Post-Katrina Gentrification Battle Heats Up in New Orleans

Ideas and Issues
Wendell Pierce's Blighted Property
Wendell Pierce’s Blighted Property

New Orleans    Sometimes where there is smoke, there is in fact a lot of fire, and the raging heat around gentrification is steadily increasing in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Wendell Pierce, the well-known actor from HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme,” and a New Orleans native, partnered with a local pal, politician, and operator, slung the charge at neighbors complaining about a plan he and his buddy had to expand a gas station on the corner of St. Claude and Franklin, across the street from the sizzling Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, near the equally hot Bywater, and abutting the wannabe warm St. Roch community. Of course he was right, but neighbors were also right to complain that the property they owned next door to their Shell station had been allowed to rot and serve as a safe house for mischief. Furthermore, the local redevelopment authority had taken the property off the auction block and sold it to Pierce et al for what looked like a sweetheart price of $19,000 which is unheard of on St. Claude Avenue now. A lot of smoke, and maybe some fire there as well.

Meanwhile,  the partners had lost out on a supermarket plan in the Holy Cross area of the lower 9th ward that many developers salivate to gentrify because of its close proximity to the Mississippi River and some fairly good housing stock and slightly higher ground, given the alluvial flood plain of the River. The old Holy Cross High School is being redeveloped into 264 apartments and more, towering over the River with six floors, seeped in controversy and community contention where the cry of gentrification is common. A feature in Southern Living magazine highlighting the work of the local Preservation Resource Council and showed four shotgun double cottages that had been pimped out in the Holy Cross area, three of them by white couples, needless to say.

Not far from the gas station controversy the St. Roch Market reopened. Before the storm it was the last operating public market in the city of New Orleans and a place where you could get fresh seafood and an inexpensive poorboy sandwich. Now it’s seen as gentrification on steroids. Neighbors thought they were getting respite from the food desert and instead got high-end tourist fare and venues. Anarchist vandals hit quickly, and despite tut-tuting from local officials from the Mayor on down, the developers continue to be on the defensive for misleading the community and accelerating gentrification.

An article in the sometimes newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, led with a story of a service worker making the minimum with some small change trying to find an apartment for $650 and noted that before the storm he would have easily found a place in Bywater, but now he was stuck. Part of the problem was the failure of FEMA after the disaster to support rebuilding affordable housing units owned by moms-and-pops who had dominated the market previously. 4500 applicants got assistance, but that was only one-quarter of the applicants. Meanwhile up to 3000 properties have been forfeited to the government for long-term failure to pay taxes. NORA, the local redevelopment agency, owns 1872 properties obtained through the Road Home program for flooded homes where owners could not return. The housing authority owns 700 units on 230 properties still uninhabitable and not redeveloped. All of which means a chokehold on affordable housing pushing up prices and rents, still double those before the storm, and propelling the market to more and more gentrification.

When there’s this much smoke, there must be a raging fire somewhere, but this is one that the City of New Orleans and its various firefighters seem loath to fight, even in the low waged service economy that dominates all of these communities. At the ten year anniversary of Katrina there will be lots of commemorations, but few celebrations of this increasing crisis.