The night before Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered his State of the City address to highlight New Orleans' accomplishments 10 years after Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, a standing-room-only crowd tackled the city's post-Katrina wave of gentrification. "The Big Issue" speaker series at Tulane University's Hillel Center — which previously has tackled family violence, sexual assault and other topics — asked how to balance revitalization and the growing influx of newcomers without displacing residents and, in turn, the foundation of the city's culture.
"Our culture bearers, as I call them — our musicians, our chefs, our hospitality employees — are being priced out of communities they've been able to live in for generations," said New Orleans District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell. "There's a real need to look at these matters. ... But it has to be balanced. It has to be revitalizing communities for all and not just for a few."
Cantrell, however, said the city's Neighborhood Housing Investment Fund — which gets nearly $4 million a year from property taxes — is being used for code enforcement efforts that push residents out of housing rather than provide financial assistance to keep low-income residents in housing.
Flozell Daniels Jr., president of Foundation For Louisiana, said the city isn't able to keep pace with the phenomenon of newcomers to the city.
"People coming into the city — eight, nine, 10,000 a year — we are really struggling to deal with what it means for neighborhoods," he said. "How do we take that as an opportunity and as a sign of a revitalizing city and recognize it's harming and diminishing folks who are here?"
Vance Vaucresson said the city and developers haven't earned the trust of low-income residents, who historically have been left out of rebuilding efforts. Vaucresson warned of developers (and policymakers) pulling the "okey-doke" on low-income residents as "revitalization" efforts get underway. He pointed to the Claiborne overpass, which crippled Treme and the Claiborne Avenue corridor when it was built in the 1960s and is now the subject of a "Livable Claiborne Community" discussion to bring people back to the neighborhoods. That, he said, is code for redevelopment, which doesn't necessarily cater to the residents who lived there.
As for solutions, the panelists said the city and its new residents should be mindful of the choices they make — and the priorities they hold. University of New Orleans professor Renia Ehrenfeucht said residents should ask, "What do my neighbors want?"
"I'm a little surprised by discussions we're having where I'm hearing comments that people (seem to) care more about dog parks than they do parks for kids," she said.
"People move to New Orleans for the culture," Cantrell said. "You don't change the culture. You become a part of it."