TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Post-Hurricane Katrina, three generations of New Orleans women remain in historic neighborhoods though gentrification makes it harder

in Gentrification/Major Collaborative Project by

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated most Black neighborhoods in New Orleans, resulting in displacement for hundreds of thousands of people. Many did not make it back, but for those who did, staying gets harder every year. With gentrification, now “stragglers” buy up land and change the dynamics of tight-knit communities.

New Orleans is a city known for good food and even better times.Laissez les bons temps rouler,” the famous local adage saying, “let the good times roll,” is a mantra New Orleanians have grown up to and live by. While, the glitz and glam of the city turned it into a hotspot for movies, to the point that is referred to as “Hollywood South,”  let’s not forget about residents who live and work in New Orleans all day, every day.

However, people get so caught up in the good times, that they are oblivious  to those who make the city great—friendly New Orleanians always willing to share their hometown with tourists. Paradoxically, these are the people adversely affected by the push-out orchestrated by those same visitors. 

As a consequence, “transplants” takeover parts of the city where in the past, people drove by and dared not to stop. These communities are where residents are poorer, Black and brown, or in the “hood,” as it is called by the younger residents; in the 3rd Ward of Uptown or as the older generations designate it, the “neighborhood”; and in the “ghettos”.  

On the other hand, natives refer to transplants as “stragglers,” or “new faces,” and a shape-shifting community morphing right before our eyes. 

Before the stragglers, neighborhoods once filled with corner stores now disappear and are replaced with shinier, taller, and more appealing structures. Before, at the corner stores, you felt a sense of comfortability because the owners and employees knew your name and family. 

As well, shop owners were familiar with exactly what you were coming to buy and how much it would cost before you even got to the counter. They also gave away free sweets, like “Now and Laters,” watermelon suckers, and penny candy, just for coming into the store. 

Now that familiarity is gone. What is in place, is a feeling of being ousted. Of being uncomfortable in a community that generations of families have lived and cultivated for years. The experience feels like visiting a brand new town for the first time. Even though, it is argued that gentrification is great for the economy, it’s horrible for the neighborhood’s tight-knit kinship and the feeling of belonging for its residents.

The Neighborhood: Gentilly

According to New Orleans Online, the Gentilly neighborhood’s claim to fame is being the home of historically black college (HBCU) Dillard University. It has the largest collection of California Craftsman-style bungalows in Louisiana. Originally, this settlement was swamp land, but slowly, became home to many English cottages and Spanish and Mediterranean Revival raised houses from the early 1900s. Later in the 20th century,  a portion of this neighborhood became Gentilly Boulevard then U.S. Highway 90 – part of the Old Spanish Trail – that connected St. Augustine, Florida to Los Angeles, California.

A report by Tulane University Geographer’s book on New Orleans post-Katrina writes: “while much of greater Gentilly and eastern New Orleans lost large numbers of African-Americans in absolute numbers, they simultaneously became more African-American in a relative sense because the few whites who lived in those areas departed in even greater numbers than their black neighbors.” 

However, African American residents interviewed from that area disagree. To paint a picture of the city’s changes, we look at three historically black neighborhoods in New Orleans that are currently undergoing gentrification. Five women, spanning three generations in New Orleans, share their feelings of contemplation, concerns and disbelief as they bare witness to the undoing of the communities they call home.

Nadia Esnault, 33 (left)

“The neighborhood of Gentilly is upcoming, more development of properties and things like that [renovations and construction] and more costly.”

“In the past 15 years, the neighborhoods have become more expensive for middle-class families to afford. So, either you’re going to see a lot of vacancies or a lot of mixed residents, like Caucasians and other people in the neighborhood now when it used to be predominantly black.”

“Overall no [the people who live in the neighborhood can’t afford to live in their homes since the changes] for example, living and growing up in Gentilly the St. Bernard project [former] housing development ‘the projects’ is now Colombia Park which is very expensive and I, who have a decent salary, tried to move over there but it’s just not affordable. It’s just really expensive unless you’re on some type of housing, voucher, or program.”

“Middle-class people make too much to get assistance [government assistance] but not enough to live comfortably, so it kind of leaves you out.”

Tyler Smith, 25

“[In the last 15 years] everything has gone up in prices [in the Gentilly or the 7th ward neighborhood]. And they have a whole bunch of white people in the city. I’m telling the truth! The only white people in my neighborhood growing up was the crackhead, he used to fix cars”.

“Places like the East [or the east side or the east side of New Orleans] that were supposedly the good neighborhoods, where you had to have money to live in. All those areas became really really cheap and a lot of people, like black people, who never own houses before started buying houses right there (in the East). So white people started to buy houses in the neighborhoods”.

“More of white people, white people are everywhere, they are taking over. You see a lot of people who are not even from New Orleans living in the city, in the hood. So it’s like, what do they call them? Transplants, it’s a lot of transplants”.

“In the neighborhood where my mom bought her first  house, the house that she still owns today, that house was $30,000. Now in that area, her house would be worth $150,000-$160,000. It’s made everything go up because she was making that much a year (when she purchased her home at that time). Ideally, if she didn’t have any other bills at the time, she would have been able to pay off her home in a year. But now, people are making that same amount $30,000 a year, and their houses costs now $160,000. So, you would have to work your whole life to pay off our house in the city”.

“No, they can’t. A lot of people I know a lot of people who don’t even live down here [in New Orleans] anymore because they just couldn’t afford it or they didn’t have anything to go back to when Katrina happened and they didn’t have any place to go cause a lot of them didn’t own their houses. I think that my grandparents, and my mom were the few people to own houses in that neighborhood and my great-grandmother. Everybody was just renting.”

Uptown and the “Black Pearl” 

Historically, Uptown was a direction, meaning movement against the direction of the flow of the Mississippi River. After the Louisiana Purchase, many settlers from other parts of the country built  homes and businesses in the area upriver from the older Creole city. In the 19th century, Canal Street was known as the dividing line between Uptown and Downtown New Orleans: the boundary between the predominantly Francophone area downriver and the predominantly Anglophone area upriver. 

There is much discussion in New Orleans about the historic Uptown neighborhood.  No two people can exactly agree as to  where it is, or who occupies that space. The broadest definition of Uptown, from the lens of real estate, would include everything upstream  from Canal Street and would take up about one-third of the city. 

In its narrowest city planning description, Uptown refers to an area of only a few  dozen blocks centering on the intersection of Jefferson and St. Charles Avenues. Neither of these is what most New Orleanians of recent generations usually mean by Uptown. While some may quibble about the exact boundaries, Uptown generally refers to the areas of the city closer to the river or the river side of S. Claiborne Avenue which is upriver from the Pontchartrain Expressway, and nearer the modern CBD/Warehouse District neighborhood.

The Neighborhood

However you define or divide the boundaries of the Uptown neighborhood, what we know for sure is that African Americans have the second largest population in the neighborhood itself; but largely migrated to the “Black Pearl” area which is now in the process of being gentrified.

According to the Public Law Center, the area most occupied by African Americans in Gentilly were affectionately known as, “Black Pearl.” City Hall planner, Marion Greenup, came up with the name, but the designation  actually originated in C&D planning team discussions before later arriving at City Hall.

Greenup describes: “The team worked in a renovated warehouse building at 111 Iberville Street, where beautiful brick walls and big wooden beams nurtured an appropriate preservation planning mentality. We felt no obligation, however, to preserve one dodgy New Orleans neighborhood name in our 1974 housing and preservation report.”

He goes on to say, “I remember the moment when Pat Watts, an African-American member of the team, came up with her audacious solution to rebrand the area bounded by Broadway, St. Charles, and the river as ‘Black Pearl.’ The area has since been described as the ‘Uptown Triangle,’ and has its own neighborhood association operating under that name”.

In speaking with millennials and generation Z residents, the term “Black Pearl” in reference to their neighborhood was not known. This colloquialism was essentially a sign of the times, with Black residents seeking a neighborhood of their own within the of the larger Uptown neighborhood. 

Uptown Population Breakdown By Race

Race Uptown New Orleans Louisiana
White 70.37% 34.03% 62.62%
Black or African American 23.29% 59.84% 32.16%
Asian 2.28% 2.93% 1.69%
American Indian 0.00% 0.20% 0.57%
Native Hawaiian 0.00% 0.03% 0.03%
Mixed race 3.04% 1.63% 1.83%
Other race 1.02% 1.34% 1.09%

The People

Quintella Stills-Esnault, 35 

“The [Uptown] neighborhood has changed significantly [it’s a lot of new houses coming up in the neighborhood] that are expensive to the point where it’s kind of almost trying to weed out the low-income residents of New Orleans, it’s like trying to change the whole scene of New Orleans. 

“Of course, [Hurricane Katrina exacerbated the gentrification in Uptown], because a lot of the people couldn’t come back or a lot of the people passed away. So, they didn’t take possession of their homes, or it was too expensive to come back, or they were afraid to come back because they didn’t want to go through it again. So now that there is so much land to be bought, it’s like [outsiders] were going to buy up all this land and quickly build this house and in a neighborhood where houses probably used to go for like maybe $100,000 that same house that you built next door to that’s maybe worth $200,000 now, you gon’ build a house next to that house an it’s going to be worth $350,000. So, it’s only a particular group of people that can afford that kind of house.

“Now, if they were to take-over. Case in point, like across the street from my grandmother’s house she has two open lots. I’m quite sure if somebody buys those lots, the houses that come up on that property would not be affordable for the people in the neighborhood. That would change nationality or the race of that community. Because that house would be built, and it won’t be somebody my color (black) or in a low-income area if it’s an African American person they’re going to either be in a medium income or a high income. And it’s not going to be that person, it’s going to be a Caucasian person simply because we are on the parade route. We are not too far from where Zulu [the only predominately black Social Aid and Pleasure Club for riding in parades; which only run on Mardi Gras morning] starts at and so that’s just a big thing for them. So, if houses start to form in that [Uptown] neighborhood it would be not my kind of people [Black people] that were moved there.”

Jacqueline Stills, 60 

“…So, our neighborhood has not changed but if you go a few blocks down [the street], some of the kids are selling the parents’ houses and white people are buying them and moving into our areas. It’s starting now [a demographic shift in the neighborhood], like this year I’ve seen, within the last couple of years I’ve seen that other races are buying up the property and moving back in our area. Well, I see as homeowners they are Caucasian and as renters, I’m seeing a lot of Hispanics or Spanish speaking people.

Property value has gone up in our neighborhood because we are in a prime real estate area because we are above the flood zone level, so flood insurance isn’t as expensive. But the property value did go up and it’s astronomical, you’d be surprised. At the prices that they are coming at for the house now in the area. It’s $200,000, that’s crazy to me! $350,000 for a 2-bedroom house in the hood, so I don’t understand how they are doing that, I really don’t. As far as the renters, the renting is very expensive post-Katrina.” 

Dorothy Stills, 84 

“Drastically (how the neighborhood has changed in the past 15 years), most of the neighbors are gone, died”.

“[After Katrina,] we lost four houses in the neighborhood, in the block, never came back”.

“A lot of new people, a lot of new faces, all the old faces are gone”.

Phyllis Robinson, 59

“In the last 15 years,] there are more, I don’t know what you’d call them, stragglers. Just newcomers in the neighborhood. I was born, raised, and lived there all my life and the [new] people who are there now, more than half of them I don’t know. They are just new people who walks the neighborhood.” 

“There’s banks and a Starbucks in the neighborhood now.”

“They have more nationalities in the neighborhood, when I grew up it was just blacks. It’s all different nationalities, it’s changed.”

“There’re white people in our neighborhood, they never had white people in the neighborhood. There’re Mexicans in our neighborhood, they never had anyone in our neighborhood but blacks in the neighborhood. If they did have them, they were riding in cars not walking and walking dogs and sitting on corner and sitting on steps, like they are doing now.”

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Shenise Robinson is a research intern for Alternative Education Research Institute and native of New Orleans. As a senior at Xavier University Louisiana studying sociology, Robinson is currently working on background research on the reconceptualization of the Black American Family and breaking cycles of community violence, poverty and mass incarceration.

 

Rolanda JW Spencer IS A JOURNALIST AND PROFESSOR WHO FOCUSES ON SOCIAL JUSTICE AND PRISONER RE-ENTRY.

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