Thursday, December 20, 2007 should forever be remembered as a dollar day for New Orleans. The water is long gone, but there’s still suffering in the streets. The city’s homeless population is conservatively pegged at more than 12,000. A massive homeless encampment has grown under the Claiborne Avenue Bridge with scattered campsites in other parts of town. The affordable housing crisis is mushrooming in the greater metro area. Families live crowded in apartments in neighborhoods with up to half the housing still totally unoccupied.
|Housing demolition protest sign—photo by Laura Ayers|
FEMA announced in November that it plans to close down all of its trailer parks in Louisiana within six months. In spite of this the City Council voted five days before Christmas to demolish more than 4,500 apartments in the city’s largest public housing developments—CJ Peete, BW Cooper, Lafitte, and St. Bernard. The decision was hailed by the Times-Picayune newspaper in a congratulatory article entitled “Unanimous.” Several days later the city moved to evict hundreds of homeless from the Homeless Pride camp in front of City Hall.
The council, mayor, and federal government have framed the demolition of public housing as a progressive policy that will provide affordable housing while also redeveloping urban zones of “concentrated poverty” into “mixed income” neighborhoods. Their rhetoric masks the fact that the plans call for an 80 percent reduction in affordable units, and that the 800 or so replacement apartments will not exist for at least another year or two. In response to residents and housing advocates who have criticized these plans, the city and federal government have repeatedly promoted Section 8 vouchers, which they claim have allowed public housing residents to return to New Orleans by renting in the private market. But the dearth of available properties, combined with hugely inflated rents, has made these vouchers ineffective.
Protesting the housing decision—photo from neworleans.indymedia.org
Opposition to the City Hall steamroller has been spirited. Over the last several months a Coalition to Stop the Demolitions has emerged to organize protests and direct actions to prevent buildings from being torn down. Just days before the City Council vote members of the Coalition broke through the barbed wire fence surrounding the BW Cooper housing development and chained themselves to the stairways and window frames of buildings being torn down. The three women who broke in were able to prevent half a day’s work. Residents of the BW Cooper came out at one point during the protest to talk with organizers and give their support. Many, however, say that they have been threatened by HANO and that they fear protesting and speaking up. After being cut loose from the buildings the three members of the Coalition were each charged with terrorism-related felonies. The legal system seems intent on making an example of them.
Local rap artist Sess 4-5, a member of the Coalition to Stop Demolition, released a mix tape at the end of December entitled, “Stop Da Demolitions.” Featuring many up and coming stars of the New Orleans hip hop scene, the compilation’s songs explore the politics and economics behind demolition and implores listeners to get involved, not just in the immediate campaign, but in the larger Right to Return Movement.
Sess is especially qualified to educate his fellow New Orleanians about the city and federal government’s plans for public housing. On the tape’s first track he explains, “I’m from the Desire housing project. It’s been 20 years. I’m still waiting for them to rebuild the D, you know what I’m sayin’? I already know what’s in store for the St. Bernard, the Magnolia, Calliope, and Lafitte.”
The Desire was once New Orleans’s largest public housing development. It was demolished in 1995 under the same logic of deconcentrating poverty and creating mixed income neighborhoods. The result was a mass displacement of former residents, few of whom were able to return to the redeveloped neighborhood. Most were scattered about the city, their lives and communities dislocated. In 2001 the St. Thomas community underwent the same assault when their buildings were demolished and replaced with condos, houses, and a few affordable public housing units. Opposing this same process in its post-Katrina magnified form, Sess and others vow, “no surrender, no retreat, no defeat, no sleep.”
During the run up to the City Council vote, the Coalition called on its allies to mobilize for the meeting and speak out to protect affordable housing. In response the City Council assigned more than 120 police officers to City Hall and attempted to pack the council chambers with their own supporters early in the morning. Shortly before the meeting began, the NOPD locked out Coalition members claiming the room had reached full capacity, even though it had not. This is the first majority white City Council in 30 years to exclude public housing residents and their allies.
Locked out of their homes for more than two years, now locked out of the meeting where the Council was set to vote on demolishing these homes, anger and outrage boiled over for many residents and their allies.
|Outside the gated meeting—photo by Laura Ayers|
Inside, council member Stacy Head, one of the most vocal proponents of demolition blew kisses and waved mockingly at the opposition. Coalition members described this as “insulting and outrageous behavior,” and “totally unprofessional.” Protesters were tackled, tazered, and dragged out of the room (some by the hair) for disrupting the meeting to demand that the public be let in. Outside the Coalition broke through the City Hall’s gates twice, each time being repelled by dozens of officers fanning pepper spray. Two women were tazered, one of them going into a brief seizure. Mounted police rode in as backup. The opposition was beaten back. The Council made their statements, had their vote, and patted themselves on the back. Mayor Nagin called it a brave decision.
The urban fortunes of the post-Katrina cityscape are finally forming and accumulating in concrete terms. With the near complete demolition of public housing in New Orleans more than 5,000 families, all of them black, are set to be permanently displaced and dispossessed. Rather than seeing this as a crisis necessitating steps to make homecoming possible for everyone, New Orleans’s new white majority, its political elites, business leaders, and the real estate developers have defined this moment as a great opportunity, a dollar day to channel hundreds of millions of dollars to several real estate development projects in order to replace thousands of public housing apartments with hundreds of condos, luxury apartments, and houses. It’s something they’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s something they knew was impossible before the storm.
Locals who support demolition claim that they want to improve the lives of the poor and provide better homes for working families. During the vote, council member Jackie Clarkson exclaimed, “We did not displace the poor and I plan to make sure we don’t.” However, among the homeless camped out across the city can be found many displaced public housing residents. Many more are living in far-flung cities such as San Antonio and Houston. Reg, an elderly veteran and former Lafitte resident now living under the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, explained what the Council’s vote means in reality. Since returning to New Orleans in December 2005 and discovering steel plates on every door and window of the Lafitte he has been without a home. Reg says, “The majority of my neighbors in Lafitte feel that it should not be torn down. They want to and need to come back.”
|Protests, resistance are ongoing—photo by Laura Ayers|
This is the crux of the conflict between the Coalition to Stop Demolition and the city establishment. The right to self-determination for the communities in and around public housing has been blatantly ignored in favor of abstract theories of poverty and crime and the promise of lucrative real estate speculation. Reg says it all boils down to one thing: “They’re trying to get rid of us.” Putting his arm out and exposing his black skin to the sky, he says, “Us. You know what I’m talking about.”
Darwin BondGraham is a sociologist working with the Right of Return Movement in New Orleans. His writings can be read at http://darwinbondgraham.blogspot.com/.