Anger at New Orleans renewal plan

Local anger at the redevelopment plan that city bureaucrats have unveiled in New Orleans is making the country’s top newspapers. From the Washington Post, via the Boston Globe, Jan. 12:

Angry homeowners screamed and City Council members seethed yesterday as this city’s recovery commission recommended imposing a four-month building moratorium on most of New Orleans and creating a powerful new authority that could use eminent domain to seize homes in neighborhoods that will not be rebuilt.

The commission’s recovery plan anticipates a city that will be only a fraction of its pre-Katrina size of nearly half a million residents. The city now has about 144,000 residents and is projected to grow to 181,000 by September and 247,000 by September 2008.

Hundreds of residents packed in a hotel ballroom interrupted the presentation of the long-awaited proposal with shouts and taunts, booed its main architect, and unrolled a litany of complaints. One by one, homeowners stepped to a microphone to lampoon the plan — which contemplates a much smaller city and relies on persuading the federal government to spend billions on new housing and a light-rail system — as “audacious,” “an academic exercise,” and “garbage.”

From the New York Times, Jan. 12:

Residents of the city’s most devastated neighborhoods responded with anger Wednesday after the city’s rebuilding commission unveiled its most contentious proposal: giving neighborhoods in low-lying parts of the city from four months to a year to prove they should not be bulldozed.

The plan was presented at a standing-room-only meeting punctuated by catcalls and angry outbursts that often interrupted members of the panel. “Over my dead body” was uttered more than once.

“I’m going to suit up like I’m going to Iraq and fight this,” said Harvey Bender, a laid-off city worker, who shouted out his comments before an audience at the Sheraton Hotel that numbered in the hundreds and spilled into the aisles and hallways.

Mr. Bender owns a home in New Orleans East, a predominantly black middle-class neighborhood of 90,000 residents largely destroyed by the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina. Parts of the neighborhood might not survive, according to the plan, if they do not attract enough returning residents.


Under the proposal, residents would not be permitted to move back into the hardest-hit neighborhoods – about two-thirds of the city, including more than half its homeowners – for at least four months. During that time, leaders of each neighborhood would have to submit to a citywide planning body a recovery plan that would have to be approved before residents would be allowed back.

Neighborhoods not able to come up with an acceptable plan, or those that do not attract sufficient development within a year, could be bulldozed and returned to marshland, with the city compensating homeowners.

The plan represents a compromise between the homeowners in low-lying areas who are determined to rebuild, and the scientists and other experts who believe the city should allow large portions of its flood-prone areas to revert to marshland.

Each neighborhood would have at its disposal teams of planners and other experts to help residents do what they need to prevent the city from forcing them to live elsewhere.

“We want to give every community as best a chance to come back as we can,” said Joseph C. Canizaro, a member of the commission. Much of the crowd’s enmity was directed at Mr. Canizaro, the plan’s main author and a prominent developer here, who was booed several times.

“Joe Canizaro, I don’t know you, but I hate you,” said Mr. Bender, the New Orleans East resident, when granted his turn at the microphone.


Marc H. Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans who is now president of the National Urban League, described the commission’s proposal as a “massive red-lining plan wrapped around a giant land grab.” Many homeowners will not be able to settle with their insurance companies if they do not know the future of their neighborhoods, he said.

“It’s cruel to bar people from rebuilding,” Mr. Morial said. “Telling people they can’t rebuild for four months is tantamount to saying they can’t ever come back. It’s telling people who have lost almost everything that we’re going to take the last vestige of what they own.”

The most frustrating thing about this scenario is that it represents the co-optation of good ideas—like light rail and wetland restoration—in the interests of sanitized American-style ethnic cleansing. New Orleans’ low-lying African American sectors like the Lower Ninth have been urban residential areas for two centuries or more. The vast areas of coastal mangroves destroyed in recent decades to make way for (mostly white) suburbs and shopping malls were far more critical to protecting the city from storms sweeping in from the Gulf. Yet nobody is talking about restoring these wetlands. In the immortal words of Chuck D: “Did you ever ask yourself: Why is that?”

See our last post on Katrina’s aftermath.