Not Getting It About New Orleans

by CHUCK MUNSON

It comes as no surprise when a major U.S. newspaper backs real estate developers over the rights and interests of the poor they have a long track record of doing so, while the poor are lectured in patronizing language to emulate the people the papers celebrate. This week the New Orleans Times-Picayune has an article on their website titled "Protests ignore realities." This article is a response to the struggle local residents have been waging against the planned demolition of their homes–protests which made national headlines this week. The "realities" these people supposedly ignore is that the government and wealthy real estate developers know what’s best for them.

But the poor just don’t seem to be getting it. Over the past week, as residents of New Orleans public housing complexes and activist allies have been resisting the demolition of four public housing complexes, comprising of 4,500 units, the city council–now racially skewed to the white end of the spectrum–voted to bulldoze those complexes to make way for new "mixed income" developments that purportedly would provide homes to some of those being displaced. The reality of similar programs around the country is that they seldom provide even a fraction of the affordable units promised by officials when older housing complexes were demolished.

Housing activists are not against programs that create more and better affordable housing, but they correctly point out that people should have a say in what happens to their current homes. In the case of New Orleans, it is outrageous that the city should demolish so much public housing when there are tens of thousands of displaced residents still looking for a place to live.

The Washington Post, too, weighs in on the side of real estate developers with an unsigned editorial ("A Better Life in New Orleans" December 20, 2007) calling for the demolition of public housing in New Orleans. The Post dismisses the fight by local residents for their homes as being mistakenly based on a "conspiracy." The Post repeats standard myths about the housing complexes being havens for crime and poverty. These myths ignore the fact that these complexes have been closed since Katrina, that residents worked hard to keep crime out, and that crime is high all across New Orleans. Residents of these complexes are working people and this housing was affordable. History suggests this will not be the case with the developments proposed to replace them.

The Post also recycles the claim that most of these complexes were seriously damaged by the hurricanes. This is simply untrue.

What the Post doesn’t get is that New Orleans residents should first and foremost have the power to decide what is best for their interests. The Post would never editorialize that a group of white residents living in, say, Arlington, Virginia shouldn’t have input on the future of their homes if they were being threatened by a government-backed redevelopment project. When housing in New Orleans is so scarce and rents so high, the right of people to have access to their existing housing should take priority over any project to demolish housing–and certainly over any project so clearly aimed at fattening the wallets of developers and construction companies.

The Post tries to cast the New Orleans housing struggle as being fomented by a few people who just don’t want to get rid of poverty: "What makes no sense is perpetuating a housing policy that trapped people in poverty." What makes no sense is a policy that would tear down thousands of habitable units when tens of thousands of people are looking for homes. The current policy only replicates failed national programs such as Hope VI, which purports to turn housing complexes into mixed-income developments with affordable units, but which are really just a form of ethnic cleansing, gentrification, and welfare for the rich. It’s hard to believe that the New Orleans government is well-intentioned when it is replicating housing policies that elsewhere have turned out so unfavorably for the urban working poor. It’s also clear that the New Orleans ruling class is using the dislocation caused by the hurricanes to enact policies that haven’t gone through a democratic process. To cite just one rather important detail, the current plan lacks any details about where people are supposed to live during the years that these new projects are under construction.

It’s ironic that the Washington Post should dismiss the New Orleans housing struggle as some kind of "romantic" lost cause, a day after the New York Times’ architectural critic wrote that the demolitions are "one of the greatest crimes in American urban planning." One of the reasons why so many people enjoy visiting New Orleans is because it is one of the few American cities left with a truly unique gumbo of architecture, culture, environment, and diversity of people. If the Post feels that the interests of New Orleans should be swept aside in the name of modernization, why stop with the demolition of these four housing complexes? Why doesn’t the city bulldoze the French Quarter and replace it with an upscale mixed-use development? Such a project would create new jobs and more income for the city. Tourists wouldn’t miss a beat if the new and modernized French Quarter had a Panera that sells beignets, a Hard Rock Cafe and all of our favorite sports bar chains lining Bourbon Street.

Why, the tourists would feel right at home!

CHUCK MUNSON is Kansas City-based a webmaster and editor with Infoshop News, a project of the Alternative Media Project. Infoshop.org was instrumental in getting the Common Ground Clinics started in New Orleans in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Munson is also a volunteer with the Crossroads Infoshop & Radical Bookstore in Kansas City, Missouri.




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