Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Color Change: White Washing a City - by Dr. Beverly Wright, PhD

Sunday, August 16, 2015                                                         
For Immediate Release 

Letter to the Editor

The Color Change:  White Washing a City
It Started with those Green Dots

Commentary by Dr. Beverly Wright, PhD
Dr. Beverly Wright
Dr. Beverly Wright
Let's just be "real" about how Black people feel their quality of life has, or is changing, ten years after Katrina. I can tell you this; Black folks know that things are changing, but at their core, they do not believe these changes will benefit them. They basically see a "New" New Orleans that is whiter and richer, and they see this happening at their expense. They can identify a number of actions taken by local and state government that have dramatically affected their lives. These include: (1) the Plan for the Future or the infamous "green dot map"; (2) the takeover of the New Orleans Public Schools by the state forming the Recovery School District; (3) the hostile takeover of public schools by charter networks; (4) the firing of all New Orleans public school teachers and personnel; (5) the suspension of the federal Davis-Bacon Act; and (6) the awarding of billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to a handful of politically connected nationally-based contractors. In this blog, I will speak to one of them, the Plan for the Future.

In order to understand the real implications and the devastating results of these actions, we have to begin at the beginning. And for most African American and Vietnamese New Orleanians, it starts with the "green dot map." I remember my phone ringing very early one morning and it continued to ring with calls from friends, most of whom lived in Eastern New Orleans before the storm, asking me if I had seen the front page of the Baton Rouge Advocate. I was living there at the time, having been wrenched from my home in "the East" by Katrina.
I recall running to the door to get the paper and immediately seeing why everyone was so frantic. There it was; a map of the city of New Orleans, with a large green dot sitting right on top of the area where our homes were located. As I looked at the legend that indicated these green dot areas were to be converted to parks and green space, I felt an incredible sense of disbelief that quickly morphed into anger. Even more incredulous was the additional twist that indicated these were also areas where a building moratorium would remain in effect until neighborhoods could prove viability. The city was going to turn our homes into green space and essentially prevent residents from rebuilding!
To top it off, there were other categories for rebuilding identified on the map which included; (1) areas where rebuilding was allowed (that's right, you guessed it; most of these areas were not even flooded); and (2) areas to be redeveloped, some with new housing for relocated homeowners, where "coincidentally," Southern University, the University of New Orleans and Dillard University were located. The city had invested so much in these institutions of higher learning that refusing to invest in the surrounding areas could not plausibly be defended even though these areas had been "drowned" by flood waters, just as much as some of those areas plastered with green dots. In this lies the fuel for the fire. 
Bluntly stated, most African Americans felt that this Plan for the Future "was an attempt to take their homes and not allow them to return to the city." The designation of the Uptown area - which most African American citizens know to be home to many affluent white families - as one in which rebuilding would be allowed; and conversely, New Orleans East and parts of Gentilly - well known to be predominantly African American and Vietnamese - as areas where neighborhoods must prove viability or simply be designated as suitable for green space, sealed the anguish, heightened the distrust of government, and bolstered the belief that Black people would not be treated fairly under this "Plan for the Future." 

While activism and community self determination beat back the "green dot plan," planners began to deny its authenticity by inferring that it was only a suggestion. Resettlement in these areas began despite the plan and to this day has been very successful through the shear will and energy of those residents who turned the onslaught against their communities into fuel for rebuilding.

But, I cannot say that this success extended to all aspects of recovery in these communities. What has failed is the ability of these communities, especially those in New Orleans East, to experience the enormous amount of economic development taking place in other parts of the city.

Residents have watched with dismay as "The East" has seen a proliferation of multi-family housing economically fueled by Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) coupled with an enormous shortage of affordable housing fueled by the destruction of public housing and astronomical increases in rents in areas that have traditionally been home to African American citizens. Gentrification in these areas is taking place at warp speed. 
As a resident of eastern New Orleans, I can tell you that the community feels betrayed by both local, state and federal government officials, whom they blame for the lack of amenities in their communities and an increase in disamenties, inclusive of crime, litter, and the proliferation of undesirable businesses such as pawn shops, liquor stores, halfway houses, and dollar stores on every corner. As one resident put it, "I should have known something was up when they began to build a dollar store at every I-10 exit in the East."

While the plan to stop rebuilding in the East by turning neighborhoods into green space failed; the plan seems to have another alternate phase, which I call "trash the neighborhoods, and they will leave." Most Black homeowners believe that they are being "run out of their neighborhoods." They see the new design for the city by these two telltale neon signs: (1) the reconstruction of "housing projects" through the use of former luxury apartment complexes, not designed for large families, nor having the amenities required for the safe and healthy upbringing of children); and (2) the "white washing" of traditionally African American neighborhoods, pushing poor people out to the suburbs (i.e. New Orleans East) where housing is more affordable- gentrification at the expense of the poor. 

The city of New Orelans' progress toward prosperity should have at its foundation, the inclusion of the well-being of African American communities. While my discussion here has focused only on the Plan for the Future, many actions listed in beginning of this blog, have stimulated change and movement towards the total transformation of the city. And I will say loudly and clearly, if city officials, federal and state government, urban planners, developers and realtors don't change the present trajectory of this transformation, New Orleans will become a city where Black folks used to live.

Dr. Beverly Wright is a sociologist and the Executive Director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Dr. Wright may be reached via email via


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