River Rip Off – A Beautiful New Development – Homes from the low $400,000s – Move in Today!

The two biggest questions along the entire Gulf Coast; “what are we going to rebuild here?” And, “for whom will we rebuild?” Katrina and Rita provided not just an “opportunity” to remake urban landscapes, as many officials, architects, and citizens have been claiming, the disasters have also created an imperative to do so. Because so much of the built environment was destroyed something will have to be done regardless of what it is. But justice is an elusive thing, especially when we’re talking about place and urban power. It’s unlikely that the powers that be will draft just and equitable blueprints for the new urban landscapes east and west of the Mississippi river.

A socially just reconstruction of the Gulf Coast will mean a lot of things. But let me try to describe some of the injustice already deforming the process and product so that you can get a sense of what’s mostly happening right now.

One example is the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Chartered by the state of Louisiana to help homeowners rebuild, the program entirely ignores those without property. One activist and friend recently described it as a “pre-Jacksonian” form of governance. “It’s as though we’ve reverted to a United States where only the landed upper classes can vote or participate in civic life,” he explained. While property owners in Louisiana stand to receive a combined federal subsidy of $10.4 billion to recoup the wealth they lost in their damaged homes, rental units, and estates, those at the bottom of society who for whatever reasons have not been able to build wealth through purchasing a home or land get nothing more than the totally inadequate and stigmatized “handouts” that came down in the form of debit cards, hotel vouchers, section 8 increases, charity, and other programs that do nothing to build their powers of self-determination or wealth.

Another way of gauging the reconstruction effort’s injustice is by looking at what sorts of real-estate redevelopments are underway right now, and what’s not. There’s a real-estate boom (buying and selling, and building) along much of the Gulf Coast. But this economic activity is not benefiting all groups equally. It’s concentrated at the top, for the top. While low-income renters worry that their landlords will use LRA or other recovery funds to rebuild their units on the cheap – thereby pocketing much of the money intended for physical rehabilitation of their buildings – condos and homes for the affluent are being built and converted left and right. They’re nice, they’re new, they’re big and shiney, and you can move in real soon if you’ve got a down payment for several hundred thousand.

In New Orleans, before Katrina, gentrification wasn’t quite as big a problem as it was in other cities (although public housing has been under the gun for more than a decade now with city officials, developers, and the upper classes pushing for its demolition to be replaced with “mixed-income” homes – mixed-income being a euphemism for many units of upper-income housing garnished with a tiny number of lower-income units to legitimize the whole process and claim it’s good for the former residents). Now gentrification is easily one of the biggest problems facing the working class. People feel pushed out of certain neighborhoods. There’s simply not enough housing for those who cannot afford the $700 dollar a month rents that are becoming de jour throughout the city. Along the major avenues in New Orleans old factories, schools, and warehouses are being converted at ever-quickening paces into loft-style apartments, condos, and bourgy cafes for the stream of yuppies that the rentiers and builders estimate will be converging on the city over the next few years. Indeed, attracting this new demographic is a central part of the “opportunity” that many developers, rentiers, and the city’s upper class see as a result of the disaster.

This estimate relies on the ability of the tourist/hotel/gambling/conventioneering industry to remake New Orleans into a Creole-jazz-crescent-cajun theme park, or what Tulane history professor Lawrence Powell fearfully predicts; a “place where Orlando embraces Las Vegas? [an] American Pompeii I apprehend rising from the toxic sludge deposited by Lake Ponchartrain: an ersatz city, a veritable site of schlock and awe.” Many fear that they’ll be successful, but lots of residents I’ve talked with aren’t so sure that the city’s power elite will be able to accomplish this goal. Some of them think it’s simply impossible because of the corruption at the top. My friend Reggie (born and raised in the 7th Ward, and a resident of the Lafitte housing projects before HANO locked him out in October from his home) thinks it’s “crooked at the top,” and that this why their plans will fail. He also points out that no matter how much some would like to gentrify the city they’ll still need a workforce. Their plans are contradictory. The requirement that dishes be washed, cars be parked, rooms be cleaned, songs be sung, and drinks be served up means that the workforce has some power – if they can get organized.

It appears that outside of New Orleans entire communities are being developed for some of the more privileged evacuees who are choosing to permanently leave the city behind. In the July 16th edition of the New York Times Susan Saulny writes about River Ranch, a development going up in Lafayette catering to ex-patriot New Orleanians. It is, “a virtual re-creation of much of historic residential New Orleans, meticulous in detail and substantial in size, with a growing population of more than a thousand on about 300 acres.” It has a Garden District, a French Quarter, and “blocks of Creole cottages.” I wonder if they’ll be true, if they’ll really go for authenticity and put up slum housing to be inhabited by 30% of their residents, if they’ll build massive public housing developments, fill them, then demolish them and send those residents out into River Ranch’s equivalent of the Lower 9th Ward on section 8. I wonder if they’ll allow massively polluting industries to dump on the land under the developments. And I wonder if they’ll build shabby levies around the town designed to fail. After all, it wouldn’t be true to form, it wouldn’t be the authentic New Orleans if it were anything else.

The plan in River Ranch is, of course, to build homes for upper-income residents. That’s the plan now in New Orleans too. Funny thing is that the creators of this bourgeois utopia west of New Orleans didn’t reach too far from the maestro to come up with a name for their imitation Big Easy. The most well-known pre-Katrina effort to gentrify New Orleans was the River Gardens. River Gardens was built on top of the St. Thomas housing projects. It displaced thousands across the city. All in order to build a smaller number of condos, houses, and apartments that have mostly been filled by, well, you guessed it, people who aren’t as poor and aren’t as black. River Ranch, River Gardens…. What’s going on down here is the big Mississippi River Rip Off. It’s new, sparkling, pastel in color, it looks like a wonderful place to live, it’ll replace the slums of the past, and it will do virtually nothing for the poor and displaced.

Now the biggest and baddest real-estate tycoon is weighing in on what should be rebuilt and for whom. Donald Trump is planning to put up a 67 story building on Poydras Street. It’s going to be a hotel/condo/retail mega-project, and in many ways it represents what men like Trump and his partners have in store for New Orleans. It will be the tallest building in the city knocking the Shell building out of first place. It’s a symbolic marker trumpeting the ascension of tourism as the biggest player in the city’s economic future, above oil and gas, and above the port. There are other big projects like Trump’s in the works. Trump and company are now pressuring the city to provide more staff and support in the city’s planning office to “roll out more red carpet, less red tape,” as a recent editorial in the New Orleans City Business journal advises. Lack of city revenues means that the planning office is understaffed. This means that Trump type towers aren’t going up as fast as the banks and financiers would like. To push these plans through and reshape the downtown wholesale the city is supposedly applying for a grant from the American Institute of Architects to provide planners pro bono. Moral of the story here: where you can’t get the taxpayers to support your private real estate schemes, privatize the process. Forget that the city’s staff might (or should) be more consumed with helping residents and local small businesses recover….


Nicki said...

So, do you think the implied work force that is not being cared for will organize? Is anybody organizing them now? What is your sense?

This is an awesome post, D. You've captured and clearly articulated what seems to be at the root of the problem here -- privileging those with wealth and assets. Of course this is nothing new -- Lipsitz, Oliver, Roediger -- they've all written about it. I wonder if there are any new/differing phenomena in the process though. Thoughts?

Darwin BondGraham said...

Money/property/capital = wealth = power. Power in New Orleans right now is focused laser-like on remaking place. This is the game, and people are playing hardball. Folks are dying over this deceptivly simple question; what's the city going to look like? Old folks are dying in Houston, displaced. Youths are dying from "ward beef," cause they've been pushed out of their old homes into a new neighborhood. Homeless people are dying like they always have. Whole communities have disintegrated, only held together by the loose ties of cell phones when they used to rely so much on that face to face, that street corner contact. So maybe it's not purely a story of money and physical capital/wealth. It's also a matter of social capital. And the social capital of the poor has been more reduced than even their financial capital.

People are organizing like mad down here. But I don't think anyone has a definitive read on the pulse of the movement, whether it will grow or fade.... Nobody knows at this point.