Home > With the poor gone, developers are planning to gentrify New Orleans

With the poor gone, developers are planning to gentrify New Orleans

by Open-Publishing - Saturday 10 September 2005

Edito Catastrophes USA Naomi Klein

by Naomi Klein

On September 4, six days after Katrina hit, I saw the first glimmer of hope. "The people of New Orleans will not go quietly into the night, scattering across this country to become homeless in countless other cities while federal relief funds are funnelled into rebuilding casinos, hotels, chemical plants. We will not stand idly by while this disaster is used as an opportunity to replace our homes with newly built mansions and condos in a gentrified New Orleans."

The statement came from Community Labor United, a coalition of low-income groups in New Orleans. It went on to demand that a committee made up of evacuees "oversee Fema, the Red Cross and other organisations collecting resources on behalf of our people. We are calling for evacuees from our community to actively participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans."

It’s a radical concept: the $10.5bn released by Congress and the $500m raised by private charities doesn’t actually belong to the relief agencies or the government - it belongs to the victims. The agencies entrusted with the money should be accountable to them. Put another way, the people Barbara Bush tactfully described as "underprivileged anyway" just got very rich.

Except relief and reconstruction never seem to work like that. When I was in Sri Lanka six months after the tsunami, many survivors told me that the reconstruction was victimising them all over again. A council of the country’s most prominent businesspeople had been put in charge of the process, and they were handing the coast over to tourist developers at a frantic pace. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of poor fishing people were still stuck in sweltering inland camps, patrolled by soldiers with machine guns and entirely dependent on relief agencies for food and water. They called reconstruction "the second tsunami".

There are already signs that New Orleans evacuees could face a similarly brutal second storm. Jimmy Reiss, chairman of the New Orleans Business Council, told Newsweek that he has been brainstorming about how "to use this catastrophe as a once-in-an-eon opportunity to change the dynamic". The council’s wish list is well-known: low wages, low taxes, more luxury condos and hotels.

Before the flood, this highly profitable vision was already displacing thousands of poor African-Americans: while their music and culture was for sale in an increasingly corporatised French Quarter (where only 4.3% of residents are black), their housing developments were being torn down. "For white tourists and businesspeople, New Orleans’s reputation means a great place to have a vacation, but don’t leave the French Quarter or you’ll get shot," Jordan Flaherty, a New Orleans-based labour organiser told me the day after he left the city by boat. "Now the developers have their big chance to disperse the obstacle to gentrification - poor people."

Here’s a better idea: New Orleans could be reconstructed by and for the very people most victimised by the flood. Schools and hospitals that were falling apart before could finally have adequate resources; the rebuilding could create thousands of local jobs and provide massive skills training in decent paying industries. Rather than handing over the reconstruction to the same corrupt elite that failed the city so spectacularly, the effort could be led by groups like Douglass Community Coalition. Before the hurricane, this remarkable assembly of parents, teachers, students and artists was trying to reconstruct the city from the ravages of poverty by transforming Frederick Douglass senior high school into a model of community learning. They have already done the painstaking work of building consensus around education reform. Now that the funds are flowing, shouldn’t they have the tools to rebuild every ailing public school in the city?

For a people’s reconstruction process to become a reality (and to keep more contracts from going to Halliburton), the evacuees must be at the centre of all decision-making. According to Curtis Muhammad of Community Labor United, the disaster’s starkest lesson is that African-Americans cannot count on any level of government to protect them.

"We had no caretakers," he says. That means the community groups that do represent African-Americans in Louisiana and Mississippi - many of which lost staff, office space and equipment in the flood - need our support now. Only a massive injection of cash and volunteers will enable them to do the crucial work of organising evacuees - currently scattered through 41 states - into a powerful political constituency. The most pressing question is where evacuees will live over the next few months. A dangerous consensus is building that they should collect a little charity, apply for a job at the Houston Wal-Mart and move on. Muhammad and CLU, however, are calling for the right to return: they know that if evacuees are going to have houses and schools to come back to, many will need to return to their home states and fight for them.

These ideas are not without precedent. When Mexico City was struck by a devastating earthquake in 1985, the state also failed the people: poorly constructed public housing crumbled and the army was ready to bulldoze buildings with survivors still trapped inside. A month after the quake, 40,000 angry refugees marched on the government, refusing to be relocated out of their neighbourhoods and demanding a "democratic reconstruction". Not only were 50,000 new dwellings for the homeless built in a year; the neighbourhood groups that grew out of the rubble launched a movement that is challenging Mexico’s traditional power holders to this day.

And the people I met in Sri Lanka have grown tired of waiting for the promised relief. Some survivors are now calling for a people’s planning commission for post-tsunami recovery. They say the relief agencies should answer to them; it’s their money, after all.

The idea could take hold in the United States, and it must. Because there is only one thing that can compensate the victims of this most human of natural disasters, and that is what has been denied them throughout: power. It will be a long and difficult battle, but New Orleans’s evacuees should draw strength from the knowledge that they are no longer poor people; they are rich people who have been temporarily locked out of their bank accounts.


Forum posts

  • The Displaced New Orleans Community Demands
    Action, Accountability
    and Initiates a People’s Hurricane Fund

    Not until the fifth day of the federal government’s inept and inadequate emergency response to the New Orleans disaster did George Bush even acknowledge it was "unacceptable." "Unacceptable" doesn’t begin to describe the depth of the neglect, racism and classism shown to the people of New Orleans. The government’s actions and inactions were criminal. New Orleans, a city whose population is almost 70% percent black, 40% illiterate, and many are poor, was left day after day to drown, to starve and to die of disease and thirst.

    We have set up a People’s Hurricane Fund that will be directed and administered by New Orleanian evacuees. The Vanguard Public Foundation has agreed to accept donations on behalf of this fund. The Vanguard Public Foundation has a long history of social justice activism and also has the staff capacity to manage this level of effort.

    Danny Glover, who was one of the original conveners of the first national meeting of the Quality Education as a Civil Right Campaign (QECR) at Howard University in March, 2005 and serves as the Honorary Chairperson of the QECR Coordinating Committee. Mr. Glover also is the co-chair of the Board of Directors of the Vanguard Public Foundation.

    Tax-Exempt donations can be made out to:

    The People’s Hurricane Fund
    c/o Vanguard Public Foundation
    383 Rhode Island St., Ste 301
    San Francisco, CA 94103

    If you have comments on how to proceed or need more information, please email them to Curtis Muhammad (muhammadcurtis@bellsouth.net) and Becky Belcore (bbelcore@hotmail.com).

    Thank you.


  • "According to Curtis Muhammad of Community Labor United, the disaster’s starkest lesson is that African-Americans cannot count on any level of government to protect them."

    Gee Mr Mohammed, that’s the smartest thing you said.

    • Now is the time for all good developers to make the killing of their lives. Now is the time, when all the inferior people have been chased out of the city, to take their houses. NOw is the time for all the developers and lobbyist friends of Bush to use eminent domain, legal wrangling, Urban Renewal to condemn all those shacks and buy them up at about 5 cents on the dollar. All those houses that are empty will magically get owners, who will rent out the shacks, like the old slave quarters, Now is the time for Dick to give out contracts and transfer taxpayer money to the bank accounts of his corporate friends, while they pay below minimum wages to people to clean up the place so they can build their fancy houses, hotels, casinos, businesses. In fact some people won’t even need contracts, but can just use shovels to scoop the money into their own pockets. This is a very good time for Republican contractors and corporations. Think of the billions of dollars that will be floating around that nobody is going to keep track of. What a wonderful opportunity right NOW to get rid of the poor trash and build mansions.

    • well put. I wonder if the people in the astrodome know this is going on- or are they so consumed with their crappy conditions they don’t even know about it... too bad they shut down their lowpower radio station in houston- how fascist is that- what are they afraid of, a little anti-bush music?

    • TBR News.org – September 2, 2005

      Excerpt: Quote [apparently describing lunch at the Cosmos Club on Thursday Sept.1]

      This afternoon, I was having lunch at the Cosmos Club out on Massachusetts Avenue. A good friend is a member of the posh club (that once was the elegant town home of Sumner Welles), and while at lunch, I was privy to a very vocal conversation at one of the big round center tables in the club dining room.

      One man was giving an overview of the situation to a group of his friends. The speaker was an undersecretary of an important department, well-liked by Bush and often in the White House to consult. The others ranged from an academic economist whose writings can be seen in a right wing paper and a number of Washington-based businessmen, all of whom are active and heavy contributors to the Bush White House.

      The loud one had obviously had a few drinks at the bar and this is probably why he was not more discreet. The gist of his comments was horrible to contemplate and it sounded like a top Nazi discussing Jews.

      It is well known here that the Bush family and many of the top advisers at the White House are racists but instead of detesting Jews, in this case, they all detest blacks. Their rationale, aside from their view of racial superiority, is that blacks are all "welfare queens, unwed mothers and drug dealers." It was the very firmly stated view of the host that it was better for everyone that New Orleans was under water for the time being.

      In that way, we were told (and I was not the only person in the dining room who heard all this), this served to "chase out the niggers" and permit Bush-supporting businessmen from buying up the soon-to-be condemned sodden houses for five cents on the dollar from friendly insurance companies (which one of them was a CEO of) and put up an enlarged and very profitable combination of industrial park and office building section. The money for this would, naturally, come from government grants which a terrified Congress (Mid Term elections are coming) had just voted for and the contracts to demolish the wrecked low-income slums would go, as a no-bid contract, to another stellar Bush supporter.

      As for the refugees, our table of proto-fascists all commented on the fact that most of them were on welfare and probably all voted Democratic so they could all be shipped to California or Chicago at the public expense and allowed to occupy less valuable public housing there.

      This conversation went on in a similar vein for some time and it was difficult for both myself and my host to refrain from making nasty comments or, for that matter, to enjoy our meal. These people are greedy and purely evil and I am <>positive<> from the overall conversations that Bush is conversant with this attitude and has no intentions of interfering with it.

  • Now is the time to IMPEACH Bush and his cabinet. Now is the time to turn back all the illegal laws that have been passed since Bush has come into office illegally. Now is the time for the people to demand a Constitutional ran government which would eliminate the unconsitutional, Patriot Act I & II, the eminient domain law, judges who make law and ignore the law. Stand up and be counted, counted as one of many, We The People, who make the laws for the people and by the people.

  • Ever wondered why the Chinese Revolution was so successful? Mao-Tse-Tung rootet out the establishment, the rich and the corrupt. Something similar should happen in America to get rid of the Zionist Financial Market Enslavery.

    But who or which power in America can do that. The people of America are divided not only in the rich and poor, but the poor are also divided in those who protect the rich and their property.
    Unless the portion of the poor who serve in military and police don’t turn their guns against the rich oppressors, the American people remain powerless.

    It makes me puke that Israeli security firms are allowed to operate on the grounds in New Orleans to protect the property of the rich, but they have experience in Palestine with ousting people.

    • The gulf coast sea temperature has risen around 5 degrees in the last 6 years, from an august norm of 28, up to around 33 degrees cent.

      This has led to an increase in the humidity or water content of the air in the gulf.

      The extra moisture content adds to the mass or "weight" of the air.

      Heavier air/mass gains velocity and thus each year, the windspeeds increase.

      There have been hurricanes there for thousands of years, and there always will be.

      The greed-soaked pro-israel religious extremists that rule america will soon be gone, as soon as the american people stop manufacturing the armaments, of course, that is the only industry they have, but even cruise missiles are manufactured in Mexico, idiot mexicans.