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 


Blogger Bri said...

not only that, but if you haven't heard, FEMA is planning to kick out volunteers from New Orleans next week, on April 10. info is listed on my blog at
also see:

2:00 PM  
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