Gentrification by Flood: Welcome to “New” New Orleans

When I was a little girl, we moved to northern Indiana from New Mexico. New Mexico didn’t have hurricanes. Indiana, on the other hand, had a lot of tornado… threats. The nightly news would track the storm. When it escalated to Tornado Warning, I’d haul all my stuffed animals to the basement. Had to save them. I had quite an imagination. Also: The Wizard of Oz (right?).

Natural disasters wreak havoc. But what if the natural disaster is only the beginning of the havoc. What if it gets worse after the storm? After reading the New Orleans section of How to Kill a City by Peter Moskowitz, I think Hurricane Katrina was only the beginning for its African American community.

The statistics paint a dark future (and past, for that matter) for its black community. Politicians used the chaos of Katrina to enact policies to dismantle institutions (public housing and public education) on an abbreviated time period.

Moskowitz claims that the city tried to keep African Americans from returning home after the storm. What’s more, he writes of New Orlean’s history as actively hostile to the African American community. In 1927, when the Mississippi River flooded, officials decided to breach a levee in a predominantly black area to minimize damage. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy flooded another black neighborhood. In 2005, more than half of Katrina’s human toll came from the Lower Ninth Ward– once again, a predominantly black community (it took 1,000 lives alone in the Lower Ninth). Rumors flew that the levees had been deliberately blown near the Lower Ninth to save richer neighborhoods. Officials declared the talk paranoia. Was it?

In Moskowitz’s intro (read more on that HERE) he lays out the various stages of gentrification. Now he adds a final stage to it all. Once a city is running on a system of top down economics, it then makes room for the global elite to enter in and use real estate as a means to stash cash, essentially. Neighborhoods become friendlier to capital than to people.

Perhaps in response to that, Moskowitz leads us through the city via its people…

Ashana Bigard is a forty-year-old mother and school and prison justice advocate. Now, she’s uncertain how she’ll remain in her hometown. Rent has skyrocketed, and she struggles to find work, especially in her field. Bigard has no college degree. She does have a lifetime of experience and devotion. But that seems to matter little to the national nonprofits who are flocking to New Orleans. They prefer to hire consultants from the East Coast.

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Ruth Idakula is a former city worker and current activist. Originally from Nigeria, she was displaced after the storm. Four months in Shreveport, Louisiana; four months in Atlanta. She called FEMA regularly for assistance in returning to New Orleans. It wasn’t until she changed her application (to relocate to Houston), that she found a direct deposit from FEMA in her bank account.

Wayne Glapion grew up in Treme, and fought tooth and nail to return after the storm to rebuild his grandparents’ home. While restoring it, he experienced first hand the racial violence that emerged. He worked for years restoring the house, receiving no assistance from FEMA, and eventually ran out of funds. He sold it to an investor and moved to another neighborhood.

“[G]entrification works on a mass scale because most inner cities have been purposefully depressed and therefore are now profitable to reinvest in” (39-40). Katrina did the dirty work for New Orleans. And the horror stories of “the other America” that opened the country’s eyes to the real America (the displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents) were quickly swept under the rug, and a new narrative emerged. Branding is everything, so I’ve heard. New Orleans had a fresh start! Fresh start equals wildly attractive! It worked. And the gentrifiers came.

Food-Forum3Pres Kabacoff is one of the city’s biggest developers. He’s described as genial, and believes the government needs to spend more on education. But he also believes “’[i]f you’re not growing you’re dying’” (63). To him, the negative repercussions of gentrification are merely the inevitable consequence of progress.

John and Alice Winter moved from Houston. They work in software programming and education, respectively. They were attracted to New Orleans diversity, they wanted to make a life for themselves in an urban setting, and they put effort into integrating themselves in the neighborhood. What proceeded their move, though, were tax incentives and zoning adjustments that gave newcomers “a bit of a red carpet treatment” (60).

Gentrifiers are not victims. Pawns in the system, maybe. But not victims. The victims are those that are being displaced.

Leslie Heindel grew up in New Orleans. She struggles to make ends meet with two bar-tending jobs, and rents instead of owns. She hates the changes gentrification has brought about. While she doesn’t fear outright displacement, being squeezed out of certain neighborhoods and working longer hours just to get by is definitely in the realm of possibility.

Not every gentrifier wants to gentrify. They don’t want to admit privilege, and they don’t want to see how their choices in life may, in fact, take away choices for another. Untangling the web that is gentrification is no easy task, to be sure. But by “remaining ignorant of [ ] class positions, gentrifiers often become victims of the process” (pg. 56).

Gentrifiers are not victims. Pawns in the system, maybe. But not victims. The victims are those that are being displaced.

Turns out I’m a gentrifier. I moved to Indianapolis from New York. We chose a house close to downtown. The best of both worlds. City living with all the amenities of the suburbs. But it’s not the best of both worlds to those who are leaving. So while I’m not some big developer buying up run down homes and kicking people out, I’m a part of it. The machine that is Gentrification is so complicated and far-reaching that I have a lot to learn. So I come to Kheprw Institute. I discuss difficult realities with other citizens. I listen. It’s a start.

how to kill a city peter moskowitz

Join Us for a Conversation with Peter Moskowitz in Indianapolis.

Mark your calendars for Thursday June 22nd. From 6-8pm at Kheprw Institute (3549 Boulevard Place) we will skype in Peter Moskowitz to further the conversation (more info HERE).