10 years after Katrina, New Orleans abounds with hard lessons
After Hurricane Katrina struck, a decade ago this month, you could almost believe that a calamity could help a major American city fix its deepest problems. Moved by footage of impoverished New Orleanians escaping from floodwaters, urban planners descended on New Orleans with dreams of a more equitable community built on higher ground.
Reality soon went off script. Today, the city occupies the same terrain it always did. The big news is the efflorescence of hipsters and yuppies.
During the many contentious rounds of post-Katrina planning, one thing people on both sides of St. Claude Avenue could agree on was that the area needed a food store. St. Claude, a major artery, bears the scars of New Orleans's recent history. In the desegregation era, working-class white families followed it out to the suburbs. In 2005, the avenue roughly marked the dividing line between poor, majority-black areas that experienced significant flooding and more integrated areas that didn't.
As the post-Katrina discussion progressed, all eyes fell on the iconic St. Roch Market, a St. Claude Avenue landmark where working people once did their food shopping. It was already dilapidated when I first saw it 20 years ago, but the city pumped $3.7 million into rehabbing the space. Yet instead of an everyday grocery, St. Roch reopened this spring as a gleaming, high-end gastronomic emporium, replete with charcuterie plates, Asian-fusion jambalaya, and regionally sourced sorghum molasses.
The food is delightful, but many residents were appalled. "In their mind, they wanted it restored to what it used to be, which was an authentic neighborhood market," says Steven Bingler, a local architect whose firm oversaw the post-Katrina recovery plan. "Ironically, when you added gentrification to that formula, it didn't come back as that."
This is one real-life result of the post-Katrina experiment: uplifting on some level — hipsters equal money equals growth — but anxiety-inducing on another.
The income gap between white and black New Orleanians has widened significantly since the storm, according to the Data Center, a local demographic research group. Child poverty rates are back to pre-Katrina levels. All of this happened in spite of billions in aid, a proliferation of nonprofits, and even the high-profile exertions of Brad Pitt, whose charity funded a new generation of sustainable homes in the flood-stricken Lower Ninth Ward.
Katrina was a singular disaster, the breathless news coverage of which stressed that the city was uniquely vulnerable. But as Hurricane Sandy proved when it devastated parts of New York in 2012, hard-luck Southern ports aren't the only cities that can find themselves in the midst of a vast post-disaster urban-policy experiment. And when that happens, post-Katrina New Orleans offers a warning to planners everywhere: The recovery didn't reverse the old disparities; in some ways, it reinforced them.
Of all the things New Orleanians feared as Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, an influx of gentrifying bohemians wasn't one of them.
At the time, I wrote editorials for the city's daily newspaper, and tagged along, in the scorching days after the storm, with a small group of reporters who stuck around as the city filled up with water. As a colleague and I paddled through the streets in a borrowed canoe, previously imperceptible elevation changes — say, 1 foot per 10 blocks — became pregnant with meaning. Even then, there was an otherworldly beauty to the place: not just the blue sky, or the graceful live oak trees, or the rows of brightly painted Creole homes, but also their reflection on the surface of the murky floodwater.
As those days wore on, the scene grew increasingly chaotic. An elevated expressway became an escape route for bedraggled residents fleeing the inundation down below. One day, our detachment of reporters traveled the highway, past a plume of smoke from a burning building, as horses strutted about in a field not far away — incongruous, trotting symbols of just how wrong everything had gone.
The images that TV viewers saw shocked the conscience. How could the victims, disproportionately poor, elderly, and African-American, have been abandoned to their fate in flood-prone areas?
As the waters receded, a conventional wisdom jelled: A stricken city built partly on drained swampland should focus its energies, and its population, on the highest ground. "The city should be rebuilt in a strategic manner," declared the Urban Land Institute. An editorial I wrote cautioned against using aid money to "coax people back into low-lying areas that may not be adequately protected for years." (Easy for me to say; the house I lived in barely flooded.)
Fatefully, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, convened by the mayor, called upon individual neighborhoods to demonstrate their viability, and placed telltale green dots — signifying "potential areas for future parkland" — over low-lying Broadmoor and the Lower Ninth Ward.
The hope was that there'd be enough federal money to lubricate a massive relocation to higher-elevation areas. In retrospect, that was never, ever going to happen. "This country does not have a readily available stash of cash," Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella says, that can be fairly distributed while "all these folks are displaced and wondering what the next chapter of their lives is going to be."
Other New Orleanians understood better that, the more heavy-handed the planning process, the more those in power could use it to further their own agendas. City fathers in New Orleans had never been shy — when planning highways, digging canals, and responding to floods — about calling on people other than themselves to sacrifice for the greater good. One of the hardest-hit neighborhoods was wealthy and overwhelmingly white. No green dot there.
Eventually, the city adopted the Unified New Orleans Plan, a recovery strategy that called for rebuilding in all neighborhoods. Even then, old patterns repeated themselves. Homeowners got repair grants that reflected the pre-Katrina value of their homes — hobbling those who owned inexpensive homes but faced stiff renovation costs.
Everybody pays the same price for Sheetrock, says LaToya Cantrell, a Broadmoor neighborhood leader now serving on the City Council. "So why in the hell — if they're building their fifteen hundred square feet and I'm building mine — why would my grant be different?"
That problem led to a legal settlement, but a thousand other variables were also in play. Did you have clear title to a family property? Did you know to haggle with insurers? None of these factors was intrinsically a matter of social justice, but all of them worked against the less affluent. Even today, Cantrell notes, many black homeowners are stuck in limbo, having completed some repairs before running out of money to finish the job.
Their troubles hold lessons for other cities: Superficially neutral rules for insurance and public aid can end up cheating people. Homeowners make decisions less on abstract imperatives — move to higher ground! — than on the size of the checks they receive. If entire neighborhoods are to be abandoned altogether, that'll happen only over decades, not by fiat in a matter of weeks.
When you're not weighed down by a property you can't fix, new economic possibilities present themselves. In the parts of the city that avoided serious flooding, there's a boom on, as the same urban renaissance that's invigorating downtowns from Boston to Los Angeles takes hold in New Orleans, too. Residential buildings are rising in the central business district. A former hotel downtown that's been a vacant eyesore for four decades is finally under renovation.
Entire corridors of the city — including St. Claude Avenue — that barely changed in the decade before Katrina have now morphed into retail and restaurant hotbeds. That wasn't an accident; the city's recovery plan called for public improvements along several dilapidated former main streets. But especially by the Big Easy's languid standards, the pace of private investment around town has been startling. If not for the pork belly in your appetizer and the Sazeracs on the $12 cocktail list, you'd wonder which city you're in.
Sustaining these new commercial corridors is an influx of money and brainpower — an influx that nobody was counting on. When the global financial crisis took hold in 2008, New Orleans was flush with construction activity and outside aid, making the city a terrific place for underemployed college graduates to ride out the recession. For years, Louisiana political campaigns bemoaned the incessant brain drain to Atlanta and Houston. Campanella, the geographer, says New Orleans today is home to about 40,000 people who never lived in the city before Katrina — probably more than half of them young and college-educated — who've brought with them their own economic muscle and human capital.
The character of the city seems different for another reason: To this day, New Orleans, whose population now stands at about 384,000, has 97,000 fewer black residents than before Katrina. In the early days after the storm, community activists and political leaders rallied around the "right to return" — the urgency of bringing displaced New Orleanians home. A few election cycles later, the political system has accepted that most of the African-American residents still absent aren't coming back.
Flozell Daniels, president of the Foundation for Louisiana, argues that a dearth of jobs in New Orleans, coupled with a lingering bias against black applicants, keeps people from giving up opportunities elsewhere. Many people who came back to "this crazy and magical place," as he puts it, have struggled to find employment.
"I have no patience," Daniels says, "for this narrative that everything is fine, that we're doing better in every area. We're not."
And as good as the city is at converting transplants into zealous boosters, the population shift inevitably alters the culture in ways that alienate displaced residents. "Some of [the new people] don't like loud jazz music in the streets," Daniels says. "Some of them move next to bars and can't understand why they're open late. Some of the old New Orleanians are like, 'Eh' " — he shrugs and curls his lip — " 'I'm not interested. It's not for me.' "
The tensions between old and new New Orleanians, and among different waves of gentrifiers, occasionally come to a head. A few weeks after the St. Roch Market reopened, five masked vandals dressed in black — three men and two women — showed up late at night and smashed windows, splashed paint, and scrawled
"YUPPY = BAD" on the walls.
The inevitable question is whether New Orleans is better off now than before Katrina. If you're young and aesthetically minded, the city feels far more dynamic than ever. On St. Claude Avenue near the St. Roch Market are edgy hangouts like Siberia — a club that features bands with names like Cattle Decapitation and Ghoulgotha, but also houses a "Slavic soul food" restaurant where you can eat pierogis and borscht while a young woman covers Roxy Music at karaoke hour. Not far away, there's three-year-old Faubourg Wines, an unpretentious store and casual bar furnished with stuff that owner Catherine Markel bought on Craigslist.
The ear stretchers, the acupuncture studio, the curious uptick in fixed-gear bicycle traffic: The burst of youthful bohemianism on these blocks and in the nearby Bywater neighborhood is impossible to ignore. "A lot of things down here can feel a lot like a parody," says Markel. "You see people [who] look like they just walked off the set of 'Portlandia.' "
If there's anything at all to the "creative class" theory of development — the notion that artists and film producers and academics are a foundation for growth — New Orleans is due for a breakout. A more freewheeling business climate has developed in a city that looks great on Instagram: No wonder New Orleans is finding its way onto national rankings of startup hotbeds and brain magnets.
Even in less cutting-edge areas, seeds of a 21st-century economy are sprouting. The levee system has been beefed up, at considerable expense. So instead of being converted to a water-retention park, Broadmoor is now home to Propeller, a social-entrepreneurship incubator, and Idiya, a storefront maker space where do-it-yourselfers can print their artwork in 3-D or laser-cut it out of wood.
This isn't the recovery most of us envisioned in those grim months after Katrina. It presents some different challenges, such as how to squeeze more people into higher-elevation neighborhoods where property values are soaring, and how to make sure the new prosperity spreads around.
In the meantime, New Orleanians are feeling their way in a city that's still finding its post-Katrina equilibrium. "I'm just doing my thing," says Markel, the wine shop owner on St. Claude Avenue. "There are probably economists and sociologists or anthropologists who are experts and can explain what's going on. I'm just kind of living in it."
Other than the jazz, the food, the architecture, the topography, the local manners, and the tragic recent history, lots of other cities are in the same situation as New Orleans. A singular disaster cries out for grand gestures and collective efforts, but recoveries are built on how hundreds of thousands of individuals confront a fundamental choice: You spend a decade waiting for closure to come, for justice to be done, for the heartbreak to heal completely. Or you patch things up as much as you can, and hope the future leads to something beautiful.