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May 18, 2006

Depopulate New Orleans!

I just don't understand these sorts of laments. Here's Art Levine, weeping copiously over the changing face of New Orleans:

Following last Tuesday night's contentious debate between incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin and white challenger Mitch Landrieu, today's yesterday's Washington Post has had a disturbing story about the changing face of New Orleans: whiter, richer and with far fewer blacks. African-Americans' neighborhoods are still devastated and too often they can't afford to return. It's not only a personal tragedy for those who lost their loved ones and for those who now can't return home, but a cultural and economic tragedy for our nation as well.

Yes, what a tragedy, there'll be less foot-tapping black music for us white people to listen to! Let's be real clear here: New Orleans is a death trap. With the acceleration of global warming, hurricanes are intensifying. Katrina, remember, was only a category three when it hit the city, and even then it only delivered a glancing blow. Its successors won't be so kind. So maybe it's a good thing that the new New Orleans will be more affluent, more mobile, and less populated, because all those attributes will make Mother Nature's next assault less devastating.

Meanwhile, the black population hasn't disappeared, they're just not in a single convenient place that white people can visit. On the upside, their new homes are, more than likely, above sea level. That outsiders will lose a jazz hotbed and treasured drinking destination is a shame, but I'd much prefer a bit of shame to another tragedy.

May 18, 2006 | Permalink


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Yes, it is good that more poor people won't be exposed to storm dangers that the government appears not to want to mitigate appropriately.

But, and big BUT, I can't support the idea that racial cleansing of a major US city (or 'redevelopment' that results in gentrifying the city by making it unaffordable to middle and lower class people) is an acceptable or moral thing to do.

What is happening in New Orleans is both class warfare and racial dominance of the worst kind.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 18, 2006 12:23:37 PM

But it wasn't cleansing, not unless you believe the hurricane was the white man's plot. No one's return has been barred, they're simply choosing not to come back. So far as I can tell, that's the right decision. Our evacuation plan was criminally poor, to be sure, but New Orleans was also almost impossible to defend -- this was something of an inevitability, and the correct response isn't to rebuild what was most vulnerable about the city.

Posted by: Ezra | May 18, 2006 12:25:35 PM

My attitude on the New Orleans Diaspora has pretty much done a 180 since the storm.

Yes, it IS tragic that we lost a grand city. Yes, it IS tragic that a lot of what made it a Grand City is gone.

However, cities exist for the sake of the people in them; people do not exist for the sake of being cultural artifacts. And it has long, long been an accepted fact that the only way to fight intractible poverty is to break up poverty ghettos, get the people out of the decaying, disease vector-ridden, no-social-services slums and get them into a more mobile, better served, just-plain-better environment.

It is also true that migrations and Diasporas are a fact of human social evolution. It usually takes a disaster to get people to leave their ancestral homeland - a flood, an invasion, a pandemic - but leave it they do, and have all throughout human history.

If Katrina was a harbinger of the changes GCC is about to force on us, then the diaspora out of NOLA is just the first of what's going to be a very long list.

Posted by: CaseyL | May 18, 2006 12:44:04 PM

The hurricane wasn't anyone's plot. Not maintaining the levees in the face of dire warnings and not restoring the wetlands which act as a storm buffer was criminal negligence, for which no one is being made accountable.

The poor aren't being barred, it is true, but not taking action to actively rebuild the working class sections of the city with low-income housing is an effective but immoral way of doing the worst kind of redevelopment - tearing out the low-rent houses and apartments and replacing them with homes for the above-average income people. This has been the pattern of redevelopment in all too many US cities.

Wealthy people wouldn't be returning to N.O. if they didn't think the city was going to be livable - they don't need to worry about affordability. Poor people won't return if they can't afford to do the rebuilding or pay higher rents keyed to above average income people.

I'm not arguing that there is anything inappropriate in black and white lower income people choosing to stay where they have relocated. People should be able to choose where they live. But if they want to return to New Orleans but can't do it because their housing is gone, replacement housing is too expensive, and their jobs are gone as well, then that is just wrong.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 18, 2006 12:44:29 PM

On the upside, their new homes are, more than likely, above sea level.

Their new homes are, more than likely, propped up on cinder blocks. I tend to think many of them, contra "choosing not to go back" might not exactly be in a situation to "choose" a damn thing.

Posted by: August J. Pollak | May 18, 2006 12:46:37 PM

Y'know, from a cultural perspective, there's something to be said for creative communities, even poor ones... yeah, we can snark about affluent white tourists with fanny packs not having a one-stop entertainment hub, but it's worth questioning whether the arts community tourists enjoyed will reestablish itself somewhere else, or simply dissolve. There's still a real potential loss here.

Posted by: latts | May 18, 2006 12:49:11 PM

What is indefensible is that people aren't necessarily choosing not to come back. They were mostly poor renters, and have been dumped in other cities without even the little support their community used to afford them. Unlike owners, they aren't even getting pennies-on-the-dollar insurance settlements to start over. The correct response would have been for the government to issue them Section 8 vouchers, not put them up in hotels for a while and then dump them.

And Ezra, isn't it possible that the culture of New Orleans also held some value for the people who made and nurtured it, not just for tourists?

Posted by: antid_oto | May 18, 2006 12:49:16 PM

The tragedy is that a fairly decent place where poor people could afford to live and even own their own place has been destroyed. It's the wreckage of truly affordable housing that is tragic. It's the break up of neighborhoods that provided community networks for support and social life (it's not all crack and prosititution for poor people you know) that is lamentable. There are fewer and fewer pleaces that are not soul-destroying for poor people to live and apparently more and more poor people all the time.

The re-building of New Orleans might even have been an opportunity for poor people to become not so poor, if a sincere effort had been made to bring them to the tax payer funded rebuilding party.

Posted by: Cathy | May 18, 2006 1:03:37 PM

Look, no one is a greater advocate than me for the notion that we need to care more about poor Americans, wherever they live. And true enough, neglect of the levees calls for accountability for those responsible. But the fact is, if you're poor in New Orleans, you can be just as poor, just as immobile (physically, socially and financially) somewhere else. That's unfortunate, but true. And as Ezra points out, these people might have relocated to someplace better-served, less corrupt and less contemptuous or ignorant of their plight.

I hate to sound like the arrogantly flaky Barbara Bush here, but net-net, I think there will be more opportunity in the long run for those po' folks who have permanently settled elsewhere. Human beings will generally do what's in their own best interest, so I'm confident that those who've evacuated will decide for themselves whether they're in a better place now than they were in NOLA pre-Katrina, and act accordingly. I think cultural and tourism issues will never occur to them.

Posted by: Rick | May 18, 2006 1:07:57 PM

You're wildly wrong on this one, Ezra.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | May 18, 2006 1:15:31 PM

Not to mention that the eivdence shows dense communities of poverty significantly retard opportunity, and that folks do better once they've moved out of them.

Posted by: Ezra | May 18, 2006 1:16:17 PM

You know, there is nothing new under the sun. I recommend everyone read Kai Erikson's (sp?) classic "Everything in its path" which describes the dreadful fallout from the sweepign away of several mining towns by a mine tailing disaster and flood. The point I would make here is that, to Rick who said "net-net I think there will be more opportunity in the long run for those po folks who have permanently settled elsewhere. Human beings will generally do what's in their own best interst..." is simply speaking in tongues.

A) Human beings who are poor literally don't have a choice to do what is in their own best interests because that takes money if you are to do it legally and money and its lack is what defines them. So whether the poor of new orleans would like to go or stay, they don't have the "choice" and havent since they were forced out by the storm and barred from coming back by a network of no money, government hostility, etc...

B) However poor a community is, a community is better for people than *no* community. Rich people and middle class people can and do pick up and move away from family adn neighbors to go to school, to own second homes, etc... but they don't need to rely on informal networks of neighbors and family to get them through hard times. When they do need those networks, they join churches or pay for help. Poor people don't have that choice. The mental devastation that follows on the breaking of even the weak social ties in poor neighborhoods is huge. Read Ericson or just use your own imagination or read the stories of urban people relocated to isolated suburban or rural areas where they need cars to get around and no social interactions are normal.

Despite all the american romanticization of cozy rural life where everyone knows everyone else the place that really happens these days is cities. The suburbs and rural areas are depopulated and anonymous, no place to start building a new life.

That is not to say that kids might not be better off in clean safe schools, but if their parents and guardians are decompensating from isolation and stress and poverty I doubt the benefits will be that big.


Posted by: aimai | May 18, 2006 1:21:23 PM

Yeah, Katrina has been such a boon to New Orleans' black population. If only every community could be so lucky.

Even more egregious was the flagrant redlining of black neighborhoods by the Small Business Administration (SBA), which rejected a majority of loan applications by local businesses and homeowners. At the same time, a bipartisan Senate bill to save small businesses with emergency bridge loans was sabotaged by Bush officials, leaving thousands to face bankruptcy and foreclosure.

And on the question of whether people are "simply choosing not to come back":

But Canizaro doesn't seem unduly worried. He has reassured supporters that the ULI/BNOB plan can go forward with CDBGs alone if necessary; in addition, he knows that independent of the local political weather, there are powerful external forces--lack of insurance coverage, new FEMA flood maps, refusal of lenders to refinance mortgages and so on--that can make permanent the exodus from redlined neighborhoods.

Posted by: Brad Plumer | May 18, 2006 1:22:45 PM

Anything that makes the South more solidly white and Republican is dangerous to the entire world. Louisiana and to a lesser extent Mississippi were possible swing states, and the plan to ethnically cleanse the area was in place at least by the Sunday before the storm hit, if not years in the planning...by underfunding levies.

The only upside is to make the place a more target-rich environment.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 18, 2006 1:23:13 PM

I'm with Ezra on this one, but not for the racist reasons he cites. I like white people just as much as I do blacks. I really don't see the issue of whether it's a black city or a white one.

Posted by: Fred Jones. | May 18, 2006 1:26:44 PM

I'm always double posting because I think of something else I need to say, so sorry if that's uncool, but here it is

To Ezra who says "folks do better once they've moved out of (communities of poverty.)" Could you explain to me what study currently exists, or even what data, to prove that the people who were forced out of New Orleans ended up in areas that are not, themselves "communities of poverty?" Now that FEMA isn't paying for people's rent, or as of the moment when they don't, do these New Orleans people--many of whom owned their own houses, by the way, and had steady jobs--magically find themselves living in middleclass suburbs with two cars, good schooling, and high paying jobs? Its not people in projects who got forced out of new orleans its plenty of people who sank every penny they had into their own homes. And I doubt whether they will be able to buy into a new community that isn't substantially worse than the one they left.


Posted by: aimai | May 18, 2006 1:27:04 PM

It seems to me that the issue of New Orleans is so tied up with two other issues-- (1) federal government incompetence and its failure to either build adequate defenses or to have an adequate disaster plan, and (2) general concern and objections to gentrification and the crowding out of blacks in American cities.

Both (1) and (2) are serious issues, but really, they don't answer Ezra's real point, which is that NO MATTER HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT THOSE ISSUES, THERE ARE A LOT OF PARTS OF NEW ORLEANS WHERE PEOPLE SHOULDN'T HAVE BEEN LIVING BEFORE AND SHOULDN'T BE LIVING NOW. And that is true no matter how high you build the levees, no matter how well FEMA is reformed, and no matter how one feels generally about gentrification.

The fact is, while there are many things that occurred before, during, and after Katrina that were both indefensible and disparately impacted poor blacks, in the end, arguments in favor of repopulating the black population of New Orleans are arguments in favor of settling blacks in a place that is going to be unsafe to live given the dangers caused by increasingly intensive hurricanes that are sure to result from global warming.

Look, it's a tragedy that such a great city has taken such a brutal hit. But priority number 1 has to be protecting the lives of the people who lived there. Saving lives is rather more important than maintaining a certain racial balance, and liberals who believe otherwise are really just giving ammunition to conservatives who claim that we're just a bunch of racial "bean counters".

And cities-- even great cities-- do sometimes become unsafe to live in. Real estate wasn't exactly booming in Pompeii after Mt. Vesuvius erupted, you know.

Posted by: Dilan Esper | May 18, 2006 1:30:02 PM

Hey, the Famine was great! It spread Irish people all around the world to where they could thrive better! And you can't blame the British for a plant disease, that was just Nature!

[/ignorant callous bullshit]

Posted by: bellatrys | May 18, 2006 2:07:22 PM

It seems to me that people have been talking out of both sides of their mouths on this issue. On the one hand, the racially-segregated poor communities were a hellhole that no one should have to live in. New Orleans was not doing right by its citizens in terms of law enforcement, in terms of housing, or in terms of safety. People were immobilized in poverty.

On the other hand, it is important that we rebuild the New Orleans that once was. But is the crushing poverty an essential part of New Orleans' character?
The real question is if we really can make New Orleans any better for the people who would like to come back to it. Part of answering this question involves taking into account the practical matters that, tragic or not, have to be dealt with. What would people come back to? How would they get there? Katrina was no one's fault, the response was a massive failure on the part of the leadership here, but either way something is going to happen to New Orleans.

And, aimai, I think it's a little presumptuous to assume that rural and suburban areas hold no promise for anyone. Lots and lots of people live there and like it there. Me, for example (Moscow, ID). I'm half-joking here, but those left without homes and jobs after Katrina are not your dolls to set up in neat little cities where they can walk to work and do whatever stuff you love about where you live. Just like many of these people don't have the choice of whether or not to go back to NO, they probably never had much of a say in whether they could leave it.

I think Ezra is starting out with the assumption that New Orleans was too broken to ever be fixed. The poverty was too overwhelming, the crime and hopelessness too saturating. And, even if there are ways to take New Orleans in the right direction, we'll just have another hurricane - so why bother?

Whether or not things will be any better for former NO residents in Kansas or Texas or Washington is a good question. I'm inclined to agree with Ezra on the fact that concentrating poverty in once place only makes it worse, but I also know that rural poverty is just as suffocating and difficult to escape. I think the best that can be hoped for with this geographical redistribution of the poverty-stricken is that some will end up in places that do offer them better opportunity - a less oppressive culture, better access to health care, better jobs, etc. And for those whose lives don't improve, is the loss of their poor and oppressive New Orleans neighborhood much worse than living there?

Posted by: Sara | May 18, 2006 3:24:02 PM

I'm sorry if you think its condescending to note that rural towns all over america have been depopulating for the last--oh, can you say dust bowl?--many years. One of the reasons illegal immigrant labor is flooding places it has never flooded before is that the jobs there are jobs that there isn't enough *local* population to serve the argibuisnesses that have taken the place of the small family farmer. Its no knock on the suburbs and the rural areas of this country to say that it is extremely costly, in terms of fuel, to live and work there and that jobs for educated people are hard to come by,though bad jobs for uneducated people possibly less so. And you know I thought the entire point of my first post was to say that people who were forced out of Katrina at hurricane point were given no choice about where they went to stay/live and that they will continue to have no choice because money, in this country, equals choice and they by definition have no money.

I can't speak for any new orleans person as to whether "they" will be better off or worse off under any scenario following the catastrophic loss of their homes, their local community, and their history. I think we can say that there has never, ever, been a community of people who were rooted in their place and time who prospered and were fully adjusted to new circumstances in a relatively short period of time--or ever. There has been plenty of work done on refugees around the world and that is what the people in katrina are--refugees without a country and refugees whose right to a community or a sense of identity is being glibly denied by people here.

I hasten to add that just because I don't think the likely outcomes to this forced resettlement are good means that I support the rebuilding of New Orleans or its resettlement. But then I don't support its rebuilding or resettlement for wealthy whites, either. If they can afford to live well, elsewhere, I fail to see why any public monies should be spent on them and their city. If the taxpayer is to foot the bill for the rebuilding and repopulating of New Orleans the criteria for who gets to move back has to be something equitable--like a lottery, and not something decided by the free hand of the market--given that we know just how constrained and politically manipulated the market has been for housing, security, and political privilige.


Posted by: aimai | May 18, 2006 3:34:23 PM

"but those left without homes and jobs after Katrina are not your dolls to set up in neat little cities where they can walk to work and do whatever stuff you love about where you live. Just like many of these people don't have the choice of whether or not to go back to NO, they probably never had much of a say in whether they could leave it."


Posted by: Dustin | May 18, 2006 5:19:41 PM

Wait a minute....

are you seriously telling me that rich people have more mobility and relocation options than poor people!!!


Seriously, WTF is this debate all about? Are you guys seriously suggesting that there is some kind of organized racist conspiracy to keep blacks out? Thats a joke.

Now if you want to tell me that its harder for hte blacks to move back to New Orleans because of financial constraints that have always hindered POOR people, then yes I agree with that. But what the hell did you expect? Are we supposed to be shocked and outraged by that?

Posted by: joe blow | May 18, 2006 5:25:46 PM

joe blow Coming on the head of actually agreeing with Fred the other day, I don't see my odour around here improving agreeing with you. Damn.
The outer islands sheltering New Orleans are toast. The delta deposits ditto. Things are in a worse state than before Katrina regards storm protection.
The heartland needs a functioning seaport. Something must be done.
Two opposing states of affairs. More tension for our maladroits in charge.

Posted by: opit | May 18, 2006 5:35:43 PM

I'm not sure I agree with Ezra's post, but some of the comments have been seriously misreading it. He didn't say, or suggest, that Katrina was a good thing for New Orleans's blacks and poor. His post takes both Katrina and the criminally negligent preparation for and reaction to Katrina as givens. The question is, now that this has all happened, what do we do? Encourage poor blacks to return? He says, no, looking forward it may be better if they don't, because it's not a very safe place to live if you're poor. It's not an unassailable argument but let's try to assail the argument he actually made.

Posted by: Christopher M | May 18, 2006 5:51:42 PM

Ezra, I'm not sure what you're saying.

Art Levine was complaining about the effect of government neglect of the poor, leading to a much whiter city. Your response is a lecture on civil defense.

I'm not saying you're wrong, it just seems like we're talking about two different issues. I haven't looked at an elevation map of the greater New Orleans area, but isn't there some high ground close to the urban area that the population could be resettled?

Government neglect has created a diaspora out of the residents of New Orleans, and government neglect is preventing them from returning home.

PS - California natives might want to be more careful about throwing around the "death trap" label.

Posted by: John | May 18, 2006 8:29:42 PM

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