Bulldozing the Dead in New Orleans

Joyce Green died on the roof of her Lower 9th Ward home as her New Orleans neighborhood flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Helplessly, her son watched her die as the water rushed dangerously below them. Just last week he was able to return to their collapsed house on Tennessee Street for the first time, and found her skeletal remains amidst the ruins. He was able to identify them because they were wrapped in the clothes she was wearing the day she died.

During Katrina, the Lower 9th Ward was deluged due to breaches in the Industrial Canal levee. Additionally, an enormous barge that was illegally left in the canal was launched into the neighborhood, destroying lives and property during its reckless trajectory. Four months later, many questions remain unanswered regarding the destruction in the Lower 9th Ward, including the question of possible criminal negligence. However, before those questions have been fully investigated, let alone answered, the City of New Orleans is rushing to bulldoze much of the neighborhood–without informing homeowners.

On the eve of the holiday season, Greg Meffert, the city’s chief technology officer, revealed that the city would immediately demolish about 2,500 “red-tagged” homes in the Lower 9th Ward. Before Meffert’s announcement, a red-tag merely meant that a home was unsafe to enter. The City of New Orleans website specifically states in bold italicized text that “a red sticker does not indicate whether or not a building will be demolished, only that the structure is currently unsafe to enter.”

Yet the City decided to bulldoze red-tagged homes without informing homeowners of the new meaning of the red tags or the demolition order. This is a clear violation of due process, guaranteed under federal and state constitutions, which protects property owners from the unlawful destruction of their property. It is also a clear, opportunistic attack on the Lower 9th Ward community, whose historically black roots run deep in the neighborhood. Boasting the highest level of black homeownership in the nation, the area is also where many black New Orleanians have traditionally been able to purchase their first homes.

Due to the massive destruction of the Lower 9th Ward, neighborhood survivors have been scattered across the country. Most residents have not been able to evaluate the damage to their homes due to their displacement. FEMA’s fly-back program for evacuees, which could have been expanded to allow homeowners the opportunity to return to New Orleans in order to view their property, expired on New Year’s Eve. Furthermore, the Lower 9th Ward was closed until December 1st, making it impossible for residents to visit their homes until quite recently.

Residents missing loved ones know that there are more dead yet to be uncovered in the debris, whose bodies would be wrongfully buried by demolition. Adding insult to injury, a history of redlining has left the land in the Lower 9th Ward not only low-lying, but also lowly valued. Leveling homes would not only further demoralize a diasporic community that has had no voice in the decision-making process concerning their property, it would also strip them of most of their assets, render them gravely vulnerable to speculators, and raise the threat of eminent domain.

Considering how slow the City has been to respond to the needs of its citizens during the four months since Hurricane Katrina, we must ask why it is now rushing to bulldoze the Lower 9th Ward. Is it to cover up unlawful tampering with the levees during Katrina? Is it to avoid an accurate body count of the area? Is it because the City intends to forcibly remove residents from their land to make way for a glitzy Cajun Casinoland? Or is it simply due to the blatant racism and classism that characterizes so much of this tragic disaster?

Concerned community members are not ceding their rich cultural heritage without a fight. On December 28th, Kirk v. The City of New Orleans won a temporary restraining order against the City to halt the demolition of property until the court hearing to be held this Friday. Ishmael Muhammad, an attorney working on the suit for The People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition, summed up community sentiment by saying that “there can be no justice in the rebuilding process unless the residents and homeowners can fully participate.”

If New Orleans is to rise from the piles of rubble strewn unevenly across the city, the often-drowned out voices of poor blacks must dictate the terms of the rebuilding process. City planners and developers who may attempt to capitalize upon a disaster largely manufactured by negligent funding, poor planning and a criminal response must not further desecrate the memory of those silenced in its wake, indiscriminately bulldozing over unclaimed bodies and haphazardly demolishing what remains of the Lower 9th Ward. To do so would be the final insult to a community deluged not only by floodwaters, but also by injustice.

Much more than the ubiquitous cookie-cutter houses that characterize suburban sprawl, homes in the Lower 9th Ward are the historic connections to a multigenerational community that has deep roots laid in the land presently under threat. Bulldozing a person’s most emblematic tie to that land without their consent is not only plainly unlawful, it is a covert step towards the ethnic cleansing of New Orleans. Turning a natural disaster into an opportunity to whitewash one of the world’s most multiethnic cities is not only the lowest form of racism, it would also spell municipal suicide for a city whose integrity resides in the preservation of its most dynamic neighborhoods.

No other neighborhood better exemplifies the cultural uniqueness of New Orleans than the Lower 9th Ward”Fats Domino lives there, as do many Mardi Gras Indians, and countless French Quarter musicians, mimes and waiters commute to Bourbon Street from their Lower 9th homes. These people should decide if and when demolition is necessary, and they ought to determine the future of one of America’s most vibrant neighborhoods. If any American city exemplifies the genius of everyday people, it is certainly New Orleans. And if the city is to truly recover from this disaster, the local people who created its international reputation must lead its reconstruction.

SCOTT BOEHM is working on his Ph. D. in Literature at the University of California, San Diego. He can be reached at: sboehm@ucsd.edu