As New Yorkers marked the fourth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, our television screens flickered with ghastly images of devastation on the Gulf Coast. Even after what we’d been through, it was hard to grasp the scale of this disaster. But when members of Congress began to talk about modeling reconstruction on post-9/11 programs that ended up gentrifying New York and hurting the poor, those of us who worked to bring community perspectives into that process couldn’t help feeling that our experience might yield some lessons for folks in New Orleans, Biloxi and other ravaged communities.
Progressives sometimes talk about not just having a seat at the table but building a new table. In New York a fragmented civil society came together after 9/11 and, to a significant degree, built a new table. Immediately following the attacks, the Fiscal Policy Institute, where I work, and the New York City Central Labor Council called together all the groups in our Rolodexes. We had no clear plans, but at a time when attention was focused on disaster relief, we wanted to begin the conversation about rebuilding. Several other clusters of discussion merged with ours, and around December 2001 we gave ourselves a name: the Labor Community Advocacy Network to Rebuild New York (LCAN).
Our organizing principle was that we were a network, not a coalition. We didn’t want to be naïve about the difficulty of bringing like-minded groups together in one big happy family. After several months of discussions, we put together a draft document that focused on our key issues: jobs, housing, environmental justice and linking lower Manhattan to the rest of the city. In the end, more than fifty groups signed on to the LCAN agenda, including unions, immigrant rights groups and neighborhood organizations.
At the same time, other networks were evolving in the city, bringing together planners, architects and neighborhood activists. A small number of networks, including the umbrella Civic Alliance, was able to reach into all corners of city life. Hundreds of organizations were in regular communication, allowing us to see quickly where there was a “civic consensus”–and where there wasn’t. Meanwhile, several thousand community members became deeply informed and extremely articulate about the staggeringly complex issues involved in rebuilding.
Could something similar take shape on the Gulf Coast? It will be no small challenge, with the population so widely dispersed and the devastated area so massive. But broad networks can give people a voice in discussions that are usually limited to real estate developers and government officials: Will the rebuilt economy be all tourism and oil? What kinds of infrastructure investments make the most sense? And–enormously important given the economic inequities laid bare by Hurricane Katrina–who benefits from the rebuilding funds already starting to stream in?
In New York we saw program after program that heightened inequality rather than reducing it. Residential “Liberty Bonds,” for instance, gave tax-exempt financing to super-luxury apartments, pushing low-income people out. When real estate interests were lined up together, even a strong civic consensus was usually not enough to overcome them. But when commercial interests were divided, our networks managed some impressive victories. After a four-year campaign, the governor and mayor recently proposed that $500 million go to parks, affordable housing, support for local arts and cultural institutions, and local economic development–all designed to improve living standards in poor and working-class communities.
A word of caution: When Washington starts talking about $100 billion or more coming to the Gulf Coast, don’t be fooled. Building faith in government requires spending public funds the right way. In New York public officials have wasted billions of dollars on tax incentives, tax-free financing and grants to large corporations like Goldman Sachs. What’s important to economic development is making sure public dollars are spent on public goods. Sound infrastructure–good transportation, water supply, cultural institutions, affordable housing, parks and schools–is key. But not all infrastructure investments are equal. In New York, real estate interests are currently pushing for a massively expensive commuter train that would go nonstop from the suburbs to the doorsteps of their fancy office complexes. Similarly, on the Gulf Coast, infrastructure that serves casinos and tourism will not always benefit neighborhoods and local businesses.
There have already been discouraging reports of crony capitalism on the Gulf Coast. But that kind of corruption is not the only concern. In New York the worst abuses happened right out in the open, with billions of dollars in public funds subsidizing huge companies and gentrifying neighborhoods. It would be a further tragedy if this were the result on the Gulf Coast.