16
May
07

AP: Rich White People Finally Save Themselves

There’s so much problematic subtext in the AP’s coverage of the recovery of New Orleans’s Lakeview neighborhood, I don’t know where to begin.  First, I have to get my heart to stop pounding in outrage.  Then, I guess I’ll take it from the top.

First, the Lakeview neighborhood is more affluent than the vague term “middle-class” indicates.  Average household income is around $64k, versus $43k in Orleans Parish and $56k in the U.S.  (This data differs slightly from the Area Median Income figure of the U.S. Census.  All data here is from Census 2000 as reported by the rockin’ Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.)  It is also a white enclave – 94% – in a city that was 63% black prior to the storm (The US is 70% white).  Average gross rents in Lakeview were almost $800, versus ~$500 in New Orleans and ~$650 in the U.S. overall.  Respective poverty rates for Lakeview-New Orleans-U.S. were 5%-28%-12%.  Other telling features of the neighborhood were its two-third owner-occupancy rate (versus less than 50% city-wide), and less than 40% of kids being raised by grandparents (NO: 55%; US: 42%), and only 5.4% female-headed households (NO: 18%; US: 8%).  On average, Lakeview is a wealthier, whiter, more “stable” environment for children and families (presuming that marital households vs. households headed by single-mothers and grandparents equate to some measure of greater financial and social stability). 

Succession here – like in Staten Island, a whiter, wealthier more conservative enclave than New York City overall – might start to sound like a good idea when your suburban neighbors (Metairie, New Jersey) look more like you than those living within your municipal borders.  Whether this is a sign of “fierce independence” or some deeper desire for gated segregation is for you to decide. 

Meanwhile, a look at New Orleans East paints a different picture, one some of its residents featured in the article try to describe. 

As he painted over the rust on an iron fence that ringed his family’s home in eastern New Orleans, Hank Long said it was obvious to him that his part of town was rebuilding with sweat equity more often than financial equity.

“In Lakeview, many of those houses were already paid for. A lot of people are still paying their mortgages here,” said Long, a 60-year-old black man. “Nobody has big money here. They gutted out their house, and that’s as far as they got. Whatever they could do, they did on their own.”

Sociology professor Jeanne “Hulbert of LSU said: ‘You have to remember the black middle class only took hold in the 1960s. That is different from several generations of middle-class life. Many middle-class blacks in New Orleans were the first in their families to go to college, and it appears many had their entire savings tied up in their homes.'”

In contrast to Lakeview, New Orleans East is a black enclave, with whites comprising only 5-10% of the population.  Average household income is on par with the city, at $43k, and gross monthly rents range from $550-$600.  The poverty rate ranges from 18-33% across the district, and female-headed households and grandparents raising kids are almost 25% and 50%, respectively.  While assessed damage rates, post-Katrina populations, and numbers of residential repair permits in Lakeview and New Orleans East are similar, Lakeview has much deeper pockets on which to draw to fund rebuilding.

Since I began traveling to New Orleans in January 2006, there has been consistent recovery and rebuilding activity in Lakeview.  It was bustling with private clean-up crews and contractors while the Lower 9th Ward was left to fester in its own wreckage through the winter into the spring.  For households with adequate insurance and resources to rebuild, there has been little in their way other than an inept bureaucracy (which New Orleanians would like to see focus on rebuilding city-wide infrastructure) and post-storm premiums to stop them.  For those who have returned – former residents and speculators alike – there appear to be two main options: a) rebuild your former home, or b) occupy a new one.  For Lakeview residents, given their socio-spatial isolation from the rest of the city, their recovery is contained within their neighborhood boundaries.  They hardly need, nor want, the city’s blessing.

Meanwhile, for the black middle-class communities of Gentilly and New Orleans East, as mentioned, they are much more dependent on public funding for recovery.  Sadly, given their high-risk flooding status and distance from the downtown, they are not earmarked as priority recovery areas by the Office of Recovery Management.  Their futures are precarious and dependent on household and neighborhood “sweat equity,” as cited.  But there is another wrinkle.  Many of the adults in these neighborhoods grew up in and retain ties (via church, etc.) to Treme or other lower-income central city neighborhoods that today house the bulk of the poverty, crime, and blighted properties in the city.  These dry neighborhoods, given their adjacency to the bustling downtown, are at high-risk for gentrification.  Many of these middle-class black families have access to former family homes in Treme, or have relocated there while they try to rebuild their homes out in New Orleans East or Gentilly.  Some of the organizers I know described substantial efforts on the part of these families to drive recovery in these inner-city communities, given their low levels of storm damage, these individuals’ roots to the neighborhoods, and their post-storm conviction that they should be doing more to invest in these neighborhoods (and should have been doing so before the wake-up-call of Katrina).  While the AP may not see much “civic organization” in these black middle-class communities, it’s my understanding that they have opened homecoming centers through their churches in Treme, are meeting regularly with activists and organizations in these downtown neighborhoods, and are working to rebuild the city’s schools, fight the rising crime, and help their neighbors who remain displaced return.  In essence, they are trying – like those in Lakeview – to rebuild their lives and their communities. 

I’d like to wrap up with two comments:

a) I have to give a shoutout to two MIT colleagues of mine (I might even call them friends were I friendlier) who grew up in Lakeview and are trying to hustle through our program here so they might get back to New Orleans asap.  One’s family home was literally untouched by the storm.  The other lost his home.  Situating his mom and sister somewhere outside the city, he returned to work and a life of precarious couchsurfing that was so exhausting that when he moved into the MIT dorms last fall, he exulted at having his first hot shower in months.  I’ve talked to Lakeview residents and know how committed and invested they are in seeing their neighborhood and their city thrive again.  But for this article to implicitly condemn the less-affluent (and oh by the way, black) neighborhoods that suffered similar damage is totally offensive.

So

b) Listen to your friends over at Fox News, and don’t believe every piece of  biased bullsh*t the media throws your way!

And now I’m really writing my paper!

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