Rebuilding New Orleans Post-Katrina: gentrification and community identity

Fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Big Easy is back on its feet; tourism is booming and the city is growing. However, it is important to remember how Hurricane Katrina caused a global paradigm shift in how policy-makers conceptualised cities pre- and post-disasters. Faced with climate change, cities were now vulnerable – none more so than port cities, whose complex relationship with the waterfront has resulted in ageing infrastructure and post-industrial communities dangerously exposed to extreme weather events. 

According to Smith, there is ‘no such thing as a natural disaster’ (Smith 2006) as patterns of harm are so deeply influenced by the deliberate choices of policymakers (van Holm and Wczalkowski 2008, 12). This has been directly applied to New Orleans, where prioritisation of port expansion, the deepening of the Industrial and Mississippi Gulf-Outlet canals, and the paving over wetlands, debilitated the region’s natural defenses against flooding. For Azcona, Hurricane Katrina made ‘visible the general contradiction of capitalist urban development when unchecked by democratic institutions’ (2006: 80).

Yet New Orleans is also a resilient city. This post will begin by outlining the causes of this “man-made disaster”, before analysing how the disaster changed the urban and demographic landscape and how narratives of gentrification and economic growth had to be balanced with community-identity, so as not to gut the Big Easy of its (African-American) soul.

Hurricane Katrina Flooding: 2005 (Credit: Dan Swenson/

Post-Katrina, the population of the city had halved, only reaching 76% of 2000’s population levels in 2012 (Plyer 2019). Yet this has not been primarily driven by returning residents, but new “transplants” from other areas of America attracted by the cheap rental prices and New Orleans’ famed easy-going lifestyle and “authentic culture.” The mass exodus of disadvantaged African American communities and destruction of property constitutes a tabula rasa, allowed officials to press ahead with redevelopment plans that would make the city more attractive to the creative classes, accelerating the gentrification process begun by the reorientation of the city’s economy towards tourism (Boyer 2015).

Debris from the demolition of the B.W. Cooper housing project, left, in New Orleans in 2008. (Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Image)

While the gentrification process may differ in context from other waterfront projects, it is still motivated by the same economic need that has driven other declining port cities. It is still defined by an underlying ethos of securing economic growth through the creation of playscapes that enmeshes entertainment with tourism and blurs ‘the distinction between consumption-based and other social activities’ – constructing an easily marketable image of the city, based on the Big Easy’s reputation for ‘romance, nostalgia, public sexuality, music, dancing and shopping’ (Gotham 2005:1110). Acutely aware of the maxim be ‘creative or die’ (Florida 2002, 12) an underlying motivator of this has been to attract a young, creative and discerning elite that would revitalise the second-tier city’s economy by offering ‘authentic or authenticating experiences’ (Brabazon 2014, 138).

Culturally, New Orleans had, and has, a lot to offer with vibrant music and gastronomic scenes that have become pivotal in the generation of inward revenue and post-industrial growth. Nevertheless, the initial “revitalisation” process was by no means inclusive. Studies have shown a clear correlation between the damage from Hurricane Katrina and the likelihood of a tract of land being gentrified (Holm and Wczalkowski 2008, 6-8).
Economic recovery between 2005-2010 was predicated on the removal of “Keynesian-Fordist” welfare state fixtures and privatisation, which further maligned an already impoverished black community, leading to the belief that ‘the city’s powerful want(ed) to take our the black core but keep the cultural products – food, music, language, history, and art’ (Boyer 2015; Bond Graham 2007:11).

Cleaning up: Skip LaGrange takes a break after flooding devastates his home in the Mid-City neighbourhood of New Orleans in 2005. (Credit: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)

Under these pressures, it would be hard to maintain “authenticity” without gutting the heart and soul of the Big Easy. However, New Orleans is a resilient city with a long history of “self-help” (Heintel 2014, 90). Discontent with the handling of the post-Katrina crisis, combined with distrust in public services, led to the 2010 election of Mayor Landrieu, who has spearheaded efforts to make the rebuilding process more sustainable – both environmentally and culturally. As identity is rooted in a sense of place and expressed through cultural activity, Hurricane Katrina was particularly traumatic as it erased large swaths of the physical, cultural, networks that constituted Downtown and the Lower Ninth – bastions of New Orleans jazz.  Gentrification and the influx of (white) “hipsters” further dissolved community bonds. Venues, therefore, such as the Music Box Village, located in a repurposed industrial workshop at the base of the Industrial Canal, have become significant places where resilience can be performed – and community identity re-asserted – through community-led cultural events (Andrews and Duggan 2018). Meanwhile, the 100 Resilient Citiesinitiative and NGOs have provided crucial funding for a $1.1 billion state-of-the-art hospital, green energy projects, green spaces and an extensive bicycle network, providing means of economic growth, and opportunities for self-sufficiency; to become more than just disaster-victims (Heintel 2014, 90).

Preservation Hall at The Music Box. (Photo: William Widmer)

The (ongoing) resurrection of New Orleans has been a long and painful process. It is a significant example to understand the competing forces that reshape post-industrial port-cities during and after catastrophic climate events. Disasters cripple a city’s economy, thus leaving them vulnerable to redevelopment plans that malign the interests of impoverished community groups normally excluded from the decision-making processes (Hoyle 2000: 396-398). Gentrification and tourism provide lifelines to cities seeking to rebuild, yet can be equally damaging to community identity; resulting in shameless profiteering. By (re)positioning the community at the heart of redevelopment plans, New Orleans has shown how to mitigate these risks. Resilience and recovery lie in empowerment and social inclusion; like New Orleans – and the world – faces off against another, a far greater threat from COVID-19, threat, this may be a lesson worth remembering.

Credit: GetYourGuide


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*This post was written for the Port Cities course taught by Professor van de Laar in Barcelona.

Author: James Foss

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