A TALE OF TWO CITIES:
THE MAJORITY OF BLACK NEW ORLEANIANS DON’T BENEFIT FROM NOLA’S BLACK POLITICAL MAJORITY
Gentrification is Changing New Orleans before our eyes.
Between 96,000 and 100,000 black residents left New Orleans for higher ground as Hurricane Katrina made its way to the city in 2005. Before Katrina, New Orleans’ population was 67 percent black. In 2021, the black population rebounded to 59.5 percent. Still and yet, 11 percent never returned.
“Before Katrina, nearly 326,000 black people called New Orleans home, or 67 percent of the population. Today, the figure is just 233,000—a nearly 29 percent drop, far outpacing New Orleans’s overall drop in population, leaving the black share at just below 60 percent. The white population, by contrast, has remained steady, at nearly 133,000, almost even with the pre-Katrina level of 136,000,” Nicole Gelinas wrote in City Journal, a Manhattan Institute publication.
Black migration from New Orleanians is nothing new. Blacks have consistently left the city for better work conditions, higher pay, upward mobility, and to escape racism and discrimination by the powers that be. Ask any black person. They’ll tell you the story of relatives who left the “Big Easy” for greener pastures.
However, Hurricane Katrina was the watershed event that made many who fled reconsider life in New Orleans versus elsewhere.
The 100-year storm literally changed the social fabric of New Orleans. Many who came to help seized the opportunity to buy property and made New Orleans their home. Low property prices and New Orleans’ culture facilitated a wave of gentrification.
City leaders leveled public housing units and replaced them with mixed-use condos, houses, and apartments. Many Black New Orleanians who work in the low-wage tourism industry couldn’t afford to buy such homes. Skilled professionals and builders flocked to the city. They bought property, started small businesses, and injected a brand of culture. But it is foreign to a city known for its southern hospitality.
They brought gentrification with them. Suddenly there were bike paths everywhere. Those made it impossible to park on already narrow residential one-way streets with no off-the-street parking. Gourmet ice cream, horticultural shops, grocery co-ops, indoor food market stalls, flea markets on the Bayou, and newly constructed houses incongruent with the architectural culture of New Orleans are interspersed in black communities.
“Nor has New Orleans experienced an equal opportunity recovery—in no small part because of the white civic leaders who openly advocated for a whiter, wealthier city. While water still covered most of New Orleans, Jimmy Reiss, a prominent local businessman and then-head of the Business Council, told the Wall Street Journal that the city would come back in “a completely different way: demographically, geographically, and politically,” or he and other white civic leaders would not return.
That sentiment was paired with a policy approach then-Congressman Barney Frank described as “ethnic cleansing through inaction,” Gary Rivlin wrote in “White New Orleans Has Recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Black New Orleans Has Not.”
Rivlin penned the piece on the 11th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. “The income disparity between rich and poor is so great that last year Bloomberg declared New Orleans the country’s most “unequal” city. And it’s hardly just the poor who are suffering. The median black household in New Orleans in 2013 was $30,000—$5,000 less than it was in 2000, adjusted for inflation. By contrast, median household income in the white community increased by 40 percent over that same period. And it now stands at more than $60,000,” Rivlin explained.
New Orleans based Fair Housing Action Center published “Gentrification a Growing Threat for Many New Orleans Residents.” It offers highlights from the report released by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC). Click here to see the full report.
According to the report, 13 New Orleans census tracts are actively gentrifying. They are experiencing increases in income, home values, and college attainment. Yet, this is despite having had home values and incomes in the lower 40th percentile.
“Gentrifying areas include parts of the Mid-City, Broadmoor, Central City, Treme, 7th Ward, Holy Cross, McDonogh, and Irish Channel neighborhoods. Fifty-one census tracts are also in the 40th percentile for income and home value and are considered likely candidates for gentrification. By these measures, New Orleans is now the 5th-most intensely gentrifying US city and the threat of displacement is only increasing. New Orleans is gentrifying at an abnormally rapid rate compared to most US cities.”
Population growth and diversity, and residents with resources are desirable everywhere. But at what cost? Gentrification causes native New Orleanians’ displacement and increases mortgages, property taxes, and rent. Literally, it changes the complexion and culture of New Orleans.
Most unfortunate is that New Orleans has a black mayor, predominately black city council and school board, and black elected officials in prominent positions. So far, none is progressive enough to enact plans to eradicate poverty, provide contracting and job opportunities, and ensure youth get educations of value. No one insists that corporations make hiring native New Orleanians a priority.
Related: Gentrification and Bicycles
The question to be asked is, why are New Orleans’ black leaders not working for those who elected them? If we follow the money, what will we discover? Whose campaign contributions helped them win?
There is a redistricting proposal to expand one city council district into the gentrified portion of another community. That plan will dilute the power of black voters and make it nearly impossible for them to elect a candidate of their choice.
What New Orleans’ black majority needs are progressive leaders. Elected officials with the courage to demand equity and fairness and a seat at the table for black citizens from all walks of life. Atlanta’s leaders did it. We can do it in New Orleans too!