Late this afternoon, the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously (7-0) to demolish public housing damaged by the winds and floods of Hurricane Katrina. The Housing and Development Authority of New Orleans (HANO), an arm of HUD, planned for years before Katrina to replace or “redevelop” housing complexes that either forced the poor into community ghettos, or provided home, hearth and shelter—depending upon the eye of the beholder. The Council voted to raze the Lafitte housing development in the first of a series of votes scheduled to address a group of New Orleans housing developments set for demolition.
The C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, and St. Bernard developments are all scheduled to be demolished soon.
Text messages received from inside New Orleans City Hall reported early today that police used mace and stun guns to halt protesters from forcing their way into chambers, where seating was limited to 300. There were reports of arrests and it was unclear whether or not there were any injuries, but an ambulance was sent to the scene.
The issue is not whether or not the poor should return to squalid conditions. No one is advocating that position. Rather, the issue is whether the number of housing units available to low income people before August of 2005 should remain the same.
A gentrified New Orleans might look beautiful if she presents a new face to the world, but what lies beneath will be scarred and will certainly sag once again as the years and time move forward---and the truth and ugliness of racial tensions and disaster capitalism are revealed. Only the next time the face of New Orleans drops, either through another disaster or the passage of time, there will be nothing left to cut away—only the bones and withered muscle of a once diverse and vital city will remain.
Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine) related the text of a stunning conversation that spread like lightening at a Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge shortly after Katrina. Republican Congressman Richard Baker was heard telling a group of lobbyists “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” The quote is found in the introduction: “Blank Is Beautiful: Three Decades of Erasing and Remaking the World.” The hurricanes of 2005 provided the perfect opportunity to employ shock doctrine economics in New Orleans.
Both sides of this complex issue have muddied the waters, and the media has aided and abetted them.
The three hundred or so protesters that instigated a confrontation outside of City Hall today do not represent the majority of the dispossessed and displaced. The woman who appeared in photographs with her huge television complaining about a slow-draining sink and missing window screen did not either. Especially in the case of the woman with the television, media had a responsibility to walk away from what was a failed public relations stunt that fed into the myth that everyone who receives aid is a scam artist. Instead, the sound bite and photo that “proved” welfare fraud became fodder for internet discussion as far away as the United Kingdom.
There is no doubt that the public housing complexes provided haven for crime as well as poor, law-abiding families.
There is no doubt that some of the housing, notably in St. Bernard, is uninhabitable
There is no doubt that redevelopment will significantly reduce the number of housing units when housing is already scarce.
There is no doubt that some of the structures slated for demolition can be renovated at the same cost as new construction, but that the new construction will not have the sturdy concrete frame and brick face of the projects—the Lafitte project is a good example.