Sunday, April 30, 2006

Forgotten in New Orleans ...

This is from an article I co-wrote with Susan Howell. It was published on the OpEd page of the New York Times on April 20, 2006:

No discussion of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina fails to focus on the stark class and racial differences that supposedly determined its residents' fates. The city's Lower Ninth Ward has become an international symbol of the neglect suffered by low-income African-Americans, while the white middle- and upper-class neighborhoods on higher ground are portrayed as having hardly been affected. But as gripping as that story may be, it's an oversimplification.

New Orleans was also home to a large black middle class, which is now in a quandary. Although we are white, we know this firsthand. Along with tens of thousands of black middle-class families, we lost our homes and our belongings in the low-lying section of the city called New Orleans East, the northern part of the Ninth Ward.

For more than 30 years, New Orleans East was a haven for the emerging black middle class. It was the suburban "black flight" neighborhood: as the central city and inner suburbs deteriorated, middle-class and educated black citizens went there seeking safer suburban lives, with better schools and houses with lawns. The relatively low housing prices in New Orleans East made this ideal affordable, and black families in this neighborhood did not face the racism they might have in the white suburbs.

Many of the neighborhood's residents were the first homeowners or college graduates in their families. Households commonly included two wage earners, often stretched to the limit to pay mortgages and provide for their children. Many were also supplying financial aid to relatives in the central city.

Now the Bring New Orleans Back Commission has designated parts of New Orleans East "delayed recovery," meaning that residents can rebuild only at their own risk, without any guarantee that there will be basic services, like working sewers or police protection, in the near future.

The two of us can feel comfortable resettling anywhere in the metropolitan area. But for black families, the decision is not so simple. Many would rather not deal with racism in the white suburbs, some of which are also unaffordable for these displaced families. But how do we ask them to return to the central city areas that many worked so hard to leave?

These are people who overcame the odds, played by the rules, broke out of the infamous "cycle of poverty," bought homes, built families and enjoyed a taste of what Americans define as success. And they are being told that their community is not on the immediate recovery list.

It should come as no surprise that these residents are fighting the commission and the planners to save their neighborhood. Unlike many of their black brothers and sisters, they had a piece of the American pie.

Susan E. Howell is a political science professor at the University of New Orleans. John B. Vinturella is a business consultant.


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Nagin weathers the storm …

Phase one of the contest for Mayor of New Orleans turned out pretty much as has been predicted for weeks now. Also predictable was the theme of the runoff; Peter Whoriskey of the Washington Post notes that “Incumbent, Challenger Call for an End to Racial Divisiveness.”

And public statements by the two remaining candidates will probably try to keep any such divisiveness out of the public eye. Still I am fairly certain that there will be some discussion about one or both candidates using “the race card.”

An earlier article by Whoriskey sets the stage: “But with the post-storm diaspora tilting voter demographics somewhat toward whites and raising racial sensitivities on both sides, polls indicate and political analysts say that volatile racial allegiances have become pronounced. Nagin's shifting political base and his standing in the polls is a case in point.”

"Black voters are coming back to Nagin, not necessarily as a person but as a symbol of a racial regime," said Susan Howell, a pollster and professor at the University of New Orleans. "And in blunt terms, some white voters see this as an opportunity to take back power."

Adam Nossiter of the New York Times framed the results in a way that, I feel, is indicative of how voters will be discussing yesterday’s vote:

“Mr. Landrieu's showing Saturday put him in a strong position to become the first white mayor of New Orleans since his father, Moon Landrieu, left office in 1978. He is likely to pick up most of Mr. Forman's vote, almost exclusively concentrated in white precincts. In addition, Mr. Landrieu apparently picked up as much as 20 percent of the vote in black precincts, according to analysts on local television stations.

Mr. Nagin, however, the only major black candidate, polled better than expected, setting up what is likely to be an intense campaign between the two men over the next month. With turnout apparently low in black precincts, Mr. Nagin appealed for unity after the results were in.”

And Nagin continues to turn phrases: "If we don't come together as men and women, we will perish as fools," he said. "We must become comfortable with one another."

Let me know your views on the campaign and the candidates, as we follow the story for four more weeks.


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Battered New Orleans ...

AFP reports that,

“In battered New Orleans, crime comes calling, again:”

Crime is back in New Orleans, after a brief reprieve. The city was on track to become the nation's homicide capital before Katrina flooded most of its streets August 29.

A brief period of lawlessness ensued. Scores of cops deserted. Hundreds of National Guard troops then reinforced police and authorities nearly emptied the city. Several months of relative peace and recovery followed.

Police Chief Warren Riley acknowledges a subsequent upturn in crime, but still maintains post-Katrina New Orleans is one of the safest cities in the United States. "We're going to always have some crime in the city," Riley said.

However, the chief says murders are down dramatically from last year when the city had 465,000 residents. Most arrests today are for drugs and looting, which has "subsided considerably," he said.

Criminologist Peter Scharf reflects the skepticism of a public that has long distrusted police crime statistics. Accepting police estimates that the city has 200,000 residents, the professor says, New Orleans still ranks among the nation's top ten cities for murders per capita. By last week, the city had 18 homicides, the same number as a suburb with more than twice its population.

"If this is Pleasantville," Scharf said of New Orleans, "we're in deep trouble."

Only one of the city's 10 jails is fully functional. NOPD's temporary headquarters is a collection of trailers at a vehicle inspection station. Nerves are frayed. Eighty percent of city cops lost their homes to Katrina.


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Update Katrina Index ...

As of April 1, we are keeping our March recovery score of 35%. Perhaps some things are improving but, from my perspective, not enough to warrant upping our score.

So what does 35% recovered mean? I see little effort on much-needed road repairs or getting more traffic lights working. But concern about public safety issues dampens any enthusiasm for how close we are to the "new" normal.

This concern is based on a perceived steep increase in crime statistics, and what seems to be an even greater increase in the cost of protecting our area from natural disasters. We will talk a little about crime next time.

The latest figures on cost of protection add another $6 billion, while assigning these projected costs by parish. We are told that $3 billion can be used to protect 99% of area residents, with the remaining $3 billion needed for Plaquemine parish. If you are living in Plaquemine, begin to make other arrangements.

We close with an excerpt from tomorrow's Louisiana Weekly, New Orleans - A Different Place without the Displaced, by George E. Curry, NNPA Columnist:

"It does not matter how many photos you've seen, how riveting the videotapes have been as they splashed across the television screens, with desperate voices crying out in the background, or listening to the emotional Congressional testimony of displaced residents of New Orleans. None of those experiences - or even all of them combined - can prepare you for the experience of entering the city's lower 9th Ward, where Hurricanes Katrina and Rita roared.

Almost seven months later, it is still hard to believe your eyes. This is the worse of the worst. Debris is piled high in no particular order - on the streets, next to houses, under fallen trees. Whether made of brick or wood, most of the houses are missing windows, doors and people. Roofs can be found where you'd least expect them: on top of overturned automobiles, crumpled under trees, crushed to the ground. There are signs of life slowly returning, but for most part, the residents have not returned. And it's uncertain if they ever will."


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Katrina's Complexity ...

The stark socio-economic class differences in portrayals of post-Katrina New Orleans are an oversimplification. The city’s “lower”ninth ward has become internationally famous as a symbol of the neglect of low income African Americans, while the white middle and upper class neighborhoods on higher ground are portrayed as hardly affected. As gripping as that story may be, a more complete picture involves a large black middle class, its residential pattern, and its role in the debate over shrinking the geographic footprint of New Orleans.

We know because, along with tens of thousands of black middle class families, we lost our homes and our belongings in the section of New Orleans called New Orleans East (NOE), which may be considered the city’s “upper” ninth ward.

NOE is a vast expanse, including Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, the nation's largest urban wildlife refuge. NOE’s streets were the best in the city. Tree-lined boulevards and underground utilities were the result of its being one of the few planned New Orleans neighborhoods.

So why does NOE get so little mention in the Katrina story? Several factors are at work. It did not produce famous musicians (although several who succeeded financially moved to the East). It lacked symbols of New Orleans culture like jazz clubs and cozy neighborhood restaurants. Its residences were suburban bland and reflected the typical American ranch style. In short, NOE did not represent anything unique – at least on the surface.

But New Orleans East had become a haven for the emerging black middle class for over thirty years; it was the suburban “black flight” neighborhood. As the central city and inner suburbs deteriorated, middle class and educated black citizens sought the American ideal of a safer and less dense suburban life with better schools and a lawn. The relatively low prices of NOE’s housing market made this ideal an affordable one. Black families could attain this lifestyle without facing the racism of the white suburbs – which meant all of the other suburbs.

Many of the residents of the East were first generation home owners and first generation college graduates. Two-wage earner families dominated the area, some stretched to the financial limit to make house payments and provide a better life for their children. Many were also providing financial aid to relatives still “locked” in the central city.

Then Katrina passed through and revealed the difficulties of sustaining the eastern portion of the city. In a city mostly under sea level, this section took one of the hardest hits. Now the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB) is telling these middle class black families that their area is designated “delayed recovery.” This designation means rebuild at your own risk because there may not be basic city services, such as sewage and police protection, in the foreseeable future.

The BNOB plan suggests that sections (as yet undefined) of New Orleans East should be converted to parks, and that pre-Katrina residents of these areas will be bought out and urged to resettle in a more compact new city footprint. The commission, advised by some of the best urban planners in America, based this recommendation on the city’s topography, but among its unintended consequences is its negative impact on the city’s middle class black families.

These are the people who overcame the odds, played by the rules of our society, broke out of the infamous “cycle of poverty,” bought a home, built a family, and enjoyed a taste of what Americans define as success. And we are telling them that their community is not on the “recovery list.”

Where do these families go now? Since we are white, we can feel comfortable resettling anywhere in the metropolitan area. However, for black families the decision is not so simple. Economics preclude their moving to some suburbs, and many would rather not deal with the issues of racism in the white suburbs. But how do we ask them to return to the central city areas that many worked so hard to leave?

It should come as no surprise that these residents are fighting the Commission and the planners to save their neighborhood. Unlike many of their black brothers and sisters, they had a piece of the American pie.

Susan E. Howell, Professor of Political Science,
University of New Orleans

John B. Vinturella, management consultant and
former business owner.


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Cosby: Reject Crime!

From a Reuters article by Russell McCulley

Entertainer Bill Cosby urged New Orleans' black population on Saturday to cleanse itself of a culture of crime as it rebuilds from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina last year.

Cosby, whose criticism of some aspects of modern African-American culture has stirred controversy in recent years, told a rally headed by black leaders that the city needed to look at the "wound" it had before Katrina struck.

"It's painful, but we can't cleanse ourselves unless we look at the wound," Cosby told the rally of about 2,000 people in front of the city's convention center.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you had the highest murder rate, unto each other. You were dealing drugs to each other. You were impregnating our 13-, 12-, 11-year-old children," he said.

"What kind of a village is that?"

Cosby sparked heated debate in 2004, when he criticized blacks whom he said were putting a higher priority on music and fashion than on education and morality.

Before Katrina killed more than 1,300 people and displaced hundreds of thousands, New Orleans had nearly half a million residents, 70 percent of them black. An estimated 30 percent of the city had incomes below the poverty line.

Less than half the population has returned to the heavily damaged city and evacuees remain scattered across the country. Many of those who have come back are whites who lived in affluent areas that were less affected by flooding.

Other speakers, including civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, denounced what they said was an attempt by state and federal officials to disenfranchise the evacuees in April 22 local elections by not setting up out-of-state voting stations.

Jackson said evacuees should be allowed to vote in "satellite" polling places outside the state, just as Iraqi and Mexican expatriates have cast ballots from the United States in elections in their home countries.

"If we in fact can use this technology for Mexican-Americans and Mexico, then we ought to," Jackson said. "If we can use this technology for Iraqi-Americans in America to Baghdad, then we ought to. We can use the same technology for New Orleanians, wherever they are in America."

Voting stations will be available at 10 sites in Louisiana outside of New Orleans, but state officials have said casting ballots outside the state is not allowed.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who is black and faces 21 challengers in his re-election campaign, said not enough was being done to guarantee a fair vote.

"We deserve to be treated like Americans," he said.


jbv's Competitive Edge