Wade Rathke is the founder and chief organizer of ACORN and Local 100 Service Employees International Union. He lives in New Orleans and works from headquarters on Elysian Fields again. Keep up with the Battle of New Orleans and ACORN's work at www.chieforganizer.org
Four months ago, New Orleans was center stage in a riveting drama created by the hugeness of nature and the smallness of humanity, the rising of water and the failure of government, the roar of wind and the inescapable sights and sounds of race and class impossible to ignore for the first time since the 1960s. Now that the water has receded, so it seems have many of the hopes and dreams of the city and its people. The rage and heartbreak are piled on every street in giant mounds, waiting for help that still seems increasingly unlikely to ever arrive.
New Orleans is a war on so many levels, but there is no level where ordinary citizens are winning. The war pits low-income residents against developers and politicians who don’t care how New Orleans is rebuilt—just that it happens. Yesterday, Mayor Ray Nagin's commission revealed key elements of a rebuilding plan that is drawing fire because it recommends that the city should focus on only rebuilding some areas and not others. The “others” would be the parts of the city where mostly black and low-income residents lived. A plan like this, which relies on market forces to rebuild the city, dooms the futures of New Orleans’ neediest residents.
Today, the president is doing yet another fly-by of the Gulf Coast, something like his ninth visit to this area in the four months since the storm threw its first punch at the city—and then threw the next couple at FEMA and the rest of the president’s posse. Every local elected official, all the ex-mayors and everybody over the age of reason in New Orleans is begging the president to upgrade the levees so that they can handle a Category 5 hurricane. Yet, the president has only begrudgingly offered to give us what is now called “a real 3” down here—levees that are at least well made enough that they could handle a real Category 3 hurricane, which was in the range of what Katrina became at landfall.
At 30,000 feet, the president is parsing words on recovery, quibbling about the security of the levees and trying to pretend that what the Army Corp of Engineers and the federal government broke, they should somehow not have to fix. If the tragedy of Katrina and New Orleans proved anything, it proved that we need an effective government, putting a lie to the “less is more” rhetoric of recent administrations. At the same level, Congress is strangling the city by joining with the Bush administration and FEMA to prevent resources from being appropriated to get the job done. We in New Orleans are so desperate for resources that we’ll support any measure that promises them. For instance, no matter how good or bad Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, and his proposed recovery funding bill might be for the city, we almost have to have a bill—any kind of bill—in order to finally get started and move forward. Alas, the $29 billion for Gulf Coast recovery passed last month by the U.S. Senate was only a start.
When Bush buzzes through the city this time, he will find the ground war a little closer to home. Citizens, especially in flooded areas and among the formerly African-American majority, are battling the contradictory voices of a host of committees advising the mayor, the governor and anyone pretending to listen—yet we are losing there as well. Most remarkably, the mayor’s commission to “bring back New Orleans” is the force behind the controversial rebuilding plan. The commission is headed by big-time local developer Joe Canizaro, who is also a Bush “Pioneer” contributor. It was Canizaro who engaged the Urban Land Institute to advise the mayor’s commission on how to rebuild the city. The plan basically argues against a citywide effort, instead recommending graduated stages of rebuilding, which would mean writing off huge neighborhoods and not allowing them to be rebuilt.
The arrogance of the ULI’s recommendations is breathtaking. People like Canizaro, the ULI and the commission itself are unelected and unaccountable. They rejected the idea that homeowners and citizens should have a voice and instead wanted decisions to be made in bulk at the community level, rather than individually. They argued gratuitously that people should be bought out at “pre-Katrina” prices, knowing cynically that there were not resources to rub two cents together. If Nagin endorses this proposal, it means he either is not running for re-election on April 29 (the proposed date now) or that he is conceding defeat early.
The battle for New Orleans has now become a guerilla struggle fought block by block and house by house. The “whitewashers” and ULI promoters have argued with the support of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, for bad medicine to be swallowed and neighborhoods written off, particularly in the hardest hit lower-income areas where ACORN members have lived forever.
The ACORN cleanout crews and the university volunteers from Cornell, Sarah Lawrence, Purchase, Tulane and elsewhere every day are finding, even in the hardest hit areas, that there are significant numbers of houses that are structurally sound and recoverable at affordable prices. For every house saved in these critically impacted areas, the wrecking ball is postponed and the bulldozers are silenced. If we can bring enough houses back in ones and twos, in clusters, then we save the communities. If not, they drown a second time in the indifference bred over centuries that runs deeper than the Mississippi River.
We realize that without resources or leadership or any kind of plan that gives the majority of residents input and the means to move forward, the developers' bulldozers will win. Our members and hundreds of thousands of people like them will be stuck in the New Orleans Diaspora, homeless and unable to return.
The ACORN Cleanout and Demonstration project is trying to prove that we can find and save houses. The more houses, the more blocks—added one by one, five by five, 10 by 10—the greater the chance of putting the lie to the claims of the developers and the advocates for a smaller, richer, whiter city. They are seeking to rebuild New Orleans not as it was, but as a Disneyland along the river. We seek to establish that the city can—and should—be rebuilt as a holistic city, thriving on the strength of its people, its culture and its communities.