New Orleans and the regional economy are “embarking on a new path, benefitting from new infrastructure, investments, a more diverse set of [employment] clusters, and an entrepreneurship boom,” says a 10th anniversary report by The Data Center, which, in alliance with the Brookings Institution, has been keeping comprehensive records of the Katrina recovery since Day One.
That there are more restaurants here than before the disaster — despite a shrunken city population — has become a meme popular with recovery pundits. Tax incentives have created Hollywood South, with New Orleans now rivaling Hollywood itself in TV, film and ad production. A billion-dollar medical center and research facilities have just opened. And the list goes on: revitalized and expanded business corridors along Magazine Street, Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, St. Claude Avenue; the Whole Foods branch on a resurgent Broad Street, an upsurge in entrepreneurial ventures, dog parks and an abundance of bike lanes all over town.
Property values have rebounded to pre-Katrina levels — and higher still in some areas, as residents rebuild and newcomers compete for space in trendy neighborhoods. The chartering of almost all New Orleans public schools — including those run by the Orleans Parish School Board and the ones that were taken over by the Recovery School District, is being hailed as a national model worthy of emulation in other cities. High school graduation rates are up as are college entry rates, notably so among black males. Despite troubling levels of murder and rape, overall crime is down.
In sum, 10 years post-Katrina, New Orleans is a great place to live and raise a family.
Or is it?
Because beneath the froth of genuinely dynamic improvements, Data Center numbers also reveal the lurking hulk of the “City That Care Forgot,” to use one of our famous nicknames. I speak, of course, of the Chocolate City, to use a moniker of more recent vintage that was revived after the storm by our former mayor, Ray Nagin, now doing time for public corruption. Nagin was trying to offer reassurance to black New Orleans that the world many of us remembered so fondly would never be taken away.
In ways that the mayor would not have encouraged, that has proven to be true. With middle-class blacks figuring prominently in the exodus that has reduced the city’s population by about one quarter, New Orleans has a poverty rate (27 percent) well above the national average. Fully 67 percent of black New Orleans households are considered low-income, while 44 percent earn less than $20,900 annually.
And small wonder. Over half of black men are unemployed in New Orleans and the spike in rents and associated costs makes housing more and more difficult to come by. It comes as no surprise then that the incidence of murder and other forms of violence is concentrated among these same people, both as perpetrators and victims. Nearly 30 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds are considered “disconnected youths.” More than half of the children live in poverty, according to a report put out this week by the Urban League of New Orleans. An anniversary report by the New Orleans Tribune quantifies many of these persistent problems.
For all the buzz about recent academic gains, for too many students the public school system remains, as it was before Katrina, a place where hope and dreams die a slow death. Too many students graduate unprepared for the colleges that now admit them and, given the economy’s continued dependence on tourism and the convention business, a high school diploma is often nothing more than a ticket to a low-wage job scrubbing hotel toilets or stocking shelves at a dollar store.
Following the riots that tore up black communities from Harlem to Newark to Detroit in the late 1960s, the Kerner Commission — empaneled by President Lyndon Johnson under the leadership of Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner — concluded that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The Data Center’s numbers suggest that the Katrina recovery has done little to avert the Kerner Commission’s prophecy.
Recent polls show that roughly 80 percent of white folk say recovery is going well, while only 37 percent of black folk share that sentiment. The employment rate for white men (currently 77 percent) has been rising, while the employment rate for black men (57 percent) has been stagnant or in decline.
Among the nation’s large cities, post-Katrina New Orleans has the second greatest level of income inequality. Black households earn 54 percent less than their white counterparts.
This is not to imply that pre-Katrina New Orleans was utopia. We all know that our city has been ranked at the wrong end of these lists for decades. Income inequality and inadequate housing have been facts of black life since emancipation.
The racial disparities already in place 10 years ago were laid bare in television footage beamed around the world: mainly black residents, unable to evacuate, begging for help from roof tops, the Morial Convention Center and the Superdome. My point is that after 10 years of “recovery,” the disparities persist.
In January 2006, Nagin’s blue-ribbon Bring New Orleans Back Commission set forth a plan to shrink the city’s “footprint,” to reflect what was expected (correctly) to be a smaller population and a need for more “green space” to absorb floodwaters and rainfall. The plan, so bitterly opposed that Nagin quickly disowned it, called for limitations on building permits and power restoration.
For the parts of the city that had been most deeply ravaged, consultants warned, the likely outcome of a laissez-faire, come-one, come-all approach to redevelopment would be scattered outposts of revival amid seas of persistent blight — in short, a failure to regain the levels of urban density that city services, including the power grid, sewerage and so forth, need to be affordable.
Subsequent post-Katrina adaptations called for redeveloping the old public housing projects as “mixed-income developments” and decentralizing the once mighty, if highly dysfunctional, Orleans Parish School Board by authorizing the more autonomous charter schools.
Initially many residents, community leaders and activists from the most devastated neighborhoods – Lakeview, the Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans East and Broadmoor – were united in opposition to many aspects of the proposed plans. Over time, Lakeview and Broadmoor — the whiter of the most devastated neighborhoods — successfully fought back against plans to turn them into retention ponds and parks and secured political priority followed by a rebuilding boom.
The East suffered neglect that has only recently begun to give way to corporate investment in supermarkets and the like. For all Brad Pitt’s generous effort to put a shine on it, the Lower 9th became a “disaster tourism” destination, prowled as often by visitors gawking from vans as by city buses.
Adding to the unevenness of the recovery was the Road Home program, with its initial neglect of rental properties (in a city with a notably low home-ownership rate) and its fateful decision, mandated by FEMA, to base reconstruction grants on the pre-Katrina value of a property rather than on the actual cost of rebuilding it.
Whatever their rationale, policies like that deepened racial distrust. Eventually, most thinking New Orleanians got over the myth that levees had been deliberately blown up to drive blacks out of the city. It was replaced by the suspicion that recovery was being managed by a “shadow government” that actively sought to redraw a richer, whiter New Orleans on the “blank slate” left by Katrina.
It doesn’t take an avid conspiracy theorist to see a deeper truth underlying primitive fears. What matters are the tangible results, and what the numbers show are two distinct post-Katrina experiences, “one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
Ten years after Katrina, the work of recovery is far from finished. That leaves New Orleans with an opportunity — and an obligation: to create a New Orleans less paralyzed by the inequities that had characterized the city for so long before catastrophe struck that they seemed like a permanent condition.
Yes, for all the tragedy it brings, disaster can be an opportunity for that kind of reset. How long the opportunity will remain ours — five years? another decade? — is uncertain. This much is not: the opportunity to recreate a better New Orleans should also be seen as a mandate. Broadly, it’s a matter of human rights; at the personal level it cuts to the heart of human dignity.
The question is whether we, the people, can come together out of our common love of New Orleans, our unique culture and our traditions. Will we demand equitable allocation of resources, housing and opportunities? Will we maximize the new Resilient NOLA plan for future protection? We must demand accountability from our elected leaders. Will they listen?
Eugene Thomas is a self-employed real estate broker, an attorney, a Sunday night DJ on WWOZ and an ordained Babalawo priest in the Ifa tradition of the Yoruba people.