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

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Spatial Deconcentration of New Orleans 

A few days ago, truthout published an alarming summary of the condition of New Orleans as it awaited the arrival of Hurricane Gustav. Here's a small excerpt:

0. Number of renters in Louisiana who have received financial assistance from the $10 billion federal post-Katrina rebuilding program Road Home Community Development Block Grant - compared to 116,708 homeowners.

0. Number of apartments currently being built to replace the 963 public housing apartments formerly occupied and now demolished at the St. Bernard Housing Development.

0. Amount of data available to evaluate performance of publicly financed, privately run charter schools in New Orleans in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 school years.

.008. Percentage of rental homes that were supposed to be repaired and occupied by August 2008 which were actually completed and occupied - a total of 82 finished out of 10,000 projected.

1. Rank of New Orleans among US cities in percentage of housing vacant or ruined.

1. Rank of New Orleans among US cities in murders per capita for 2006 and 2007.

4. Number of the 13 City of New Orleans Planning Districts that are at the same risk of flooding as they were before Katrina.

10. Number of apartments being rehabbed so far to replace the 896 apartments formerly occupied and now demolished at the Lafitte Housing Development.

11. Percent of families who have returned to live in Lower Ninth Ward.

Yesterday, I ran into someone I know with a background in social work at the Sacramento Central Labor Council Labor Day Picnic. She expressed concern about the possibility that Gustav could inflict even more serious damage upon the city of New Orleans (thankfully, it didn't). I ascerbically responded that "they" (meaning the elites) had already gotten their spatial deconcentration in New Orleans, so that they could make sure that everyone was safe this time. She responded with a knowing, cynical laugh.

In other words, Katrina served as a pretext for the expulsion of much of the African American and poor population of New Orleans. The term spatial deconcentration emerged in 1980, in an article by Yolanda Ward, as an explanation for the government's seeming disinterest in the rapidly disintegrating living conditions in many urban areas. According to Ward, the government developed a number of interrelated policies, such as aggressive code enforcement, urban redevelopment, and a reduction in funding for public services, such as police, fire, education and income assistance, in response to the riots of the 1960s as a means to disperse unruly African American populations that were concentrated in urban centres.

As explained by Gregory Heller:

Spatial deconcentration theory has since been a subject of hot debate among some urban scholars, anarchists, and activists. It is a set of housing, economic development, and land-use policies designed to disperse low-income populations. Deconcentration of the poor is achieved through slum clearance, aggressive tax collection, and code enforcement resulting in foreclosure or condemnation of slum buildings. Section 8 Certificate and Voucher programs, which encourage relocation by providing the poor with portable housing allowances, is a more recent spatial deconcentration tactic. Since the targets of such policies are often poor minorities, theorists speculate that the policies' goal is to re-establish white, middle-class dominance in the inner-cities. Although spatial deconcentration theory did not surface until 1980, it has implications that relate to the inner city abandonment that escalated after the Kerner Commission released its 1968 report. The theory also provides an explanation for the slum clearance and urban renewal policies of earlier decades.

In its early iterations, spatial deconcentration focused primarily upon African Americans and a militaristic vision of social control, as a close reading of Ward's seminal article reveals. Economic motivations were secondary. With the passage of time, however, we can see that, while African Americans were clearly one of the primary targets, as discussed here recently in relation to San Francisco and Roanoke, the aspirations of the theory's proponents became more ambitious, more utopian, as they intersected with the emergence of global neoliberal economics.

It became essential to expel any class of people, any kind of person, that inhibited the gentrification of the city. The classic example of this process has been the transformation of the Lower East Side ("LES") in New York City. The LES is not predominately African American, but, because of its location on Manhatten Island near Wall Street, as well as its radical politics and culture, the pressure to gentrify it became insurmountable. By the 1990s, fears of a 1960s social rebellion had receded, despite conflict over Tompkins Square Park, but the allure of outrageous profits from redeveloping the neighborhood for yuppies was irresistable.

Spatial deconcentration was no longer about pacifying turbulent urban hamlets. Accordingly, the initial agent of pacification, a new, benign urban middle class, was abandoned, replaced by upper middle income and upper income people able to afford the outsized rents and apartment prices commanded by Manhatten real estate. A similar process has taken place in San Francisco as well, with urban renewal for the middle class giving way to market rate housing for the Pacific Coast multicultural elite.

Furthermore, it is essential to recognize that, as resources were being withdrawn from services required for lower middle income and lower income urban residents, they were being extended to those willing to purchase properties and develop them for upper middle income ones. Spatial deconcentration has been described as the fair, reasonable outcome of market forces, but, in fact, it has required extensive governmental intervention in support of gentrification. It is a form of reactionary political economy masquerading as the impersonal operation of the market. Or, to put it differently, local, state and national political leaders made conscious decisions to create the contours of the society in which we live today.

Sadly, much the same scenario is playing out in New Orleans, with the most poor and vulnerable segments of the population denied forms of disaster relief that would enable them to remain in the city, while middle and upper middle income ones qualify for it. Lower middle income and lower income housing is being destroyed through a combination of aggressive code enforcement and lack of funding for rehabilitation. Meanwhile, crime runs rampant, and it will be interesting to learn if it is especially pervasive in lower income neighborhoods. Has the LES practice of land banking (allowing properties to deteriorate so as to have them ultimately declared blighted, and eligible for redevelopment and redevelopment funds) been transplated on the Gulf?

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