The Disneyfication of New Orleans
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.
In August and September 2005, areas like the largely black Lower Ninth ward, almost entirely invisible to the hordes of tourists who flock to New Orleans every year, attracted worldwide sympathy 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 tourists.
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 ethnic cleansing.
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 result is:
... 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 to go.
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 dream.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008