I’ve spent much of the past two months in New Orleans on a film, an experience I’ll undoubtedly return to in this space again. I didn’t know the town particularly well before going – haven’t been there in 25 years, in fact – so I don’t have much of a basis for comparison. But from what literally everybody down there is saying, the city is in the midst of a radical transformation.
The question, which is what I’m referencing in my title, is precisely why.
In broad brush-strokes, since Katrina a ton of money has poured into New Orleans for reconstruction, some public dollars and some through insurance payouts. Meanwhile, since 2002, the state of Louisiana has had a generous tax credit designed to woo the film industry to town – and credit that, in the years since the hurricane, has paid off to a huge degree in New Orleans and around the state.
That film tax credit is a good example of the Richard Florida strategy for revitalizing a city, a strategy centered on attracting creative types who make a city attractive both to tourists and to residents with disposable income. New Orleans already has a lot of the Florida elements – great food, great music scene, beautiful architecture. Films depend on a lot of the kinds of creative services that Florida thinks are so central. Film is also a heavily-unionized industry, so a lot of the jobs pay quite well. And once you’ve built a critical mass of people with the relevant skills, you get into a virtuous circle where more productions coming to town mean more jobs, which means more film professionals move to town, which means even more productions see the viability of shooting there, etc.
But the Florida strategy is only half of the story of New Orleans over the past nine years. The other half of the story is demographic change – prompted by the hurricane.
Katrina flooded big chunks of the city, including ritzy areas in uptown, not just the infamous ninth ward. But the areas that were heavily poor and black were the most fundamentally transformed, because residents who were displaced frequently didn’t have the resources to come back, couldn’t rebuild their houses, etc. The city as a whole is pretty much back up to its pre-Katrina population levels, but some neighborhoods are still substantially depopulated. And the city’s primary goal is not to facilitate the return of the previous residents, but to rebuild in a way that is most economically beneficial to the city.
This is what you might call the Steve Sailer strategy for urban revitalization: get rid of the least-desireable portion of the population (from the perspective of the tax rolls), and replace them with new people.
The question: which is more important?
I live in New York, where gentrification is a thirty-five-year-old trend. It has changed my city enormously, and I completely understand why long-time residents of a given neighborhood (Bedford-Stuyvesant, say) might get frustrated and angry when gentrification prices them out of their own homes. And why they might get even more frustrated if it feels like the city is facilitating their displacement – by, say, bringing in a Whole Foods rather than a Food Lion. By the same token, I understand the perspective of the city – take a look at Detroit, or New Orleans through Katrina, if you want to see what happens when you ignore the health of your tax rolls. More to the point, it’s very hard to argue with a straight face that high crime, poor services, etc. are good things because they keep a neighborhood from getting too expensive. Nobody actually wants to live with high crime, or corrupt government.
There’s a huge difference, it seems to me, between cause and effect. Between saying, the only way to “improve” the neighborhood is to get rid of the “undesirables,” so let’s “clean out” public housing and take it from there; and saying that one effect – perhaps unfortunate – of “improvements” in the neighborhood is likely to be demographic change. In the latter case, there is the real chance that locals will benefit from economic change as well as suffering. Louisiana’s film tax credit, for example, requires hiring a high proportion of Louisiana residents. Some of those will be people who move to the state to take advantage of the job opportunities – but some will be locals who learn new skills to take advantage of those same opportunities. And people who already own their own homes benefit when gentrification drives up prices. But even if there’s no overt “push,”
Pull and push are both clearly and dramatically at work in New Orleans. And cities are living organisms; they change, or they die. A “new urbanism” worth its name won’t conceive of the city as something static, won’t think of “place” as something fixed, to be preserved against economic and social change at all costs – among other things because preservation itself has clear economic consequences. By the same token, a “new urbanism” worth its name needs to have a notion of how to find a place for everybody in the city, so that America’s great cities aren’t just engaged in a game of repeated deck-shuffling to lure the “right” sort of folks in, and push the “wrong” sort out.
Anyway, none of this is news to anybody who is involved with the issues. New Orleans is just a place where change is happening especially rapidly. It’ll be interesting to see how those who study these things tease out cause and effect there, and whether those advocating for the losers in this process can come up with solutions that don’t threaten the economic and social upswing that is taking place – and whether those on the other side of the table even care.
[UPDATE: Steve Sailer has kindly linked to this post, but objects to my nomenclature:
[M]y contribution has been less advocacy of these liberal measures but exposure of what they are up to. My moral stance is that everybody all across the country is entitled to be aware of what’s going on in liberal cities. . . .
The Sailer Strategy instead is for Americans to be honest with each other about how they are playing Hot Potato with each other, and to unite to import fewer Hot Potatoes for future generations to have to deal with.
The distinction between description and prescription is important, and if Sailer is opposed to the kinds of strategies he has described that many cities use to push poorer residents out – or even relatively indifferent to them – that’s good to know.]