Development In America’s Cities: NOLA and Gentrification

New Orleans is a romanticized city and it deserves to be one.  The clock ticks more slowly in the crescent city. People laugh more easily, people kiss, people love, there is joy all to the beat of city like no other in the world.  However, New Orleans has a grizzly side and it’s not for everyone.  Our sidewalks are twisted, our weather sticky and our romance comes with  a certain untamed mentality.

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People romanticize New Orleans but rarely know much about it.  Yes, people know about jazz, blues, Creole food and Mardi Gras but rarely do they mention that NOLA was the place where the first literature magazine of Louisiana was printed–by black men and French poets in 1840. By that time the city had a prosperous class of free black artists, businessmen, sculptors, skilled laborers and property owners.  In more modern history New Orleans has become a great black city where African-Americans have come together time and time again to form the strongest African-American culture in the land.

This is not to diminish the horrors of slavery.  Louisiana had plantations that stretched from one side of the state to the other, and the slave trade was in the St Louis Hotel square in New Orleans but never in our history was it all “have and have not.”

Through the Civil War, the labor riots of the 1920’s and segregation New Orleans became a home for blacks in a way few American cities ever have been. Dillard University and Xavier became two of the most outstanding  black universities in the U.S. and once the battles of segregation were won the black middle class rose and entered all levels of society in a way that is absent in many Western and Northern cities today.

And then nature did what the Civil War could not.  It did what racism and fights over segregation could not.  It laid a city to waste. Furthermore our government failed us.   Why did the U.S. ask a city cherished by millions, criticized by some and ignored by none to fight for it’s own life for so long?

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But when the waters cleared, we did the only thing that New Orleanians could do…we rebuilt. New Orleans became one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. We became the Hollywood of the South and the Silicon Valley of the South in a few short years.  Our politics changed under the guise of new government.  Yes poverty still exists and yes corruption is still prevalent but the Big Easy has grown.

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As we rebuilt we were joined by other Americans who took up the call to rebuild the city that care forgot. They came as volunteers and they came as students and some stayed. We could not have rebuilt without them. Rebuilding New Orleans was the moral challenge of a generation and it has been and continues to be met.

That rebuilding has come at a cost. Now they have begun to buy homes in previously run down neighborhoods.  Low income areas where families once thrived are now home to recent grads from New York and San Francisco. This has  driven up property values and driven out families and musicians where they have lived for generations.  They pass laws that seek to tame and regulate the wild nature of NOLA. Places where blacks musicians have gathered for 200 years to play African drums are being banned because of noise. These movements do more than threaten the untamed nature of the city they can threaten a history.  A population with money will always have ripple effects that can negatively impact a society. Click here for Spike Lee’s take on gentrification.

I am forever grateful for those who came to rebuild New Orleans. I was right there with you. However we must be aware of our impact and intent when we seek to develop a place. We should be aware of the history and respect local culture.  If we tame New Orleans, if we replace our Collards with Kale what will be left of our culture that our American brothers and sisters were drawn to in the beginning?

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One response to “Development In America’s Cities: NOLA and Gentrification

  1. Well said. We were grateful for the first wave of “helpers” after Katrina as they were here to help us. The second wave – not so much. They are the “entrepreneurs”. A lot of locals do say “Well, now there’s police protection in the St. Claude neighborhood.” Spike is right! Why wasn’t there police protection there before the white hipsters moved in?

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