By JONATHAN TILOVE
September 15, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Cast to the four winds, the populace of New Orleans _ especially the black and poor _ grows more dispersed by the day.
In theory, this remains the citizenry of the Crescent City. And amid the chaos of recovery and relocation, activists, organizers, clergy, elected officials, urban planners and political thinkers are struggling to make that citizenship real _ to bind Hurricane Katrina’s diaspora so its people can influence the decisions that determine their city’s fate.
It is an uphill endeavor, one without obvious prospects or precedent. But it is one that hopes to seize on America’s sudden attention to questions of race and class in this singular moment of national empathy.
Otherwise dispossessed, “we must not become disenfranchised,” said Vincent Sylvain, a longtime political operative and public official in New Orleans. Sylvain’s Internet marketing sites and newsletter have become an ad hoc clearinghouse for reconnecting evacuees.
“For those who plan to return, who want to return, who will return, they must remain citizens of New Orleans,” he said. “The only way we can hold our elected officials to account is to be citizens, and voting citizens.”
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, urban studies faculty are imagining ways to create a virtual community _ to identify evacuees, sort them by home neighborhood, church and other social networks, then reconnect them _ ultimately restoring a collective voice.
“We’re trying to conceive of a system aimed at reuniting communities through communications technology,” said Lawrence Vale, co-author of “The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster.”
“We do this because we believe there is a right to return,” said Mel King, invoking a phrase likely to resonate with increasing urgency in months to come. King, long affiliated with MIT, now works to bring information technology to low-income people in Boston’s South End.
Meanwhile, in time-honored fashion, shoe-leather organizers from groups like the Industrial Areas Foundation and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now are visiting evacuees from communities across the devastated Gulf Coast. The goal is to create local coordinating committees through which the displaced may advocate for themselves.
For civil rights movement graybeards like Curtis Muhammad, it is time to once again traverse the Southland in a balky automobile, “looking for our people.” As he did in the 1960s registering voters with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Muhammad is trying to mobilize African-Americans to seize control of their own destinies.
Before Katrina, New Orleans was two-thirds black and among the poorest cities in the nation. Before Katrina, Muhammad led Community Labor United, a coalition of progressive organizations. In the storm’s aftermath, he created the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Committee.
It’s a struggle on ominous terrain, he says, echoing others in ascribing deliberate motives to those who oversaw the government’s muddled response to the storm: “They moved fast to scatter our people once they failed in killing them off _ or allowing them to die.”
There are undoubtedly countless independent efforts by every subset of civic life _ from church groups to Mardi Gras krewes _ to reconnect with one another and stake their claims to the future of New Orleans.
“The Missionary Baptists are all banding together to create one organization just for the purpose of getting in on anything that’s happening,” said the Rev. Joshua Davis, pastor of two small Missionary Baptist churches in New Orleans (Pilgrim Progress and First Shiloh), who is living for the time being in Hammond, La.
But even big churches with sophisticated operations are having a difficult time.
Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in the Upper Ninth Ward has one of the bigger black congregations in the city. But of its 8,000 members, the Rev. Fred Luter, its pastor, has “heard from less than 200.” They are scattered, without rhyme or reason, everywhere; Luter is staying with family in Birmingham, Ala.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had anything like this in the history of the country,” said Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Center at Clark Atlanta University.
Bullard was at a meeting this week in Baton Rouge with leaders of New Orleans’ black political and business communities. It is, he said, a leadership in exile, entirely dependent for its influence on a constituency in exodus.
“Now people are planning the rebuilding of our city and we have been excluded,” said Beverly Wright, who directs the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, which was moving from Xavier University to Dillard University when Katrina hit. She has set up temporary quarters in the state capital, and is seeking Ford Foundation funds to connect with black New Orleanians fast disappearing across America’s vast landscape.
Wright fears many would be happy to see that happen, would use Katrina to “cleanse” the city of many of its black and poor. Compare, she said, what she views as the shunting aside of New Orleans’ black political leadership in recent days with the standing and power Mayor Rudolph Giuliani gained in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.
Yet New Orleanians, in common with New Yorkers after 9/11, share an enormous reservoir of public support and attention.
“Many people, not only African-Americans but certainly African-Americans, were shocked, angered and focused by what they’ve seen since Katrina,” said J. Phillip Thompson, a professor of urban politics at MIT. “And I think that’s the one thing that clearly has been lacking in terms of the response to the neglect that’s been happening in urban America for some time _ focus.”
Thompson believes that in the back of the American mind lurks a fear that many cities harbor what was revealed in New Orleans in Katrina’s wake. “It’s an opportunity for real change,” he said.
Indeed, Adam Sharp, spokesman for Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, said that amid the tragedy, “we have the opportunity here to go back to the drawing board and take advantage of everything we’ve learned about how cities work. There is an opportunity to get things right.”
Certainly community activists like Barbara Major hope so. The director of the St. Thomas Health Clinic in New Orleans and an organizer with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, she has relocated to Houston.
“We want a better city,” she said. “We want to make sure we can get home, but not to the same raggedy housing, the same raggedy schools, the same raggedy low salaries.”
The history of urban renewal in America is that the grandest schemes to improve the lot of the poor often end with the poor dislocated and dispersed.
Ceasar McDowell, founding director of the Center for Reflective Community Practice at MIT, said the poor often can resist undesirable development only with “bodies on the ground.” For now, he said, the black and poor of New Orleans have “lost that leverage.”
In coming days, increasing numbers of people will return to New Orleans. But because they will mostly be those who lived on higher, dryer ground, they will mostly be wealthier and white.
Already, Sylvain said, “there appear to be folks form the high economic class who do not want to see the poor black class return to New Orleans.” Even many of the black working poor, he said, will not be able to afford the improved housing New Orleans must build to avoid the same disaster again.
David Bositis, who studies black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, said that when all is said and done, he can imagine a new New Orleans that is majority white.
But not without a fight, Sylvain said.
“This,” he said of the coming battle for New Orleans, “will make for a very volatile gumbo.”