EDITOR’S NOTE: As 2018 and the city’s Tricentennial celebration along with it come to a close, The New Orleans Tribune will wrap up its 300 in Black series with a look back at the issue of gentrification. We have chosen to reprint an excerpt from the July 2012 issue “They’re Here: Gentrification Comes to New Orleans”.
The Publisher’s Note titled “Just say NO, Then Hold on to What You’ve Got,” was an emphatic plea to African-American property owners from Executive Editor Beverly S. McKenna who along with her husband Dr. Dwight McKenna, serve as publishers of The New Orleans Tribune, to resist attempts by “interested buyers” preying on Black-owned property in historically Black neighborhoods. More than holding on to property, she encouraged Black organizations, churches, civic clubs and the like to pool their resources and purchase vacant and even blighted properties in the communities being targeted by gentrifiers.
The message seems just as timely and appropriate now as it did then, especially as we take note in the cover story of this issue of the efforts of Black property and business owners along Bayou Road to unapologetically stake their claim and make their mark on the historic and culturally-significant thoroughfare. It is also equally as appropriate to remind our readers and dedicated followers that there is power in ownership, boldness in resistance and pride in claiming and retaining what is historically and culturally ours.
by beverly s. mckenna
If you are a property owner in the area bounded by North Broad and Rampart, St. Bernard and Orleans, chances are you have received one of those calls that go like this—‘”Hey there, Ms. Trevigne, this is Joe Blow of White Town Realty, and I have a buyer who is interested in taking the ol’ house you own at (an address that you recognize as property inherited from one of your relatives in the Sixth or Seventh Ward) off your hands. We can get a good price for you, cash, and close the deal real fast.”
If you haven’t received a call yet, don’t be surprised if it comes. Several of our good friends tell of receiving one recently. Romona Baudy, owner of Mona’s Accents, says someone contacted her last month with an offer to buy her building on North Claiborne. Her response, like those of other of our acquaintances who have been approached by speculators, was “no, thanks” and a swift disconnect.
Like us, you have probably noticed the vultures circling “our” neighborhoods that have been home to people of African descent—some for nearly 300 years. And in recent months the intruders have dared to veer off the main thoroughfares venturing, with big dogs in tow, deep into the bowels of the side streets. This land, part of a larger expanse targeted by the feds, developers and carpetbaggers, is considered the “homeland” for many locals whose families have been in the area for generations. Black people settled these neighborhoods, fanning out from the French Quarter, into Tremé and the Seventh Ward where they have owned property, and lots of it, going back to the mid-1700s. As a matter of fact, it is well documented that people of color have owned 80 percent of the property in this area at one time or another. And now, here come outsiders who would evict and exploit.
WE BUILT THIS CITY
Descendants of the settlers of these areas should not allow others to come in with their overbearing sense of entitlement and insistence on altering a way of life to fit their sensibilities and myopic vision of what should be. We must keep foremost in the collective memory and narrative that we have built this city and are bearers of the culture that makes it all that it is today.
The onslaught is called gentrification by some or White flight in reverse by others. Its genesis can be traced to the 50s when Caucasians fled the city fearful of school desegregation.
Not only did they run from downtown, 20 years after school desegregation, they continued their exodus; they even ran from New Orleans East, a suburban-like haven with lakes and green space only 10 minutes from the CBD, when young professional Black families began purchasing lakefront homes in this section of town which also boasted good public schools, like Mildred Osborne Elementary—schools open to children of all races and income levels, schools staffed not with inexperienced TFAs looking to pay off student loans but with well trained, dedicated and committed veteran teachers, Black and White.
Sixty years passed; and long drives, traffic congestion and escalating gasoline prices, we suspect, caused the refugees to make a U-turn. They had to have reconsidered their abandonment of the cities and the relinquishing of political power to African Americans.
Well they’re back. And as if on a mission, they start by sending an advance team of young White college students who inundate the area taking inventory of commercial and residential properties. With that accomplished, they begin buying up the property; next, they come out in full force to neighborhood planning meetings with officious sounding recommendations for improving life in the ‘hood. And if that’s not enough, they begin their shameless appropriation of the culture—package it, market it, and sell it back to us and the world…and at great profits. In addition to protecting our boundaries, we must not allow the Disneyfication of New Orleans’ indigenous culture.
COME ON IN
Time is of essence. Right here and now, we need to be both wary and diligent. Black people, it seems, are the only people in the world who willingly participate in their own demise. We are the only people who would give away governance of public schools, facilities, finances, and the education of our children with barely a whimper as three know-it-all White guys like Paul Pastorek, Paul Vallas, and John White, none of whom are educators, march in and treat the public education system as their personal fiefdoms. We are the only people on the face of the earth who welcome outsiders into our neighborhoods with open arms. We are the only people who stand in line to buy “the best soul food in town” served up by foreigners to our community as they create jobs for their own and make small fortunes selling to us. We are the only people in the world who apparently see no disadvantage in giving up hard won political gain. Come on people.
Deconcentration of Poverty: Where?
The “return to splendor” was put in place on the heels of Katrina. It began with the demolition of the housing developments. Who can forget Congressman Richard Baker’s gleeful announcement that went like this: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it but God did.”
The big four were torn down and rebuilt almost overnight in a drive cloaked in high sounding phrases like “deconcentration of poverty” and “eradication of crime.” Contrary to the highly-touted goals of demolition, poverty has merely been moved from one section of the city to another. Meanwhile, homelessness, crime and violence have in fact increased, and poor people—the vast majority of those who resided in the housing developments before Katrina have not been able to return.
But ahhh . . . real estate prices in these and adjacent areas have skyrocketed. And there is talk of tearing down the I-10 overpass that destroyed our once thriving Claiborne Avenue commercial district back in the 60s; this may be a good idea but not one that will benefit those Black business owners who were callously put out of business and driven away nor their children robbed of their legacy – all of that area is being snatched up by White speculators.
Come on folks. The taking of our neighborhoods is a first and obvious step in their reclamation of the city. But we’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got. And here at The Tribune we would suggest going a step further. How about coming together as a community; how about the fraternities, sororities and civic clubs joining with the churches and professional organizations and investing even more in our historic neighborhoods by buying the property, including the blighted, ourselves? We can renovate houses to rent to those who need safe affordable dwellings, offer training opportunities and jobs for young Black men and control who comes into our neighborhoods at the same time. To start, it doesn’t have to be a formalized pooling of money—all it would take is a shared vision and declaration that each entity would do its part while working together to rebuild our neighborhoods in the interest of the larger group and the greater good.
Call it gentrification. Call it White flight in reverse. Call it whatever you please. But let’s decide now that we will not be complicit in this takeover of our communities. And when the speculators call, just say “No.”
Come on friends. We’ve got work to do.
300 in Black: Gentrification the New Segregation
The excerpt below was taken from an article published in the July 2012 issue of The New Orleans Tribune. Written by Lovell Beaulieu, it explored the changing face of New Orleans’ urban centers and the displacement of poor and middle-class residents.
To be sure, at least part of the blame for the city’s demographic change rests with the concerted, if not methodical effort to ensure that the city’s poorest residents—mostly African-American—found it difficult or impossible to return after the storm. From proposals to turn parts of New Orleans East and the 9th Ward to “green space” while the city was still void of most of its residents to the successful demolition of the city’s housing developments to the wholesale firing of nearly 8,000, mostly middle-class African-American school system employees, including teachers and support staff replaced by Teach for America recruits and out-of-town contract service providers, to a poorly-managed, racially discriminatory state Road Home Program, in which African-Americans were more likely than whites to have their Road Home grants based upon the much lower pre-storm market value of their homes, rather than the estimated cost to repair damage, there is no denying that power brokers and the elite in New Orleans used Katrina to set the stage for the city’s face-lift.
Seven years later, the conversation about rebuilding this city is tinged with words like “new” and “better” that are often perceived as code for “whiter” and “richer” or as some who appear intent on reinventing New Orleans have put it “just the kind of people this city needs.”
Still, Al Jackson, a lifelong resident of Treme, homeowner and historian, lays much of the blame right at the feet of those who have allowed this to happen, from an entrenched Black political establishment to the failure to shrewdly use individual and collective African-American buying power.
“A neighborhood can only become gentrified if indigenous citizens allow other folks to come into their neighborhood and buy their property, renovate it and increase the rents,” says Jackson, who has invested his own time, energy and funds into helping to preserve the cultural fabric that is the Tremé community. “When the indigenous allow other folks to buy their assets, do we call it gentrification? We have become our own worst enemy by omission. Decay brings in the reduction of property values, and the vultures are waiting. Property values in Tremé had once dropped down to $10,000 for a double. But folks ran out into the East.”
Jackson recalls a time when rents were a modest $250 to $350 for one side of a double. Those days are gone. Houses sell for six figures, and rents either approach or surpass four figures.
Timolynn Sams, executive director of the Neighborhood Partnership Network in New Orleans, was blunt about what she sees happening in New Orleans.
“We’re making decisions and not empowering the indigenous community to be a part of those decisions,” says Sams.