The Disneyfication of New Orleans
The city's redevelopment has ignored the needs of what was one
of the closest-knit black communities in America
By Anna Hartnell
Guardian' -- - Three years after Hurricane
Katrina, a more glamorous image of black America is presenting
itself to the world in the person of Barack Obama. Meanwhile, in
New Orleans, America's story of black urban poverty is still
unfolding, largely beneath the radar of the global media.
Three years after Hurricane
Katrina, a more glamorous image of black America is presenting
itself to the world in the person of
Obama. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, America's story of black
urban poverty is still unfolding, largely beneath the radar of
the global media.
In August and September 2005,
areas like the largely black
Ninth ward, almost entirely invisible to the hordes of
tourists who flock to New Orleans every year, attracted
as the levees broke. Now they have been all but forgotten.
While tourists long ago repopulated the French Quarter, 57% of
New Orleans' black population – against 36% of whites – have yet
to return to the city. Many never will. This is because since
Katrina, developers have clubbed together with the authorities
to complete New Orleans' makeover into a playground for wealthy
As house prices soar and
homelessness rises, the authorities are quietly doing away with
the city's remaining stocks of affordable housing in moves that
the UN has recently claimed constitute human rights violations.
The fact that these demolitions will overwhelmingly affect black
people has led some to call this
Looking back, these developments
should come as no surprise. The sympathy that met Katrina's
immediate aftermath was short-lived. In August 2005 it was poor
African-American residents, statistically the least likely to
have the means to evacuate the stricken city, who bore the brunt
of the storm damage. Viewers all round the world watched in
horrified fascination as conditions in the convention centre and
Superbowl deteriorated. News reports did focus on the
government's apparent abandonment of its own people, but a
hysterical and arguably racist undercurrent was almost
compulsively drawn to rumours of rape and murder – nearly all of
which turned out to be untrue.
As residents evacuated the city,
and before the floodwaters had even receded, the future of New
Orleans and its residents was being spoken about in no uncertain
terms. "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans",
declared Republican congressman Richard Baker soon after the
storm. "We couldn't do it. But God did." Alphonso Jackson, the
then US secretary of housing and urban development, made the
racial implications of the gentrification process perfectly
clear when he predicted that the reconstructed New Orleans would
be a whiter city.
In the three years since, race
and class stereotypes have paved the way for New Orleans'
so-called "revitalisation". "We don't need soap opera-watchers
right now", claimed the city council president, Oliver Thomas –
perpetuating the view that New Orleans' high unemployment rate
can be tracked to individual laziness as opposed to the systemic
discrimination affecting most of America's inner cities. At the
same time, those same forces that demonise poor and particularly
black families – for their apparent "dysfunction" – are actively
preventing the regrouping of some of the most close-knit black
communities in the US.
The city is now in the process
of phasing out the low-cost housing, public transportation
system, and public health facilities that have supported the
existence of low-income residents in New Orleans for decades.
The US department of housing and urban development and the
housing authority of New Orleans say that they wish to
de-concentrate poverty in areas that were previously hotbeds for
crime and drug abuse. Currently though, there are only plans to
replace one-third of the units available for low-income renters.
And as Audrey Stewart of the Loyola Law Clinic explains, the
... thousands and thousands
of homeless people camping out, under bridges, we have folks
staying with relatives and friends – I see that all over my
neighbourhood, five, six, seven, eight people living in
these tiny houses. We have people getting kicked out of Fema
[Federal Emergency Management Agency] trailers with nowhere
Many displaced New Orleans
residents, black and white, are now calling for the "right of
return" – and are in the process creating a dynamic grassroots
movement that threatens to disrupt the relative calm that has
eased the passage of the city's controversial reconstruction
programme. This is just the kind of movement that Barack Obama
spent the first part of his career organising for
South Side Chicago, and it may turn out that his ability as
president to respond to this call proves decisive.
Obama has been a vocal critic of
the Bush administration's recovery and reconstruction programme,
and his restoration plan for the region includes housing
displaced residents who wish to return to the city. This time
last year, Obama expressed concern that New Orleans would once
again become the scene of the nation's broken promises, and told
residents, "I can promise you this: I will be a president who
wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night with the
future of this city on my mind." He said:
... racial discord, poverty,
the old divisions of black and white, rich and poor, it's
time to leave that to yesterday.
But as the presidential campaign
intensifies, Obama is increasingly under pressure to "transcend
race". If this insidious demand should persist into an Obama
presidency, it could seriously hinder a sustained focus on so
racially charged an event as Katrina and its disastrous
aftermath. What's certain is that the longer the world looks
away, the more likely it is that a Disneyfied "new" New Orleans
will mean the loss of a city that boasts one of the most complex
cultural heritages in the world.
Three years on from the storm,
during an election year that has focused attention on a
spectacular symbol of African American success, it seems that
once again, no one is looking in the direction of a black
America that has experienced only the rough end of the American
Anna Hartnell is lecturer in
American literature & culture at the University of Birmingham,
"comments" below to read or post comments
Be succinct, constructive and
relevant to the story.
We encourage engaging, diverse and meaningful commentary.
Do not include personal information such as names, addresses,
phone numbers and emails. Comments falling outside our
guidelines – those including personal attacks and profanity –
are not permitted.
See our complete
Policy and use this link
to notify us if you have concerns about a
comment. We’ll promptly
review and remove any inappropriate postings.
Send Page To a Friend
accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this
material is distributed without profit to those
who have expressed a prior interest in receiving
the included information for research and
educational purposes. Information Clearing House
has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator
of this article nor is Information ClearingHouse
endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)