Tag Archives: Bio-District

The Real Danger in Treme is HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods and Heritage Tourism

New Orleans  The HBO show Treme is gearing up for another go in their efforts to Disneyland New Orleans as a constant musical carnival and cultural minstrel show.  In the past I’ve had mixed feelings about David Simon’s show and the fact that though he means terribly well, but is missing the heartbeat and essence of the city and is miles from the mark he set in The Wire, his exceptional series set in Baltimore.  Now I have to admit that I’ve allowed myself to get distracted by the fantasy of HBO’s  Treme, and have been overlooking the real and present danger faced in the New Orleans Treme neighborhood by the United States Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency and its vision in the Choice Neighborhoods redevelopment of the area.

Sometimes you only see what is under your nose, when you see something somewhere else.  This happened to me yesterday morning while I met with several colleagues from Memphis before they embarked on a dog-and-pony tour in New Orleans organized by the City of New Orleans and our Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO).  They had sent me the agenda for their tour and were interested in a reality check before they were trotted around the city to look at Treme in what New Orleans was touting as a coming model for “heritage tourism” and the impact of a “bio-district.”  Having been in Memphis only weeks ago to work with scores of organizations on the proposed “redevelopment” (read destruction) of Foote Homes near the Civil Rights District and the Memphis Bio-District, suddenly it hit me what was slipping under the tent in our own city.

Part of the dispute here was well known and a battle seemingly already lost when HANO and its partners including Pres Kabacoff’s Historic Restoration Inc. (HRI) Properties and others had been chosen to redevelop the old, solidly built Iberville Housing Project abutting the French Quarter.   The post-Katrina reshaping of the city’s public housing in the so-called “big four” projects had delayed the return of thousands of tenants and its shrinking number of units had pushed many lower income families into mini-ghettos in rental housing elsewhere in the city at premium prices.  Kabacoff and HRI had been locally and nationally controversial and infamous for their earlier pre-storm devastation of the St. Thomas Housing Project and its conversion into River Gardens and hasty record of systematic exclusion after completion in what was supposed to become a viable mixed income development.  Iberville had long been felt to have been in the HRI sights and their emerging partnership was unsettling to many.  Timing is everything and HANO and HUD took advantage of the dislocation post-Katrina to push through its plans when opposition was disjointed and local residents were scattered.

The $30 million from HUD through its Choice Neighborhoods project though is a much bigger problem than just what happens to Iberville in the destruction of yet another housing project.  The footprint of the project when I looked at the map is huge and encompasses a lot of the 7th Ward and virtually all of Treme in a 300 square block area bounded by Tulane Avenue (which puts the program into the CBD and the “bio-district” and new hospital construction across Canal Street), St. Bernard Avenue, Rampart (one of the boundaries of the French Quarter) and Broad Street going West and into Mid-City.  The “heritage tourism” notion may currently be aimed at taking over control of Armstrong Park that includes historic Congo Square, and several cultural buildings like the Mahalia Jackson concert hall, which would fit hand in glove with the tune Simon and HBO’s Treme have humming and distracting us with its siren song.

In a story in the New Orleans Tribune, reporter Lovell Beaulieu quotes ex-SNCC organizer and long time Treme community and cultural activist, Jerome Smith, on how he sees the threat, including from self-styled groups like People United to Save Armstrong Park:

We were too busy smoking a cigar and drinking a root beer.  There was a lot of displacement, promises.  Let’s go after the promises.   The folks who had the resources were busy battling each other.  I think we have a class thing here.  There’s this big eraser, and because of our absence from a historical consciousness, we are allowing ourselves to be erased.  When the water came citywide, it also came with a rope.  It’s the new day lynching.  We have to be cautious.  We speak about the hood.  They have something more vicious than the hood.  Before they used to kidnap us, now they take the property, with our assistance.

Harsh words?  Perhaps, but in an editorial note Tribune publisher, Beverly McKenna, is also crystal clear that Treme residents have to say “No” to the real estate interests and developers who are trying to “blockbust” Treme in reverse by waving money now so they can flip the property to incoming white settlers sooner than later.   The headline on Beaulieu’s story was Gentrification:  The new segregation?  White Flight in Reverse and included the outrage of a picture of white panhandlers in what was for years the African-American community’s Main Street on Claiborne Avenue.   McKenna relates stories of cold calls to property and business owners with offers to pack and move to prepare for the newcomers.

In HBO’s Treme we watch the petty dispute of self-styled hipster and WWOZ DJ with his gay neighborhoods in Treme over noise and are lured into the current political and cultural divide over sex and gender, and it is easy to forget that both are already interloping gentrifiers in Treme at the sharp and painful points of the longer and still bridgeless chasm of race and class.  Who knows what “heritage” tourism might be, and I can hardly wait to hear a report from my Memphis colleagues on what the City’s description might have entailed.  Nonetheless, the claims now cropping up everywhere in Treme that HUD, Choice Neighborhoods, HRI and others are really just trying to extend the French Quarter past its historic boundaries at Rampart, a mile from the Mississippi River, another mile or so into and through Treme through gentrification and displacement of this classically, hundreds of years old, African-American community seem real and present dangers.

Iberville Housing Projects ~ on the list to be torn down



Jane Jacobs Meeting Robert Moses in New Orleans

Protest where people dressed in their Jane Jacobs eyeglasses

New Orleans    For decades Robert Caro’s Power Broker, a biography of New York City’s parks, ports, bridges, and roads czar Robert Moses, has been required reading for community organizers interested in understanding how power works in cities.  Jane Jacobs of course was the author and planning aficionado best known for her advocacy of human scale community development.  Roberta Gratz, our neighbor, wrote a book (The Battle for Gotham:  New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs) about their conflict some years ago and was going to give a lecture on how their shadows could still be seen on the New Orleans landscape, so it was bound to be an interesting hour at the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street to hear her remarks.

I had been attracted to the lecture because I had thought she was speaking about shrinking city footprints, which is a critical organizing issue these days.  That turned out not to be the real drift of Roberta’s remarks though it was fascinating to hear her point about a Brooklyn land survey finding more than 500 acres of undeveloped property in the city, making that amount larger than Prospect Park!  The real sharpness of her critique was on the Moses-like attempts to create state authorities over local land use and development without any accountability.

She correctly drew direct comparisons in New Orleans to some of the controversial Moses strategies of public control that authorizes the Bio-District developing a so-called medical corridor for the new Veterans’ Hospital and replacement for Charity Hospital.  The outsized footprint of the hospitals she argued would create a suburban-like city center competitor driving businesses and services out of the core central business district to the magnetized health facilities.  She predicted that they would end up requiring subsidizes and would not deliver new jobs or enterprises as promised. The virtually all-white French Quarter and uptown crowd wildly applauded these remarks.  They were equally enthusiastic about her critique of a newly state proposed Tourism District that would not involve the immediate planned destruction as the Mid-City hospital district had, but amassed $11 million for marketing that was seen as unnecessary and she warned that an unaccountable authority in the Moses-model could keep annexing more area and power having already claimed even the Treme neighborhood as part of its footprint.  She argued that this district was little more than a hotel development stalking horse.

One of the key components of the Moses-model was the ability to control public revenue streams which Gratz did not mention.  The authority may have been the Moses hammer, but the money from his ability to control bridge tolls and other streams provided the muscle that moved the tools.  In a city where one of the proposals for renaming the local basketball team is to call us the New Orleans Poor Boys and in a state which is not hesitating in its guerrilla war against the city to transfer power and control, revenue is still the delimiting factor in plans no matter how grand.

Gratz had the dignified crowd whooping when she raised the Jacobs arguments against one current streetcar plan that would extend the line for tourists near the behemoth Morial Convention Center and not farther downtown along St. Claude in our Bywater neighborhood.  She related an Jacobs-like development axiom:  “…do it for locals, visitors will come…do it for tourists and the locals will leave eventually.”  That’s worth thinking about some more.  Another line about “authentic regeneration” is also intriguing along with a Jacobs term she cited about something called, “cataclysmic money,” all of which I need to consider longer and weigh harder.

The contradictions and ironies in the crowd were hard to avoid.

Gratz took incoming hits during the question period for her criticism of the cloistering of Armstrong Park and her comparisons to the earlier planning disaster of Grant Park in New York City.  She made an interesting point about letting people decide by waiting to build sidewalks until it was possible to recognize the “desire paths” that people chose to walk.

She let the crowd off easily by not defining the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act as having been specifically passed in 1978 by ACORN and others to end racial discrimination in lending, but soft pedaling it more as something that moved the banks to lend more to neighborhoods.  Also unspoken was the obvious points that might have lost her the support of many in this particular room had she pointed out the fact that nowhere is an unaccountable and undemocratic state control in the city in more dramatic evidence than the usurpation of the local school system which still goes largely unchallenged and in power almost eight years after Katrina.

Nonetheless, anyone listening carefully would be hard pressed to escape the conclusions and the dire warnings that hung from Roberta’s words at almost every turn.

Jane Jacobs