A resident of New Orleans gave the following statement in the spring of 2014 at a hearing with the city’s Historic District Landmarks Commission. Here, the development of the Holy Cross former school site, in the Holy Cross neighbourhood of the Lower Ninth Ward, was discussed.
The particular hearing was one of many taking place prior to the New Orleans City Council voting on a proposed zone change for the site submitted by Perez APC – a locally based architecture and development firm behind the proposed project. The zone change was approved not long after the hearing with the Historic District Landmarks Commission despite public protest from members of the Holy Cross neighbourhood, and the failure of both the Historic District Landmarks Commission and the Architectural Review Committee to bring unanimous recommendations on the matter to the partly newly elected City Council.
Following the zone change, Holy Cross residents took legal measures against the City, as neighbourhood advocates viewed the decision of the City Council to be the result of an undemocratic process, and as an assault at a primarily black, working-class, designated historic neighbourhood mostly consisting of small-scale Creole architectural structures. In spite of this, Perez APC initiated the construction on the first phase of the controversial development earlier this year.
But how did a private developer convince a political body to allow for a massive, modernist construction, which in spite of it not tearing down any existing structures, will drastically alter the use and aesthetics of a neighbourhood, which received historic designation in 1990 precisely to protect the latter? And how might we understand the opposition to the Perez APC development outside the sometimes conceptually constraining binaries offered by NIMBYism or heritage preservationism, against unregulated, predatory market-led urban development? Part of an answer to this question, as well as to what lies behind the opposition to the Perez development can be found in the by now widely acknowledged conceptualisation of Katrina as less of a natural disaster than a historical and political-economic one, and in wider processes of neoliberal shock therapy – what Naomi Klein has coined the massive restructuring of New Orleans characterized by public dispossessions in the aftermath of the hurricane. Approaching the topic thus requires attention to the historical, material-spatial processes involved in both the making of Katrina as a disaster, and the discourse and practices of redevelopment of post-Katrina New Orleans. The latter has largely been facilitated by political claims to governmentally unquestioned ideals of ‘progress’ and ‘economic development’, and carried out within a neoliberal framework of primarily third sector agents and organisations. The redevelopment of the Holy Cross former school site thus offers itself as a case by which to understand both elements in the workings (and failures) of post-disaster urban development as well as the struggles surrounding it.
A Neighbourhood on the Margins
The Holy Cross neighbourhood takes its name from the Holy Cross Catholic High School located by the Mississippi River levee. The Holy Cross neighbourhood is technically part of the Lower Ninth Ward but received, like many other riverside neighbourhoods in New Orleans, historical designation to protect its Creole architecture, which is distinct for the city and a remnant of its French and Spanish colonial past. Now infamous after having been made the poster-child for the destructions of hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward makes up the eastern outskirt of New Orleans and is separated from rest of the urban core by the Industrial Canal (built in 1910). In conjunction with the 1940 construction of the Intercoastal Waterway, which forms an express route from the Mexican Gulf directly into the urban core of the city, the Lower Ninth Ward came to be surrounded by water and with this also especially ecologically fragile to flooding. The neighbourhood thus suffered the largest degree of devastation within Orleans Parish when storm surges from Hurricane Katrina on August 29 2005 breached the levees surrounding the neighbourhood in numerous places.
While the destructions brought about by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee breaks resulted in massive losses to the city’s general housing stock, its aftermath equally brought with it extensive reform in housing policies. As a result, the city’s public housing projects were closed down – including those materially undamaged by the storm – in favour of largely private, mixed-income units. Katrina was in many ways ‘the perfect storm’ and opportunity for the implementation of such shock politics: the trauma brought about by the storm in its immediate aftermath left the city with a political climate open to the implementation of drastic political change difficultly challenged by scattered and temporarily weakened public protest.
The city’s economic development strategy has seen a similar broader makeover in the aftermath of Katrina. After his 2010 election mayor Mitch Landrieu has been committed to boosting the city’s economic growth. His efforts have been focused around creating private sector jobs and fostering a fruitful environment for entrepreneurs – driven by tax incentives for small start-up companies within select economic clusters and a commitment to ‘trickle-down economics’. This has been pursued through the establishment of public-private partnerships – prominently exemplified with the creation of ‘New Orleans Business Alliance’: a non-profit, which functions as the official economic development agency for the City of New Orleans, and has as its declared mission to ’reposition New Orleans as the next great American city for business investment, quality of life and economic opportunity’
This development is of course not a new one but part of a wider – and well-debated – trend in urban governance in post-Fordist, capitalist economies from the 1970s and ‘80s and onwards. In New Orleans, however, Katrina seems to have been the ‘fact’ to accelerate this particular developmental strategy after decades of the city relying on their service-economy along with redistributions from an equally austerity-ridden federal government. Klein’s writings on disaster capitalism and New Orleans mainly concern the immediate aftermath of the storm. But subsequent initiatives towards restructuring the city’s economic strategy is following and elaborating the same processes – particularly when taking the political processes that aided this development into consideration. The city holds an all-embracing position towards financial investors, which particularly entail real estate developers such as Perez APC. No promises of affordable housing options were offered by Perez APC in their proposal. Instead, it included those of the establishment of a ‘business incubator’ (essentially a for-rent, shared office space), a karate school led by former seven-times world champion in martial arts Eric O’Neill Sr., and a cooking school led by, supposedly, former white house chef Ronnie Seaton – whose credentials more recently have been questioned as fabricated. As such, the development entails all the components of spectacular private development intended to attract further investment – celebrity in exchange of public services, and with little attention to the actual needs of the existing community or social sustainability otherwise.
The 2014 vote increased development potential for the area. It changed the zoning of the Holy Cross former school site from a low-rise, low-density ‘RD-3’ zoning to a high-commercial ‘C1-A’ zoning. A zone change was necessary in order for the site to potentially accommodate both extensively higher density and heights than the RD-3 zoning, which only allowed for constructions to bear a maximum height of 40 feet. The application for the zone change was thus submitted by Perez APC as a necessity to accommodate their proposed development, which in its original form included the renovation of the administration building of the former Holy Cross School as well as the development of its 13 acres of surrounding land.
What seemed to attract the most dissatisfaction from part of the public, however, was the planned construction of two 135 feet, 12 storey, residential apartment towers located along the natural levee of the Mississippi river and adjoining the administration building. In spite of Perez APC eventually revising their proposal by dropping the height of the riverfront towers to 60 feet, as well as postponing the phases of the development that include most of the empty land on the site, the resistance to the project did not dissipate.
While faced with the difficulties of mobilising a neighbourhood-based activism in an area still heavily under-populated, and against a political institution (and representation) that made little effort to aid a democratic process around the question, residents did mobilise against Perez APC, arguing that the project’s modernist architectural style, height, and density was ‘out of style’ and ‘not in character with the community’. Concerns equally counted that a zone change as abrasive as the one proposed would create a precedence for riverfront developments in the city – at best not benefitting low- and medium-income residents and at worst adding to an already skyrocketed post-Katrina housing market, with the accompanying displacement of large parts of the city’s working- and middleclass. Adding to the frustration of residents – and to the undermining of official ideals of civic engagement, which consequently took the form of no more than populist claims, was equally the fact that hearings on the matter were held within working hours and often re-scheduled last-minute. Accordingly, the final vote on zone change was postponed several times, eventually taking place only three days after the 2014 City Council elections – resulting in a part overturn of the political representation, which neighbourhood advocates had spent more than a year making familiar with their case.
Discourses of redevelopment
The predominant argument from council members voting for the Perez development, and from proponents of it, was as the quote above suggests, that the neighbourhood was in dire need of revitalization. While most neighbourhoods in New Orleans have been rebuilt, the Lower Ninth Ward is still heavily marked by the destructions of Katrina, and is lingering around a population number of 4.500 – only 25 per cent of its pre-Katrina number of approximately 18.000 residents. These numbers have left the neighbourhood in a precarious chicken-and-egg situation: unable to produce the residential numbers to support a market for private investment in the most basic services (such as a grocery store), and unable to attract residents to bring up their numbers – due to exactly this lack of amenities.
In recent years, however, the Lower Ninth Ward is slowly beginning to experience the same demographic change which has characterized the rest of New Orleans over the past 10 years, one favouring an increasing number of young, mostly white, transplants. The city is indeed one which over the past 300 years has seen different waves of in-migration, and has as such always been somewhat made up of ‘newcomers’. However, what seems to be carrying tension with it in this particular temporal case is both the sudden magnitude of this development coupled with the fact that neoliberal reform strategies have left the city unable and unwilling to handle this surge of in-migration in a socially responsible manner – with gentrification and the displacement of the, primarily black, working and middle class as a result.
Returning to the case of the Holy Cross former school site development, the shared presumption amongst proponents of the project was that Perez APC would bring a much needed financial injection to the area, with their promise of moving their own office into the refurbished former administration building of the Holy Cross School, coupled with (verbal) affirmations by the aforementioned entrepreneurs of different scales to either invest in the development or move their businesses to the area – should the zone change go through – which would set a precedence for the attraction of economic development. Conversely, neighbours opposing the project feared that it would be the first step of gentrification in the Lower Ninth Ward, drive up property taxes and displace residents who had been in the neighbourhood for generations.
When breaking down the different positions within the conflict, it was by all accounts one of political differences. The language surrounding the conflict, as evident in the quote from council member LaToya Cantrell from the day of the vote on the zone change, however, suggests that for the City Council it was a matter of ‘responsible’ policy positions on one side (the proposing one) and ‘irrational emotional’ responses on the other. In this sense, the discourse surrounding the conflict crystallizes a trend of presenting the class struggle over urban space, which gentrification is, as a choice between ‘development or not’ – what geographer and gentrification scholar Tom Slater refers to as ‘false choice urbanism’. Furthermore, it bears resemblance to what has been described within wider debates on changes in urban politics as moving from being conflict-based to consensus-driven and conflict-free political processes where ‘the political’ is retracted from what are indeed political situations. In the Lower Ninth Ward, the result has been a significant, legal policy change driven by a wider post-Katrina growth agenda of market-led economic development, revitalization, and ‘progress’ – one that has been dominated by politicians and private developers, and one that reminds us to consider the importance of trajectories of power and ideology behind planning practices – even in situations that seem to require radical political intervention. The failure of the Holy Cross zone change and Perez APC development is of course therefore as well one of broader scope than that of the particular case under consideration here. The zone change in the Lower Ninth Ward is, however, not only symbolic to a much laxer public regulation of urban commons and resources, but instrumentally significant for the majority of residents in New Orleans left out of a spiralling, private housing market in which the very question that initiated this post has been largely ignored in spite of its pressing topicality, that is: whose city is this?