Dr. Beverly Wright Addresses the “Elephant” in the City…10-Years After Hurricane Katrina

Deep South Environmental Justice Center, SChttp://www.dscej.org/
Dr. Beverly Wright

Addressing the “Elephant” in the City 10-Years After Hurricane Katrina 

NEW ORLEANS, LA – As we approach the tenth year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, let’s not ignore the “elephant” in New Orleans, notwithstanding the pressure to do just that. The elephant in our city is the rampant land grab displacing predominantly African American residents to the outskirts of the city, where public safety, reliable transit, nearby schools, accessible job opportunities, and neighborhood amenities are lacking. To be sure, the displacement of mostly African American residents also creates hardships for white New Orleanians who are not only out-financed by developers and incoming residents, but also see their salaries not keeping up with the rising costs of housing, education, and healthcare in this city.

The elephant we need to address in New Orleans is the privatization of public assets. Just recently, Representative Neil Abramson introduced House Bill 694 in the state legislature. Abramson’s bill would require the Orleans Parish School Board to sell any building or land that is “vacated or slated to be vacated” to a school charter company for an amount “up to fair market value” and allow the school charter company to re-sell the building or land to any “person or entity.” If this bill passes into law, there are some 100 properties in neighborhoods across New Orleans that can now wind up in the hands of developers after the initial purchase from the Orleans Parish School Board for a nominal amount.

We cannot ignore the elephant represented by the billions of taxpayer dollars poured into the coffers of private companies that profit from:

  • the tear-down of public housing developments, construction of apartment complexes for only a small fraction of the public housing residents, and the eviction of those residents through a combination of harsh rules (g., no people on porches not named in the lease agreement) and the upcoming expiration of subsidized apartments that will be leased at market rates;
  • the shut-down of Charity Hospital and the razing of homes in the Mid-City neighborhood to build a hospital managed by LCMC pursuant to a no-bid contract that does not guarantee physical and mental health care that meets the needs of people in our city;
  • the take-over of public schools with admission policies designed to exclude the enrollment of children who have special needs or are not honor roll students; and
  • the investment in certain neighborhoods to ramp up demand for skyrocketing housing cost, while other neighborhoods are neglected and denied adequate funds for street improvements, beautification projects, and home repair grants from the Road Home program, which a federal court declared was administered in a racially discriminatory manner.

Sadly, the elephant in our city has no regard for the health and safety of children and families. Case in point: the Recovery School District (RSD) plans to build a school on a site where an old city dump once existed and the land remains highly contaminated. On this dump, known as the Clio Street/Silver City Dump, the Booker T. Washington High School, the Calliope Housing Development, and the Rosenwald Recreational Center were built specifically for African Americans during Jim Crow. There was no consideration at that time of the serious health risks of placing children and families on a waste dump. While some have excused this as something from the bygone era of Jim Crow racial segregation, it is troubling that the same shameful lack of concern for African American children and families persists in the post-Katrina building of the Yvonne Marrero apartments, the new Rosenwald Recreational Center, and the RSD’s plan to build a school on the same waste dump.

Shrouded in secrecy, the elephant in our city shuts New Orleanians out of the decision-making process on key policies, programs, and funding priorities. In hindsight, the Unified New Orleans Plan and the Bring Back New Orleans Plan were distractions that moved our collective focus away from the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on implementing other plans that continue to displace residents.

As the spotlight turns to New Orleans on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, will we address the elephant in our city or will we be silent about the injustice and inequity of ongoing displacement of predominantly African American residents in our city?

Dr. Beverly Wright is a sociologist and the Executive Director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans, Louisiana.