New Orleans: Will Recovery Work?
That New Orleans is battling back was clear from the first few minutes of our late night arrival. While many buildings are still damaged, the French Quarter has been transformed to an extended construction site. Pick-up trucks dotted the U-shape drives of seemingly every hotel large and small. Beyond the bars of Bourbon Street (long-reported as open by the media) “Now Open” signs dotted smaller restaurants and bars along Decatur and other portions of the Quarter.
This progress has not yet shown up in the employment situation. The state of Louisiana only added 12,000 jobs in the month of December, with payrolls down from 1.7 million from the pre-Hurricane level of 1.9 million. As measured by “Help Wanted” signs, there does seem to be many front-line employment opportunities. Numerous restaurants were desperate for staff. A day labor site at the Shell station on St. Charles and Claiborne had a hundred-plus day-laborers looking for work but the pace of reconstruction seems slow at best.
These two sectors – leisure/hospitality and rebuilding work – are at the heart of New Orleans’ ability to recover its economy as a commercial and tourist hub. Dishwashers, cooks, maids, bellhops, waiters, musicians were the cog of the service sector ‘assembly line of New Orleans.’
Working Class Neighborhoods
A quick drive out to the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards on the east side of New Orleans points to the major challenges that New Orleans face as they seek to rebuild this workforce. The lower ninth ward, east of the Industrial Canal, is devastating. How can I describe it? Picture a large, humble, working class neighborhood with modest houses stretching block after a block condemned to a terribly flawed and half-completed urban renewal plan. Many blocks are completely demolished, while other houses are shells of themselves with a lifetime of clothes and furniture spread everywhere.
To me, the upper ninth ward is more tragic. It too is almost completely devoid of humanity. But, there, most houses seem to have passed the structural test of the Hurricane. I know many of the houses are inhabitable because of severe mold damage and damaged roofs and windows. But, there are houses with 4 walls and a roof and functioning streets, just minutes from downtown. If the government was anywhere to be found, rebuilding seems within reach.
New Orleans’ economy can’t recover without working class neighborhoods being to house the essential workers of the service sector industry. But, when you drive around the ninth ward, there is barely a recovery operation in sight. Where one would hope there were would be construction crews and redevelopment authorities, the only presence of rebuilding appear to be those by brave homeowners and the donated hands of activists at the Common Ground relief center. It was more than ironic that the most vibrant place we visited was the commercial Magazine street in the well-to-do Garden District – a place that mostly houses the kind of folks (accountants, lawyers, business people, real estate brokers) for whom there are relatively few job openings.
So, where is the rebuilding of working class New Orleans? Homeowners (aided by the Advancement Project) are fighting government bulldozing that threatens to destroy the main asset of working families and the potential viability of these neighborhoods. On the other hand, President Bush’s Hurricane Recovery Chief Donald Powell publicly rejected the plan of Rep. Richard Baker (R-LA) to establish a recovery corporation to buy out homeowners and redevelop neighborhoods under a unified approach (see the New Orleans Times-Picayune story). While, there are many trailers scattered throughout the city, but not nearly enough to restock the population as many workers are shockingly making due in substandard tent cities.
Somehow to me it is symbolic of the whole approach from the Bush Administration towards economic development. They have stood idly by while the nation lost thousands of manufacturing jobs during the recession, all the while claiming that their tax cuts had revived the economy. As soon as the media attention died down and the natural gas started flowing again, the recovery was complete as far at they were concerned. They claim to be playing tough love with families that did not have flood insurance - but they are missing the point. With no working class neighborhoods, New Orleans is sunk. Will they realize until its too late?
Activists, Workers and Bureaucrats
I couldn’t close my account of my trip without mentioning some of the resilient people we met. There is a passionate commitment to bring a new sense of worker’s rights and livable wages to a rebuilt economy, especially to confront the abuses facing immigrant day laborers and the greater economic needs that returning families will have. Among returning workers we met at the unemployment office, I found the same de vivre that I had come to know in my pre-Katrina visit to the city. Among bureaucrats, there was a deep commitment to public service in the midst of great demands. I only hope that progressive won’t forget New Orleans to demand that the Federal government keep its commitments and keep directing donations to the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, ACORN and other activist groups.