In a recent email to Louisiana officials, FEMA curtly turned down the
state's request for funding to notify displaced residents that they could cast
absentee ballots in the city's crucial February mayoral election. FEMA also
declined to share data with local authorities about the current addresses of
In the eyes of many local activists, FEMA's refusal to support the voting rights
of evacuees is consistent with a larger pattern of federal inaction and delay
that seems transparently designed to discourage the return of Black residents
to the city. As one Associated Press dispatch presciently warned, "Hurricane
Katrina [may] prove to be the biggest, most brutal urban-renewal project Black
America has ever seen."
Ethnic Cleansing, GOP-style
In the weeks since Bush's Jackson Square speech, FEMA has alarmingly failed
to advance any plan for the return of evacuees to temporary housing within the
city or to connect displaced locals with reconstruction jobs. Moreover for lack
of a tax base or emergency federal funding, local governments in afflicted areas
have been forced to lay off thousands of employees and are unable to restore
many essential public services.
Bush's promise to promptly help the region's unemployed -- 282,000 in Louisiana
alone -- has turned into slow-moving House legislation that would benefit less
than one-quarter of those made jobless by Katrina. The powerful House Republican
Study Group has vowed to support only relief measures that buttress the private
sector and are offset by reductions in national social programs such as food
stamps, student loans, and Medicaid.
The Republican leadership accordingly has blocked bipartisan legislation to
extend Medicaid coverage to all low-income hurricane victims and has imposed
unprecedented demands for loan repayment upon local governments. Katrina's victims,
as Paul Krugman has pointed out, have been "nickel and dim[ed]" to
an extent that casts grave doubt over whether large-scale reconstruction "will
In the meantime more than two-thirds of FEMA contracts (according to Louisiana
Governor Kathleen Blanco) has gone to out-of-state firms, with a blatant bias
toward Halliburton and other Texas-based investors in Bush Inc. Simultaneously,
unscrupulous employers have saturated Latino neighborhoods in Houston and other
southwestern cities with fliers advertising a cornucopia of jobs in New Orleans
With Davis-Bacon and affirmative-action requirements suspended by executive
order, immigrant workers -- housed in tents and working under appalling conditions
-- have flocked to jobs sites in the city, largely unaware that tens of thousands
of blue-collar evacuees who would relish these jobs are unable to return for
lack of family housing and federal support. Ethnic tensions are artificially
inflamed by speculations about a "population swap" and impending 'Latinization"
of the workforce.
New barriers, meanwhile, are being erected against the return of evacuees.
In Mississippi's ruined coastal cities, as well as in metro New Orleans, Landlords
-- galvanized by rumors of gentrification and soaring land values -- are beginning
to institute mass evictions. (Although the oft-cited Lower Ninth Ward is actually
a bastion of blue-collar homeownership, most poor New Orleanians are renters.)
Civil-rights lawyer Bill Quigley has described how renters have returned "to
find furniture on the street and strangers living in their apartments at higher
rents, despite an order by the Governor that no one can be evicted before October
25. Rents in the dry areas have doubled and tripled."
Secretary of Housing Alfonso Jackson, meanwhile, seems to be working to fulfill
his notorious prediction that New Orleans is "not going to be as black
as it was for a long time, if ever again." Public-housing and Section 8
residents recently protested that "the agencies in charge of these housing
complexes [including HUD] are using allegations of storm damage to these complexes
as a pretext for expelling working-class African-Americans, in a very blatant
attempt to co-opt our homes and sell them to developers to build high-priced
Minority homeowners also face relentless pressures not to return. Insurance
compensation, for example, is typically too small to allow homeowners in the
eastern wards of New Orleans to rebuild if and when authorities re-open their
Similarly, the Small Business Administration -- so efficient in recapitalizing
the San Fernando Valley in the aftermath of the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake
-- has so far dispensed only a few million dollars despite increasingly desperate
pleas from tens of thousands of homeowners and small business people facing
imminent foreclosure or bankruptcy.
As a result, not just the Black working class, but also the Black professional
and business middle classes are now facing economic extinction while Washington
dawdles. Tens of thousands of blue-collar white, Asian and Latino residents
of afflicted Gulf communities also face de facto expulsion from the region,
but only the removal of African-Americans is actually being advocated as policy.
Since Katrina made landfall, conservatives -- beginning with Rep. Richard Baker's
infamous comments about God having "finally cleaned up public housing in
New Orleans" -- have openly gloated over the possibilities for remaking
New Orleans in a GOP image. (Medically, this might be considered akin to a mass
outbreak of Tourette Syndrome, whose official symptoms include "the overwhelming
urge to use a racial epithet.")
Republican interest in reducing the Black Democratic vote in New Orleans --
the balance of power in state elections -- resonates with the oft-expressed
desire of local elites to purge the city of "problem people." As one
major French Quarter landowner told Der Spiegel, "The hurricane drove poor
people and criminals out of the city and we hope they don't come back. The party's
finally over for these people and now they're going to have to find someplace
else to live in the United States."
Nor are downsizing and gentrification necessarily offensive to Democratic neo-liberals
who have long advocated breaking up concentrated poverty and dispersing the
black poor into older suburbs. The HOPE VI program, the showpiece of Clinton-era
urban policy, demolished traditional public housing and 'vouchered out' residents
in order to make way for mixed-use, market-rate developments like the St. Thomas
redevelopment in New Orleans in the late 1990s that has become the prototype
for elite visions of the city's future.
There exists, in other words, a sinister consensus of powerful interests about
the benefits of an urban 'triage' that abandons historical centers of Black
political power like the Ninth Ward while rebuilding million-dollar homes along
the disaster-prone shores of Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi Sound.
The New Urbanism Meets the Old South
Into this fraught and sinister situation now blunders the circus-like spectacle
of the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU): the architectural cult founded by Miami
designers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.
Twenty years ago, when Duany was first barnstorming the nation's architectural
schools and preservation societies, the New Urbanism seemed to offer an attractive
model for building socially diverse and environmentally sustainable communities
based on a systematization of older 'city beautiful' principles such as pedestrian
scale, traditional street grids, an abundance of open space, and a mixture of
land uses, income groups and building forms.
In practice, however, this diversity has never been achieved. Duany and Plater-Zyberk's
Seaside -- the Florida suburb so brilliantly caricatured in the 1998 film "The
Truman Show" -- was an early warning that kitsch would usually triumph
over democracy in New Urbanist designs.
Despite the populist language of the CNU manifesto, moreover, Duany has always
courted corporate imaginers, mega-developers and politicians. In the mid-1990s,
HUD under Secretary Henry Cisneros incorporated New Urbanist ideas into many
of its HOPE VI projects.
Originally conceived as replacement housing for the poor, HOPE VI quickly morphed
into a new strategy for replacing the poor themselves. Strategically-sited public-housing
projects like New Orleans St. Thomas homes were demolished to make way for neo-traditionalist
townhouses and stores (in the St. Thomas case, a giant Wal-Mart) in the New
These "mixed-use, mixed-income" developments were typically advertised
as little utopias of diversity, but -- as in the St. Thomas case -- the real
dynamic was exclusionary rather than inclusionary, with only a few project residents
being rehoused on site. Nationally, HOPE VI led to a net loss of more than 50,000
units of desperately needed low-income housing.
Smart developers accordingly have been quick to put New Urbanist halos over
their otherwise rampant landgrabs and neighborhood demolitions. Likewise, shrewd
conservatives like Paul Weyrich have come to recognize the obvious congruence
between political traditionalism and architectural nostalgia.
Weyrich, the founding president of the Heritage Foundation, recently wrote
that the "new urbanism needs to be part of the next conservatism,"
a conservatism that remakes cities by purging their criminal underclasses. (After
Katrina, Weyrich castigated New Orleans for "its welfare state and entitlement
mentality... a prototype for Liberals" and questioned whether it should
be rebuilt at all.)
Weyrich was the spiritual bridesmaid during the recent nuptials between the
CNU's Andreas Duany and Harley Barbour, the sleazy former tobacco lobbyist and
Republican chair, who became governor of Mississippi by wrapping himself in
the Confederate battle flag.
Barbour, long King of K Street, is nobody's fool, and he is trying to extract
as much long-term political and economic advantage from Katrina as possible.
One of his declared priorities, for example, is bringing the casinos ashore
into larger, more Las Vegas-like settings; another is to rapidly restore shoreline
property values and squelch any debate about resettling the population on defensible
higher ground (north of I-10, for example).
It was thus a rather brilliant stroke for Barbour to invite the CNU to help
Mississippi rebuild its Gulf Coast "the right way." The first phase
was the so-called "mega-charrette', 11-18 October, that brought 120 New
Urbanists together with local officials and business groups to brainstorm strategies
for the physical reconstruction of their communities.
Duany, as usual, whipped up a revivalistic fervor that must have been pleasing
to Barbour and other descendants of the slave masters: "The architectural
heritage of Mississippi is fabulous .. really, really marvelous."
With Gone with the Wind as their apparent script, the CNU teams spent a frenzied
week trying to show the locals how they could replace their dismal strip malls
with glorious Greek Revival casinos and townhouses that would rival any of those
that once existed on MGM's backlot. The entire exercise stayed firmly within
the parameters of a gambling-driven 'heritage' economy with casinos "woven
into the community fabric" and McMansions rebuilt on the beach.
In the end, however, what was important was not the actual content of the charrette,
nor the genuine idealism of many participants, but simply the legitimacy and
publicity that CNU gave to Barbour's agenda. Duany, who never misses an opportunity
to push his panaceas to those in power, has foolishly made himself an accomplice
to the Republicans' evil social experiment on the Gulf Coast.