Cities are an emerging trend Gentrification is a phenomenon slowly encroaching most American cities following the white flight of the 1950s and 60s. While the cities themselves all look different, the patterns of gentrification are often quite similar. White “urban pioneers,” attracted to lower rents and neighborhoodly cultural charms, move in and are eventually followed by government sponsored developers and corporations. New Orleans did not follow this slow creeping narrative and, in fact, gentrification would not have been able to occur without the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. The visual representation of gentrification, created by Natalia and myself, does not directly depict the gentrification that occurred in New Orleans, nor the natural disasters that catalyzed it, but, instead, the larger themes of gentrification that encompass New Orleans. The focal point of our painting is a building that a landlord is attempting to repossess in order to rent the apartments at market rates. Chains creep up the side of the building, locking the original residents out. On the roof of the building we can see the former tenants escaping into a hot air balloon, a metaphor that stands for the hot air provided by the government in way of housing for victims of gentrification. The gentrification of New Orleans occurred in sweeping succession as a result of Hurricane Katrina, referred to as “the opportunity of a lifetime” by then governor Kathleen Blanco.1
Traditional “urban pioneers,” did not catalyze the gentrification of New Orleans. The wealthy, generally white “Urban Pioneers,” craving cultural and urban edge were not the first to venture into the wards of New Orleans, as often occurs with gentrification. That right belongs to the floods of Hurricane Katrina. Instead of being forced out by increasing rents and mayo stores, New Orleans residents were evacuated by winds reaching up to 174 mph and waters 10 ft high. Once people have been forced out, the role of the government becomes integral. In many instances of gentrification, the government will upzone an area to allow developers to build luxury condos or provide subsidies for development, but the instance of Katrina is more complicated and unethical. The government of Louisiana entered a grand ploy to rid the city of people they didn’t want to be there, the people who if allowed “to move back into their old neighborhoods…[would make the city] just as run-down and dysfunctional as before,” and fill it with “middle class families.”2 White families. The New Orleans and Louisiana governments, with the aid of the Federal Emergency Relief Agency (FEMA) took on unique roles in forcing black people out of New Orleans, seizing school systems and denying people the money to move back to the city. The government was fearless in their blatant attempts to get rid of people, a stark contrast to the more common and subtle gentrification approach of turning a blind eye as developers drive out low-income residents of color with higher prices and new storefronts.
While the means of the gentrification of New Orleans was very different from cities like New York, Detroit and San Francisco, the end result was the same. Gentrification is essentially “about reorienting the purpose of cities away from being spaces that provide for the poor and middle classes and toward spaces that generate capital for the rich.”3 The execution of gentrification often hinges on systemic racial violence that is protected and perpetuated by elected officials. Reshaped neighborhoods create complex reshaped intrapersonal dynamics that then go on to reshape societal culture. Natalia and I depict this in our un-named piece of art. The master’s degree looming in front of the cold, recently developed building represents the new operating standard of education necessary to function and gain employment within this neighborhood. It is juxtaposed by the music flowing out of the older centerpiece building. The master’s degree is a social construct of expertise — a singular evaluation of worth — that creates yet another entryway barrier to wealth and opportunity. As Ruth Idakula, a New Orleans resident, said, “if the city is a ladder, gentrification pushes everyone down one rung: the most disenfranchised get pushed off completely, the middle class ends up on the bottom run, and even the rich feel pressure from the top.”4
Cities in the United States are trapped within a system that forces them to value money above the needs of their people, in the end resulting in capital and cultural wastelands as corporations parasitically cause the depreciation of their surroundings. Participating in this system is a choice that speaks to larger issues than just gentrification. Gentrification isn’t just coffee shops and the white middle class, because eventually, these people will likely get kicked out too. Eventually, the future of gentrification could just be competing corporations renting out empty apartments as a means of investment. In order to evaluate the beneficiaries of gentrification one must first define a system of values. Are the rich really benefiting from isolated neighborhoods devoid of culture and social interaction? Is anyone benefiting from the decay of public institutions like school systems and parks? The people should define the government’s value system. Elected officials should not be able to decide to value capital over public interests. The systems in place that allow them to do this are not only representative of centuries of racist housing policy violence, but also of the oppression of the citizen in favor of some unseen gain.
1 Moskowitz, Peter, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood (Nation Books, NYC, 2017), 18
2 Ibid. 26
3 Ibid. 22
4 Ibid. 56