'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, January 27, 2006

Katrina: New Orleans Could Lose Up to 80% of African Americans 

UPDATE (1/30/06): Sam Smith over at the indispensable Progressive Review places the destruction in New Orleans within the broader context of the philosophy of redevelopment.

The Ninth Ward of New Orleans is about to be struck by another disaster - not a natural one like Katrina, however, but by the human disaster of modern urban planning.

The problem with urban planners is two fold. First, they work for the wrong people, the government, rather than for the citizens. As local governments have become more corrupt and more beholden to the interests of a small number of developers and other businesses, urban planning has inevitably come to reflect these perverse priorities.

Second, urban planners believe in sweeping physical solutions to social problems. The idea, Richard Sennett has written, goes back to the 1860s design for Paris by Baron Haussmann. Haussmann, Sennett suggests, bequeathed us the notion that we could alter social patterns by changing the physical landscape. This approach was not about urban amenities such as park benches and gas lighting or technological improvements such as indoor plumbing but about what G. K. Chesterton called the huge modern heresy of "altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul."

Smith also recognizes that redevelopment has historically been motivated by bias against African Americans:

One of the New Deal's reforms was the creation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which provided federal guarantees for home mortgages. According to the historian Kenneth T. Jackson, between 1933 and 1936 alone, the HOLC supplied funds for one tenth of all owner-occupied, non-farm residences in the country. The FHA, and later the VA, took over the task. By the end of 1958, the FHA had enabled nearly five million families to own homes and helped more than 22 million to improve their properties.

At the same time, however, the legislation discouraged the construction of multi-family units and provided only small short-term loans for repair of existing homes. This meant, Jackson noted, that "families of modest circumstances could more easily finance the purchase of a new home than the modernization of an old one." Jackson continued:

"The greatest fears of the Federal Housing Administration were reserved for 'unharmonious racial or nationality groups.' The alleged danger was that an entire area could lose its investment value if rigid white-black segregation was not maintained. To protect itself against such eventualities, the Underwriting Manual openly recommended 'enforced zoning, subdivision regulations, and suitable restrictive covenants. In addition, the FHA's Division of Economics and Statistics compiled detailed reports and maps charting the present and most likely future residential locations of black families." In a March 1939, map of Brooklyn, for example, the presence of a single non-white family on any block was sufficient to result in that entire block being marked black. Similarly, very extensive maps of the District of Columbia depicted the spread of the black population and the percentage of dwelling units occupied by persons other than white."

Jackson noted that "black neighborhoods were invariably rated 'D.'" These were neighborhoods described with such phrases as "the only hope is for demolition of these buildings and transition of the are into a business district" or "this particular spot is a blight on the surrounding area."

"Residential security maps" were drawn up for every block of a city. These maps were available to lenders and realtors but were kept secret from the general public. Some of these maps, including those for DC, Jackson found to be missing from government archives.

Smith does, however, have some solutions, along with much more insightful analysis. If you are interested, please go here.

ORIGINAL POST (1/27/06): On Tuesday, Joe discussed an article posted by The Black Commentator to emphasize the prospect that redevelopment of New Orleans is increasingly likely to result in the loss of much of its lower income population. Now, according to an ongoing Brown University study publicized today:

The city of New Orleans could lose up to 80 percent of its black population if people displaced by Hurricane Katrina are not able to return to damaged neighborhoods, according to an ongoing university study.

“This means that policy choices affecting who can return, to which neighborhoods, and with what forms of public and private assistance, will greatly affect the future character of the city,” according to the Brown University study, which is being funded by the National Science Foundation.

Sociologist John Logan, the lead researcher, said:

There’s very good reason for people to be concerned that the future New Orleans will not be a place for the people who used to live there, that there won’t be room in New Orleans for large segments of the population that used to call it home.

Accordingly, as The Black Commentator has already admonished:

Self-styled Black capitalists take note: this is the nature of the beast. Bush fronts for a class for which Katrina is not a catastrophe, but an opportunity. They believe devoutly in "creative chaos" - the often violent destruction of the old, so that new profits can be squeezed from the rubble. Through their Catch-22 ultimatums, they are deliberately inflicting additional "creative chaos" on the displaced people of New Orleans. The fact that the victims are mostly Black, makes it all the easier. Or so they assume.

To learn about the emerging resistance, read The Black Commentator article in its entirety here.

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