What's really cruel, sick, and harmful?

On Monday August 28th the Yes Men managed to call the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s policies out for what they are; ethnic cleansing. By posing as HUD officials and announcing a dramatic shift in the Department’s plans for public housing they have forced HUD and HANO to explain why they are choosing to close and demolish perfectly good housing.

Posing as “Rene Oswin” a HUD assistant undersecretary, one of the Yes Men announced that HUD has chosen to rededicate itself to building up strong communities. One immediate action announced by the fake HUD representative would be to reopen public housing in New Orleans which remains closed off to residents more than a year after the storm even though the majority of units experienced only minor damage and flooding.

After the Yes Men’s ideal HUD announcement the real HUD and HANO shot back calling the hoax a cruel joke. They claimed that it was just another way of victimizing the victims of hurricane Katrina. Several large corporate media outlets have fallen in line with HUD’s attempt to speak for public housing residents.

But public housing residents feel differently about the hoax. Sam Jackson, a former resident of the B.W. Cooper development responded to the real HUD and HANO statements by saying, “I don’t want them speaking for me. They’re the ones who have cruelly shut families out of their homes. What the Yes Men did was great. It exposed the real HUD and what they’re trying to do – get rid of people.”

I interviewed Patricia Thomas, a resident of the Lafitte development, where the Yes Men staged a ribbon cutting and hosted a party for contractors who they asked to help them in reopening public housing. Thomas participated in the hoax and ribbon cutting event on Monday. Local and national media, including the New Orleans Times Picayune, claimed that Thomas was one of the many residents who were cruelly tricked into thinking that public housing was reopening. Below is the transcript of our conversation. Far from being cruelly tricked, Thomas says she was “tickled” by the Yes Men’s prank.

Speaking with residents who were involved in the Yes Men’s hoax, as well as with residents who were fooled like the rest of us communicates something far different from what the media spin doctors at HUD, HANO, and Fox News are trying to say. Rather than condemning the prank or feeling hurt from false hopes, many residents are cheering the Yes Men for their critical intervention into their ongoing struggle with HUD and HANO to reopen their homes. By making an announcement that HUD and HANO could easily make, and by getting contractors on record as stating that public housing could easily be cleaned, repaired and reopened in New Orleans, the Yes Men have exposed HUD’s policy of keeping housing closed as nothing more than an attempt to carry out crass social engineering, to hand land over to powerful real estate developers, and to get rid of thousands of the city’s poor black citizens.

Interview With Patricia Thomas, Lafitte Resident Who Helped the Yes Men Publicly Shame HUD (Conducted August 29th, 2006)

Darwin – Alright, what’s your full name?

Patricia – Patricia Savero Thomas.

Darwin – And you live in the Lafitte?

P – 2213 Lafitte.

D – Tell me about, what did you do yesterday? What was the action that you took part in yesterday?

P – Well, we wanted, you’ve seen that girls behaving badly? We wanted to do Housing behaving badly. You know, we invited the contractors out to see the houses, that the houses wasn’t messed up. Yeah, it was a hoax, you understand me? But they [HUD] done pulled off hoaxes too by telling us that we would be able to go back in our units and leaving us with nowhere to stay, and leaving me living in a deplorable house. I wasn’t angry or appalled at all. I was tickled that they [Yes Men] did that, because that shows that what ya’ll say is ‘messed up’ is not messed up. And Ray Nagin, I think you is sick. I think you need to see the doctor.

D – Yeah, so this was a way to show that what HUD is doing is cruel and is a hoax and a lie.

P – HUD, which one of the HUD’s the real HUD or the other HUD….

D – The real HUD.

P – The real HUD is a poor excuse for people, because you took houses from people that is houses that is still livable. And, you know, you’re telling us all these lies. Then you wouldn’t let us in our apartments while the media is down here. So I want to show parts of the world what you all is doing and what you all have done to us.

D – Now let me, let’s be real clear. So yesterday in the Times-Picayune they wrote up an article, and they said that you and other housing residents were duped into thinking that HUD is reopening apartments and that this was a cruel joke perpetrated on you, and… Now, now were you duped by these guys that were impersonating HUD, or were, you, you were in on this right?

P – Yes, yes, yes, yes…

D – And so explain to me, the strategy was what, to shame them?

P – Let me show you, it was to shame them [HUD]. It was to shame them to being a part of all these killers and murderers with the levy breaking and them saying that they’re not a fault with them shutting us out of our homes that’s possible to live in, leaving us homeless, sick, and dying. You know, it was, they didn’t hoax me brother. I was there all the while. She [Yes Men prankster] told me, she told me, she told me. And I didn’t care. You know, I just wanted, you know, for the people to come see know. Some of the people that came to see was from out of town, so whether they looked at me being hoaxed or not is going to be seen on television. And I spoke to some people from Russia. So prepare yourself. I was not hoaxed into doing nothing. I was not appalled, I was happy. I was eating barbeque chicken, potatos, salad, pork and beans, ribs, bread, water, they had cold drinks, That means if they did have a hoax they paid for it. FEMA ain’t given you nothing!

D – One more thing. Explain, explain, okay… So they brought in all these contractors, right,

P – [Laughing]

D - …tell that story again, and then what did the contractors say?

P – You see now, this man [Yes Men prankster], this man isn’t from the projects, but this man could feel what was going on with people in the projects so he went to one of the bigger meetings and invited the contractors out there, cause I was at the meeting, I thought the man was real. You dig? But then he told me, she [Yes Men prankster] told me that ‘no, it’s not real, but we just want to call their hand, we want to let HUD look like the pigs they are, the killers, the murderers they are. You understand me? They need to re-elect resident councils out of each and every development. Excluding Ms. Cynthia Wiggins, because she been there for her community, and I think you know Mr. Jomo, know a little more about the St. Bernard, the St. Bernard has been out here real in the Survivor’s Village….

D – But when they invited all these contractors out to Lafitte Yesterday, and they said, they said to these contractors, the fake HUD people said to these contractors ‘what would it take to re-open this development,’ what did those contractors who know what it would really take say…?

P – Let me tell you… They said it would take less than it costs, 30% of what it cost to put them iron gates on to fix them houses, because we climbed up ladders and looked into the upstairs unit, and they was like ‘awe, man!’ And if it was a hoax on me, it was a hoax on them too. But we still led them, ate barbeque chicken, like I said, potatos, salad, pork and beans, ribs, bread…

D – To conclude, to conclude. What should happen at Lafitte?

P – They should just open up the houses and go in on with their foolishness, you know what I’m saying. They’ve been letting people into their houses to look in their houses, but not since they knew that people [media] was going to be in there, you know what I’m saying, that they told us we can’t get in our units for a whole week. They want the contractors and stuff to leave, but that was the only way we was going to get the contractors to stay, you know, come, because they’re going to be leaving in a minute. You understand? So they had to see it. And it will be shown all over the United States and the world. I was not hoaxed into anything. My name is Patricia Thomas, being of sound mind and body, you heard that.

D – Thank you Sister-Sister.


Heavy day today. Check out my post on New Orleans Indymedia.


Most of those taking part in this action were not residents of public housing. The majority were white. Many Lafitte residents came by during the reoccupation of DJ Greg's apartment and expressed support, but also were wary of being arrested or hassled by the HANO and city police who where present.

A crew of public housing organizers from Chicago (Coalition to Protect Public Housing) were present and provided some very inspiring support.

Earlier in the day the Yes Men successfully impersonated the Department of Housing and Urban Development and announced to the news media and a group of contractors that all public housing in the city will reopen. Contractors were asked how quickly they could fix up the Lafitte and have it opened to residents. Many responded that it would only take days given the low level of damage.

Tomorrow the people are marching from the Lower 9th and the St. Bernard development to Congo Square where we will remember the dead and continue the political fight to bring everyone home.


27 Plus Katrina...

Katrina was the 28th hurricane to strike New Orleans since the National Weather Service began tracking storms in 1860. The National Hurricane Center's historical storm track viewer illustrates the path of these 28 storms showing that while some took pretty straightforward paths to the mouth of the Mississippi others wandered wide and circled around before making landfall.

I only post this to keep folks on their feet. Just because Ernesto is "weakening" and veering toward the west coast of Florida doesn't mean it won't threaten the already wrecked Gulf Coast. Meteorology is imperfect, and storm forcasting is highly imperfect. A storm could easily change direction and strengthen regardless of what forcasters say.

And even if it does veer this way and spare New Orleans it'll be heading toward the Florida Keys. It's not widely known, but the Florida Keys were decimated by last year's hurricanes, as were areas outside of the Gulf Coast.


Sitting ducks...

The National Hurricane Center's advisory today states:



It's eerie that as the one-year mark approaches so does a tropical storm that could soon strengthen into a hurricane. Ernesto is forcasted to head almost right for the Gulf Coast and New Orleans [as of Saturday, August 26th].

And even if Ernesto fizzles out or spins off some other direction [which it has] we've still got to get through September.

If there's one point that the entire city, regardless of race, class, Ward, or political party can agree upon, it's that the levees haven't been rebuilt adequately, the pumps aren't working up to par, and the pace of putting a systematic flood protection system in that can withstand another Katrina is too slow.


When the Right uses the language of the Left…

One of the ways that conservatives managed to disable affirmative action programs and scale back civil rights advances that were making a real (albeit somewhat lacking) difference in dismantling racial inequality during the 1960s and 1970s was by using the language of colorblindness. Conservatives say;

‘Giving jobs or admissions slots over to someone because of their race is racial discrimination.’

‘The state should never take someone’s race into account. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.’

These were things that used to be said by anti-racists activists who were struggling to dismantle the power of white supremacy. Few antiracists would be so naïve as to argue these same points now. But the right has adopted colorblindness with a passion. In fact, they have adopted much of the language used by social justice movements in the past, and they have done it to support a whole array of state policies and practices that have had the effect of stalling progress and even retrenching the power of white supremacy and socioeconomic inequality.

One particularly pertinent example of this is on display in the post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans. On Monday, August 21st HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson visited the city to show off the New Fischer homes and apartments, a HOPE VI redevelopment which he hopes will become a model for the rest of the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Of the new project Jackson proclaimed;

"Low-income people don't deserve to live less than anyone else. Remember, we're all human being with the same sense of worth in God's eyes."

Of his department’s plans to shut down, demolish, and redevelop 5000 units of public housing in the city Jackson has stated that:

"Every family who wants to come home should have the opportunity to come back,"

Jackson has said that, “Hurricane Katrina was necessary in order to show the potential harm of these areas of poverty.”

To solve these problems HUD’s chief has lined up behind a program to, "replace the concentration of poverty with mixed-income families."

Doing so will supposedly better the lives of those who inhabited high poverty areas prior to hurricane Katrina. It all sounds logical and their intentions seem good and genuine if we take their words at face value. The discourse centers on bettering the lives of the poor, providing hope, desegregating cities, and ending public housing as we know it. In numerous personal conversations I’ve had with many well meaning liberals and some conservatives they have called public housing an urban reservation; the same as those created by the federal government to intern Native Americans (and there’s some kernel of truth to this).

Critical race theorists have for a long time asked that rather than judging a policy or law by its face value, we should look instead at outcomes. If a policy has the effect of creating racial disparities, then it is racist. If a policy has the effect of exacerbating economic hardships on the poor, then it is a punitive and regressive policy. HUD’s policy agenda over the past decade and a half has had the effect of destroying tens of thousands of units of public housing in more than 166 cities in the United States. The rational has been to “de-concentrate” poverty in our urban areas and provide better opportunities for the poor, especially highly segregated racial minorities. These opportunities have not emerged. The supposedly “mixed-income” communities that are supposed to emerge have remained elusive. Our society remains highly polarized along lines of income, wealth, and race.

So was this ever really the prime motivating force?

What if the desired outcome at the core of the agenda to delete public housing and other low-income urban programs isn’t what proponents advocate first and foremost? What if the language doesn’t line up with the reality? Consider what has actually been accomplished in the post-civil rights era of compassionate conservativism. An essential entitlement program of the federal government, public housing, is slowly being dismantled in the name of creating mixed income communities. Hundreds of thousands of poor predominantly non-white Americans have been pushed out of their homes and communities onto which upper-income housing has been built and untold profits have been made on real estate speculation. Public tax dollars have been shifted into housing and urban development programs that increasingly subsidize the rich and affluent.

Achieving these outcomes would be impossible if the Right advocated for them in a straightforward manner. As far to the right our nation has shifted since the 1970s, it is still politically unfeasible to openly talk about withdrawing the state and completely dismantling its functions that keep the heads of the poor above water. It’s also somewhat unfeasible to openly advocate greater and greater subsidies for corporations, the wealthy, and programs that unequally benefit whites.

So the language of social justice and compassion is used. The logic of this language in post-Katrina New Orleans is that we have an “opportunity” to get rid of poverty and crime by rebuilding our neighborhoods the right way. It’ll be better for everyone, especially the poor. The outcome is shaking down right now. Tens of thousands of families are locked out of public housing. If the course stays the same they’ll never be able to come home. Perhaps a hundred thousand or more are unable to return to their houses in the hardest hit sections the city. HUD’s policies are promoted with niceties and hat tipping toward a better future for everyone, but it’s the outcomes that count. So far the outcome is proving highly unequal. And this inequality is drawn sharply along lines of race, class, and certain status factors such as residing in public housing or specific neighborhoods like the Central City or 9th Ward.


The 29th is almost here and still half the people of New Orleans haven't made it home.

Consider donating to the Survivor's Village, a grassroots group working to secure public housing residents' right to come home. Your contribution will be used to fund everything from our website to direct actions aimed at opening up the 5000+ apartments still shuttered by the Housing Authority. Give to the best plan for the future of New Orleans.


On the 29th a coalition of community groups plan to march from the Lower 9th Ward and the St. Bernard development to Congo Square. We will celebrate the lives of those lost and look toward the future. New Orleans' ain't back until ALL THE PEOPLE ARE HOME.


How will the Left rebuild New Orleans?

What’s unique about the post-Katrina reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, especially New Orleans, is that it’s much more of a political struggle than a technical or civic effort. The lines of battle aren’t neatly drawn, but to sketch out a set of competing agendas one could say that there is a conservative and a progressive approach to bringing the city and region back to life, back to something respectable, something where people can live beyond the day to day worries that now consume so many.

Much has been written about the political Right’s agenda in rebuilding New Orleans (I’ve written quite a bit about it on this blog. Jay Arena has a concise piece on the neoliberal agenda for the city) so let’s not linger there.

What about the Left? What kind of more participatory and egalitarian reconstruction could there be? For those of us who want something other than a society based on individualism, competition, and profit, what’s possible? And how will we achieve it?

In the weeks after the storm one model emerged. It’s called Common Ground. Common Ground is a mutual aid organization. Its guiding ideas are somewhat anarchistic. The group’s motto is “solidarity, not charity.” The rallying cry that it sent out to folks around the world was, ‘the government will not help the people of New Orleans, so the people must help the people themselves.’

After traveling to the city in December of 2005 I worked with Common Ground gutting houses, shuttling people and supplies, and cleaning debris. When I returned to California I was asked by a friend at a forum on the recovery efforts about government assistance. Her point was this: solidarity is wonderful, help from civil society is necessary and helpful, but without a massive governmental effort to fix what it helped to break, can there even be a true recovery? Don’t we need a modern version of Reconstruction, and don’t we need to go all the way with it?

I agreed with her wholeheartedly. I still think this is true. Practically speaking, there is nothing short of federal legislation and action that can restore the region to its pre-Katrina status (not that we should aim this low). Collective efforts like Common Ground (or the work of ACORN, Catholic Charities, Habitat for Humanity, to name the tip of the NGO iceberg) have brought something to the post-Katrina recovery that would otherwise have been missing. They’ve helped shape the course of history by empowering the people of the Gulf Coast to make choices and take chances on rebuilding their communities. Without the work of these groups government inaction would have crippled many hundreds of thousands of families.

New Orleanian and housing rights activists Mike Howells recently wrote a sharp critique of the mutual aid model of Leftist activism in New Orleans. According to Howells, the massive non-governmental effort is actually playing into the hands of the neoliberal agenda to privatize numerous functions of government, to scale back the welfare state, dismantle public services like schooling, and more:

“Dovetailing the actual downsizing of local public services is a relentless propaganda campaign by the corporate media and government agents that depict private relief efforts almost exclusively in glowing terms. News broadcasts by local television stations invariably carry a story that praises the relief efforts of this or that non-governmental organization. Newspaper articles applauding private relief groups for their efforts locally are a staple of the Times-Picayune. At the local political level the Mayor and the City Council incessantly heap praise upon the good works of charities and community groups involved in the Katrina rebuilding effort. At the national level conservative think tanks closely linked to the White House, most notably the Heritage Foundation, drum up position papers maintaining that the rebuilding of New Orleans is an endeavor best led by the private sector. The propaganda apparatuses of national foundations can also be counted on to cheerlead the contributions of non-governmental organizations to the Katrina crisis. Collectively the cheerleading now underway for the humanitarian assistance of civil society groups to Katrina survivors gives the impression that help is not simply on the way but actually here. But the reality is that even with the incredible outpouring of generosity from private citizens and civil society groups since the storm humanitarian services for the people of the city are woefully inadequate. New Orleans is a city in ruins and New Orleanians are a people in despair. The good works of non-governmental organizations are not the answer to the crisis even though ruling class propagandists want the people to believe they are.”

While I don’t quite see the efforts of non-governmental organizations playing the smooth role of legitimizing the government’s withdrawal from its obligations that Howells points out, I do believe he is touching on an important dilemma for the Left. It’s important for the Left to recognize what it ultimately cannot do. It cannot be responsible for the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast. It can only the political force that compels the state and major corporations to cease their gutting of the region, and to turn full circle, to reinvest in the people and places most devastated.

Mutual aid in spite of the government is a beautiful and essential thing, especially in times like these. There is no reason to expect the Bush administration, Governor Blanco, Mayor Nagin, or the Congress to help. The political climate lingers too far to the right. This is what makes Common Ground’s work so important. But it must be paired with the long term nitty-gritty of moving the struggle from one of mutual aid to one that changes the grounds of political action. We need to prepare for the long haul. We must build a movement capable of forcing the federal, state, and local governments not only to stop their assaults on social welfare, but to provide the resources and structures that people need to rebuild their lives. We want a restoration of the pre-Katrina scene, and we want to move beyond, to expand general welfare, to provide healthcare, transport, quality education, low-cost housing, honorable police and city government, job opportunities for all, living wages, and much more.

The movement in New Orleans still lingers on as primarily a mutual aid effort to provide those things the government is not. If we didn’t collectivly provide these things for our brothers and sisters it’s true that the people of the Gulf Coast would starve, their homes would crumble and be seized, and they would be forced to wander off quietly into the night of America. At this point in time the government really does not seem to care. But as this first year commemoration passes it’s time for the Left to think about moving from this battle to survive to an offensive political strategy aimed at forcing the state to once again provide for the people.

On a related note, I saw Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” at its debut in the New Orleans Arena last week with 7,000 other folks. Excellent film. It looks to me like Spike is attempting to build bipartisan and multi-racial support for a genuine reconstruction effort. His film is critical the weak government response, and especially the lackadaisical attitude of the Bush administration. He also correctly portrays the savior of the people as the people themselves. However, he doesn’t conclude that because the people pulled themselves from the floodwaters that they will also rebuild their communities alone or with the support of some yet to appear web of civil society and mutual aid. It will take a federal commitment – billions of dollars – dealt out in a just and intelligent manner to restore social and environmental health. Seems to me like Spike is aiming right at this.

“When the Levees Broke” should be required viewing for all Americans. Not because it’s the definitive statement on Katrina, but simply because it’s probably the only thing capable of restarting the conversation we were supposed to have after the floods. Rember that one? That national conversation about poverty and race? That conversation about a government’s obligation to its people? The conversation that almost got started when we all looked into our televisions and saw those faces staring back at us from the sinking city of New Orleans.

Yeah, that one.


Planners, architects, go home.

Before the Rockefeller Foundation, Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Mayor of New Orleans decided to privatize the planning process for the city of New Orleans the City Council had hired a planning firm to draft blueprints for the 49 hardest hit neighborhoods in the city.

Called the Lambert-Danzey group – after the consortium’s principal consultants, Paul Lambert and Shiela Danzey – this effort was given a budget of $125,000 and charged with rethinking the physical and social composition of the city. The Rockefeller/GNOF/Mayor’s process, called the Unified New Orleans Neighborhood Plan (UNOP), has essentially cancelled the Lambert-Danzey group’s work once their contract money runs out. The Lambert-Danzey team intends to finish their plan and present it to the city council, but it’s unlikely that their ideas will carry much weight in the reconstruction of the city. The UNOP organizers have said that they will incorporate aspects of the Lambert-Danzey plan into their final city master plan and individual neighborhood plans. They’re not required to do this however.

I attended a meeting today with a planner and an architect from the Lambert-Danzey group. At the table were several social workers, public housing residents, and housing rights advocates like myself.

The idea of the meeting was to inform the Lambert-Danzey planners about the needs and desires of public housing residents who have thus far been entirely shut out of all planning processes (mostly because they’ve been shut out of their homes by HUD).

The two Lambert-Danzy planners (actually employed by the Zyscovich urban planning and design firm) stated up front that they’re not experts on the social issues facing New Orleans. They explained that they don’t have solutions for every problem facing neighborhoods. They’re right, and they’re good to admit this. But they’re interested in redesigning public housing in the city. They told us that they believe one way to rebuild a better city is to disperse the poor. “Concentrating the poor is a bad idea,” they explained. They mentioned rebuilding mixed-income communities as a viable option for public housing sites. They both said that it would be a good idea to tear down the large public housing complexes because their size and location made them bad places for the residents to live inhibiting successful transitions from public housing to the market. Although they didn’t state it I could tell they believe that the design of large scale public housing creates concentrated pockets of poverty and crime.

This is known as the Pruitt-Igoe myth; the fallacious idea that bad architectural and urban design causes social problems, and therefore the solution is also a design issue (Bristol, Katharine. “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.” Journal of Architectural Education. Vol. 44, No. 3. May 1991.). It “shifts attention from the institutional or structural sources of public housing problems.” It also conveniently assists the planners, architects, real estate speculators, developers, and city boosters in their attempts to gain control over land, gentrify neighborhoods, and make a killer profit all in the name of “revitalization.”

I attempted to make a critical intervention during the meeting: “If doing no harm is our goal, if we want to do what is best and hurts the fewest people,” I said, “we need to simply reopen public housing. We cannot sit here and create plans for the future of these communities. Only the people living in public housing know what they need. If we create plans that advocate the demolition of public housing or even its eventual redevelopment into mixed income communities, no matter what our intentions are, the end result will be the permanent displacement of thousands of families. It will be racially discriminatory, it will destroy communities, harm families, and it will mean that the city of New Orleans is never coming back.”

I’m not sure they heard me.

The problem with planners and architects is that even with the best of intentions they can only think of design solutions to problems. When the problems you’re facing are fundamentally based in social and economic inequalities there is very little that even the most brilliant planners can do to help. Oftentimes their work does more harm than good. I see further pain and the permanent loss of community on the horizon for many New Orleanians, especially public housing residents if the planners are allowed to run wild with their imaginations.

Planners deal with abstract space. In the case of New Orleans planners see an “opportunity” to deal with a blank slate because the hurricane and flood destroyed so much. This has led them to think in increasingly abstract ways about how to not only rebuild the city, but to push it toward utopian limits and solve numerous social problems with spatial fixes. They’re not dealing with the real worlds of lived experience. They fly in from distant cities, or if they are a native they come from posh sections of the Uptown. They know little to nothing about the actual communities their plans will be affecting, especially communities like the Iberville, Lafitte, or St. Bernard housing developments to name several. Their assumptions are too long to list. Most of these assumptions are faulty. They think they know best. Their plans could be benign in the end, but they also hold the potential to do great harm. Timothy Gibson explains the problem facing the people of New Orleans as the struggle to come home and reestablish community:

“As a longtime resident, you might even have some good ideas on how your neigh-borhood could be rebuilt. But again, the planners and builders of abstract space are way ahead of you. While the former residents of Ward 9 [or public housing] huddle in distant shelters and contemplate the magnitude of their dispossession, the city’s economic and social elite are drawing on their resources and spatial mobility to plan the New New Orleans.” (Gibson, Timothy. “New Orleans and the Wisdom of Lived Space.” Space and Culture. Vol. 9, No. 1. Feb. 2006).

The men from Zyscovich, the rest of the Lambert-Danzey group, the UNOP crowd, all of them are dealing in abstract space where you can socially engineer solutions to the problems of poverty and inequality. They’re proposing to shuffle persons about at will, tearing down entire communities, remaking the cityscape in wholesale fashion. All for what? Their hearts are in the right place – at least most of them. They want to help. They honestly believe that they can better the lives of New Orleans poor.

But they can’t.

If you’re a planner or an architect the only thing to do now is to do nothing. No demolitions, no redevelopments, no mixed-income housing, none of it. Just reopen the projects and let the people come home. It’s the only just thing to do. Once the people come back, then we can all get down to the work of re-planning our communities. Anything else is theft and murder, plain and simple. Anything else will mean dispossession.

But some folks are aiming for this. I tend to take people at face value. If you say you want to help “the people” I’ll likely think you really do. But as some local activists and residents say, “the sharks are circling.” Re-planning poor communities is a smooth method for them to acquire “vacant” property. All in all some people just don’t care. They’re just out for power and wealth. And they’ll use and abuse the naïve architect, urban planner, and sociologist to get it.

My plea to the planners and place makers; do not cooperate. Do not lend your talents to anyone who would have you draft plans for public housing or low-income communities until all of the people are home. At this point your plans must be short term and radically pragmatic – get everyone home. Otherwise the only “opportunities” you’ll be taking advantage of are the opportunities that some see to make a quick buck, to snatch up valuable land, and to get rid of the poor.


I began hearing about the “Basin Street Corridor” after only a few days of being down here. Most people who use the phrase are developers and the planners or architects who work for them.

In the context of post-Katrina New Orleans the Basin Street Corridor refers to a zone of particularly important real estate that many now feel is up for grabs. It’s important land because it sits on the edge of the French Quarter and connects the I-10 freeway to Canal Street. One developer summed up its importance by noting that the only exit sign for the “French Quarter” on the entire freeway through New Orleans leads motorists down an off ramp and onto Basin Street – the “Corridor.” From here they can drive to Canal Street or turn left into the French Quarter. From here on it’s all “laissez le bon temps roule!”

Combined, the French Quarter and Canal Street are at the core of the tourist economy. Hundreds of millions of dollars are made off of conventions, gambling, food, hotels, and alcohol sales in this relatively small geographic area. Moguls of the industry believe that this number could one day inflate to billions, but that requires drastic changes in the cityscape.

If you’re a real estate capitalist, a hotel owner, or anyone with an economic imperative to increase property values and “Disneyfy” the Canal Street/French Quarter area the Basin Street Corridor has one fatal flaw. It’s called public housing. It’s populated mostly by poor and working class blacks. Nearly all of the low-income housing in the Basin Street Corridor is contained in the Iberville public housing project.

Built in 1941, the Iberville wasn’t always a thorn in the side of the New Orleans growth machine. In fact, when it was built the Iberville replaced the Storyville district. It was an all white public housing project and the construction of it allowed city leaders to demolish a largely poor black community – a community they deemed a slum – and banish its inhabitants to less valuable, less central real estate.

But the Iberville eventually became an all black project. Legal scholar Martha Mahoney says that the process was not purely a matter of white flight after public housing was integrated. Rather, housing and job discrimination that locked blacks out of the suburbs and left them structurally un/underemployed mean that while whites easily transitioned out of public housing at higher rates than they entered it, blacks were stuck (it’s important to point out, however, that even though many black residents were stuck in public housing, they remained productive and responsible citizens. The notion that the projects are “black-holes” of economic and social hopelessness is patently false. The projects have their problems, but they are still vital communities).

Thus racism and structural unemployment created New Orleans’ public housing ghettos. Many Iberville residents did manage to gain employment in and around the downtown in spite of the enormous barriers they faced. But the projects eventually became what they are; harsh environments with high unemployment rates and endemic drug and crime problems.

Downtown elites have big plans for Central Business District, French Quarter, Canal Street, and Warehouse District. They believe that transforming the Basin Street Corridor is a prerequisite to realizing these plans. They are well on their way to realizing this goal.

Read my recent post on New Orleans Indymedia for the rest of the story….


It's going to take all the people...

I met Alice outside of a local community center in downtown New Orleans. She and I had just come out of the same meeting. It was a town hall and potluck. The topic: to reopen all public housing in New Orleans, to secure affordable housing across the city, and fight for everyone’s right to return. About fifty of us circled up eating deviled eggs, finger sandwiches, red beans and rice, and cup cakes. We talked about everything from getting the gas and electricity turned back on to re-occupying housing in spite of the law.

Afterward Arpil was sitting on the stoop of the building enjoying a cigarette while I perched over my old bike asked her questions. “Where are you living now?”
“In here, in a homeless shelter.”
“Where did you live before the storm?”
“I lived in St. Bernard Parish, but I grew up on St. Claude Avenue in the 9th Ward. Now I’ve gotta go back to Houston in the morning. I got my bus ticket right here,” she says as she flips open her purse to show me it, as though I needed to see it in order to believe it. She’s doesn’t seem to have accepted her second departure yet herself. Something about the ticket makes the situation all the more real and heavy.

Alice tells me that she’s been squatting all over New Orleans for months trying to find a job and an affordable place to live. She has a baby daughter, two years old, and wants nothing more than to come home to her city. She’s just like every other New Orleanian I’ve met. She loves her town, cares not for Texas or whatever phony state have you. I’ve yet to meet that mythical Crescent City native who having been displaced from his or her hometown into Houston, Atlanta, or beyond finds that other cities are better, jobs more plentiful, schools better, opportunities brighter. I’m sure they exist. The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, and every paper in between has made a point of writing up stories on these NOLA ex-patriots who choose the “opportunity” of a new life in a new city over the prospect of returning to the bayou. But I’ve yet to meet one. Every New Orleanian will acknowledge that their town had pre-K problems, but every last one that I’ve run into has told me with dying conviction that they’re coming home.

Alice came back and lived in a gutted church, squatted in two houses, and even lived outdoors in a park for weeks on end. She spent her days trying to secure a good job and a new house. Her baby stayed with grandmother in Texas. Alice failed, but not for lack of effort.

“New Orleans is gone,” she says. “It’s not the same, and not because Katrina flooded it and ripped it apart. The people are gone, and New Orleans is made of its people.”

The place is the people.

I ask her, “what’s it going to take?”

She doesn’t hesitate for a moment: “It’s going to take all the people getting together and acting as one. Otherwise New Orleans is lost for good.”