Who Is Killing New Orleans?
NEW ORLEANS A few blocks from the badly flooded and
The lights have been out for six months now, and no one seems to know when, if ever, they will be turned back on. In greater New Orleans about 125,000 homes remain damaged and unoccupied, a vast ghost city that rots in darkness while les bon temps return to a guilty strip of unflooded and mostly affluent neighborhoods near the river. Such a large portion of the black population is gone that some radio stations are now switching their formats from funk and rap to soft rock.
Mayor Ray Nagin likes to boast that "New Orleans is back," pointing to the tourists who again prowl the French Quarter and the Tulane students who crowd Magazine Street bistros; but the current population of New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi is about the same as that of Disney World on a normal day. More than 60 percent of Nagin's constituentsincluding an estimated 80 percent of the African-Americansare still scattered in exile with no obvious way home.
In their absence, local business elites, advised by conservative think tanks, "New Urbanists" and
Meanwhile, Bush's pledge to "get the work done quickly" and mount "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen" has proved to be the same fool's gold as his earlier guarantee to rebuild Iraq's
With each passing week of neglectwhat Representative Barney Frank has labeled "a policy of ethnic cleansing by inaction"the likelihood increases that most black Orleanians will never be able to return.Lie and Stall
After his bungling initial response to Katrina, Bush impersonated FDR and Lyndon Johnson when he reassured the nation in his September 15 Jackson Square speech that "we have a duty to confront [New Orleans's] poverty with bold action.... We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives."
In the event, the White House sat on its pledges all autumn, mumbling homilies about the limits of government, while its conservative attack dogs in Congress offset Gulf relief with $40 billion worth of cutbacks in Medicaid, food stamps and student loans. Republicans also rebelled against aid for a state that was depicted as a venal Third World society, a failed state like Haiti, out of step with national values. "Louisiana and New Orleans," according to Idaho Senator Larry Craig, "are the most corrupt governments in our country and they always have been.... Fraud is in the culture of Iraqis. I believe that is true in the state of Louisiana as well."
Democrats, apart from the Congressional Black Caucus, did pathetically little to counter this backlash or to hold Bush's feet to the fire over his Jackson Square pledge. The promised national debate about urban poverty never took place; instead, New Orleans, like a great derelict ship, drifted helplessly in the treacherous currents of White House hypocrisy and conservative contempt.
An early, deadly blow was Treasury Secretary John Snow's refusal to guarantee New Orleans municipal bonds, forcing Mayor Nagin to lay off 3,000 city employees on top of the thousands of education and medical workers already jobless. The Bush Administration also blocked bipartisan measures to increase Medicaid coverage for Katrina evacuees and to give the State of Louisianafacing an estimated $8 billion in lost revenues over the next few yearsa share of the income generated by its offshore oil and gas leases.
Even more egregious was the flagrant redlining of black neighborhoods by the Small Business Administration (SBA), which rejected a majority of loan applications by local businesses and homeowners. At the same time, a bipartisan Senate bill to save small businesses with emergency bridge loans was sabotaged by Bush officials, leaving thousands to face bankruptcy and foreclosure. As a result, the economic foundations of the city's
In stark contrast to its neglect of neighborhood relief, the White House has made herculean efforts to reward its own base of large corporations and political insiders. Representative Nydia Velazquez, who sits on the House Small Business Committee, pointed out that the SBA has allowed large corporations to get $2 billion in federal contracts while excluding local minority contractors.
The paramount beneficiaries of Katrina relief aid have been the giant engineering firms KBR (a Halliburton subsidiary) and the Shaw Group, which enjoy the services of lobbyist Joe Allbaugh (a former FEMA director and Bush's 2000 campaign manager). FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, while unable to explain to Governor Blanco last fall exactly how they were spending money in Louisiana, have tolerated levels of profiteering that would raise eyebrows even on the
In the fractious,
Yet by early November it was clear that saving New Orleans was no longer high on the Bush agenda, if it had ever been. As Congress headed toward its Christmas adjournment, the Louisiana delegation was in panic mode: A Category 5 plan had disappeared from serious discussion, and there were doubts about whether the damaged levees would be repaired before hurricane season returned. (In early March engineers monitoring the progress of the Army Corps's work complained that the use of weak, sandy soils and the lack of concrete "armoring" insured that the levees would again fail in a major storm.)
Congress ultimately voted to provide $29 billion for Gulf Coast relief. Yet as the Washington Post reported, "All but $6 billion of the measure merely reshuffled some of the $62 billion in previously approved Hurricane Katrina aid. The rest was funded by a 1 percent
Louisiana received another blow on January 23, when Bush rejected GOP Representative Richard Baker's plan calling for a federally guaranteed Louisiana Reconstruction Corporation, which would bail out homeowners by buying distressed properties and packaging them in larger parcels for resale to developers. Local Republicans as well as Democrats howled in rage, and the future of southern Louisiana was again thrown into chaos. Although the Administration eventually promised an additional $4.2 billion in housing aid, the appropriation continues to be fought over by Texas and other jealous states.
The Republican hostility to New Orleans, of course, runs deeper and is nastier than mere concern with civic probity (America's most corrupt city, after all, is located on the Potomac, not the Mississippi). Underlying all the circumlocutions are the same antediluvian prejudices and stereotypes that were used to justify the violent overthrow of Reconstruction 130 years ago. Usually it is the poor who are invisible in the aftermath of urban disasters, but in the case of New Orleans it has been the
Such calumnies reproduce ancient caricaturesblacks running amok, incapable of honest self-governmentthat were evoked by the murderous White League when it plotted against Reconstruction in New Orleans in the 1870s. Indeed, some civil rights veterans fear that the 1874 Battle of Canal Street, a bloody
Power and status in New Orleans have always been defined by membership in secretive Mardi Gras "krewes" and social clubs. In the early 1990s civil rights activists, led by feisty Councilmember Dorothy Mae Taylor, forced the token desegregation of Mardi Gras, and some of the clubs reluctantly admitted a few
But the dominating figure and kingpin is Joseph Canizaro, a wealthy property developer who is a leading Bush supporter with close personal ties to the White House inner circle. He is also the power behind the throne of Mayor Nagin, a nominal Democrat (he supported Bush in 2000) who was elected in 2002 with 85 percent of the white vote. Finally, as the former president of the Urban Land Institute, Canizaro mobilizes the support of some of the nation's most powerful developers and prestigious master planners.
In a city where old money is often as reclusive as Anne Rice's vampires, Canizaro poses as a brave civic leader unafraid to speak bitter but necessary truths. As he told the Associated Press about the Katrina diaspora last October: "As a practical matter, these poor folks don't have the resources to go back to our city just like they didn't have the resources to get out of our city. So we won't get all those folks back. That's just a fact."
Indeed, it is a "fact" that Canizaro has helped shape into reigning dogma. The number of displaced residents returning to the city is obviously a highly variable function of the resources and opportunities provided for them, yet the rebuilding debate has been premised on suspicious projectionsprovided by the RAND Corporation and endlessly repeated by Nagin and Canizarothat in three years the city would recover only half of its August 2005 population. Many Orleanians cynically wonder whether such projections aren't actually goals. For years Reiss, Kabacoff and others have complained that New Orleans has too many poor people. Faced with the dire fiscal consequences of white flight to the suburbs, as well as three decades of deindustrialization (which has given New Orleans an economic profile closer to Newark than to Houston or Atlanta), they argue that the city has become a soul-destroying warehouse for underemployed and poorly educated
Kabacoff's 2003 redevelopment of the St. Thomas public housing project as River Garden, a largely
Fears that a municipal coup d'etat was in progress were scarcely mollified when at the end of September the mayor charged BNOB with preparing a master plan to rebuild the city. Although the
BNOB might have quickly imploded but for a shrewd outflanking movement by Canizaro, who persuaded Nagin to invite the Urban Land Institute to work with the commission. Although the ULI is the
Upon these suspect premises, the outside "experts" (including representatives of some of the country's largest property firms and corporate architects) proposed an unprecedented triage of an American city, in which l
Keenly aware of inevitable popular resistance, the ULI also proposed a Crescent City Rebuilding Corporation, armed with eminent domain, that would bypass the City Council, as well as an oversight board with power over the city's finances. With control of New Orleans schools already usurped by the state, the ULI's proposed dictatorship of experts and elite appointees would effectively overthrow representative democracy and annul the right of local people to make decisions about their lives. For veterans of the 1960s civil rights movement, especially, it reeked of disenfranchisement pure and simple, a return to the paternalism of plantation days.
The City Council, supported by a surprising number of white homeowners and their representatives, angrily rejected the ULI plan. Mayor Nagintruly a cat on a hot tin roofdanced anxiously back and forth between the two camps, disavowing abandonment of any area while at the same time warning that the city could not afford to service every neighborhood. But state and national officials, including HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, applauded the ULI scheme, as did the editorial page of the
The BNOB recommendations presented by Canizaro in January faithfully hewed to the ULI framework: They included an appointed redevelopment corporation, outside the control of the City Council, that would act as a land bank to buy out heavily damaged homes and neighborhoods with federal funds, wielding eminent domain as needed to retire
On the crucial question of how to decide which neighborhoods would be allowed to rebuild and which would be bulldozed, BNOB endorsed the concept of forced buyouts but equivocated over process. Instead of the ruthless map that the Bureau of Government Research wanted, Canizaro and colleagues proposed a Rube
Canizaro presented the report to Nagin in front of a public audience on January 11. The mayor said, "I like the plan," and he complimented the commissioners for "a job well done." But most locals found little charm in the Canizaro report. "I will sit in my front door with my shotgun," one resident warned at a jammed meeting in the Council chambers on January 14, while another demanded, "Are we going to allow some developers, some hustlers, some land thieves to grab our land, grab our homes, to make this a Disney World version of our homes, our lives?" Predictably, Nagin panicked and eventually disavowed the building moratorium. Soon afterward the White House torpedoed the Baker plan and left BNOB with only the
But Canizaro doesn't seem unduly worried. He has reassured supporters that the ULI/BNOB plan can go forward with CDBGs alone if necessary; in addition, he knows that independent of the local political weather, there are powerful external forceslack of insurance coverage, new FEMA flood maps, refusal of lenders to refinance mortgages and so onthat can make permanent the exodus from redlined neighborhoods. Moreover, as anyone versed in the realpolitik of modern Louisiana knows, nothing is finally decided in New Orleans until some good ol' boys (and girls) in Baton Rouge have their say.Power Shift
Even before the last bloated body had been fished out of the fetid waters, conservative political analysts were writing gleeful obituaries for black Democratic power in Louisiana. "The Democrats' margin of victory," said Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation, is "living in the Astrodome in Houston." Thanks to the Army Corps's defective levees, the Republicans stand to gain another Senate seat, two Congressional seats and probably the governorship. The Democrats would also find it impossible to reproduce Bill Clinton's 1992 feat, when he carried Louisiana by almost exactly his margin of victory in New Orleans. With a ruthless psephologist like Karl Rove in the White House, it is inconceivable that such considerations haven't influenced the shameless Bush response to the city's distress.
New Orleans has always vied with Detroit when it comes to the violent antipathy of
For her part, Governor Blanco, a Democrat, has expressed little concern about this fundamental reconfiguration of Louisiana's major metropolitan area. Indeed, her immediate,
Poor people have no voice inside the Louisiana Recovery Authority, whose gaggle of university presidents and corporate types appointed by Blanco is even less beholden to black New Orleans voters and their representatives than the Canizaro krewe. The
According to interviews in the
But Blanco and the elites may have overlooked the Fats Domino factor."No Bulldozing!"
Like hundreds of other
"Living museum" (or "holocaust museum," as a black friend bitterly observed) sounds like a bad joke, but it is the elite view of what
ACORN founder Wade Rathke scoffs at the RAND Corporation projections that portray most blacks abandoning the city. "Don't believe those phony figures," he told me over beignets at Cafe du Monde in January. "We have polled our displaced members in Houston and Atlanta. Folks overwhelmingly want to return. But they realize that this is a tough struggle, since we have to fight simultaneously on two fronts: to restore people's homes and to bring back their jobs. It is also a race against time. The challenge is, You make it, you take it. So our members are voting with their feet."
Not waiting for CDBGs, FEMA flood maps or permission from Canizaro, ACORN crews and volunteers from across the country are working night and day to repair the homes of 1,000
ACORN has allied with the
ACORN also went to court to insure that New Orleans's displaced, largely black population would have access to
It would be inspiring to see in this latest battle of New Orleans the birth pangs of a new or renewed civil rights movement, but gritty local activism has yet to be echoed in meaningful solidarity by the labor movement,
Copyright, 2006, The Nation
[Note: A psephologist studies election trends, voting returns, public opinion polls, etc.]
From: The Nation Magazine, March 23, 2006, and Yahoo! News, http://news.yahoo.com/s/thenation/20060323/cm_thenation/20060410davis_1, accessed 03/28/06. Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C.