Wednesday, June 03, 2009

After all this time, the East still haunts me...probably because it is similar to the circumstances in which I grew up. It is one of the most stereotypically suburban parts of New Orleans - if anybody wants evidence of how much this city styled itself after larger cities such as Houston and Atlanta, it need only take a look at the skyscrapers in the CBD (most of which are currently empty and rotting. Update, 6-4: from Anonymous: Not sure I agree about most of the CBD buildings being empty - too much of a generalization for me to accept. I do agree that too many buildings are partially full or neglected. Point taken. I guess I just internalized some of the buildings I regularly see between Loyola and Rampart, which are in terrible shape, as being representative of all the CBD buildings. Excuse me.) and at lakefront neighborhoods such as that of the East. These places were representative of the ultimate in civic hubris, of the faith in physical expansion leading to greater economic development. Patrician inequality giving way to a more plebeian sharing of the local wealth. If it is built, all of that will come and heal New Orleans' ills.

It hasn't, really.

And I'm not just saying that because of articles such as this one, which was reprinted on the ever-so-ungodly (and difficult to navigate) site under a shamelessly incendiary and divisive headline. Race is the one thing about the reluctance to rebuild out in the East that gets people's blood boiling and baits them into saying things that goad those who are forever for the East into staying on their high horses and tilting for the stronger levees and the closing of the MR-GO, a la a certain man of La Mancha...but those things alone aren't going to bring back the neighborhoods.

What we are seeing here is what has been happening to many other cities for quite some time at a slower pace - a massive flood in the case of the East simply put some major hurts on everybody all at the same time. The anchor Dillard's of the now-gone Lake Forest Plaza Mall had left the place long before 8-29-05. The Jazzland theme park that was supposed to give everybody who wasn't a resident a new reason to come out East was already failing..though it had never really held its own financially in the first place. What we are seeing now is the abandonment of an idea that held sway over us for quite a long time - that the suburbs would somehow set us all free if we each had our own plot of land - in concert with a huge, sloppy, juicy kiss good-bye to any further economic development of this city that doesn't come through tourism.

I'm not saying racism has nothing to do with has a bit more to do with class. There is no healthier indication of a middle class holding its own that that of thriving suburbs, much to the chagrin of many. In their way, lakefront suburbs here were meant to be an indication that New Orleans had finally joined the twentieth century, as now people could get themselves off the avenues and out of the antebellum houses, where the upper and lower classes reigned, and onto land that had been drained dry and was protected by the best engineering of the day. It was unthinkable to be living in what had once been a great swamp in 1901, but here were many families doing just that in the Nuclear Age. Even greater numbers of families kept doing so all the way through the oil boom. But even though families of all races were doing it, they were mixing even less in those neighborhoods than they did in the older confines of the city. Outdated and outlawed Jim Crow laws gave way to mainly white people using the moving van to delineate how separate they really moving to Lakeview, to Metairie, and even, once that other engineering marvel, the Pontchartrain Causeway, was built, to the north shore of the lake.

What it comes down to now is who can most afford to rebuild and who can't. And if we're talking about racist conspiracies, the deck is stacked more against blacks who want to rebuild than against whites...which is the sick legacy of longtime failures in education, government, and economic development here, as the more prosperous folks took their money with 'em when they used the moving vans and those left behind failed to implement lasting changes in their wake - in fact, a good number of them misused their positions to take what wasn't theirs in the first place.

Those failures are still not being addressed, after all this time.

But hey, if everybody wants to shine one teensy facet of the honking big diamond that is recovery here and look at the crystal structure in that way, go right ahead.

As a heavily myopic person from age five on, though, I can tell you that uncorrected nearsightedness sucks and leads to serious headaches.


Anonymous said...

The especially ironic part of this is that Eastern New Orleans developers were targeting middle class white people initially. "New Orleans East" was meant to be the largest planned community ever built in the US. That went out the window after the oil bust. Whites had never taken to the place in the first place, so ... the homes were sold to middle class blacks for, in many cases, less than was hoped initially. The big "New Orleans East" sign off the Interstate has led to that moniker being synonymous with Eastern N.O., meanwhile.

Oh, before I forget, this was a good piece.
Ray M

MAD said...

Maybe I am just tired tonight, but I am just not sure what point you are making here. I grew up in one of those lakefront suburbs, and I don't recall "hubris" dominating the decision of my parents to build a home for their large family. Just a middle-class family modestly enjoying the fruits of my father's hard work. What is the problem there?
One point of correction, it is not true that most of the high-rises downtown are "empty and rotting". That might describe much of the medical district abandoned by LSU, and a few damaged Class B buildings that were not re-occupied after Katrina, but the occupancy rates among the Class A office buildings is quite high.

Leigh C. said...

I don't mean the families who moved there. I mean the folks who dealt in real estate, the business community, the city leaders. Greater numbers of people on more land also means greater constituencies for local pols. New Orleans isn't unique in how that developed - what is unique now is the battle over whether or not the city should continue to support what is left after 8-29-05. It doesn't have the historical cachet the Lower 9 does, or any celebrities championing its revival, but it still has a place in this city, whether the officials like it or not. It won't go away, and neither will those families.

Leigh C. said...

Actually, scratch that. Wendell "Bunk" Pierce does have a hand in getting Pontchartrain Park back on its feet...but anything else on the eastern side of the Industrial Canal has been left to the families who lived/still live there.

Anonymous said...

Not sure I agree about most of the CBD buildings being empty - too much of a generalization for me to accept. I do agree that too many buildings are partially full or neglected.

Otherwise, I like your blog. I plan to bookmark it.


Anonymous said...

Oh, by the way, if I'm not mistaken the Eastern NOLA homes almost immediately faced more subsidence problems than those in other parts of the city. The land was not really meant for housing. The original city was not exactly a model of sustainability either, but the East was pretty distinctive in that respect. It's also closer to Lake Borgne, which is practically just the Gulf by now. And there's a fault line running through the place, pulling the land down further than any place in New Orleans.

You can't force people to move from there, and at this point no one's offering big dough for buyouts. If there are going to be people out there, you should have a hospital, basic services. But the easiest case to make in re to discouraging further extensive development, at least, and investment is with the case of the East.
Ray M

Dambala said...

great post.

Although, I think even past race and class...there is an elephant in the corner with the East...and for that matter, Chalmette, the 9th ward and everything on the East side of the Industrial Canal. It's really impossible to provide even adequate flood protection to those's simple geography. There's really no way to stop storm surge from washing out those areas wether it comes from the south from Lake Borgne or from the north from Pontchartrain.....those areas are incredibly vulnerable even compared to the low lying areas in the city like Broadmoor.

It's important to remember that while there was a levee break on the East side of the Industrial Canal during Katrina...which took at the lower 9th ward...Chalmette's levee was simply topped by a 28 foot surge coming from Pontchartrain...the levee actually held, the wall of water was simply to large and went right over the levee.

I think no matter how you cut it...the East is just way to vulnerable. For that matter the whole frikkin' city is...but specifically everything East of the Industrial Canal. If had lived in the east before Katrina....i don't think i would rebuild. But I lived in Broadmoor and I chose not to go back there I'm probably more paranoid about than most.

Dambala said...

just saw Ray M's comment....he said it much better than i.

Leigh C. said...

How best to tell people, though, that their homes are built on geologically and geographically unsteady ground without many of them taking what is said as being racially motivated?

It ain't possible anymore. We have a leadership vacuum 'round here, no matter how we look at it.