Protecting Black Culture in this New, New Orleans
I never thought that I would be witnessing crucial components of Black New Orleans become history this soon. The housing projects are remembered by memories of the bricks that once were. The future of the famed, Black-owned Circle Food Store is uncertain. I have to break my neck to find Black owned businesses, and sometimes even Black people, in what used to be historically Black areas.
GENTRIFICATION is defined as "the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood), accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents." Gentrification has many faces. It's the luxury condos, coffee shops, and yoga studios that miraculously popped up once white residents moved in the area, when Black people would have appreciated those years ago. It's the heavy enforcement of bike lanes that didn't exist in all the years that Black people biked up and down North and South Broad. It's the blue bikes that I'm still trying to grasp the concept of. It's those touring the 6th Ward with binoculars on as if it's an African safari. It's the speculation and entitlement at Black cultural traditions like the secondlines.
While gentrification is a process that is happening all over the country, the gentrification in New Orleans is especially detrimental in that it escalated in the aftermath of disaster. When we were most vulnerable, our culture and livelihoods were being plotted on.
THIS IS A HOUSING CRISIS
In 2009, Democratic political consultant James Carville conducted a poll that asked resident's opinions on "shrinking the footprint" of New Orleans, denying destroyed neighborhoods the opportunity to rebuild. 74% of Black respondents opposed the idea, while 64% of white respondents favored it. Which neighborhoods were these exactly? Mine, and probably yours -- Black neighborhoods like New Orleans East and the Lower 9, which were some of the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. In almost 10 years since that poll, take a look at the conditions of those two areas, and you'll find out which response the city decided to go with.
"Wait, have you heard the latest? / they saying you gotta have paper if you wanna come back" - Lil Wayne, 'Georgia Bush' 2006
After the storm, many Black New Orleanians had trouble rebuilding homes that were in their families for decades. Paperwork was required of those that just lost everything in order to even receive state reimbursement for rebuilding. Then public housing was torn down, despite the buildings receiving little to no damage. This robbed so many New Orleanians of affordable housing and displaced residents, whom of which were 99% Black. From the Magnolia to the Iberville, the housing projects were rebuilt into new, mixed-income apartments, with only a fraction of the spaces reserved for former residents.
Majority Black neighborhoods that were built on lower ground, like the East and the 7th Ward, became exceedingly Black after the storm. Those built on higher ground, like the Bywater and Tremé, became exceedingly white after the storm. If you thought for a second that segregation was a thing of the past, drive down St. Claude Avenue to see otherwise. Middle to upper-class white newcomers have formed an artsy, hipster haven in the Bywater, between St. Claude and the French Quarter. Whereas, between St. Claude and North Claiborne is still majority Black, with visibly less revitalization yielded to that community.
The cost to rent and buy in New Orleans has increased significantly and ridiculously. Those that have lived in neighborhoods their entire lives can no longer afford to stay there. What could be affordable housing, has now been replaced with short-term rentals. Out of town visitors are granted the luxury of staying in a neighborhood for a weekend to be "close to the culture," but don't have to deal with the reality of the daily culture of violence that also plagues our communities.
Gentrification is a threat to Black life in New Orleans. It is an issue that we literally do not have time for, but must address. The Black New Orleans population is already susceptible to violence and murder due to institutional issues of oppression, and gentrification is just elimination from another angle, pushing us further and further into extinction here. Black communities continue to be denied equal access to our now rising economy, the same city economy that first accumulated wealth from the enslavement of our ancestors.
It Wouldn't Be the First Time
Upon its founding, the French Quarter was all that was considered New Orleans. The city grew from a blend of different groups; the Natives that first occupied and refined the land, the French that officially "founded it," the Spanish who eventually controlled it, and the enslaved Africans that essentially built it. Later came contributions from Haitian, Vietnamese, Italian, German, and Chinese immigrants, just to name a few. This blend, more African (and Caribbean) than anything, laid the foundation for the architecture, food, music, and traditions that we have today. It solidified the New Orleans way of life; the Black Creole culture that we know and love.
This culture was threatened in 1803. Napoleon Bonaparte sold Louisiana to the United States under the Louisiana Purchase, and an influx of Americans began to move to New Orleans, settling on an enormous plantation on the other side of Canal Street. This became known as today's Central Business District. The Creoles of the "original city" were not happy about the newcomers. Who did these Americans think they were, coming in and changing things? They didn't even parle français! The CBD was known as the American Sector of the city, with a style of architecture far different than that of the French Quarter. The Creoles and Americans were only cordial and neutral when conducting business, which took place at the median, Canal Street.
The "neutral" ground.
New Orleans established a thriving economy off slavery, with the CBD bustling with new businesses and buildings. By the 1830s, New Orleans had become the wealthiest city in the nation, but at what cost? The city was 57% Black (free and enslaved) and 43% white. As the city expanded, Black people were pushed out of the French Quarter, and into neighborhoods on the outskirts like Tremé and the 7th Ward. By the Civil War era (1860-1865), the Black population dropped to 14%, with the white population surging to 85%.
After a series of turmoil, displacement, natural disasters, and oppression, some how and some way, we still managed to maintain and preserve our way of life. The culture remained unscathed. We are still eating red beans on Mondays as our enslaved ancestors did on wash days and we still follow the beat of the drum as they did in Congo Square, whether its in bounce beats or brass bands.
Resistance in Our Existence
New Orleans is the place to be. I don't blame anyone for wanting to move here. This city is magic and only getting better, with industries like medicine, tech, and engineering on the rise. Our sound is dominating the mainstream, our food is still the truth, our Saints are on a roll, and we have a spotlight on us like never before. Many who would technically be considered as "transplants" or "gentrifiers" can bring positive aspects to the city, with economic growth and social justice work being two of several examples. However, all of these things can exist simultaneously while still including Black people in the growth of the city that we make up 60% of. What do these million-dollar condos mean when we can't afford to live in them? What are these new industries and jobs if we aren't being hired into them? How is the city flourishing if our community's businesses are struggling to stay open?
To be Black in this new, New Orleans is an act of protest. Our very existence is resistance. So to Black New Orleanians: this city needs you in order to survive. This is my plea and challenge for us to do what we can, when we can. Investing in property, owning a business, supporting Black businesses, and keeping your family home IN your family are just a few ways to combat gentrification and reclaim this city. There are many reasons and opportunities that may take us far and wide, but the worst thing would be to come back and visit a New Orleans that you don't recognize. Natives and newcomers can and should coexist, but with a shared responsibility and intentionality that respects, supports, and enriches the culture in which Black New Orleanians live.
We are sensitive and possessive behind this culture. This is a way of life that extends beyond our city's 300 years, with roots that were established long before our ancestors' captivity. It is not an aesthetic. It is not a commodity. It cannot be diluted. It cannot be imitated. It is our means of survival; what we have always held on to when everything else was stripped away. Black New Orleanians ARE New Orleans culture. The two can never be separated, because the connection is intangible. It can't be touched, only carried in veins and through generations.
I am painfully watching my New Orleans, our New Orleans, change before my eyes. This city is so deeply ingrained in me, that this change is personal. Too personal. Katrina and gentrification worked hand in hand to wipe out the most visible representations of my childhood. But see this culture...THIS culture? No indeed. I'll be holding on to it for dear life.