Who Is Killing New Orleans?
Keenly aware of inevitable popular resistance, the ULI also proposed a Crescent City Rebuilding Corporation, armed with eminent domain, that would bypass the City Council, as well as an oversight board with power over the city's finances. With control of New Orleans schools already usurped by the state, the ULI's proposed dictatorship of experts and elite appointees would effectively overthrow representative democracy and annul the right of local people to make decisions about their lives. For veterans of the 1960s civil rights movement, especially, it reeked of disenfranchisement pure and simple, a return to the paternalism of plantation days.
The City Council, supported by a surprising number of white homeowners and their representatives, angrily rejected the ULI plan. Mayor Nagin--truly a cat on a hot tin roof--danced anxiously back and forth between the two camps, disavowing abandonment of any area while at the same time warning that the city could not afford to service every neighborhood. But state and national officials, including HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, applauded the ULI scheme, as did the editorial page of the Times-Picayune and the influential Bureau of Government Research.
The BNOB recommendations presented by Canizaro in January faithfully hewed to the ULI framework: They included an appointed redevelopment corporation, outside the control of the City Council, that would act as a land bank to buy out heavily damaged homes and neighborhoods with federal funds, wielding eminent domain as needed to retire low-lying areas to greenbelt ("black people's neighborhoods into white people's parks," someone commented) or to assemble "in-fill" tracts for mixed-income development a la River Garden. Other committees recommended a radical diminution of the power of elected government.
On the crucial question of how to decide which neighborhoods would be allowed to rebuild and which would be bulldozed, BNOB endorsed the concept of forced buyouts but equivocated over process. Instead of the ruthless map that the Bureau of Government Research wanted, Canizaro and colleagues proposed a Rube Goldberg-like temporary building moratorium in tandem with neighborhood planning meetings that would poll homeowners about their intentions. Only those neighborhoods where at least half of the pre-Katrina residents had made a committment to return would be considered serious candidates for Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) and other financial aid.
Canizaro presented the report to Nagin in front of a public audience on January 11. The mayor said, "I like the plan," and he complimented the commissioners for "a job well done." But most locals found little charm in the Canizaro report. "I will sit in my front door with my shotgun," one resident warned at a jammed meeting in the Council chambers on January 14, while another demanded, "Are we going to allow some developers, some hustlers, some land thieves to grab our land, grab our homes, to make this a Disney World version of our homes, our lives?" Predictably, Nagin panicked and eventually disavowed the building moratorium. Soon afterward the White House torpedoed the Baker plan and left BNOB with only the state-controlled CDBG appropriation to finance its ambitious vision of New Orleans regrouped around a dozen new River Gardens linked by a high-speed light-rail line.
But Canizaro doesn't seem unduly worried. He has reassured supporters that the ULI/BNOB plan can go forward with CDBGs alone if necessary; in addition, he knows that independent of the local political weather, there are powerful external forces--lack of insurance coverage, new FEMA flood maps, refusal of lenders to refinance mortgages and so on--that can make permanent the exodus from redlined neighborhoods. Moreover, as anyone versed in the realpolitik of modern Louisiana knows, nothing is finally decided in New Orleans until some good ol' boys (and girls) in Baton Rouge have their say.
Even before the last bloated body had been fished out of the fetid waters, conservative political analysts were writing gleeful obituaries for black Democratic power in Louisiana. "The Democrats' margin of victory," said Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation, is "living in the Astrodome in Houston." Thanks to the Army Corps's defective levees, the Republicans stand to gain another Senate seat, two Congressional seats and probably the governorship. The Democrats would also find it impossible to reproduce Bill Clinton's 1992 feat, when he carried Louisiana by almost exactly his margin of victory in New Orleans. With a ruthless psephologist like Karl Rove in the White House, it is inconceivable that such considerations haven't influenced the shameless Bush response to the city's distress.
New Orleans has always vied with Detroit when it comes to the violent antipathy of white-flight suburbs toward its black central city, so it is not surprising that representatives from Jefferson Parish (which elected Klan leader David Duke to the state legislature in 1989) and St. Tammany Parish have particularly relished the post-Katrina shift in metropolitan population and electoral power. Both parishes are in the midst of housing booms that may consolidate the hollowing out and decline of New Orleans.
For her part, Governor Blanco, a Democrat, has expressed little concern about this fundamental reconfiguration of Louisiana's major metropolitan area. Indeed, her immediate, Bush-like responses to Katrina were to help engineer a state takeover of New Orleans schools and to slash $500 million in state spending while sponsoring tax breaks (in the name of economic recovery) for oil companies awash in profits. The Legislative Black Caucus was outraged at Blanco's "complete lack of vision and leadership" and went to court to challenge her right to make cuts without consulting lawmakers. But Blanco, supported by rural conservatives and corporate lobbyists, remained intransigent, even openly hostile, to black Democrats whose support she had previously courted.
Poor people have no voice inside the Louisiana Recovery Authority, whose gaggle of university presidents and corporate types appointed by Blanco is even less beholden to black New Orleans voters and their representatives than the Canizaro krewe. The twenty-nine-member LRA board, dominated by representatives of big business, has only one trade unionist and not a single grassroots black representative. Moreover, in contrast to Nagin's commission, the LRA has the power to decide, not merely advise: It controls the allocation of the FEMA funds and CDBGs that Congress has provided for reconstruction.
According to interviews in the Times-Picayune, leading members of the LRA believe that the sheer force of economic disincentives will shrink the city around the contours proposed by the Urban Land Institute. The authority has thus refused to disburse any of its hazard mitigation funds to areas considered unsafe, and presumably will be equally hardheaded in the allocation of CDBG spending. At a special session of the legislature Governor Blanco emphasized that the state, not local government or neighborhood planning committees, will retain control over where grants and loans go.
But Blanco and the elites may have overlooked the Fats Domino factor.