Protest: Mike Davis

Protest: Mike Davis

Ethnic Cleansing, GOP-Style

In the weeks since President George Bush’s speech in New Orlean’s Jackson Square, in which he promised to spare no effort in rebuilding the area, FEMA has alarmingly failed to advance any plan for the return of evacuees to temporary housing within the city or to connect displaced locals with reconstruction jobs. In fact, new barriers are being erected against their return. In Mississippi’s ruined coastal cities, as well as in metropolitan New Orleans, landlords, galvanized by rumors of gentrification and soaring land values, are beginning to institute mass evictions. (Although the oft-cited Lower Ninth Ward is actually a bastion of blue-collar homeownership, most poor New Orleanians are renters.)

Civil-rights lawyer Bill Quigley has described how renters have returned to find furniture on the street and strangers living in their apartments at higher rents, despite an order by the Governor that no one can be evicted before October 25. Rents in the dry areas have doubled and tripled..

Secretary of Housing Alfonso Jackson, meanwhile, seems to be working to fulfill his notorious prediction that New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.. Charlestine Jones, spokesperson for the Forest Park Tenants Association, recently protested that the agencies in charge of these housing complexes, including HUD, are using allegations of storm damage to these complexes as a pretext for expelling working-class African-Americans, in a blatant attempt to co-opt our homes and sell them to developers to build high-priced housing..

Minority homeowners also face relentless pressures not to return. Insurance compensation, for example, is typically too small to allow homeowners in the eastern wards of New Orleans to rebuild if and when authorities re-open their neighborhoods.

Similarly, the Small Business Administrationnso efficient in recapitalizing the San Fernando Valley in the aftermath of the 1994 Los Angeles earthquakeehas so far dispensed only a few million dollars despite increasingly desperate pleas from tens of thousands of homeowners and small businesspeople facing imminent foreclosure or bankruptcy.

As a result, not just the black working class but also the black professional and business middle classes are now facing economic extinction while Washington dawdles. Tens of thousands of blue-collar white, Asian, and Latino residents of afflicted Gulf communities also face de facto expulsion from the region, but only the removal of African-Americans is actually being advocated as policy. Since Katrina made landfall, conservativessbeginning with Congressman Richard H. Baker’s (R-LA) infamous comment that We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God didd?have openly gloated over the possibilities for remaking New Orleans in a GOP image. Republican interest in reducing the black Democratic vote in New Orleanssthe balance of power in state electionssresonates with the oft-expressed desire of local elites to purge the city of problem people.. As one major French Quarter landowner told Der Spiegel, The hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city and we hope they don’t come back. The party’s finally over for these people and now they’re going to have to find someplace else to live in the United States..

Nor are downsizing and gentrification necessarily offensive to Democratic neo-liberals who have long advocated breaking up concentrated poverty and dispersing the black poor into older suburbs. The HOPE VI program, the showpiece of Clinton-era urban policy, demolished traditional public housing and vouchered out residents in order to make way for mixed-use, market-rate developments, which have become the prototype for elite visions of the city’s future.

The New Urbanism Meets the Old South
Into this fraught and sinister situation now blunders the circuslike spectacle of the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU), the architectural cult founded by Miami designers Andreas Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ). Twenty years ago, when Duany was first barnstorming the nation’s architecture schools and preservation societies, New Urbanism seemed to offer an attractive model for building socially diverse and environmentally sustainable communities based on a systematization of older City Beautiful principles such as a pedestrian scale, traditional street grids, an abundance of open space, and a mixture of land uses, income groups, and building forms. In practice, however, this diversity has never been achieved.

Despite the populist language of the CNU manifesto, Duany has always courted corporate imaginers, mega-developers, and politicians. In the mid-1990s, HUD under Secretary Henry Cisneros incorporated New Urbanist ideas into many of its HOPE VI projects. Originally conceived as replacement housing for the poor, HOPE VI quickly morphed into a new strategy for replacing the poor themselves. Strategically sited public-housing projects like New Orleans’ St. Thomas Homes were demolished to make way for neo-traditionalist townhouses and stores (in the St. Thomas case, a giant Wal-Mart) in the New Urbanist spirit. These mixed-use, mixed-income developments were typically advertised as little utopias of diversity but, as in St. Thomas, the real dynamic was exclusionary rather than inclusionary, with only a minority of project residents being rehoused on site. Nationally, HOPE VI led to a net loss of more than 50,000 units of desperately needed low-income housing.

Smart developers have been quick to put New Urbanist halos over their otherwise rampant land grabs and neighborhood demolitions. Likewise, shrewd conservatives like Paul Weyrich have increasingly recognized the obvious congruence between political traditionalism and architectural nostalgia. Weyrich, the founding president of the Heritage Foundation, recently wrote that New Urbanism needs to be part of the next conservatism,, a conservatism that remakes cities by expelling their criminal underclasses. (On Hurricane Katrina, Weyrich strongly defended House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s right to question whether New Orleans, with its welfare state and entitlement mentalityy?a prototype for Liberalss?should be rebuilt at all.)

Weyrich was the spiritual bridesmaid, at least, during the recent nuptials between the CNU’s Andreas Duany and Haley Barbour, the sleazy former tobacco lobbyist and chair of the Republican National Committee who became governor of Mississippi by wrapping himself in the Confederate battle flag.

Barbour is trying to extract as much long-term political and economic advantage from Katrina as possible. One of his declared priorities, for example, is bringing the casinos ashore into larger, more Las Vegas-like settings. Another is to rapidly restore shoreline property values and squelch any debate about resettling the population on defensible higher ground. It was thus a rather brilliant stroke for Barbour to invite the CNU to help Mississippi rebuild its Gulf Coast the right way.. The first phase was a so-called mega-charrettee held October 11 to 18, which brought 120 New Urbanists together with local officials and business groups to brainstorm strategies for the physical reconstruction of their communities.

Duany whipped up a revivalistic fervor that must have been pleasing to Barbour and other descendants of slave-owners: The architectural heritage of Mississippi is fabuloussreally, really marvelous.. With Gone with the Wind as their apparent script, the CNU teams spent a frenzied week trying to show the locals how they could replace their dismal strip malls with glorious Greek Revival casinos and townhouses that would rival those that once existed on MGM’s back lot. The entire exercise stayed firmly within the parameters of a gambling-driven heritagee economy with casinos woven into the community fabric,, and neo-Taras rebuilt on the beach.

In the end, however, what was important was not the actual content of the charrette, nor the idealism of so many of its participants, but simply the legitimacy and publicity that CNU gave to Barbour’s agenda. Duany, who never misses an opportunity to push his panaceas to those in power, has foolishly made himself an accomplice to the Republican’s evil social experiment on the Gulf Coast.
Mike Davis teaches in the history department of U.C. Irvine. His forthcoming book is Planet of Slums (Verso). A portion of this article appeared on Mother Jones‘ blog on October 25.