She lost her grandmother due to the storm.’
A year ago, the name of this metropolitan district meant nothing to most Americans outside of New Orleans; today it is national shorthand for poverty, racial division and the evident failings of a federal government at a time when its citizens needed it most. Row upon row of deserted, dusty roads spread before us to the horizon. In some places the vista is sprinkled with the wreckage of houses and the bright glint of crushed car parts reflecting the morning sunshine. But for the most part the roads border nothing but emptiness, with grass and weeds having overgrown the plot where a home once stood.
‘Hard to believe ain’t it,’ chuckled Allan softly. ‘This little bitty ass city is where the whole world wants to come.’
On a day when the city authorities knew the eyes of the world were upon them, the 9th ward was an awkward barb in an otherwise smooth PR message. ‘New Orleans is back in business’ journalists were told: restaurants were throwing open their doors, tourists were returning and soon the New Orleans Saints would begin a new season in the infamous Superdome – an event heavily advertised on local TV with images of the American football players huddling together in the venue’s changing room, repeatedly chanting ‘There’s no place like home’. In St Louis Cathedral, a beautiful, understated white brick building at the heart of the city’s French Quarter, the city’s political elite welcomed President Bush to a special mass. ‘The signs of progress are not always easy to see, but they are here,’ announced Norman Francis, chairman of the state recovery authority. ‘Schools are in session, people are rebuilding, businesses are reopening and the music of life has begun to return.’
Less than four miles away, with our backs to the point in the newly-rebuilt levee wall where the Industrial Canal gushed in, Allan told me a different story. Maligned by politicians for its crime levels and sidelined in some visions of the city’s rebirth, former residents of the Lower 9th Ward, currently scattered across America, are on the defensive. ‘Over here we all homeowners, there ain’t no project [public housing] here, no apartment complexes – these are homeowners,’ he explained ‘It’s a majority black neighbourhood and what is happening here, or rather not happening here, is racial. We’ve been abandoned. A lot of people don’t like to talk about it and wanna sweep it under the rug but if you keep sweeping so much shit under the rug the rug the rug’s not gonna be on the floor any more. This city’s gotta clean under the rug.’
When Mayor Nagin’s ‘Bring New Orleans Back’ commission released its reccommendations on the the city’s reconstruction earlier this year, and revealed its final map of the future rebuilt city, the Lower 9th had a big green dot over it, indicating that it should be turned into parkland. Nagin abandoned that plan under the weight of critical voices and the pressure of a forthcoming election campaign, but today little has been done to get the area back on its feet; in most blocks electricity and water remain disconnected, buses remain non-existent and residents remain elsewhere – just two per cent have returned home.
‘The folks in the Lower 9 have been behind on everything,’ says James Perry. ‘Because it was the worst-devastated area they wouldn’t let residents come back to check out their homes until several months after everyone else was able to, which gave residents a much later start in getting the rebuilding process in motion. You couldn’t even file an effective insurance claim, because it wasn’t possible to carry out a damage assessment on your house.’
The slow progress means that, as in the housing projects, rumours of a carefully-crafted plot to force out New Orleans’ black community are common currency. ‘After the storm Donald Trump and his guys were over here buying shit up and playing monopoly,’ spat Allan. With the protesters gone, the area is eerily silent, devoid of any human presence or signs of government action, save the occasional military vehicle patrol that rumbled by in the distance. ‘We’re being left behind for a reason. They want this land. I believe there’s oil on this land, hell I used to swim in that swamp over there – I know this is good ground.’
Yet it isn’t only the African American community who are finding fault with developments in the Lower 9th. Many white New Orleanians are angry at the way in which the plight of the city’s black areas has dominated the national new agenda, complaining that all discussion of regeneration is being viewed through a racial prism. The storm did not discriminate by ethnicity, they argue, and the bald facts bear them out – Katrina exacted an almost equal death toll from blacks and whites, despite the former comprising 67 per cent of the area’s population.
Mike Serio, whose great-uncle founded a po-boy store on St Charles Avenue in 1958, a store that Mike has owned and run for thirteen years, is furious at what he describes as a deliberate attempt to stir up racial tension at a time when the city should be pulling together. Amongst the Louisiana State University football team paraphenalia that covers every available wall space is a handwritten advertisment for White Chocolate Dixie Beer, ‘as endorsed by Mayor Nagin’ – a sardonic reference to Nagin’s promise earlier this year that the rebuilt New Orleans would be a ‘chocolate city’. ‘I’m just sick of all this stuff, we’re all in it together, black and white, so why we gotta be so divisive?’ he sighed as he piled sloppy meat onto my sandwich.
‘You wanna see something sad about NO right now? Well, it’s about people helping people. Go down to the Lower 9th Ward and there’s a load of kids down there, young and white, college students from all over the country, and they’re all helping out the residents, gutting their houses. It’s a very noble and very good cause. But the people who live in these homes, who are having the work done for them, what the hell are they doing? Sitting around doing nothing, they’re not helping themselves. They’re waiting for the government, they’re waiting for someone else to come along and put them back together instead of getting off their arses and doing it for themselves. It’s a cultural thing, because they’re used to the government taking care of them and giving them everything they want. All you gotta do is scream and yell loud enough and it’ll be done for you.’
Although they wouldn’t admit it, Mike’s views about the work ethic of the African American community, and the community’s attitude to post-Katrina regeneration, is one shared by a large proportion of the city’s white middle-class. The notion that black New Orleanians are more interested in making a fuss and demanding assistance instead of buckling down and getting on with the job of rebuilding emerges most strongly when comparisons are made with New Orleans’ Vietnamese community, the densest concentration of Vietnamese people anywhere in the world outside of Vietnam itself.
Drive twelve miles east out along the Chef Menteur Highway and a cacophony of Vietnamese signs suddenly springs up from the roadside. The story of the people who live here is a remarkable one. Five families from a handful of Catholic villages in northern Vietnam fled the Communists together in 1954; today there are over a thousand families in this far-flung New Orleans neighbourhood, with 4,000 Vietnamese living within a one-mile radius of the central church. ‘You have to remember that the experience of this community is very unique,’ says Father Vien, the community’s leader. ‘The overwhelming majority of these people were forced to migrate to the South in very arduous conditions, risking their lives. They had to walk through the killing fields of Cambodia to Thailand, and wait for years in a dismal environment before finally making it to America. And so – and I say this with all sincerity – Katrina was a minor inconvenience to us.’
Katrina’s memory usually produces a weary torrent of gloomy tales; in Versailles, it is refreshing to hear a more positive account of the storm and the consequent road to recovery. Members of the Vietnamese community were back home within days of the hurricane passing, dodging military checkpoints and joining in a highly efficient local relief effort organised by the church. Together they lobbied the council and the energy companies to restore services to the area and one-by-one the house lights started blinking back on in Versailles, even while the rest of New Orleans East was plunged in darkness. ‘It’s a question of “chicken and egg” and I think that’s where other communities have been caught in a vicious cycle,’ says Father Vien. The city has only been willing to pour resources into neighbourhoods to which people are returning, but in many areas people are unwilling to return precisely because basic services aren’t up and running. The close-knit nature of the Vietnamese saw them flooding recovery meetings with representatives and swamping the local electricity company with forms demanding reconnection. ‘The very nature of the Vietnamese being a communal people means that in times of peace things can be problematic because everyone knows everybody else’s business, and our young people resent that – they highly value the individualism of America. However when it comes to times of crisis, it’s a different ball game. We have a very clear structure and it gets results.’
That unique structure – decisions are made through the church and quickly followed through – is not present in other communities, which are more disparate and decentralised. A prime example is Versailles recent victory in a campaign to close a city dump that had been unceremoniously planted on their doorstep. So although many people make unflattering comparisons between the recovery rate of the black community and those in Versailles, Father Vien resents being used as a stick with which to attack African Americans. ‘Yes, we prefer to stay under the radar. The only thing we ask of government is not to impede our work, that’s all – our attitude us “don’t call us, we’ll call you”. But I don’t think that means other people can “learn from us” because we truly have a community, whereas other areas are neighbourhoods. Everyone here knows where the leadership is. We have meetings, I make a decision and we do it – tell me another community that can do things like that?’
Bobbing up from the areas of stagnation, signs of recovery are intensifying. Wander through the vacant blocks of a noiseless Upper 9th Ward and before too long you’ll stumble upon the whirring of drills and crash of hammers, as volunteers and future residents work overtime to construct a new village from scratch on a recently-acquired eight acre site. The project gives newly-built homes to poor New Orleanians on heavily subsidised mortgages, as long as they contribute 350 hours of ‘sweat equity’ to the construction work. ‘Oh good, it feels so good,’ said Linda Nunnery as she prepared to move into the one of the completed homes. Working for one of the city’s hospitals, the mother-of-two was marooned in the Convention Center for four terrifying days last August and has been stuck in a trailer ever since. ‘I got to build my own house, choose what’s going in where, it feels like home. And it makes you feel proud, knowing I built that.’ The ‘Musicians’ Village’, as it has become known, fosters exactly the kind of civic pride that critics claim was lacking in the public housing projects, as home ownership and personal contributions to the building work help make residents feel like they have a genuine stake in the community.
A few blocks away, Janet Tobias stacks up some paint cans and proudly shows off her rebuilt home – one side is still gutted and bare, but the other is beautifully finished and our voices echo in the empty rooms. ‘It’s gonna take us three more months to finish off. My sons do most of it – I have asthma so I can’t be in here too long. But the neighbours help as well,’ she says. Her husband, a forklift truck operator, was one of the thousands trapped in the Superdome when the floodwaters rose; now Janet makes the eight hour journey from Alabama, where she has been forced to live for the past year, as often as she can so she can work on the house. ‘I’m fearful, I think the waters gonna come up again. But we wanna come back. In Arkansas, everyone wants to come back.’
There are thousands of Lindas and Janets making their way home, one way or another. The city they are returning to is dogged by tensions over the reconstruction process and in many quarters, enmeshed in conspiracy theories. But it is also dominated by an overwhelming desire to triumph over adversity and rise anew from the floodwaters. It is widely believed in several areas that the levees bordering the Lower 9th Ward were deliberately dynamited to protect wealthier parts of town; amongst the middle-classes there is frustration that their own struggle to reconstruct their neighbourhoods is being drowned out by disproportionate coverage of African American problems. But this concern is disingenuous; those with means find it easier on every level to get the financial and practical assistance they need to rebuild, and those on lower incomes have countless more obstacles in between them and a safe and sustainable return to New Orleans. And whilst the local newspaper publishes a heart-warming weekly column entitled ‘Signs of Recovery’ (recent listings have included a forthcoming Hummingbird and Butterfly Extravaganza, and the opening of a new ice-making plant), the claims of injustice and high-level duplicity, from the projects to the 9th Ward, persevere.
‘The truth is that although folks are right to be wary of the reconstruction process, you can hardly call it a conspiracy,’ says James Perry. ‘It’s capitalism at play – people are out to make as much profit as they can. There’s a lot of money to be made in the aftermath of a disaster, and people are doing exactly that, buying low and selling high. And the biggest problem is that it is not illegal. In fact, in many ways it’s profoundly American.’
And so the story of New Orleans, a city whose limelight has dimmed for another year, continues.
Jack Shenker is a freelance journalist living and working in London. He has written for, amongst others, The Times, the Guardian and the Hindustan Times in Delhi, and is the author of in-depth articles on India, South Africa and Israel. His journey to New Orleans a year after Katrina was documented on his blog, New Orleans: one year on.
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