As headlines focus on conventions and running mates, the third anniversary of Katrina offers an opportunity to examine the results of disastrous federal, state, and local policy on the people of New Orleans. Several organizations have released reports in the past week, examining the current state of the city, and grassroots activists have plans to broadcast their message from the streets. For those who have heard only uplifting stories about the city’s recovery, the facts on the ground may be surprising.
According to a study by PolicyLink, 81 percent of those who received the federally-funded, state-administered Road Home grants had insufficient resources to cover their damages. The average Road Home applicant fell about $35,000 short of the money they need to rebuild their home, and African-American households on average had an almost 35% higher shortfall than white households.
More than one in three residential addresses — over 70,000 — remain vacant or unoccupied, according to a report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. While workers with Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project are working on overdrive to finish the first of their scores of planned houses in the notoriously devastated Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood overall ranks far behind other neighborhoods in recovery, with only 11 percent of its pre-Katrina number of households. The same report notes that since the devastation of the city, rents have risen by 46% citywide (much more in some neighborhoods), while many city services remain very limited — for example, only 21% of public transit buses are running.
Its not just activists that speak of race and class divisions in New Orleans. A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 70% of residents feel we’re divided by class and/or race. The Kaiser survey also found unity among New Orleanians: we’re united in feeling forgotten by the rest of the US. Eight out of 10 said the federal government has not provided sufficient support. Nearly two-thirds think that the US public has largely forgotten about the city.
The survey found large percentages saying that their own situation has deteriorated. Fifty-three percent of low-income residents report that their financial situation is worse today than pre-Katrina. The percentage of residents who say they have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as depression has tripled since 2006.
There is a continuing debate about how many people live in New Orleans, with no definitive figures until the next complete census. But last year, the census bureau estimated a population of 239,000. Other analysts — and Mayor C. Ray Nagin — estimate the population to be nearly 100,000 higher. By any measurement, the growth has stagnated, while even optimistic figures report that 150,000 — 200,000 former residents (out of a former population of nearly 500,000) have been unable to return. The once nearly 70% African American city is now estimated to be less than 50% African American, a change reflected in the changing face of electoral politics statewide. While Republicans have been losing across the US, Christian Coalition candidate Bobby Jindal was easily elected Governor last year, and in the city, decades of Black-majority city council shifted to a white majority.
Blank Slate or Burial Ground
Much of the change in the city is led by a new strata of the city’s population — planners, architects, developers, and other reformers. Many of them self-identify as “YURPs” — Young, Urban Rebuilding Professionals — in their work with countless nonprofits, foundations, and businesses. Some of New Orleans’ newer residents have spoken of the city as a blank slate on which they can project and practice their ideas of reform, whether in health care, architecture, urban planning, or education. What this worldview leaves out, according to some advocates, is the people who lived here before, are the most affected by these changes, and have the least say in how they are carried out. “It wasn’t a blank slate, it was a cemetery,” says poet and educator Kalamu Ya Salaam. “People were killed, and they’re building on top of their bones.”
The vast majority of New Orleans’ new professionals have come here with the best intentions, with a love for this city and a desire to help with the recovery. However, many activists criticize what they see as token attempts at community involvement, and a paternalistic attitude among many of the new decision makers.
For example, our education system was in crisis pre-Katrina and certainly needed revolutionary change. Change is what we have gotten — the current system is in many ways unrecognizable from the system of three years ago — but this revolution has been overwhelmingly led from outside, with little input from the parents, students, and staff of the New Orleans school system.
Shortly after the post-Katrina evacuation of the city, the entire staff of the public school system was fired. Not long after that, school board officials chose to end recognition or negotiation with the teachers’ union — the largest union in the city, and arguably the biggest outlet of Black middle class political power in the city. Since then, the school landscape has changed remarkably — from staff to decision-making structure to facilities. According to Tulane professor Lance Hill, “New Orleans has experienced a profound change in who governs schools and a dramatic reduction of parent and local taxpayer control of schools.”
The school system used to consist of 128 schools, 124 of them controlled by the New Orleans School Board. Now according to Hill, 88 have opened for the fall, and “50 of them are charter schools (privatized management) governed by self-appointed, self-perpetuating boards; 33 are run by the State Department of Education through the Recovery School District; and only five are governed by the elected school board.”
“There are now 42 separate school systems operating in New Orleans,” Hill continues, with their own “school policies, including teacher requirements, curriculum, discipline policies, enrollment limits, and social promotions. Publicly accountable schools in which parents have methods for publicly redressing grievances are limited to only five schools (5.6% of the total).”
Several recent articles have expressed excitement and admiration for the new school system, including extended pieces in the New York Times and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. For school reformers, who came to New Orleans with a desire to try out the changes they had imagined, this represents a dream come true. They have media support, federal, state and city officials on their side, and a massive influx of money and cheap (and young, idealistic) labor. Teach for America supplied 112 teachers last year, has committed 250 this year, and a projected 500 next year, while tens of millions of dollars in funding is coming through sources such as the Gates and Walton foundations.
There is no doubt that some students receive an excellent education in the new New Orleans school districts, but critics are concerned that the students that are being left behind are those that need the most help — those without someone to advocate for them, to research and apply for the best schools. According to New Orleanian Kalamu Ya Salaam, who is director of a school program called Students at the Center, the new systems represent “an experimentation with privatization, and everything that implies.”
Although the new charter schools have been able to choose from the best facilities and have used methods such as state standardized tests to pick only select students (including 40% fewer special education students), there are still serious questions over the extent to their much-heralded success. G.W. Carver School, the subject of a fawning New York Times piece last Spring, received an 88% failure rate for English and an 86% failure rate for Math on state standardized tests.
Anniversary and Commemoration
August 29, the anniversary of the devastation of the city, falls between the Democratic and Republican conventions. While the Democratic and Republican parties crown their nominees, activists on the ground will be on the streets, still fighting for a just recovery. “It ain’t to rain on Obama’s parade,” says Sess 4-5, a New Orleans-based hip hop star and activist, “but the people down here need the world to understand that its still a tragic situation. The rent has tripled, the health care system is in shambles, we have less access to education for our kids. The working class and poor are being exploited, while everyone at the top is getting fat off our misery.”
“We think August 29 should be holy day, not a day for business as usual,” explains Sess, who is one of the organizers of a Katrina March and Commemoration, starting Friday morning in the Lower Ninth Ward, and marching into the 7th Ward. That march is one of two activist commemorations in the city that day, the other starting uptown, near the BW Cooper development, one of the major housing developments torn down this year. “The Mayor announced to the world that New Orleans was ‘open for business’ but we’re here to tell you that it is closed for families,” declares former public housing resident Barbara Jackson, who will be part of the demonstration at BW Cooper, called Sankofa Day of Commemoration. “Five thousand demolished homes. Eight thousand new jail beds. This is their one for one replacement plan for us.”
Taking to the streets is not the only agenda of local activists. In New Orleans, people have been organizing at the grassroots, working together to build a movement. In the aftermath of the US Social Forum last year in Atlanta, a broad coalition of social justice organizations began meeting monthly to combine efforts. This group, called the Organizers Roundtable, is an important spot for collaborations and community building.
It’s been community, not foundations or government, that has led this city’s recovery at the grassroots. Bayou Road — a street of Black-owned, community-oriented businesses in New Orleans’ seventh ward — has rebuilt post-Katrina to more businesses than they had before the storm. It hasn’t been government help that has enabled these businesses to come back, but the effort of community members coming together. It was also community, and local support, that has brought back the membership of many local cultural organizations, like the network of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, who organize secondline parades nearly every weekend throughout the year, as well as benefits that provide school supplies for area youth.
The Right to the City alliance (RTTC), a nationwide coalition of organizations that focuses on urban issues such as health care, criminal justice, and education, sees the continuing crisis in New Orleans as central to their work. They are co-sponsoring the march in New Orleans, as well as actions in seven other cities, including Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland, Providence, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Miami.
The work of RTTC deserves special notice, as a coalition that has worked to support the struggles of the people of New Orleans and to bring that struggle and solidarity home to their own communities, while taking guidance from voices on the ground. In this time of many competing visionaries struggling to reshape this city, that willingness to listen to the people whose lives are being affected, and to take that struggle and those lessons home to their own communities, may be the radical change New Orleans needs most.
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans, and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. He was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience and his reporting on post-Katrina New Orleans has been published and broadcast in outlets including Die Zeit (Europe’s largest circulation newspaper), Al-Jazeera, TeleSur, and Democracy Now.