I’m in New Orleans for a meeting of non-profit recovery advocates. Yesterday, I spent about 45 minutes talking to a local photographer, Christopher Porche-West, about the changes in the city since Hurricane Katrina and his particular challenges rebuilding his life.
Porche-West talked about how social boundaries and networks have really changed in the city since the storm. Prior to Katrina, neighborhood identification and boundaries were primary; the city had about 450,000 people prior to the storm, but 73 formally designated neighborhoods. In reality, New Orleanians tell me, there were about 200 neighborhoods in this sprawling city on the Mississippi River. The appropriate question to ask New Orleanians to categorize them is what high school they attended.
Porche-West says now that given the disparity of the physical damage, and the displacement, dislocation and relocation of so many people to new neighborhoods, that neighborhood boundaries and identification just isnt’ accurate anymore. This is particularly acute for African-Americans, as middle-class blacks and Creoles from Gentilly and New Orleans East have relocated en mass to other black neighborhoods that sustained far less damage; lower-income and former public housing residents are most likely to remain displaced, as rents are more than 50% higher than they were pre-Katrina.
The other major demographic change in the city is the influx of outsiders, who have flocked here to participate in the recovery. (Non-profits are leading the way in housing redevelopment.) There is even a social network bubbling up – Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals, or YURPs. As you might imagine, the city is becoming whiter and more affluent. Due to the extent of the physical damage, the average median housing value has risen 45%; the white population has grown by 5% and the African-American population has fallen by 7%. In 2007, more than 1 in 10 New Orleanians were not living in Louisiana in 2006. Transplants now make up 20% of a city that has lost at least 150,000 residents since Katrina.
Porche-West says the new dichotomy is whether you were living here when Katrina hit. Go figure. I put all this out here as you check out Gambit Weekly’s 11th annual “40 Under 40,” their “annual look at some of the young people who are making remarkable contributions to the New Orleans metropolitan region,” submitted via nominations. I just want to point out that of the 40, 5 are African-American. What I find particularly striking is that 4 of them are in the music industry (though in a variety of capacities). I realize that Afro-American music, art, culture and history defines New Orleans and is a thriving business sector (and is also exploited by an extractive tourism industry), but really…does this strike anyone else as problematic? Whites, Asian-Americans, and Jews are the social entrepreneurs, the do-gooders and the brain trust of the rebirth of the city? While African-Americans are its cultural foundation and…its entertainers?
Not that I was wondering why tensions often abound in my network of recovery advocates where more than 6 in 10 of us are not only not from New Orleans, but about half of us are from coastal, liberal, elite, latte-loving, high-“capacity” cities. (Mostly women and about even white and African-American/Creole, with small Latin@ and SE Asian participation. Not that I’m keeping track or anything, in our post-partisan, post-racial world!)