Originally published in Make Magazine, Winter 2005
Drive south on Claiborne Avenue coming out of the Ninth Ward around seven o’clock and you’ll get a pretty good picture of where things stand in this town. Pull up to the stoplight at Canal Street and look to the left. Canal is awash in life and light. Now look to the right. Nothing but eerie darkness, power still out six weeks after the storm. No prizes for guessing which side is a tourist Mecca and which side is a poor black neighborhood.
It’s the most noticeable change of the post-Katrina era: New Orleans just isn’t as black as it ought to be. It’s more or less evident depending on where you are. In my old neighborhood of Riverbend, where the population is mostly white, things don’t look a whole lot different. There are fallen trees, shingle-less roofs, looted convenience stores, but that’s what passes for normal these days. I wandered around the city for a week and was amazed at how quickly the unimaginable becomes the mundane. People whose houses are missing sizable chunks of wall talked about how lucky they were to pull through with no real damage. Folks got so accustomed to being home by eight p.m. that they at first didn’t know what to do with the extra hours when the curfew was pushed back to midnight. And we all learned to wait twice as long and tip twice as much in restaurants.
But the black thing, that’s not so easy to get used to. New Orleans is ordinarily about 67% black and 28% white, with a good chunk of the remainder made up by the East Side’s Vietnamese neighborhoods. But the bulk of the evacuees left homeless in Katrina’s wake were black, and with nothing but rubble and mold to return to, most of those folks aren’t coming back anytime soon. I’ve been to the Ninth Ward. A lot of those homes were scarcely inhabitable even before August 29. Now they make up an eerie chain of unsalvageable reminders: vehicles coated in the thick white film of flood residue, water stains reaching eight feet up exterior walls, government spray paint marking porches with the number of dead found inside. Even in the unlikely event that the Ninth Ward will be rebuilt with affordable housing, who would go back to the scene of such horror?
Even governmental PR isn’t attempting to paint a rosy picture of the future of black New Orleans. “New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson told the Houston Chronicle, adding his voice to those opposing any kind of rebuilding in the Ninth Ward. His comments sparked some anger from Jesse Jackson and his cohorts, but sad to say, the HUD Secretary is probably exactly right.
It really is a different dynamic on the streets today. Halliburton’s rigged rebuilding contract has apparently made them even more arrogant in their hiring practices. The Washington Post reported recently on a federal investigation that has so far uncovered at least ten undocumented immigrants working for Halliburton’s Gulf Coast rebuilding operations, and one can only assume that this finding is only the tip of the iceberg. There has been a lot of buzzing lately that New Orleans’ electricians and skilled laborers are staying away from the city because they prefer their new homes, or worse, because they just don’t want to work that hard. Perhaps it’s more a case of not wanting to work that hard without being paid a fair day’s wage. As Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans native, told the Post, “Skilled Louisiana workers rebuilding a U.S. military base were pushed aside by sub-contractors looking to make a quick buck off American taxpayers by hiring low-skilled, low-wage undocumented workers.”
Whatever the case, the streets of New Orleans are now populated largely by recent Mexican and Honduran immigrants willing to endure some corporate abuse for the sake of a paying gig. Despite its Spanish heritage (Prior to the United States, the city was both a French and a Spanish territory), New Orleans is probably one of the least Latin cities in the U.S., lacking even a decent authentic Mexican restaurant. Louisiana’s last census put the state’s Hispanic population at only 2.4%, well below the national average of 12.5% and dwarfed by far by neighboring Texas’s 32%. So it was a bit jarring for me to stroll the weather-beaten remains of the Central Business District and see dozens of Latino laborers sweeping debris and sorting through stacks of cinder blocks. My first job in New Orleans was at a movie theater on Canal Street, on a strip that housed dozens of black-owned and black-patronized business. That block now buzzes with shouted Spanish as workers sift through the wreckage of thoroughly looted shoe stores and electronics shops. Returning to an adjective that’s become the cornerstone of my vocabulary since visiting New Orleans, it’s just weird.
And it’s not working out all that well, either. There is so much animosity toward FEMA in the city that returning locals have been slow to put out welcome mats for the aid workers. Add to that the new allegations that the workers were brought in at the expense of the pre-existing New Orleans area workforce, and you have a recipe for a severe culture clash.
My friend Christy*, whose house I stayed at during my visit, works for a large – and, she suspects, somewhat unscrupulous – real estate company. Her responsibilities include finding housing for FEMA employees. It’s sort of a dream set up for a company like Halliburton, because the general lack of undamaged houses in the city gives them an excuse to put their employees in substandard but cheap quarters. Christy came home from work every day shaken by the places she had to put these people into. Most apartments were covered in toxic mold. Some had noticeably weakened floors or missing patches of ceiling. She complained to her bosses, but was told there was no reason a dozen grown men couldn’t live comfortably in a two-bedroom apartment that would be condemned anywhere else in this country. Dealing with unsafe conditions, low wages and general animosity, the workers began lashing out. Christy reported several apartment houses trashed far beyond what the storm dished out: furniture was busted up, freon was let out of air conditioners, the tires of neighboring cars were slashed.
There was a lot of talk in the air about an unofficial government plan that the FEMA workers would like New Orleans so well they’d decide to stay, and the Latinos would simply repopulate the areas abandoned by the blacks. Never mind that a demographic shift that sudden and severe would shake the city in ways Katrina never could, or that several centuries of African-American culture from the slave trade at Congo Square to the birth of jazz in Storyville to the Zulu parades at Mardi Gras cannot be shrugged off so easily. So long as the bottom line stays intact, the powers that be don’t much give a damn if the blacks come back. If the Latinos don’t like the place, you can rest assured Halliburton and friends will come up with something else equally profitable. It’s just the American way.
*Name changed to protect anonymity
“New Orleans racial makeup up in air,” Houston Chronicle, September 29, 2005
“Hispanics becoming visible part of New Orleans work force,” New Orleans CityBusiness, October 15, 2005
“Suspected illegal workers found at Halliburton job site,” Washington Post, October 22, 2005
2000 United States Census, U.S. Census Bureau