Friday, August 30, 2013

Lies of omission

Al Jazeera America's feature on New Orleans 8 years post-K.

New Orleans: Two Cities from Jazeera Clips on Vimeo.

As with 99% of the mountain of docu-drama and agit-prop to have grown out of Katrina, there are some problems with this film. It tries so hard to tell the story it wants to tell that it deliberately omits, simplifies, or obscures facts the filmmakers fear might weaken their argument. That's a shame because the inaccuracy blunts rather than sharpens the effect of their statement. But watch it anyway. It reveals a myth at the heart of the post-K era even if it presents it in an imperfect fashion.

For example, there's an interview with a local craftsman named Henry Artigue who is described as a"having recently moved to Bywater" in a way that implies he's one of those stereotypical "young professionals from somewhere else" we hear so much about.  Turns out, though, he's moved to Bywater all the way from Uptown. The filmmakers could have said that and lost no narrative value from it but they seemed to want his comments to have maximum dramatic appeal.

This isn't necessary, though. The statement stands on its own. About the prospect of displaced New Orleanians who haven't been able to come back ever returning, Artigue adds a condition.

"I'd like to see them come home, but they have to get a job."  

The myth of the New Orleans "comeback" is built upon the premise that people who had little and lost everything were themselves the problem all along. It doesn't surprise me at all to hear this sentiment expressed by a local.  It's an articulation of a latent class hostility that has existed here as long as I've been alive and which the Katrina flood unleashed with devastating consequences. 

In so many ways post-Katrina New Orleans has realized the aspirations of local conservatives stretching back for generations.  Public housing decimated, public education privatized, public health services greatly reduced and privatized, white mayor elected, tourism scene attracting all the right sort of boutique development, rents up, longtime Uptown Republican Councilwoman Peggy Wilson only wishes she could have achieved even one of these revanchist items during her political career. In the post-Katrina environment they all sailed through as "common-sense reforms."

Population growth is OK but only limited to a certain kind of person. You know, the good kind of people who fit in with the new plan.  At Wednesday night's District B Community Budget Meeting, real estate agent, Jackie Clarkson told the audience she was thrilled to see the city attract so many "young people" of the "creative class." Meaning, of course, people who can afford to buy expensive houses. 

To people like Jackie, there's a clear narrative.  Before Katrina, the city was being held back by poor people. Pres Kabacoff called them a "drag on the city's economy" meaning they lived on land he wanted to  develop.  After Katrina the "drags" have been removed and so the city has "undergone a renaissance."  

But even this, ugly as it sounds, is an illusion.  

Here are some statistics from GNOCDC's Katrina Index that run counter to Jackie's and Pres's enthusiasm.
The poverty rate in the New Orleans metro declined from 18 percent in 1999 to 15 percent in 2007, but then increased to 19 percent in 2011, such that it is now statistically unchanged since 1999. In New Orleans itself, the 2011 poverty rate of 29 percent is also statistically the same as in 1999 after falling to 21 percent in 2007.
So, according to Kabacoff, shouldn't we expect the "drag on the economy" to remain fully in place?  Or can we still have a renaissance if we just move the drag out of the immediate area we'd like to renew?
Post–Katrina housing is unaffordable with 54 percent of renters in the city paying more than 35 percent of their pre–tax income on rent and utilities in 2011, up from 43 percent of renters in 2004.
Bill Quigley refers to the GNOCDC numbers as the "2013 Katrina Pain Index"
The last of the five big traditional public housing complexes was ordered demolished in May. About a third of the 5000 plus displaced residents have found other public housing according to National Public Radio.

Public transportation is still down from pre-Katrina levels. Pre-Katrina about 13 percent of workers used public transportation, now 7.8.

Public education has been completely changed since Katrina with almost 80 percent of students attending charters, far and away the highest percentage in the country reports the Tulane Cowen Institute.

The poverty rate in New Orleans is 29 percent, nearly double the national rate of 16 percent. However, GNOCDC reports the majority of the poor people in the metro area now reside in the suburban parishes outside New Orleans.
The cost of living in New Orleans has skyrocketed while every means of support for low income families has been ripped out from beneath. The rent is too damn high. The school system is an impenetrable maze. City services are being cut, privatized, or subtly shifted to meet the expectations of a wealthier population rather than the needs of the poor.

More to the point, though, overall poverty in New Orleans hasn't even been reduced.  It's just been shifted out of the way where it can be more easily ignored.  The "renaissance" people like Jackie Clarkson tend to celebrate is really only a shift in political power and priorities that benefits their side. 

Thursday morning I couldn't help but notice that the famous print edition of the Daily Georges left any mention of the Katrina flood off of A-1. This week's Gambit scarcely mentions it at all.  There was no acknowledgement of the date anywhere on their frequently updated website either. 

I understand the desire to not appear as though you're trying to exploit the memory of the day for attention, for "web hits," to sell T-Shirts or whatever. But I think both the Advocate and Gambit made a mistake. In consciously downplaying the significance of the day, these opinion-making news organizations are playing directly into the Kabacoff-Clarkson thesis that Katrina happened, Katrina ended, and now everything is better. 

But the fact is Katrina is still happening. It is, in the form of federal disaster aid, the source of all capital, all patronage, and  all economic activity to speak of currently in play in New Orleans.  Its attendant "demographic shifts"... made more permanent by the selling off of the school system, the destruction of public housing, and the favor shown to upscale re-development... has allowed the conservative faction to solidify its grip on political power.  It is the catalyst for everything the money power in New Orleans has gained these past  8 years and everything the rest of us have lost.

To ignore it, or to suggest that it is a closed chapter in our history, is to tell a fundamental lie about everything happening in the city today and for many years to come.

And the longer we tell that lie, the greater credence we give to Mr. Artigue's and Mr. Kabacoff's and Ms. Clarkson's assertion that the city is better off for having abandoned its most vulnerable residents. 


jinx said...

Excellent. Thank you.

ET said...

Thanks for citing the GNOCDC here. Their work so often elegantly undercuts the myths of what any one party chooses to believe about this city.

Michael Patrick Welch said...

Damn good analysis!

Owen Courrèges said...

"In so many ways post-Katrina New Orleans has realized the aspirations of local limousine liberals stretching back for generations."

Fixed that for you.

jeffrey said...

I'll accept that terminology as well. I think we're talking about the same sort of people. I draw little distinction between "Creative Class" technocrats and what we think of as mainstream conservative economic policymakers. They draw from the same fundamentally "trickle-down" well.

But I see your point. No doubt Mitch Landrieu's supporters consider themselves techonocrats. (A favorite social critic of mine )

If I had to draw up a rough profile, I'd say Florida's "Creatives" are Obama voters who lean libertarian. Their parents likely voted for Reagan. Aside from their more progressive social views on issues like gay marriage, reproductive rights, etc., they still subscribe to what we could roughly call "center-right" economic philosophy.

SN said...


Owen Courrèges said...


In my experience the "creative class" boosters don't tend to be very conservative (I mean, Florida's research included a 'gay index.'), but I agree that libertarian-leaning Obama voters are largely in that camp.

However, that doesn't address the divide between those who favor heavy local meddling and regulation, from zoning, to noise laws, to business licencing, and those who fight it tooth and nail. I'd call people who have little problem with that "Bill Maher libertarians," i.e., people generally left-wing who nevertheless have little problem with local laws and initiatives that hurt the poor and existing small businesses, at least if those efforts are in their interests or make the city more friendly to outside money. They're not really libertarian at all, but more self-involved, wealthy pseudo-liberals.

rw51 said...

See part of an interview I did with Glenn David's brother, Derrick Tabb, on the same corner in Treme, several years ago. They grew up at that corner. Derrick gives a bit more history of the block. We also discussed gentrification, which also concerns Derrick, tho it's not in this clip. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKnophcPAJE

Julie Twice said...

The film "deliberately omits, simplifies, or obscures facts the filmmakers fear
might weaken their argument"? Do you really believe the film omits, simplifies, or obscures in just 10 minutes? Or maybe because it's a short piece they couldn't include every possible fact? They give a chance for both Kabacoff and Campanella to make their arguments - both have different perspectives from each other, and they each have different views than GDA and Soul Sister. Plus, the film brings in new business owners (some of those new residents), and doesn't exactly make them villains. I think the piece is about as complicated as it can be for a 10 minute film.

And how does the film make Henry Artigue look like a young professional? First of all, he's not exactly young or a stereotypical Bywater resident. Is it really a crucial detail that he moved to the Bywater from Uptown instead of out of town?