-New Orleans - September 2006
-Taken from The Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
The eyes of the world flickered briefly back to New Orleans last night as the Superdome, national shorthand for death, squalor and the failings of a federal government when its citizens needed it most, reopened for the new American Football season. The homecoming of the New Orleans Saints - who last year played their home games at locations scattered, like their fanbase, across the state and the country - has been heavily trailed for weeks on local television, with adverts showing a group of burly players clashing their helmets together in the changing rooms and repeatedly chanting "There's no place like home!".
The return of football to the Superdome falls neatly into the narrative of recovery promoted by the city's Mayor, Ray Nagin. Since the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, his staff have been spinning overtime to get across the message that New Orleans is back in business and open to the world, and the symbolism of the refurbished Superdome, the scene of so much misery last August, is a powerful tool in their hands. But for many residents, any talk of homecoming is deeply divisive.
Hundreds of thousands of residents are still displaced and unsure of what - if any - future they have in the Crescent City. New Orleans is awash with planners offering competing proposals on how a brighter, brasher metropolis can rise from the rubble of the storm. In the eyes of many, they have a clean slate to work from, with vast swathes of the area wiped out physically and psychologically by the hurricane.
The problem for residents is that the attitude of many of these planners - an attitude seemingly shared by city officials - is that the New New Orleans should be shorn of many of the social problems is was previously saddled with - and consequently shorn of the communities from which, it is claimed, those problems arose. The way to achieve this transformation? Attack the resources that poor, predominantly black residents relied upon most - namely publicly funded schools, hospitals and housing.
Conspiracy theories abound; whilst some of the more extreme rumours (including the claim that the levees protecting the poverty-stricken Lower 9th Ward were deliberately dynamited during the storm to protect wealthier, whiter parts of town) are hard to swallow, it is easy to see why many believe that the city, state and federal authorities are doing everything in their power to discourage large sections of the population from returning home. Take public housing. In 1996 there were over 13,000 publicly-funded, affordable housing units in the city; by the time Katrina struck, that had been steadily reduced to 7,100. Now, with New Orleans facing the greatest shortage of affordable housing in its history (rents have skyrocketed in the past year), the Department for Housing and Urban Development has announced plans to demolish 5,000 of the remaining units.
For residents who have lived in and built communities around these public housing projects all their lives this is difficult to accept, not least because the units are set to be replaced by so-called "mixed income" developments, which by their very nature are going to leave a lot of displaced former residents out of the equation. Unlike the wind, water and mould-battered wooden houses of the Lower 9th, most of the public housing projects are made of brick and so withstood the flooding comparatively well. In fact, those that have been inside the units say they are practically ready to be inhabited again, a ready-made solution to fulfil the city administration's plea to "make the impossible possible and get our people back home."
Which makes it all the more incredible that rather than tidying the projects up and getting the evacuees back inside, the city's housing authority has spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars boarding the units up and, in one public development, even installing a 7ft-high barbed wire fence around the perimeter to keep out those who used to live there. On the eve of Katrina's anniversary, in an incident largely unreported by the local media (who were focusing instead on Bush's flying visit to the Gulf Coast), some former residents took ladders and boltcutters and forced their way back into their old homes. Unsurprisingly police officers soon appeared on the scene and arrested nine people (although significantly they decided not to arrest the residents themselves, all of whom were in possession of valid leases for the properties they were entering).
There have been many similar actions since, although the majority of projects remain shuttered-up and fenced-off, sunk in darkness even whilst the bright lights of the Superdome switch back on. Katrina was the worst natural disaster in American history but the bungled and insensitive handling of the city's regeneration has been entirely man-made. Although the news crews have moved on following the hurricane's anniversary, returning only for the odd ready-made recovery story, the problem of tackling that man-made disaster remains.
For more writing on New Orleans see http://oneyearon.blogspot.com/