New Orleans Fights For Its Character

Reuters, Jan. 14, 2007

On Martin Luther King Day last year, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin famously said his city would “be chocolate at the end of the day,” a remark meant to encourage African Americans to return after Hurricane Katrina.

At the time, it drew accusations of racial divisiveness and a barrage of jokes. T-shirts went on sale in the French Quarter portraying Nagin as Willie Wonka and maps of the city were redrawn with neighborhoods named Godiva, Hershey and M&Ms.

But a year later, it is no laughing matter. New Orleans, one of the most culturally distinct African American cities, is struggling to regain its black character.

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New Orleans was 67 percent African American before Katrina and 28 percent white. Now, in a city with less than half the previous population, blacks account for 47 percent and whites 43 percent.

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No place to go

Signs of a sluggish recovery are everywhere, 16 months after Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, burst its protective levees and flooded 80 percent of the city.

Nowhere is it slower than in predominantly black neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, where workers are still tearing down homes destroyed by a wave of water. Gentilly, a middle class black area, is also barren.

Meanwhile, life in the mostly white Uptown district has returned to normal and shows few signs of storm destruction.

But no one is ready to decree the demise of black New Orleans.

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Government is slow

Government is woefully behind schedule, sparking accusations from some that it is deliberately stalling to keep certain problem neighborhoods from coming back.

Only 100 families out of 90,000 applicants have received federal aid to rebuild homes hit by Katrina in the whole of Louisiana. The city redevelopment plan, said to be in its final stages, has yet to be announced.

Poor black residents who did not own their homes have little affordable rental accommodation to choose from, keeping them at bay in cities like Houston. Meanwhile, local media report that middle class black evacuees are thriving in new cities like Atlanta, and are unlikely to return.

Sharon Jasper, 57, lived in public housing that is now closed, but finally made the decision to come back a few months ago.

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She said depression and tension are rife in the city, with two or three families staying in a single home and kids attending disfunctional schools.

Indeed, shooting deaths are a near daily occurrence, a pattern Nagin called “black-on-black” crime.

Upbeat like a jazz funeral

Black New Orleans certainly had many of these problems—poverty, crime, poor schools—before Katrina.

But it also had a cultural richness coveted by blacks and whites alike that made living in New Orleans unique.

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