Changing New Orleans

Jordan Flaherty
Date Published: 
November 4, 2005
Its bittersweet being back in New Orleans. Although the architecture is the same, and its a relief to walk the streets and reunite with old friends, already this is a very different city from the one I love. Its a city where some areas are quickly rebuilding and other parts are being left far behind. A city where people who have lived here for generations are now unwelcome in a hundred different ways.

White New Orleans is steadily coming back, and Black New Orleans is moving out. A grassroots organizer with New Orleans Network tells me she has been speaking to people in every moving truck she sees. She reports that in every case, “they’re Black, they are renters, they’re moving out of New Orleans, and they say they would stay, if they had a choice.”

Inequality continues through the cleanup of New Orleans. Some areas have electricity, gas, and clean streets, and some areas are untouched. Medical volunteer Catherine Jones reports that driving the streets of New Orleans at night, “ I felt like I was in the middle of a checkerboard. The Quarter lit up like Disneyworld; poor black neighborhoods a few blocks over so dark I couldn't even see the street in front of me.”

The Washington Post reports that although both the overwhelmingly White Lakeview neighborhood and Black Ninth Ward neighborhood were devastated by flooding, “It now appears that long-standing neighborhood differences in income and opportunity...are shaping the stalled repopulation of this mostly empty city.”

While Lower Ninth Ward residents are still being kept from returning to their homes, “Lakeview, where 66 percent of children go to private school and 49 percent of residents have a college degree, was pumped dry within three weeks of the storm. Memphis Street (in Lakeview) smells now of bleach, which kills mold, and resounds to the thwack of crowbars and the whine of chain saws. Insurance adjusters have begun making rounds.”

A similar story is unfolding in South Florida, where the Miami Workers Center reports, “Close to 24 hours after Wilma struck, power returned to Miami's affluent and tourist districts such as South Beach, Downtown and the Brickell Financial District. In the past week, power has returned to most suburban communities. But power has been slowest returning to black, latino, and immigrant poor urban neighborhoods. Many of the 400,000 still in the dark have been told not to expect power until as late as November 22nd.”

Miami Workers center volunteer Terry Marshall reports, “this experience is showing...that it’s not a question of where the hurricane hits. It’s a question of where the resources are missed.”

New Orleans was, as more than one former resident has said, the African city in North America. It is a city steeped in a culture that is specifically African American - from Jazz to blues to bounce. It is the number one African American tourist destination in the US. The Bayou Classic and Essence Festival, two vital Black community events, bring tens of thousands of Black tourists to the city every year. Walking around town, its hard to imagine these tourists coming back to the new New Orleans - a city was once 70% Black and now feels unwelcome and hostile - or at least uncaring - to its own past.

Last Wednesday alone, 335 evictions were filed in New Orleans courts - the amount normally filed in a month. There have been countless reports of landlords throwing tenant’s property out on the street without any notice. New Orleans human rights lawyer Bill Quigley reports that “Fully armed National Guard troops refuse to allow over ten thousand people to even physically visit their property in the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood. Despite the fact that people cannot come back, tens of thousands of people face eviction from their homes. A local judge told me that their court expects to process a thousand evictions a day for weeks. Renters still in shelters or temporary homes across the country will never see the court notice taped to the door of their home. Because they will not show up for the eviction hearing that they do not know about, their possessions will be tossed out in the street. In the street their possessions will sit alongside an estimated 3 million truck loads of downed trees, piles of mud, fiberglass insulation, crushed sheetrock, abandoned cars, spoiled mattresses, wet rugs, and horrifyingly smelly refrigerators full of food from August.”

A recent poll from Gallup reports that, even adjusting for differences in income, White and Black New Orleanians have had deeply different experiences of this disaster. Blacks were more likely to fear for their lives (63% vs. 39%), to have been separated from family members for at least a day (55% vs. 45%), gone without food for at least a day (53% vs. 24%) and spent at least one night in an emergency shelter (34% vs. 13%).

The New York Times and other papers have reprinted former FEMA director Michael Brown’s emails from the time when our city was being flooded - stunning evidence of how little the agency cared about what was happening in New Orleans. “If you'll look at my lovely FEMA attire you'll really vomit. I am a fashion god,” reads a typical email from the day after the hurricane hit. Other emails showed Brown and his staffers to be more concerned with his dinner reservations in Baton Rouge and a dog sitter for his house than with anything happening in New Orleans.

The demographics of New Orleans have changed in gender as well as race. The thousands of contractors and laborers that have arrived from across the country - in addition to National Guard, police agencies, security guards, and other workers - are overwhelmingly male. Because most schools are closed, there are few kids below 17 or their families. Women I know who have returned report feeling uncomfortable and unsafe.

A large Latino immigrant population has come to work in the city’s reconstruction. These workers have been demonized by everyone from Mayor Nagin to local talk radio. Grassroots medical volunteers report that some of the workers are forbidden by their employers from talking to anyone or even leaving their rooms at night. They are working in hazardous conditions, for low pay and little safety protection - already many have become ill, and they have no access to medical care, and face a hostile city.

There are still thousands of New Orleans residents who have not been convicted of any crime trapped in maximum security prisons and “no one in a position of power finds this pressing,” says Ursula Price, a staff researcher with A Fighting Chance, an indigent defense group. She estimates at least 2000 prisoners from Orleans Parish Prison remain in Angola, the notorious former slave plantation in rural Louisiana. These are people who were picked up for “misdemeanor offenses such as public drunkenness, traffic violations, soliciting a prostitute,” Price says. If convicted, at most they would have served less time than they have been in for. But, in Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish, courts have been closed for most of this time, and public defenders have been laid off. “The system is not working with us,” Price tells me. “I don't understand why prosecutors are in there arguing against release of someone on a misdemeanor charge. We have women who have had miscarriages, mental heath problems, physical health problems, and no one in power seems to care.” The total population of Orleans Parish Prison at the time of hurricane Katrina was at least 7,000 people. In a city of just 500,000, that's a significant population.

The people of New Orleans are not just physically displaced, but also disenfranchised from their city in other ways. According to the Wall Street Journal, when FEMA officials were asked by Louisiana state officials for access to the FEMA database so that they could inform New Orleans evacuees about their right to vote in upcoming municipal elections, the response was a terse email - “(FEMA) will not let you have a copy of the FEMA applicant list. Sorry!!!” What better way to let people know that the city is not theirs than to have an election to which they are not invited?

Many in New Orleans are struggling with an even more basic and vital concern - the recovery of their loved ones. Less than a quarter of the bodies so far reported discovered in New Orleans have been turned over to families. The rest are at the New Orleans coroners, currently relocated to St. Gabriel’s Parish. “Officials in coroner's offices in several parishes reported that they sought to keep their victims from going to St. Gabriel,” reports today's Times-Picayune, which describes one families long ordeal in recovering their mother’s body. Just one more area where people of New Orleans are left behind.

While this tragedy multiplies, while evictions mount and exploitation increases, the former residents of New Orleans have their choice of a dizzying array of forums, hearings, panels, tribunals, town halls, committees, subcommittees, commissions, meetings, marches and demonstrations, most of which are seeking the input of the people of New Orleans.

In the space of two days last week, I went to a public meeting with a representative from the UN High Commission on extreme poverty. I went to a meeting of the housing subcommittee of the urban planning committee of the mayors blue ribbon commission on rebuilding New Orleans. I joined a rally at the State Capitol featuring Jesse Jackson, Reverend Al Sharpton, and various Government officials. At each event I saw hundreds of poor folks from New Orleans. I also met representatives of a community group for East New Orleans residents displaced to Baton Rouge - they report that 500 people come to their weekly meetings.

This Monday, I will march across the bridge from New Orleans to Gretna, to join in protests called by a wide array of national organizations against a crime Cynthia McKinney has said "might become the worst American civil rights episode of the 21st Century," the blockade by Gretna police of the only exit out of New Orleans for thousands of evacuees. I also plan to join the People's Assembly initiated by the People's Hurricane Fund on December 9-10.

There are many outlets for action, as well as plenty of anger and energy, but also a deep skepticism. The people of New Orleans have a justified distrust of the people and institutions who have arrived with promises and resources. Hundreds of well-meaning volunteers have come in to town, and many have done vital work, but in some cases this has increased tensions. “Some people have come here with this attitude, ‘we’re bringing organizing to New Orleans.’ They don’t seem interested in what was here before,” reports one community organizer.

These divisions are not only concentrated on the grassroots - disagreements within the mayor’s commission on rebuilding New Orleans have become increasingly public, with some representatives complaining to the New York Times of not being invited to private breakfasts between the mayor and other commission members.

"The truth is," said one longtime activist, "people have a lot of anger and grief, and they don't where to direct it." We are all tired, frustrated and sad, but the struggle for justice continues.