The old “urban renewal” scam is being born again in New Orleans. A hurricane, a flood, and a botched government response have combined to make the miracle possible. One of New Orleans’ wealthy elite told Christopher Cooper of the Wall Street Journal (“Old-Line Families Escape Worst of Flood and Plot the Future,” 8 September 2005): “New Orleans is ready to be rebuilt.” Another elite member told Cooper that New Orleans had to be rebuilt more to his liking — “demographically, geographically and politically” — or folks like him would leave. As a wealthy New Orleans lawyer who raises funds for the Democratic Party told the same reporter, the mass evacuation of the poor could change New Orleans from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold.
New Orleans is now replaying perfectly the history of “urban renewal” in the US.
No doubt, New Orleans could be rebuilt to serve the people hurt and temporarily displaced by the hurricane and floods. Naomi Klein suggests some ways that could happen (“Let the People Rebuild New Orleans,” The Nation, 26 September 2005). But even less doubt attaches to this prediction: Katrina enables a very different transformation that would otherwise have been too politically difficult to achieve. New Orleans can now be “renewed” along the gentrification lines favored by its elite and paid for by regressive taxes. That has always been the way of “urban renewal” in the US (with infrequent, minor, and mostly cosmetic concessions to “peoples'” interests when politically required).
A perfect parallel is offered by the tragic history of New Haven, CT. There, it was not a storm but rather a federal interstate highway project that did the trick. The intersection of I-95 and I-91 was constructed in the 1950s in the center of New Haven’s densest residential neighborhoods (composed then mostly of white working-class people). Some 30,000 people (out of a total population of 150,000) were thrown out of neighborhoods they had lived in for generations and to which they could not and did not ever return. Had the intersection of I-95 and I-91 been constructed 2-3 miles east or west, only a few dairy cows would have been displaced. Instead, the highway construction — paid for by regressive taxation — accomplished mass displacement and gentrification to suit the New Haven power elite, namely Yale University. Indeed, Yale officials proceeded to draw ever more federal money to “rebuild” and “renew” New Haven to suit Yale (hyped as a “model” urban renewal for the whole US).
That the plan failed, that New Haven is a fiscal basket case (rising
regressive property taxes coupled with falling spending for city services) and a social disaster zone (heightened income and wealth differences and tensions exacerbated by mounting ethnic and racial conflicts) — all that is neatly blamed on local politicians and the remaining poorer citizens. Meanwhile, the immediate blocks around Yale bask in a tax-financed gentrification
façade aimed to calm the rich parents of Yale students about where their children will be spending four years and to subsidize a few restaurants and boutiques to distract as many as possible from the actual urban reality.
Community actions and alliances, of the sort Naomi Klein extols for New Orleans, will likely do little more than tangentially modify or perhaps delay the basic outcome being
now for post-flood New Orleans. Rarely has anything more than that been accomplished by such well-intentioned, “community-based” oppositions to urban renewal elsewhere across the US for the last half century.
Only a powerful, unified, and organized political opposition contesting for power could hope to lead an altogether different urban renewal. And that sort of renewal depends on basic social — including class — changes that such an opposition would have to demand and achieve. No other path is available if New Orleans is to have a different future from that of all the other cities, like New Haven, whose “renewals” have been so grossly unjust and in most cases fiscal disasters as well. It is thus not realistic to limit ourselves to community-based oppositions and their demand for active participation in the rebuilding of New Orleans (to which the elite would respond by providing token representation of carefully handpicked “community representatives”). A “realistic” politics of opposition to what is in store for New Orleans would have to go far beyond reformism.
Rick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002).