|Map of the location of confirmed deaths in New Orleans related to Hurricane Katrina. Notice the concentration in the Lower 9th Ward, identified by the blue arrow. Source: thisamericanlife.org|
I’ve never been to New Orleans. I’m no expert on New Orleans. But I am familiar with the structural legacies at work there, and anywhere, that make recovery from disaster so difficult.
All sorts of commentators are offering their reflections on New Orleans on this ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s barrage on the city. Largely what I’m seeing is an interesting mix of pride and pain — pride that much of the city has been able to rebound, and continuing pain as residents struggle to further revitalize the city. And always, the grief from so much loss.
Yesterday’s Washington Post had an op-ed from a native New Orleanian who notes that he was (as I was, frankly) an early proponent of not fully rebuilding New Orleans because of its vulnerability, yet explains how he understands the city far better now than he did before the storm. Today’s New York Times has another opinion piece from a native that documents the seething anger that persists among natives, as they recognize that the commitment to rebuild many parts of the city is still an unanswered question at the federal level. The New Republic examined the federal responses to previous flood disasters and recounts its writings in each disaster’s aftermath.
Perhaps the best reflection I’ve come across is the This American Life story that aired this weekend. It scratches the surface and gets into more detail about the efforts to bring back the Lower 9th Ward, the community most impacted by the disaster. The TAL reporters reach out to current and former Lower 9th residents who talk about life in New Orleans before and after the storm, and they provide some insight on how the disaster had such a disproportionate impact on blacks, the poor and the elderly.
It’s instructive for American cities to consider this perspective, even for cities that have never and will never deal with a similar disaster, because nearly all have the kind of structural inequality that will stall full revitalization.
Most people are aware of New Orleans’ vulnerability to flooding, as a city that is generally at or below sea level. Witness this land elevation map of New Orleans:
If reading the legend is difficult, all you really need to know is this — greens, yellows, oranges and reds represent increasingly higher elevations above sea level, while blues are below it. Places at higher elevations are largely where many of the things outsiders associate with New Orleans — the French Quarter, Jackson Square, historic neighborhoods — are located. Lower elevations include the homes of the working-class and poor New Orleans residents who receive far less attention.
New Orleans has a 200-plus-year history of reserving higher ground for its middle and upper-income white residents, while relegating its lowlands for blacks.
I won’t claim to be an authority on New Orleans history; in fact, I urge others who know the city well to correct me if I’m wrong. But I have a sense that, because of its unique cultural history, New Orleans was a pioneer in American racial exclusion. During the 19th century free blacks gathered in New Orleans unlike in any other city at the time, as French-speaking former slaves sought refuge there. New Orleans was more open to them than other American cities because of its French heritage. But the city also drew freed American slaves, who noted the tolerance the city had for free blacks overall.
Tolerance, yes, but integration, no. My guess is that as the city grew and expanded, particularly in the early 20th century as levees became more crucial to the city’s existence, high ground became more treasured and protected by those with the money to choose, and low ground was nearly given away to those without the money to do so. And, as in other places nationwide, such actions often have a racial dynamic.
In New Orleans’ case, independent black neighborhoods grew and flourished in the lowland areas with little interaction with the rest of the city. In fact, they often disappeared from the mindset of those on the other side of the divide. The aforementioned Washington Post op-ed brings this out:
“Yet in a city built from the sum of its parts, I truly knew just one part: the white, wealthy avenues of my youth. I managed to avoid learning much about several neighborhoods, especially the mostly poor, mostly black ones that Katrina would hit hardest. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that I saw dysfunction all around me instead of beauty, echoing the concerns of my set. The politics were corrupt. The per-capita murder rate was, at points during my childhood, the nation’s highest. Certain powerful white enclaves remained defiantly racist, and, in a city that was two-thirds black, Mardi Gras parades weren’t fully desegregated until 1992. The public school system, from which I graduated, was a scandal. Inequality never stopped growing. And apart from the tourism and shipping industries, the city had no broad-based economy.”
It’s in these neighborhoods where the unique blend that characterizes New Orleans was made, but the lack of interaction, the lack of understanding, the lack of networks, between groups provided the setup for the city’s troubling recovery today. As a particularly vulnerable city, Katrina exposed this rift.
Whether inadvertently or by design, other cities have similar racial/social divides based on geographical grounds. Much of Chicago’s South Side rests on an old Lake Michigan plain that was swampy when first encountered by settlers and sits several feet lower in elevation than the North Side. The South Side is still prone to flooding today despite efforts going back more than 100 years to find an engineering solution to the problem. Meanwhile, St. Louis’ North Side, closer to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, is on land that sits lower than land to the south. It could be argued that Chicago’s South Side and St. Louis’ North Side were “given over” to blacks in part because of the difficulties in protecting them from vulnerability. My guess? DC’s east/west divide, Louisville’s east/west divide, even Peoria’s valley/bluff orientation all have similar geographical roots. I know other cities have the same historical orientation.
In New Orleans’ case the vulnerability of the city means that remedying this structural inequality comes at a high cost. It would require a commitment at the federal level that, frankly, we’ve yet to witness. Former residents remain committed to returning to the city they love, but doing so would mean making the kind of investment in the Crescent City that makes cities like modern-day Amsterdam habitable.
Are we willing to make that kind of commitment to New Orleans? Ten years after Katrina, we’re still struggling to answer that question.