[Interesting Stories] Is Post-Katrina Gentrification Saving New Orleans Or Ruining It?

NEW ORLEANS — “This is where I'm from, this is me, right here,” Domonique Meyers, 28, says as we walk up to his family’s home in the 5t...

NEW ORLEANS — “This is where I'm from, this is me, right here,” Domonique Meyers, 28, says as we walk up to his family’s home in the 5th Ward.

Rows of slender, single-story shotgun houses crowd together along the narrow streets of the neighborhood, with only a few feet separating them. But the Meyers family’s massive two-story home on the corner of Dumaine and North White dominates the block. As we approach, Meyers — tall and whip thin — is quick to flash a smile, a manifestation of a personality that takes up far more space than his frame would suggest. “We called it the White House,” he jokes. His home once felt like the center of his neighborhood.

It was here that the up-and-coming MC and community activist used to gather his friends to hang out and hone their rap skills on the corner, knocking out beats on the side of the house. Growing up in the New Orleans of the ’90s and early 2000s, they had plenty of inspiration. Second lines, the boisterous brass band parades that have long been a symbol of New Orleans culture, started in the Tremé neighborhood, just across the highway. “Bounce,” a genre of music that blends brass beats and hip-hop into a uniquely New Orleans sound, has roots in the 5th Ward, too. “I started doing hip-hop, being on this corner right here, bebopping,” he remembers fondly. “Beating on the house with a battery, and coming up with a rhyme.”

No one lives in the White House now.

Though the house still towers above its low-slung neighbors, its split facade has become a symbol of the struggles the neighborhood has faced in rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. A sturdy new foundation and joists have lifted the building several feet, a requirement for insurance since the storm. New windows have been installed, and Meyers and his younger brother have mostly finished painting the first floor’s exterior. But the second floor still shows damage, the aging paint almost completely wiped, exposing the weathered, gray boards underneath.

Amy K. Nelson for BuzzFeed News

Like many families in New Orleans, the Meyers heeded the last-minute warnings from city officials to evacuate the day before Katrina hit and decamped to Baton Rouge. But rather than being gone for a few days or a week like evacuations past, this time they were stuck. The White House was badly damaged, and delays in receiving recovery money meant the family wouldn’t be able to move in for years. When Meyers returned to New Orleans in 2011, he found his neighborhood had changed in more ways than he could have imagined.

In the years since Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, thousands of people have poured into the city, drawn by economic opportunity and the city’s music and food scenes, as well as the laid-back, almost European pace of life in the Crescent City. The transplants, many of whom first fell in love with New Orleans as volunteers in the post-hurricane cleanup process, have brought with them new small businesses and an infusion of private capital, which combined with billions in federal, state, and city spending have begun to transform huge sections of the city.

New bike lanes have been built, massive redevelopment projects are underway, and commercial areas like Broad Street in Mid-City — an area of the city that includes the part of the 5th Ward where Meyers lives — which once were home to liquor stores and check cashing joints, now have boutique tea shops, gourmet restaurants, and upscale grocery stores. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has trumpeted the changing face of New Orleans, saying the city is “ascending” in an interview with BuzzFeed News last month. But is this bright future happening at the expense of the city's rich past?

Tension surrounding gentrification is hardly unique to New Orleans. Over the last two decades, major cities across the country have seen dramatic shifts in their demographics as young, typically white professionals have sought out neighborhoods with cheap housing that are close to their jobs and cultural hubs. City governments hungry for new tax revenues have encouraged these shifts, and areas like Washington, D.C.’s U Street Corridor have seen massive redevelopment efforts tailored specifically for these new young professionals — which, thanks to rising rents and property taxes, force out the existing poorer, minority communities.

But while in most cities gentrification is caused by a simple desire for prime real estate, in New Orleans the draw is the very culture that the resulting changes to the city is eroding. Like many natives of the city, Domonique Meyers thinks New Orleans is already in danger: “It’s ’bout to be extinct.”

Meyers was born in New Orleans in 1986 and grew up a few doors down from the White House with his parents and three younger siblings. For years, his grandparents lived in that house, anchoring a block made up almost entirely of their children, grandchildren, and other relatives. “My uncle stayed next door, we stayed next door to my uncle, my aunt stayed in the other house," he says. "It’s like one big family, you know?”

Like many of the black sections of Mid-City, his neighborhood was relatively poor and saw its fair share of violence. But it was also a tight-knit community, he says, as even unrelated neighbors became de facto extended family, with parents watching out for one another’s children as if they were their own. “I used to be able to get lost in this community and my parents would know where I was at. Because the parents down the street would be like, ‘Domonique’s down here,’” he says.

With a mother who was in the church choir and a father who’d once had dreams of an R&B career, music was a natural interest for Meyers. “I was born doing something with music,” he says. But it was the sounds of the neighborhood that compelled him to pursue it as a passion. At McDonogh 28, the elementary school down the street, he joined the marching band after watching second lines parade through his neighborhood. “I was like, how you can march and play a tune and be on rhythm at the same time?”

Amy K. Nelson for BuzzFeed News

Pride in your neighborhood and ward is also an integral part of being a New Orleanian, and brass bands were often named after their neighborhoods. Early bounce artists like DJ Jimi and DJ Jubilee made local pride a central part of their music, calling “Where ya at?” at the raucous crowds of sweaty, dancing black youths who would respond loudly with the name of their ward or neighborhood.

“You reppin’ 5th Ward, in the club, in school, you rep your ward," Meyers explains. "So it was like, y’all got a small hood. So we always had a big chip on our shoulder."

Eventually, his aspirations turned to hip-hop, and he became an MC in New Orleans’ thriving underground scene under the name Dinero. Early on, his lyrics took a decidedly socially conscious bent. Although Meyers says his parents raised him to stay out of trouble, it was still all around him in the 5th Ward. “Just comin’ home from getting a snack at the store, I’d see a dead body in the street,” he explains. “I was able to be in it, without being in it, you know what I mean? That’s why my lyrics are that way.”

On Aug. 28, 2005, the day before Hurricane Katrina hit the city, Meyers was 18 and just beginning to make a name for himself in the hip-hop scene — including, he says, a spot on the 2004 From Da Block to Da Booth mixtape hosted by Tony Yayo, a member of 50 Cent’s G Unit. At the time, his family was finishing preparations to move into the White House, which his father had come to own, but they quickly changed course and packed instead to go to Baton Rouge, where Meyers’ uncle lived.

His neighborhood would be spared the worst of the flooding after a series of levee breaks engulfed the city in the days following the storm — “We got, like, 3, 4 feet of water here,” Meyers says — but the consequences were still devastating.

The floodwaters had done significant damage to the White House. The roof was destroyed, and, as it sat for months, mold began to grow in the walls, all of which would have to be gutted. Meyers enrolled in Southern University, and the family stayed in Baton Rouge as they struggled to rebuild the house from afar.

There was state and federal assistance to be had, including $150,000 from the Road Home Program, but the program was plagued by corruption and delays, and the family didn’t receive the funds until three or four years ago. Then, Meyers’ father, who worked in hotels in the city and made the hour-plus commute every day from Baton Rouge, had a heart attack and was subsequently fired from his job in the hotel industry. With his father unable to work and his younger brother still in high school, Meyers — who was in and out of college — and his mother labored to keep the family afloat in Baton Rouge. But while they were away, more changes were happening in the neighborhood than Meyers had anticipated.

As Meyers’ family was struggling to come home, city officials were intent on making Mid-City a core part of their reconstruction plans. A sprawling section of New Orleans that stretches across multiple smaller neighborhoods and wards — including the bottom portion of the 5th Ward, where Meyers lives — Mid-City constitutes the closest thing to a geographic heart of the city.

The centerpiece of those efforts is a 70-acre, multibillion-dollar hospital complex that will begin opening this year and will include a new veterans hospital, a public hospital, medical research facilities, and gleaming new office buildings.

But other changes have come to the area as well, as Landrieu has used millions in federal transportation dollars to rehabilitate roads, install bike lanes, and build a “greenway” — essentially a park designed to link different neighborhoods together — that will run through the heart of Mid-City. A new charter school has opened, featuring state-of-the-art equipment, and the city has used tax credits and other inducements to lure small businesses into the area.

Domonique Meyers

Amy K. Nelson for BuzzFeed News

On the residential side, the redevelopment has attracted hundreds of people. On virtually every block there’s construction going on at one house or another.

“I interviewed this neighborhood for two months before I bought this house. Just talking to people, hanging out,” says Eddie McDonald, a 45-year-old IT professional who moved to New Orleans a year and a half ago from the Dallas suburbs, initially living in the Garden District section of town before eventually settling into the house across the street from the White House.

McDonald, who has roots in New Orleans and went to college here, is like many of the new residents. He has a well-paying job and disposable income, and, when he moved in, he was able to qualify for the type of loans needed to buy — and refurbish — a home. He was drawn not only by the economic opportunities of New Orleans, but also the cultural ones. “I got to handpick a city because I work remotely,” he says. “I picked New Orleans because I had the fondest of memories of living here. It’s just everything. It’s the community, it’s the crawfish boils.”

McDonald ultimately settled on Meyers’ neighborhood when his house, which was still being remodeled by the previous owner, finally came on the market. “I wanted a double [duplex], and I wanted off-street parking. There’s not a lot of neighborhoods that have these doubles,” McDonald says.

But he also chose the neighborhood because he’d like to expose his son to a socioeconomically diverse group of people, which he hopes the 5th Ward will provide. Although his son was in one of the country’s best school districts back in Dallas, McDonald worried about the lack of diversity in their suburb. “Where we lived was predominantly white … I couldn’t in good conscience raise him in that environment in the world we live in, and set him up for success,” he says. “It was a conscious effort … to put him in an area where at 10 years old, race, economic status, none of that matters.”

He quickly bristles, however, at mention of the word “gentrification.”

“The mix in this neighborhood isn’t about any one race coming in and another leaving; it’s just everyone lifting it collectively,” he says. “When you say ‘gentrification,’ it has a negative overtone.”

But the racial makeup of Mid-City has indeed changed since 2000. According to The Data Center, which tracks population information in Southern Louisiana, in 2000 black residents accounted for 64.3% of Mid-City’s population, while whites accounted for 23.2%. In 2010, the last year that official census data is available, blacks accounted for 55% of the neighborhood’s population, while white residents had risen to 27.3%. And while hard data isn’t available for the last five years, residents say the shift has accelerated as the city’s efforts to redevelop the neighborhood have ramped up.

McDonald, however, argues that changes to the neighborhood are inevitable, regardless of the new residents’ race. “Let’s say you’ve got a group of 100 young black professionals [and] you’ve got a bunch of houses on this block that are ready to be remodeled. Now you’ve got these young black men, who are making 80, 90 thousand dollars a year, they’re starting out … they come in. Do you not think that would change the vibe of this neighborhood? It doesn’t matter who’s moving in. What they’re saying is, 'Unless we keep it exactly what it is, it’s going to change [for worse].' And that’s not realistic."

McDonald isn’t alone in feeling defensive when the word “gentrification” comes up. In his interview, Landrieu also pushed back against the idea that the term is often synonymous with a sense of cultural erosion.

“There’s some people who have this sick mentality that all the bad things kind of help make the good things,” Landrieu says. “That’s wrong. I think that’s wrong. I don’t believe you need poverty to make culture. … Lots of people conflate good things and bad things.“

“I’m not obtuse, I can understand, people don’t like change. You know, they’re comfortable. But it’s also life. Life happens,” McDonald also says. “It’s going to change. The fact that somebody is concerned with the color of skin of somebody moving in? That’s their issue. Because that might be an issue in another town, but that’s not an issue in New Orleans.”

Sitting one morning with him on his family’s stoop, it’s easy to see Meyers’ connections to his neighborhood — and the disconnect between longtime and new residents. Every few minutes, a car ambles past, slowing when the driver sees him. Windows roll down, horns honk, and greetings are hollered. Meyers responds in kind, a smile on his face. “She lives down the block from here,” he says of one young black woman. “Yeah, he just got out [of prison],” he says of a twentysomething black man who circles the block twice.

Meyers’ new white neighbors are also friendly: One young mother pushing a stroller waves hello as she hurries past, and others smile as they go about their lives. But there’s a distance to their interactions, and they feel more perfunctory than his almost familial exchanges with people who grew up here.

“When Katrina happened, I knew something was gonna change — I just didn’t know how,” Meyers says. “But now I see it. It’s a lot of people who are not from here who stay right next door to us. People from South Carolina, all over the world, New York, California. So you felt a sense of well, my neighborhood’s ’bout to be gone.”

He hops off the stoop and looks down the street into the sun, eyeing the houses. “I probably know 2 out of 15 who stay here right now. And everybody knew everybody before that. We the first ones here and ’bout to be the last ones left. And we on the verge of getting kicked off our own block.”

A woman pulls her car over just down the street. “Oh, you should talk to her,” he says. “She knows everything about this block.”

Deborah Chapman steps out of her car onto the broken sidewalk, smiling as the bright sun gleams off her sunglasses. Impeccably dressed, even for a Saturday, she is the classic neighborhood matriarch, commanding the attention — and respect — of anyone she turns her gaze upon.

Deborah Chapman

Amy K. Nelson for BuzzFeed News

Source: Buzzfeed


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