April 6, 2015 Djuan Coleon

NEW ORLEANS: GENTRIFICATION “Warp Speed Ahead”

On the surface I’m supposed to be enjoying the view from my stay at the Westin overlooking the Mississippi River. As I eat my breakfast and prepare for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice HBCU Climate Change Conference. The first thoughts that pop up in my mind were the tens of thousands of slaves who passed through on this very same passage of the Mississippi River in New Orleans.

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The European “colonists” came to New Orleans thinking they were going to find gold and when they did not they were “stuck” in a literal swamp of a place. The colonists soon realized they could not build the city as envisioned because they had a severe labor shortage so the solution in 1720 was —> African Slaves. These slaves were vital in helping turn a swamp into a profitable port city. Slaves were also instrumental in rebuilding and maintaining infrastructure after floods and hurricanes. Ironically nobody was available to help the descendants of slaves when Katrina hit in 2005. It was not the actual hurricane that caused the flood it was the systematic removal of the trees, the natural barrier out of the bayou that caused the flooding in the lower 9th ward. Now all day long ships and barges float through through the river with all types a manufacturing goods and services that often lead to toxic and hazardous waste in black communities in and around New Orleans. There is an 100 mile stretch from New Orleans to Baton Rouge know as “Cancer Alley”, with over 150 petrochemical plants.  This is perhaps the most industrialized and polluted region in america. So What does this have to do with gentrification? Well the ruins left by Hurricane Katrina gave urban planners around the globe a chance to come in and remake New Orleans into a “ideal utopian playground”. Gentrification has been going on in New Orleans sine the 1970’s but now because of Katrina they could get rid of people in coveted areas and move ahead at “warp speed” to remake the city built by slaves.  

One Storm, Two Waves

“Everything changed after August-September 2005, when the Hurricane Katrina deluge, amid all the tragedy, unexpectedly positioned New Orleans as a cause célèbre for a generation of idealistic millennials. A few thousand urbanists, environmentalists, and social workers—we called them “the brain gain;” they called themselves YURPS, or Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals—took leave from their graduate studies and nascent careers and headed South to be a part of something important.” – by Richard Campanella

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Those residents who are not being forced out are dying out from the toxic waste and pollution from the over 150 industrial plants. Also New Orleans has been the murder capital of America juxtaposed with it also being the the capital for private prisons in the world.  All this excitement about “rebuilding” with very little thought to the systematic injustices that have been going on in the city.

“Environmental scientists told Al Jazeera in late 2013 that the 150 petrochemical companies and 17 refineries in the area were releasing dangerous levels of toxic chemicals into the air and water. In Mossville, a predominantly black community a few hours west of Baton Rouge in southern Louisiana, 91 percent of residents said they were experiencing health complications they believed to be related to more than a dozen industrial plants in the area. ” – by  Al Jeezera America

 No one asked Lawrence “Palo” Ambrose if he wanted a Chinese company with a controversial environmental record to build a methanol plant in his neighborhood  Some residents who were flooded out in 2005 have not been able to return home yet we have manufactures and “carpet baggers” coming by the droves to seize the opportunities in New Orleans. On our tour of the Lower Ninth Ward area of New Orleans Attorney Monique Harden an activist in the area explained how the city is using FEMA money from Hurricane Katrina to relocate youth from one school to Booker T. Washington High School, a school that has been closed due to it being built on a waste dump. Even though the site has not been properly remediated their is an urgency to move the students from their current location due to the location’s desirability.

VIDEO: Students try and comprehend the Environmental Justice Issues in New Orleans  

“New Orleans was the scene of the most blatant divisions between rich and poor. The Brattleboro Reformer of Vermont said that “there have always been two New Orleans”: “the happy, vibrant party city that is so beloved, especially by tourists” and the city “where half of the households earn less than $22,000 and nearly 30 percent of the population lives in poverty” (“Before the storm,” 2005). The idea of two different New Orleans, one as the playground for the wealthy, and the other as the quarters for the servants, ” – Kirsten Elise Theye THE RECONSTRUCTION OF NATIONAL IDENTITY FOLLOWING TRAGIC EVENTS

I just believe it is callous to live like this, having this dual reality not just in New Orleans but many urban centers across America. #BlackLivesMatter in a environmental context has been around before the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell or Michael Brown. We can’t build cities that resemble the movie “The Hunger Games” where you have the trodden down masses and sanctuaries of prosperity. New Orleans, “The Big Easy”, how easy it is to disregard the descendants of slaves that built the city from a swamp, the new “gold” is real estate and it’s gentrification “Warp Speed Ahead”

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