In the short run, New Orleans’ displaced people need massive assistance with temporary housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. On Sept. 2, the group urged Congress to fund emergency vouchers for “all households in need,” make federal subsidies transferable for public-housing and Section 8 tenants, and ease the requirements for receiving aid.
The longer-term issues are more complex. Even while water was still pouring through the city’s broken levees, House Speaker Dennis Hastert was suggesting that maybe New Orleans should be abandoned, and other right-wingers were urging that the city’s poor be removed in order to disperse the “underclass.”
New Orleans was an intensely impoverished city before the hurricane. Yet the city’s African- American poor have created one of the nation’s most distinctive urban subcultures, giving the world jazz funk, and Mardi Gras. Sylvester Francis, who runs the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Tremé neighborhood, named it that because “the culture comes from the back streets.”
Tremé is likely to be a flashpoint when the residents’ “right of return” rasps against redevelopment. One of the first neighborhoods settled by free black people in the early-19th century, it’s the traditional terminus for the city’s jazz-funeral parades and home to the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which desegregated the Mardi Gras in 1968 and runs one of the main parades. According to 2000 Census figures, 44 percent of its residents made less than $10,000 a year.
Yet the neighobrhood occupies prime real estate, between the French Quarter and the Interstate 10 freeway, and was beginning to gentrify before the hurricane. When the reconstruction of New Orleans comes, is it going to be about resurrecting a community or removing it?