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Harsh urban renewal in New Orleans

Some New Orleans residents are fixing their houses so they can live in them again, but others have picked up their belongings and left for good — because they cannot afford to return.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Clarence Rodriguez has ripped up the water-buckled floor tiles and is hard at work scraping mold off the walls of his home in the mostly black and impoverished Ninth Ward. But as for his neighbors, many have gathered up their belongings and left, with no intention of returning — and that worries Rodriguez and others.

They worry that many poor, black residents of this hurricane-ravaged city simply cannot afford to come back. They worry, too, that the politicians, urban planners and developers responsible for the rebuilding of New Orleans will neglect to leave room for the poor in their master plan.

Worse, they fear civic leaders will see the disaster as a glorious opportunity to try to engineer poverty out of the city altogether.

In short, they worry that Hurricane Katrina will prove to be the biggest, most brutal urban-renewal project black America has ever seen.

The fears are far from unfounded. Tens of thousands of flooded-out homes are slated for demolition, many of them in the hard-hit Ninth Ward. And many of the thousands of evacuees scattered around the country are already starting new lives where they are.

City won't be ‘as black as it was’
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson told The Houston Chronicle: “Whether we like it or not, New Orleans is not going to be 500,000 people for a long time. ... New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.”

“As a practical matter, these poor folks don't have the resources to go back to our city just like they didn't have the resources to get out of our city,” said Joseph Canizaro, once one of the city's biggest developers and a member of New Orleans’ rebuilding commission. “So we won't get all those folks back. That's just a fact. It's not what I want, it's just a fact.”

Before the flood, New Orleans was a city of a half-million people, 67 percent of them black, and it had the second-highest concentration of poverty, at 18.4 percent, of any major American metropolitan area.

For decades, New Orleans had been losing population (142,000 from 1960 to 2000) and wealth (just over half its property value between 1950 and 1998), while it saw an increase in crime and the flight of jobs, money and whites to the suburbs.

Many now see a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake a major American city.

Opportunities abound for new city
Some civic leaders want to see New Orleans rebuilt so as to narrow the gap between the have and the have-nots, better integrate the city racially, and embrace the poor black residents who gave the city much of its identity, including its food, its music and its celebrated street life.

For example, Canizaro and others envision mixed-income housing, where poor would live in subsidized homes side-by-side with the middle-class. There is also widespread agreement on some of fundamentals needed to draw people back to New Orleans and help them prosper, such as overhauling the school system and creating job training programs.

"If you're talking about building a city, you've got to create a place for everybody. This city doesn't just belong to rich white folk, and it doesn't belong to poor black folk," said Barbara Major, who runs the St. Thomas Health Clinic, working with poor from across the city.

Suspicions run deep, however.

“I've heard conversations — some by good people, some by evil people — those who would leave the poor out,” said former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, who nevertheless believes that “New Orleans goodness and decency” will win out.

Karen Carter, a Democratic state representative from New Orleans, warned that she is not going to stand by while the poor are written out of the city's future.

“We'll go kicking and screaming before folks ignore the social responsibility that we have,” she said.

On Lesseps Street in the Ninth Ward, Rodriguez dragged mattresses to the curb and took rust off the floorboards of his ’75 Camaro as he waited for neighbors to return.

Next door, truck driver Durel Wallace came back to get photos and family keepsakes from his father's house. “As far as I'm concerned, they can tear it down,” he said. “Any time we get threatened by a hurricane the same thing will happen again.”

But Rodriguez said the answer is to give people some help and let them rebuild.

“One house at a time. One neighborhood at a time,” he said. “I don't know, I'm not the smartest person in the world, but it seems to make sense to me.”