Public Response to My Interview

There has been some outcry in New Orleans about my interview with MIT’s Tech Talk, as well as about MIT’s role in redeveloping Lafitte.  I am responding personally to the folks I know, but here are some statements that I hope will be useful to everyone interested.  Please remember I don’t speak for MIT.  These are MY views.  They are personal and based on 31 years worth of emotional and intellectual experience, including the last year in and out of New Orleans.


I experience a collective sense of loss and grief in the city.  YES, there is incredible grassroots activism (Tim Coates, from the Kennedy School of Government and a consultant to the Broadmoor Improvement Association, covered it remarkably well from an non-New Orleanian in an op-ed – “Katrina’s Heroes” – for the Boston Globe on August 20).  Communities, local organizations and individual residents are no doubt doing a fantastic job of reclaiming, recovering, re-imagining – honestly, just select your preferred “re” verb here – their homes, neighborhoods, schools, futures, etc.  BUT, all this individualism to me is NOT acceptable, NOT enough.  There should be stronger, guiding government leadership, from the local all the way up to the federal – and especially here! – level.  This leadership should be bridging these individual efforts towards a collective vision.  This might be naive, idealistic, un-American, uninformed, but I think it’s bullshit that there has to be a Crazy Horse approach (i.e., self-funded) to development vs. organized, coherent, available funding, guidance and support from the government on rebuilding.  And maybe I truly am an outsider; maybe this Only In My Backyard approach to redevelopment is how New Orleanians prefer it.  But that’s not what I heard when I was working with organizing groups.   And just because groups demonstrate remarkable organizing activity doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for the government to just let them have at it.  Individual CDCs and community-based organizations can’t rebuild roads, take down I-10, turn on their electricity again, or repair a broken school system unless they privatize it.  I’m not content with this solution.


I find it incredibly sad that half the city is still gone, and that this half is probably not able to return any time soon, if at all. This is some form of institutional neglect, negligence, willful harm, I’m not sure what to call it, on behalf of the government to not enable people to return, and not to cushion their landing in other cities with anything else than an overpriced, undersized flimsy home in a segregated trailer park.  Public housing and multi-unit dwellings, schools and other large parcels could have been the first to have been cleaned out and repopulated with returning families and workers.  The details could have been worked out on this.  It wasn’t done.  I find this mass displacement abhorrent, and I find the “right to return” rhetoric supports my feeling.  But if we’re going to permanently shut families out, then offer them support and opportunity in their lives elsewhere. 


I do not support the demolition of public housing, ESPECIALLY given HUD’s flimsy, false rhetoric about the need to take it down. Mixed income in my narrowly informed experience seems to either continue to segregate people in poverty (i.e., the upper income families don’t arrive or remain) or, as is the well-known case in New Orleans, River Garden, the poor are permanently displaced and it’s nothing more than a mix of middle-income families.  At the end of the day, putting up and taking down buildings does VERY little to address the root causes of poverty in the U.S., and there’s no shortage of academics and practitioners debating what to do about public housing.  All that said, if it’s coming down, and maybe the lawsuits will prove otherwise, I am glad to know who the developers are.  I know their work in other cities, I’ve listened to them at length, I understand their convictions and commitment.  I would rather this development team on Lafitte than any other, and that isn’t because I’m jonesing for a role.  I don’t like, nor do I want to practice, development.  It’s too abstract for me, a disconnected way of dealing with people’s lives.


My impressions of New Orleans post-Katrina are inevitably informed by 2 1/2 years of working in Lower Manhattan after September 11.  I saw first hand how individually-based programs that did not align with macro-level changes in the neighborhood left some people downtown worse off, especially over time.  For example, small business owners encouraged and offered incentives to remain downtown were then trapped by debt loads as their consumer population downtown disappeared due to development programs that converted commercial properties to residential buildings.  With their clients gone, they had little income to repay their debts and some of them became, as one disaster researcher put it, “permanently failing organizations.”   I’m taking a long view here re: New Orleans.  And I come back to my original point: without a common direction, pool of resources, or vision around which to rally, independent efforts on behalf of community groups and individuals could come to naught. 


The people who have attacked me directly are those with whom I have personal relationships.  I appreciate their input.  As I wrote to one of them, I hope they’ll think about our personal interactions so far and weigh those against what they are now reading and hearing (unless of course it’s from this blog).  I wrote to the reporter about the incredible “emotion work” involved in working in New Orleans (forgive the academic jargon):

“I also find it hard to work down here at at least an arm’s length removed from the ground.  Meaning, I don’t work with many survivors, very few locals, etc…it’s also hard not to have their input, their emotion, etc. to refuel me on a day to day basis (or, alternatively, sap my exhaustion from the sheer size of their needs.) It’s easy to get a sense of “why am I doing this again?â€?  when it’s such demanding work to begin with.  I work mainly with other external groups, and with senior organizational types from large, local groups, so there isn’t that sense of connection that I had in NY working directly with business owners.  There’s a level of feeling really removed and not having an outlet for my own emotional response to the plight of the city, as a result.  To extend this, I do feel very alone in my work down here…there’s very few people in the rest of my world that are in a position to understand what I’m going through, working on, experiencing, etc. down here.  It’s really really intense work, and I find I’m VERY consumed by it.” 

One of the reasons I’m looking forward to coming to New Orleans full-time is to try to reduce this disconnectedness from the energy and spirit on the ground.  New Orleans is an amazing city.  Whether people love it or hate it, it doesn’t seem like anyone leaves untouched by it.  It’s seductive and unique and I can’t fathom our country without it, or tolerating a sanitized version of its former self.  Perhaps over time, my critics will come to understand how much I love cities, how strong is my own urban pride, and how I’m fueled by a sense of pragmatic righteousness (yes, it confounds me too) in my work.  In the meantime, I also hope they’ll go about their business of protecting, loving, and fighting for their people and places. 


4 Responses to “Public Response to My Interview”

  1. 1 Elizabeth Cook
    August 29, 2006 at 8:41 am

    Ms. Graham, your quotes from that interview on the MIT website, and my responses:

    You said: “when people slowly realize that no matter what their best efforts, a world they knew is irrevocably gone, and every effort is nonetheless toward, at best, re-creating it or, at worst, building something new from scratch — even if that’s eventually for the better.

    But the poverty and politics of the place make it feel pretty unlikely that most New Orleanians will be able to reclaim anything close to what they’ve lost, and that’s a pretty hard pill to swallow.”

    My response: We’ve been on the ground since Katrina, Ms. Graham, fighting for the Right to Return of all citizens of New Orleans. What we need is help, assistance, not collaboration with the institutions who are moving in to consolidate their power, and keep the working poor from returning.

    It is a very real plan and collaboration to keep some from returning. It is particulary evident in our citizens being made to jump through the hoops of this neighborhood planning process that is bloated with utopian visions, and fat with urban design planners who have come to experiment on our city. I’ll refer to my article on indy media: http://neworleans.indymedia.org/news/2006/08/8402.php
    Our movement addresses the need for public housing to be reopened, and for all public services, including the issue of reconstruction, to be funded by the federal government.

    “Hard pill to swallow” isn’t good enough Ms. Graham. We’re fighting, and we’ll continue to fight the corporate elite who control your university, the agenda of your department (urban design), and are attempting to control the destiny of this city.

    You said: “Given our experience in New Orleans so far, this led to an ongoing collaboration with the AFL-CIO to bring their proposed Gulf Coast Initiative — Back Home in New Orleans — to the ground. We were instrumental in guiding them to their pilot site in Tremé. We are working with them on designing an organizing and planning process around the redevelopment of 197 parcels and now Lafitte.”

    My response: Sorry if this is a “hard pill to swallow”, but you are collaborating with MIT and the AFL-CIO, behind the backs of Lafitte residents, to take away their homes and prolonge their exile from New Orleans. You were also engaged in this collaboration behind our backs as well. People are facing desperate circumstances in Houston and elsewhere, Ms. Graham. I don’t know if you are aware of this. We need the Lafitte development opened as soon as possible, and we will continue to fight for this.

    How can you collaborate in a project that will demolish, destroy over 850 units of viable public housing? Have you seen the inside of the units? I have seen the insides of several of the units. They are amazing structures, these buildings, built like bomb bunkers. Hardly a mortar tile was lost from the roofs of the buildings.

    You said: “I wish that more was being done at the federal, state, municipal and grassroots organizing level to help those permanently relocated to new places around the U.S. rebuild their lives with some dignity and opportunity that they otherwise lacked in relatively poor, service-sector-dependent New Orleans.

    I wish the U.S. had better policies to address displacement following disasters, including relocation in redevelopment, when appropriate. This is an area I work on in some of my academic research, but I am not doing much else about it at this point in my practice.”

    My response: Wishes are a dime a dozen, and while New Orleans has seen an influx of students to help at a grass roots level on important issues regarding the right of return, we have also seen the urban design students and their mentors move in to take advantage of this disaster and try to impose their “vision” of what New Orleans should look like, and often these visions have little to do with the neighborhoods that existed prior to Katrina. Further, these urban design “visions” often involve the wholesale destruction of certain neighborhoods of poverty. The rich developers as in Canizaro and Kabacoff, they aren’t the only ones, and the ruling elite of this country are loving it, these urban design “visions”. Much money will be made off of land in this city, and if public housing is demolished, real estate values will go up further.

    With the absence of much of the working class and working poor of this city, the dismantling of public services will continue, and few are here to fight to have them restored. Our health care is in crisis since Katrina, RTA is slashing workers, Entergy is raising rates, our public schools have largely been dismantled, and now students must “apply” (some are being turned down) to charter schools, our sewerage and water infrastructure continues to crumble. Just yesterday Bush said he doesn’t forsee giving any more funds for the rebuilding of the city.

    So this neo-liberal urban design vision thing is a perfect tool to not only disperse the working poor, and keep them from returning to the city, but it is aiding in the continued, and possibly permanent dismantling of public services in the city. Without our people back to fight for services, it is a difficult battle indeed.

    You said: “I’d like MIT as an institution to have a long-term, formal presence there. I’d like to find a long-term local partner down there through which MIT could place students, practitioners, scholars and others on the ground to provide expertise, input, conduct projects and research, and generally contribute to the recovery and sustainable existence of the city.”

    My response: Simple. Planners and architects go home! Darwin Bond Graham said it well in his blog http://darwinbondgraham.blogspot.com/2006/08/planners-architects-go-home.html, that much of this urban design vision, which involves the dispersal of neighborhoods of poverty, are centered around the academic-accepted belief that poverty should be dealt with from a “design” standpoint.

    This is patently absurd, and does nothing to address the root causes of poverty. Further, the destruction of working class communities eliminates the ability of people to organize effectively. Perhaps this, ultimately, is why this neo-liberal view of urban design is embraced by the ruling elite.

    elizabeth cook
    C3/Hands off Iberville
    United Front for Affordable Housing

  2. August 29, 2006 at 11:07 am


    I agree with many of your comments, but have to correct some inaccuracies in your attack.

    My department is URBAN STUDIES & PLANNING. Design is only one component. I am part of the HOUSING, COMMUNITY & ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT group. I know nothing about, nor have much interest in, design.

    I concur with Darwin, and make the point on this blog, that DESIGN does NOT solve the problems of poverty.

    MIT is NOT part of the UNOP OR Lambert planning processes.

    The AFL-CIO has NOT been named as a developer of Lafitte.

    I continue to support the work of C3/Hands Off Iberville and agree that demolishing structurally sound buildings is a waste and outrage. I however urge you and your colleagues not to assume that being a planner automatically makes an individual part of the problem.

    See you soon.

  3. 3 Abs and Amy
    August 29, 2006 at 9:20 pm


    We love the blog. The interview needed an accompanying glamourshot, though.


  4. August 30, 2006 at 12:34 am

    Amy & Abs,

    You two are my target market. A little M.A.S. exuberance, drama and neuroses to keep Aim happy; some politics and debate to keep Abs engaged.


    Thanks for the support. 🙂

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