In an interview with the Washington Post, mayor Mitch Landrieu boasted “New Orleans is the nation’s most immediate lab for innovation and change.”
What is it like to live in a laboratory? To experience the mundanities of finding housing, placing kids in school, getting a job, navigating by car or bus or streetcar – even the most fundamental act of eating food – as part of a grand experiment. It is surreal, I can tell you, and like so many things in this city’s 300-year history, it is unparalleled. In just ten of those years, New Orleans has managed to reinvent itself so quickly and so broadly that comparisons to other cities seem to fail us. How could Landrieu’s hometown become a “new government model that’s emblematic of what the rest of the country should be doing,” as he would wish, when this model is based on devastation (80% of homes destroyed), relocation (90,000 African Americans residents still unreturned), an influx of new residents (approximately 30,000, mostly white) and recovery funds ($71 billion in federal support alone)?
Yet, the mayor’s words should be listened to very carefully outside the city limits, and with great caution. What Katrina enabled was an acceleration and intensification of development that policy-makers and business elites in other places can only hope for, and that residents new and native, black and white and other, have experienced unevenly. The fault lines are detectable in language use: a crisis for many becomes an opportunity for a select few, and neighborhood revitalization from above is experienced as gentrification on the ground.
The “tale of two cities” narrative advanced by the media parachuting in for the tenth anniversary of Katrina vacillated between triumphalism and condemnation, but as a resident and homeowner I cannot take sides so easily. Because New Orleanians navigate a landscape of insecurity each day, I have become implicated in the deepening divide, and opting out is not an option. In teasing out the implications of my complicity – however involuntary – I see Landrieu’s point that living in this particular laboratory is emblematic of others’ experiences elsewhere.
Site of Exception?
To ask what might be learned from the New Orleans example requires questioning the common sense notion that this place is beyond comparison.
An enormous catastrophe in an extraordinary city, Katrina reinforced a longstanding assumption that New Orleans somehow stands apart from America. But as Naomi Klein predicted in the immediate aftermath of the flood, the last decade has presented a model case study of “disaster capitalism”: “waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens were still reeling from the shock, then quickly making the ‘reforms’ permanent.”  For example, anyone relating Katrina to September 11th, as sociologists Kevin Gotham and Miriam Greenberg have, must begin by acknowledging vast differences “in the type of disaster trigger (i.e., a terrorist strike and hurricane) and the intensity of the scale of destruction.” Yet these distinctions mask the reality that “policymakers and government officials responded with strikingly similar, market-oriented strategies of recovery and redevelopment.”  New York City and New Orleans resist comparison in many other ways, yet they are both paradigmatic as “crisis cities,” where an event outside the business-cycle prompts a recovery process that is squarely within it.
Crisis is a lever for building the neoliberal agenda: after the waters recede, after the first responders leave and residents return, the question becomes what kind of city is being built, and the answer is whatever city the developers and property owners with the most influence want.
“That’s why I find myself praying for a real storm,” wrote a Chicago Tribune columnist envious of the “reset button” that Katrina bequeathed New Orleans.
That’s also why the new New Orleans is already a model for Detroit; why other mid-sized struggling cities like Cleveland or Buffalo are surely paying attention; why New Orleans is, in short, comparable to other cities. Because the experiments happening here have either already happened elsewhere, or are underway, or are pending (with whatever necessary site-specific modifications). Just as the provisional extensions of power during a “state of exception” become normalized in routine governance, the redevelopment of a “site of exception” can serve as a prototype for any city. 
Its not as if neoliberalism is new to New Orleans: as Megan French-Marcelin argues, “For nearly four decades, New Orleans governing officials have exploited intentional loopholes in federal urban aid policy to reorganize the city around private interests at the expense of public benefit.” But having lived in New Orleans before and after Katrina, I was unprepared for the breathtaking speed of redevelopment and the incursion of neoliberal policy.
There are too many examples to offer; how the Louisiana Legislature fired 7,500 teachers and took over 107 New Orleans schools within three months after Katrina, or how every one of these schools has been closed or privatized; how the city’s major public housing projects have now been leveled, handed to private developers, and are gradually being replaced with mixed-income communities that house 64% fewer families.
As a resident and an anthropologist, my field site is the neighborhood where I live, the built environment around me, the markets where I purchase goods, the transportation I travel on. I am interested in how the macro-level processes of gentrification, development, and public policy are experienced by everyday New Orleanians, and how, to varying degrees, we are all trapped in these structures.
When I moved to New Orleans in 1997, I settled in the uptown district, in a mixed neighborhood in terms of both race and class, and in 2000 my wife and I purchased our first house there. The price was $113,000, and we could only afford to put 5% down, but there was no question of our standing as gentrifiers, underscored by our whiteness, our middle-class status, and our recent arrival in the city. By the time we sold our home eight years later, every other house on the block had been “flipped” to new owners. Property values were given a huge boost by Katrina, as we were located in the unflooded strip of land by the Mississippi now referred to the “sliver by the river.” We made a profit, moved into a fixer-upper around the corner, spent four years renovating it, and sold again for a profit in 2012 when the marriage ended.
“Interrogating the gentrifier in the mirror,” as sociologists John Joe Schlictman and Jason Patch propose, meant confronting a choice between “life as gentrifiers, life as residents in a homogeneous white middle-class neighborhood, or life as suburbanites.”  Having the ability to choose where to live, and making the choices I have made, I am culpable in perpetuating the uneven redevelopment of my adopted hometown.
A Ground-Level View
All around me, and in my own backyard, there is a widening gap of revitalization for some and displacement for others, growth for property owners that exacerbates the strain on renters and first-time buyers.
Before Katrina, in the Warehouse District neighborhood, the requisite stock of industrial buildings had been converted into residential lofts, and in the last decade that explosive growth has spilled over into the adjacent Central Business District. Dozens of complexes filled with luxury condominiums and rental apartments are being built in the “anonymous box” architectural style that horrifies the city’s preservationists, with units that sell or rent for double the neighborhood’s pre-storm values.
Renters across the city have taken the hardest hit: median rent is up 89% since 2000, and 61% of households experience the “cost burden” of spending 30% or more of their monthly income on rent.  People of color are particularly vulnerable: with much less earning power on average (the median income for white families is $60,553 compared $25,102 for black families), black New Orleanians continue to face housing discrimination and are being pushed out into “food deserts” with sporadic public transportation and substandard housing.
I now live in the epicenter of neighborhood change, in a mixed-use neighborhood called the Bywater that sits about a mile upriver from the French Quarter. Prior to Katrina, the Bywater was one of the city’s most mixed neighborhoods in terms of race and class, but the black population decreased 64% between 2000 and 2010 and home prices have risen over 75%since the flood. Not coincidentally, the Bywater and adjoining Marigny and St. Roch neighborhoods are where the largest concentration of new transplants have settled, driving up rental prices at even higher rates than the rest of the city.
Map of downtown neighborhoods along the Mississippi River.
I count Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin and pop singer Solange Knowles as neighbors. Mainstream and social media alert locals and tourists to the latest opening of markets, restaurants, galleries, and live music venues, and fuel a demand for short-term rental properties to accommodate curious visitors. The result is a sweeping economic, not to mention experiential and affective, transformation within a relatively small and confined geographic area.
Two Views from the Top
Taking a diagnostic of neighborhood change in the Bywater, I see a part of the city where development corporations have provided a structural framework for “growth” (with an emphasis on public-private partnerships) while individuals have accelerated gentrification as citizen-consumers (buying and renting property, eating and shopping, attending cultural events).
Two developers who live in the Bywater – Pres Kabacoff and Sean Cummings – have each undertaken numerous large-scale building projects. Kabacoff’s HRI Properties specializes in “inner-city revitalization,” primarily taking Hope VI government contracts to privatize and vastly descale public housing in New Orleans and other cities. HRI has constructed 10,000 units in New Orleans, and Kabacoff is especially proud of influencing the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to double the income threshold for affordable housing, laying the groundwork for the smaller, mixed-income communities that conform to President Clinton’s Hope VI legislation.
In his own neighborhood, Kabacoff has cultivated a devotion to visual art and the practice of mindfulness. With his wife Sallie Ann Glassman, a Vodou priestess and artist originally from Kennebunkport, Maine, he opened the New Orleans Healing Center in 2011, complete with a food co-op, restaurant, performance space, gallery, yoga studio, and meditation center. The $13-million renovation of a vacant furniture store was funded primarily by federal and state tax credits and a grant from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), the city agency tasked with “implementing citywide recovery initiatives” post-Katrina. The Healing Center sits on St. Claude Avenue, designated by NORA as a “Main Street District” in 2007 to support “economic revitalization and cultural development.” Dozens of galleries have popped up amidst the fast food restaurants, auto repair shops, and dollar stores that have long been anchors of the commercial corridor.
A few blocks away, next to Kabacoff and Glassman’s house on Pauline Street, HRI turned a former garment factory into the Bywater Art Lofts in 2008, providing 67 affordable apartments and studios to artists. This project, totaling approximately $21 million, was again funded almost entirely by subsidies – including low-income housing tax credits, historic tax credits, and cultural facility grants – and Kabacoff again leveraged his influence to modify federal policy, appealing to Congress to create legislation allowing artists to be eligible for affordable housing, which President George W. Bush signed in 2008.
Bywater Art Lofts, HRI Properties.
The Art Lofts unite a sincere faith in the power of artistic expression and neighborhood development; an economic and affective embrace of Richard Florida’s influential theory of the “creative class” as a driver of economic growth for postindustrial cities.  Artists also fit the profile of gentrification “pioneers” in scholarly and public discourse, and Kabacoff is characteristically unflinching when acknowledging the effect of his revitalization efforts in pushing out low-income residents and people of color: “In terms of race, black people in this town have less money. When neighborhoods revitalize, I think it chases all the poor out, and in our city the poor are almost all black, so it’s more [of] a coincidence. And there is probably some racism involved in that. That’s the downside of neighborhood improvement.”
Kabacoff’s neighbor in the Bywater, counterpart in development, and fellow worshipper of the “gentrification is good” theology is Sean Cummings, another native New Orleanian. Both men were raised in the trade: Pres’ father Lester Kabacoff built several large hotels, subdivisions, and the Morial Convention Center, while Sean’s father John Cummings is a real estate magnate and trial lawyer specializing in class-action settlements (who also recently opened the first slavery museum in America).
Both are also active in partnerships with city and state governance: Kabacoff has served as chair of the Louisiana Chapter of the Urban Land Institute and the mayor’s Housing Task Force Committee, while Cummings chaired the New Orleans Building Corporation (NOBC), which manages a portfolio of city-owned properties.
Both have a master plan for redeveloping their city far beyond their neighborhood borders: Kabacoff’s $1-billion plan ranges from relocating City Hall to creating a neuroscience facility, while Cumming’s “Reinventing the Crescent” project involves a $300-million transformation of the Mississippi riverfront.
And both are part of a wave of superrich collectors who appreciate and invest in art: last year Cummings funded graffiti artist Brandan Odums’ ambitious “ExhibitBE” installation in an abandoned apartment complex as a way of demonstrating “artists’ ability to repurpose unsightly space to engage their communities in necessary conversations on housing, blight, and accountability.”
Cummings himself lives in an apartment complex that could have been described as unsightly in the 1990s, when he purchased a former rice mill that squatters had tagged with graffiti. Redesigned as the Rice Mill Lofts in 2011 to the tune of $20 million, the graffiti has been retained as a de-fanged ode to authenticity, tailor-made for incorporation into the lap of luxury. “We wanted to preserve it kind of in that rebel spirit,” said Cummings.
Rice Mill Lofts, Ekistics.
The lofts, offering stunning views of the Mississippi River, are a tiny piece in a massive development puzzle that will transform miles of the riverfront from the downtown Bywater, Marigny, and French Quarter neighborhoods to the uptown district. Along with his father, Cummings purchased much of the land from the NOBC while he was serving as CEO. Consequently, he was advised to step down by the Louisiana Ethics Board, which “prohibits a public servant from participating in a transaction in which he, his immediate family members, or his companies have a substantial economic interest.” But he had enough time to put the major pieces in place, and the first debuted last year: Crescent Park, built by Cumming’s chosen firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple and a consortium of designers and planners with $31.2 million in city funds (funneled through NOBC under Cummings’ directorship), runs along the Bywater riverfront just past the Rice Mill Lofts.
Naming the plan “Reinventing the Crescent” underscores the mix of candor and audacity that define both Cummings and Kabacoff. It also resonates with the opportunistic descriptions of Katrina providing a “blank slate,” upon which a diverse cohort of entrepreneurs could “enact their vision of twenty-first century reform,” writes Thomas Jessen Adams. Yet no one attuned to the city’s unique food, music, and architecture would misidentify the post-Katrina landscape as a blank slate, because it is the distinctiveness of culture that makes New Orleans a desirable destination, and that distinction and desire is what enhances property values.
Culture as an Asset
If crisis has been the lever for redeveloping New Orleans, culture has provided the grounds to justify “saving” the city. Live music and festival culture, indigenous cuisine and creolized architecture: these cultural formations not only give New Orleanians a sense of place, they are integral to the economic infrastructure of a city where tourism is the leading industry. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, when Landrieu was still Lieutenant Governor, he lobbied congress for millions to support cultural tourism, arguing “Louisiana has an economic asset that other states can only dream of: a multifaceted, deeply rooted, authentic, and unique culture” .
What Landrieu could not have known was that many blacks who identify as middle-class would not move back to their city after the flood, and what he chose not to say was that the people who make the jazz and the gumbo – predominantly working-class “culture bearers” – would encounter a minefield of obstacles blocking the road home.  Those musicians, chefs, and building artisans who did return are just as vulnerable to the racial inequities of “improvement” as their fellow restaurant workers, hotel maids, and security guards in the hospitality industry.
If all New Orleanians are caught up in the thrush of redevelopment, the cultural community “is the canary in the coal mine for New Orleans recovery,” concludes a report by the musicians’ advocacy group Sweet Home for New Orleans. They estimate that musicians’ average earnings have remained steady at $17,800 per year as the cost of living continues to rise. The city’s overall economic infrastructure was predicated on the return of culture bearers post-Katrina, but those who identify as the working black poor are at risk of being priced out.
They also face an increasingly hostile environment where powerful neighborhood associations have colluded with the City Council to more strictly regulate noise and zoning violations for performance venues. The difficulty in quantifying culture has left politicians and property owners blind to the role of culture in attracting transplants, retaining longtime residents, and thus inflating the city coffers and the real estate market. Culture is the asset that keeps New Orleans from becoming “Anyplace USA,” but the presence of working-class blacks in the streets, the homes, and the nightclubs of increasingly gentrified and segregated neighborhoods is perceived as a threat.
“But what about …the poorest. How do you house them?” interviewer Peter Moskowitz asked Kabacoff. “You just don’t take them, or you evict them. Just get them out of there.”
This world of contradiction created in closed meetings between developers and city planners, neighborhood associations and council members, is the only territory available to New Orleanians. It is not like there is some other context in which an artist like Brandan “B-mike” Odums could weigh an offer of support from Cummings. By creating graffiti-scapes in abandoned communities, B-mike provides an insider’s perspective on the precarity of low-income housing, and by entering into a partnership with Cummings he authenticates the developer as a local philanthropist.
The pair is now planning a multiuse complex in the Bywater that will include a new studio for B-mike. “Partnerships like these wrap for-profit enterprises in notions of collectivity and community artistry, disguising their core aims,” observes French-Marcelin. I would add that they also demonstrate a level of opportunism that is expected of rich white men like Cummings but leads to charges of “selling out” for others like B-mike. The playing field is not level, and there is no way out of the game.
“The Market’s the Market”
Nowhere are racial and spatial disparities more evident than along the St. Claude Avenue corridor, with whites predominating in the riverside neighborhoods of Marigny and Bywater and blacks in the “back-a-town” neighborhoods on the other side. Whites have begun incrementally gentrifying the blocks across St. Claude, leading realtors to re-invent the neighborhood with names like “New Marigny” and “New Bywater.” In a city with a public transportation crisis – the Regional Transit Authority budget has decreased 38% since 2004 and service is down 55% – the agency has dedicated $79 million towards a new a streetcar line along St. Claude, even though residents complain that streetcars are geared towards sight-seeing tourists and are far less effective than buses for commuters.
Tensions came to a head in the historic St. Roch neighborhood, just across St. Claude from the Healing Center, after the opening of the St. Roch Market this April. A team of vandals – young, white, dressed in black, and wearing masks – struck the building at 2:20am, breaking eighteen windows and spray painting “Yuppy = Bad” on the newly restored exterior.
Though seemingly untouched by Kabacoff or Cummings, the market is another anchor for gentrification and the latest symbol of race and class divisions. Operating as seafood market since 1875, St. Roch closed after Katrina, and NOBC used a $3.1 million HUD Disaster Community Development Block Grant to bring the property back to market. The grant requires 70% of funds to be “used for activities that benefit low- and moderate-income persons,” and in community meetings overwhelming demand of local residents was for fresh food at an affordable price. The real estate brokerage firm Corporate Realty was hired to recruit a master tenant, and when the market reopened in April it was full of vendors selling high-end specialty foods like “cold-pressed juice, baked confections, micro-roasted coffee, West-African cuisine, artisanal meats and cheeses, crepes, Korean-Creole fusion, and ‘upscale Southern comfort food.’” One stall has set up a few boxes of produce, the only groceries available in the facility.
The St. Roch Market, vandalized. Photo: Michael DeMocker.
“The market’s the market,” responded current NOBC chairman Cedric Grant to a wave of criticism that followed the ribbon-cutting. “We need someone that can make it work and work with the community and deliver a quality product. I think they’re going to try to maintain and keep it reasonable, but there’s no subsidy here.” This defense sums up the contradictory logic underpinning the redevelopment of New Orleans and fellow crisis cities. Neoliberalism promises market-oriented solutions that are predicated on investors assuming an economic risk, while concealing the infrastructural foundation laid by the state to protect corporate interests. There is a subsidy here – $3.1 million intended for low- and moderate-income residents – and the misuse of those funds is one of countless examples showing that the open market is, in fact, not open.
On the ground, the structural forces of neighborhood “revitalization” define the parameters by which individual renters and property owners – citizens – must make a home and earn a living. In the Bywater, it has become more profitable for homeowners to either sell or convert their properties into short-term rentals, so that even relatively privileged transplants are facing a shortage of available housing in the very neighborhood they are accused of transforming.
Artist Caroline Thomas, who moved here in 2008, recently painted a carnivalesque sign meant as a satirical welcome to visitors who fill the 140 properties currently listed on Airbnb in the neighborhood. While she complained of “bachelorette weekends and birthday getaways every day of the week,” Thomas was aware of the irony of a recent transplant singling out visitors for exacerbating the problems of housing affordability and availability: “Everyone is complicit in the gentrification.”
Welcome to the Bywater, Where the Vacation Never Ends, by Caroline Thomas. Photo: Doug MacCash.
I, too, am implicated as a stakeholder, however minor, in the process of redevelopment. Having lived Uptown for over a decade, I landed Downtown in the Bywater after my divorce, when a friend who was renting one half of a house invited me to fill the other half. Unbeknownst to me until I paid the first month’s rent, the owner was Sallie Ann Glassman, co-chairman of the Healing Center and wife of Pres Kabacoff.
You know what? She was a perfectly reasonable landlord.
But I had never planned on living in the Bywater and I had a difficult time adjusting to the social milieu the new transplants and short-term renters were creating, so I began looking for a neighborhood to purchase a home. Even with the money I had earned selling the renovated Uptown house, I did not find anything in the areas where my daughter and I wanted to live that I could afford on my university salary. Then I walked by a dilapidated house in the Bywater with a “For Sale” sign in the window, and decided it suited our needs better than anything else we had seen, and I have been fixing it up ever since.
My anecdotal experience is not offered so much as a confessional tale as an example of one individual navigating the terrain carved out by politicians and developers who have constricted the available choices of New Orleanians on either side of St. Claude Avenue or any other social and geographic barrier. The civic protection of corporate investment creates a scenario where individual opportunists of relative privilege amount to a diminishing number of established residents able to stake a claim on the new landscape.
When my daughter and I stroll by the Bywater Art Lofts, into Crescent Park, past the Rice Mill Lofts identifiable by the white “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL” spray-painted on red brick, I count myself in that number.
Planning a Resilient Future
“We have a way here of reaching out to the private sector in everything that’s happening in the city,” Landrieu recently told the New York Times. The mayor has accepted more private grants than any city in the United States. Sewerage and water, transportation, parks and recreation, blight remediation, and even community policing in select areas have all been sold off. Landrieu, Kabacoff, and Cummings are jubilant about the sheer scope and the velocity of privatization under the guise of revitalization, but the trajectory may lead to an unrecognizable place where culture bearers and other native New Orleanians are pushed further and further out.
“Young people move to New Orleans because of the music and culture,” observed Neal Morris, whose company Redmellon works as a developer for non-profits. “No one ever moved to New Orleans to watch a middle-aged white guy practice law.” Redmellon and other progressive initiatives like the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative are fighting a tide that threatens to eradicate the very cultural dynamism attracting new residents and visitors.
“If we want those traditions to continue,” cautions Cashauna Hill, director of the Fair Housing Action Center, “then families must have access to housing that’s affordable in all of our neighborhoods.” Above and beyond the cultural community, the entirety of New Orleans is living on a precipice, hanging in the balance.
Like my fellow New Orleanians, I anxiously await the lab results from this experiment known as the new New Orleans, but the sample set is becoming ever more skewed. During the “K10” anniversary ceremonies, New Orleans was named one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 Resilient Cities,” which will mediate relations between city government and “partners from the private, public, academic, and non-profit sectors.” The promises are great, and target many of the “slow-burn disasters” I have outlined here, from creating “a truly regional transportation system” to addressing “deep economic inequality.” And who will facilitate this resilient rebalancing? Deutsche Bank is the “business partner tasked with helping get the system off the ground,” and other partners include Swiss Re and the Wal-Mart Foundation.
As a local journalist surmised after cataloguing the challenges facing city residents, “New Orleans’ best and worst quality is that people want to be here.” The word is out among the developers, the big banks, the philanthropy capitalists, and their plan will undoubtedly provide citizens with much to be resilient about in the future.