Tuesday, June 26, 2007

New Orleans – Let The Good Times Roll

For years, New Orleans and Louisiana have had reputations as centers of political corruption. Former Gov. Edwin Edwards is serving 10 years in prison after being convicted in 2000 in a fraud, extortion and racketeering case. Within the past week, a former New Orleans school board president pleaded guilty to taking bribes to help a business consultant win contracts for an employer, and a one-time associate of former Mayor Marc Morial was sentenced to prison for his role in a kickback scandal.

Historically, the city and state have been tolerant of corruption, Letten said. Still, he and Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, believe that tolerance is eroding, particularly in the nearly 22 months since Katrina flooded much of the city[1]

Time is supposed to heal all wounds or so they say. It has been 22 months since the disaster known as hurricane Katrina; hit the city of New Orleans. While there has been significant progress in the city as a whole, the 9th ward has not been as fortunate as the rest of the city. For those who are not familiar the 9th ward is where the majority of the poor people of New Orleans resided. I originally wanted to do a piece to respond to a challenge on a blog site, asking if the Black bloggers had forgotten about New Orleans. I had to admit that I had not done one post on it and it kind of bothered me. I was ready to do a post blasting the incompetence of the federal, state, and local governments and how the well documented history of corruption in Louisiana was playing out on the national stage.

However, as I began gathering my facts and figures and preparing to start into my tirade an interesting question came to mind. I must say I was somewhat troubled and yet intrigued by the question. The question speaks to how we respond to disaster as a society and as a nation; the things we value and want integrated into our fabric. I could find no right or wrong response to the question, but a difference in the values we have as individuals. It made me question what are we entitled to as citizens of a city and a nation.

Does the city of New Orleans have to provide for the poor people to return to New Orleans? Before you go into the immediate knee jerk response think about it. Due to the disaster New Orleans has a chance to rebuild the city; do they have to bring the poor people back that are not home or property owners? Is the city served by having poor people relocated back to the city, with the inherent problems of crime, homelessness, drugs, etc? Does the city have an obligation to include creating a ghetto in its redevelopment plans?

But you say, “They were here before the hurricane” and yes this is true but they are not there now. The reason I ask these questions is because the city is in the process of recreating itself by demolishing the public housing or projects and replacing it with “mixed income” housing, which is code for getting rid of the poor. The area that the city is “renovating” lies very near to the French Quarter and I am sure would be prime redevelopment real estate.

After the last remnants of ‘the city’ are removed, we stand and look across the dead silence of the empty projects – it is a somber reminder of the city and federal governments’ failure to ensure low income housing in New Orleans. St. Bernard, like 80% of the public housing developments in the city, is slated for demolition, despite the fact that they have sustained very minimal hurricane or flood damage. HANO, taking leadership from Housing and Urban Development has condemned the projects as contaminated, and declared a plan to destroy them while simultaneously announcing a plan to provide ‘mixed-income housing’ instead. Ironically, the buildings themselves were some of the strongest in the city, and had sustained very little real damage.

Either way, for public housing residents across the city, the prospects are bleak. They are locked from their apartments despite holding leases, and told they may not have a place in the new slimmed down version of public housing that is being proposed. The truth is, the plan for ‘mixed income housing’ would provide a small fraction of the actual units that are afforded low income families, discouraging those without other means from returning to New Orleans.

Many people believe the long history of racism in New Orleans that has led to government neglect in the rebuilding process. They simply don’t want low income blacks to return. After volunteering in New Orleans for the last 7 months, it is a hard statement to rebuke. Everywhere you look the evidence is around you. Demolished homes, skyrocketing rent, lack of public health care, underfunded public schools, and one of the highest incarceration rates for young black men in the nation. A large gap in mental health services, particularly for those suffering ‘Katrina trauma’ and a lack of decently paying jobs has led to drug wars and staggering murder rates.

Meanwhile residents in the poorest areas of New Orleans are still awaiting the long promised Road Home money, awarded by congress to aid home owners in the state of Louisiana. More than eighteen months after the storm, as few as 1% of the families who applied for this assistance have received checks. Meanwhile the city has begun demolitions on ‘neglected’ properties, part of an ongoing land grab that is being called by some “the largest gentrification project in the history of the United States.” As one black woman who was waiting for her Road Home check told me, “I’d like to see who that 1% is, because I can guarantee you, it’s nobody I know. “

Often these things can be written off as result of neglect and bureaucratic in-action. But times like today it appears intentional -- as if a small war is being waged – with red-tape and bulldozers, at a time when housing is needed more than ever.. .According to HANO’s own documents St. Bernard could be repaired for $41 million, or substantially modernized for $130 million. Demolishing them and building ‘mixed income’ apartments will cost at least $197 million, and reduce the number of low income units from 1400 to 160. The new buildings would be less secure, and more likely to suffer future Hurricane.[2]

So does the city owe the poor a return ticket to poverty or a relocation back to the slums they once called home?

[1] http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-06-24-new-orleans-watchdog_N.htm

[2] http://neworleans.indymedia.org/news/2007/04/10093.php

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