The fight for home is still being fought in New Orleans, more than seven years after Katrina. And it’s in full-swing in the New York metropolitan area, months after Sandy.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced he wanted to use $400 million in federal funding to buy “beachfront homes” to “reshape the New York coastline.” The stated goal is to make the region “better prepared for storms like Hurricane Sandy.” With that money, the government would pay homeowners pre-storm values, raze their houses, and leave the land as “open space.” More than ten thousand homes would qualify, with notable exceptions. According to the New York Times, “The program is not targeted at the most expensive waterfront homes; it would cap the payments for houses at around the median home value in a given neighborhood.”
So, who’s going to have their homes razed? Middle and low-income owners. Thanks to historic zoning patterns, many of these live in waterfront flood plains: maritime industrial areas like Red Hook and Staten Island’s North Shore. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the shoreline was where businesses were put: to make it easier to move products and pipe out pollutants. One estimate puts six hundred thousand people in these zones, many of them minorities. That’s who’s likely to feel the major effect of the state’s buy-out-and-raze plan.
If you want to know how it might feel, talk to the people of New Orleans. Mayor Ray Nagin’s first plan after Katrina was to “green dot” areas that weren’t “viable.” Owners and renters were going to be prevented from returning, their lots turned into “green space.” Examine Nagin’s map, and almost all the green dots were in low income, black neighborhoods. Part of the story of my book, The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back, is how those neighborhoods resisted this kind of recovery and how, facing an election, the Mayor backed down.
Still, lots of that land remains empty, the owners unable to rebuild. New Orleans has fewer black and poor people today, even as authorities continue to hail its renaissance. Last week, after the current mayor, Mitch Landrieu, called the Super Bowl his city’s “biggest global moment,” the CEO of the Building Council proclaimed New Orleans “the world’s newest ‘boutique city.’” The Building Council works with the city council to develop “deteriorated” land, and this CEO is also a real estate developer spearheading a plan called “Reinventing the Crescent.” It aims to take six miles of the city’s riverfront, move industry and mid to low-income housing out, and put high-end shops and condominiums in. The developer insists a boutique city “has nothing to do with boutique hotels or clothing boutiques. A boutique city stands for something. It’s original. It’s authentic. It’s one-of-a-kind.”
For an example of what it might stand for, look at a recently revealed plan for part of the city’s Holy Cross neighborhood. Those who managed to make it back to Holy Cross – like the family profiled in Jonathan Demme’s documentary I’m Carolyn Parker – still face almost an hour’s ride to get to the closest grocery store or medical facility. After Katrina, the Holy Cross School – private, predominantly white -- took the opportunity to vacate its campus in this predominantly black, predominantly low-income area. That left a key sixteen-acre parcel open for development. Knowing something would be built, the neighborhood endorsed (by a close vote) a zoning change that would allow seventy-five foot buildings. Last week, the planners charged through that opening with a plan for two thirteen-story apartment buildings including over a hundred and eighty rental units, described as “high-quality market rate.” One of the developers explained, “In order to preserve green space, there’s only one way we could go, and that’s up.”
There’s nothing wrong with “green space” or “reshaping the coastline.” But these goals too often mask plans for urban development and a gentrified, boutique city. I wrote The Fight for Home hoping that its story would be useful looking forward: to avoid making the same mistakes again. Someday, it may be read as simply a document about a barely remembered hurricane named Katrina. But right now, it’s disturbingly relevant.