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Birthplace of Jazz, Graveyard of New Orleans Public Housing?

Return to Iberville

by JAY ARENA

George W. Bush’s bulldozing of 5,000 badly needed and little damaged public housing apartments in post-Katrina New Orleans was one of the cruelest measures he imposed on the city’s poor and working class Katrina-survivors. Yet even Bush, and his henchman, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, could not get their hands on the over 800 handsome, sturdy, red brick apartments of the Iberville Public Housing development, located on the grounds of the former Storyville district where Jazz flourished in the first two decades of the 20th century. Protests by the grass roots group C3/Hands Off Iberville before Katrina to oppose privatization, street actions after the storm by multiple groups to demand its reopening, and direct action by displaced residents reoccupying their apartments, all stymied Jackson’s attempt to make a “clean sweep” of New Orleans’ conventional  public housing.  Protest forced Jackson to back-off and disassociate himself from any attempt seize the property. As he told housing advocate James Perry in a 2006 interview “I know people want to do it [Iberville] as a land grab” but, he underscored, “it’s not going to happen on my watch.”

Obama Time: From Public Housing to Social Security

Barack Obama is ready to finish the job, on his watch, that Bush and Jackson could not. Just as sadistic New York City cops screamed its “Guiliani time” as they began torturing Abner Louima in the 70th precinct station house bathroom, the announcement of plans to “redevelop” Iberville presages the reaming, on a mass level, of the city’s poor and working class. Yet instead of thuggish, Brooklynese-speaking cops proclaiming the new era, Obama has well-educated, mannerly, white-collar gangsters like David Gilmore to do the job.

Gilmore–the federally appointed administrator of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, and key player in the 1989-1992 commission that birthed the Clinton-era HOPE VI public housing demolition/privatization program–is now requesting bids for a demolition/privatization plan of Iberville.  But unlike Guiliani’s cops who made no attempt to mask the savagery they were about to engage in, the affable, private consultant/university professor Gilmore sugar coats his intentions. He reassured the community, in a recent interview with Times Picayune reporter Katy Reckdahl, that “residents need and deserve better” as he prepares to drive yet another low income black community from highly-prized inter-city real estate. But since HOPE VI, the former scheme he helped cook-up to drive out the poor, is so discredited he and other members of Obama’s neoliberal housing brain trust have come up with a new, nice sounding name –“the Choice Neighborhoods program”– to do the same old dirty  job of “negro removal”. It’s old wine in new bottles.

Obama’s attack on Iberville–one that even Bush could not get way with–is not an aberration. The assault on this badly needed source of affordable housing in New Orleans is one component of the ruling class’–both the Republican and Democratic Party wings–rapidly advancing austerity offensive. Obama wants to complete the assault on public housing, social security, and other remaining elements of the US’s already shredded safety net and welfare state that his Republican predecessor could not. Thus an effective defense of Iberville and the rest of public housing must be linked to building a broader fight back and working class alternative to the Obama-led ruling class program. Before we outline that alternative agenda, and how it can be won, we need to first outline the particularities of Iberville. 

Class and Ethnic Cleansing at Iberville: Then and Now

The Obama administration’s attempt to drive out hundreds of low-income, black working class families from the 30-some acres of the Iberville development is not a historical first.  The land that Iberville sits on has witnessed two instances of class and ethnic cleansing in little over a century–and Obama would like to make it three.

In 1897–only a year after the Supreme Court ruled against nearby Treme neighborhood resident Homer Plessey’s challenge to segregation laws–the area where Iberville now stands was designated as the Storyville red light district–named after a city councilman that created the proposal and ordinance. The ensuing increase in land and housing costs led to the displacement of many residents of this long-established black community. After the closing of the district during World War I, housing and rents became affordable, and by the 1930s it was again a predominantly low income back community–but not for long. In 1937 the newly created Housing Authority of New Orleans appropriated the property through eminent domain for the then-new–and white-only–Iberville public housing development. Black families were forced to pack-up again. It was not until 1965, following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that black working class families were again able to reside in the area. Since then there has been an incessant campaign by real estate interests to seize this valuable property for their profit-making ventures, rather than to meet human need.

The only difference with the contemporary eviction plans are the faces and pretexts. Expulsions are no longer carried out under a Jim Crow, all-white officialdom as before, but instead in a post-segregation context, in which some African Americans are in positions of authority. A second difference is that in the past cases of ethnic and class cleansing there was little or no effort to legitimate the initiative. In contrast, developers and public officials now expound on theories of “deconcentrating poverty,” drawn from academic sociology, to explain why driving poor people from their homes is actually a benevolent enterprise. Facts, such as Mike Howells’ study showing Iberville being safer than the French Quarter, do not sway these ideologues away from their incessant demands to “break-up poverty”. (1) What ties the different historical periods together is that power and profits–despite all the benevolent rhetoric–are still the driving forces behind the racist land grabs.

The current attempt to demolish Iberville comes at a time when affordable housing is in extremely short supply. A recent study by HUD–the same agency working to demolish Iberville–provides a window into the on the extent of the crisis in New Orleans. Below are some of the reports “highlights”:

Mid-priced rental units, in the $300 to $600 range, fell to 19,300 in 2009, from 66,300 in 2004.
Since 2004 the number of poorest households in the region grew by 22 percent, defined by HUD as people who either paid more than half their income on rent, In 2004, the average monthly cost was $662, compared with $882 in 2009. The 13% decline in the number of housing units since Katrina has contributed to the jump in housing costs The number of Homeless people has doubled since 2005.

Despite this distress the local housing authority and the Obama administration want to demolish over 800 rent-controlled apartments at the Iberville where poor families pay an affordable 30% of their income for rent and utilities. The callousness that Obama is showing towards New Orleans reflects his lack of concern for the unemployment, home foreclosures, personal bankruptcies and other capitalist-made suffering increasingly confronting people across the country as the economic depression for the working class deepens. Indeed, Obama not only has no plans to alleviate this misery through, for example, a public works program, but instead plans to increase the pain. How, you ask? By working with his ostensible Republican adversaries to impose even more draconian cuts! The bi-partisan, Obama appointed “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform” will report back in December–after the elections–on how they can get the working class to pay for the capitalist crisis through massive cuts in Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and what is left of poor people services, such as public housing.

Non-Profits, Labor Bureaucrats, and Building a Real Fight Back

The rapidly brewing capitalist storms, including the attack on Iberville and Obama’s larger austerity initiative, underscores why workers need to immediately go on the offensive with a proactive agenda. Yet, to forge this political-economic alternative, the US working class will have to confront the liberal-professionals, and their collection of non-profit and union bureaucrats. These officials serve as a protective layer of capitalism, employing soft glove strategies to disarm worker movements.

The obstacles this layer presents to building a fight back is evident in the current struggle to defend Iberville.  Activists with New Orleans’ C3/Hands Off Iberville public housing group have had to do battle not only with developers and housing officials, but with “progressive” non-profits who counsel accommodation to the ruling class’ neoliberal offensive. These non-profits–wholly consistent with the role most of these foundation funded outfits play–encourage Iberville residents and their community supporters  to be “realistic” and work out a compromise within the neoliberal parameters laid out by the ruling class. This thinking and associated political practice is precisely what must be challenged if we are to build an effective political challenge.

Likewise liberal journalist Katy Reckdahl, a darling of the local non-profit complex, also plays an important role in helping cultivate resignation and acceptance. Her September 10 article in the local corporate daily, the Times Picayune, regurgitated the line of the unelected, sell out, developer-paid “tenant representative”, Kim Piper, that the deal “seems inevitable”. Voices of opposition were not included in her front page article heralding the “Change …at Iberville”.

The AFL-CIO and NAACP conveners of the October 2nd “One Nation” rally planned for Washington DC play a similar role to the New Orleans non-profits. They are using the gathering to push a “fight the right,” Democratic Party pep rally for the November elections that will protect Obama from any embarrassing expressions of opposition from below to his right wing agenda. The illusion of the Tea party clowns as the only opposition must be maintained. Instead, as Black Agenda editor Glen Ford has underscored, workers must raise their own demands or else face turning into “just a bunch of Democratic Party groupies with delusions of relevance to the burning issues of the day.”

The demands endorsed by a recent gathering in Newark, New Jersey of over a dozen labor and immigrant rights groups is what this writer and a growing movement will be raising in Washington: Jobs For All, Legalization For All, NOW!  We will not accommodate to the destruction of Iberville and other public housing developments, or other public services either, as advocated by the non-profits. Instead of accepting cutbacks, we will be demanding that the federal government massively expand public services and employment through a direct-government employment (no contractors) public works plan. Instead of workers fighting among ourselves, we call for legalization of all workers to guarantees their eligibility to participate in the public works program. All workers, be they immigrants with no papers, or formerly incarcerated citizens who have lost access to public sector employment and other rights, would be eligible.

Only by uniting all workers to fight for what we want, not what the union bureaucrats and non-profit officials say is possible and permissible, will we create the class power needed to scare the ruling class and win our demands.  

To support the movement to defend Iberville, as well as the Jobs for All, Legalization for All campaign, and how your local group can endorse the demands and join the growing campaign, go to http://njmay1.org/. or call JAY ARENA at 504-520-9521

Notes.

(1) Mike Howells, ‘Iberville: No Murder, No News.’ http://neworleans.indymedia.org/news/2010/08/15314.php