If You Blight It, They Will Come: Moynihan, New Orleans, and the Making of the Gentrification Economy
In 1969, Daniel Patrick Moynihan sent a rushed note to then secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) George Romney. Unfazed by the backlash some four years prior to The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Moynihan, now Richard Nixon’s counselor on Urban Affairs, enumerated the obstacles city mayors were up against on the eve of the 1970s. Armed with a slew of new statistics, the academic-turned-policy wonk doubled down on his thesis that the disintegration of black family structure was at the root of urban poverty.1 However, as the impact of deindustrialization and stagnation came into focus, Moynihan now observed other discouraging elements at work in cities as well. In little more than a few years, the failure of antipoverty programs had contributed to a more serious urban crisis motivated now by two “opposing trends”: the flight of white families and “just as clearly, the social structure of the Negro poor [which] continues to deteriorate.”2 As antithetical sides of the same crisis, city administrators must now consider how dual threats—white flight and black poverty—undermined urban stability, the academician warned.
Over the course of the next decade, local administrators in New Orleans embraced these twinned crises as means to pivot focus from inequality to matters of urban demography—conveniently ignoring broader structural economic shifts. Planners argued that the consequences of this binary left local administrators with few achievable pathways to urban stability. The city, Mayor Moon Landrieu argued, had become a “city of minorities,” “poor” and “weak.”3 Consequently, the mayor said, the fiscal crisis with which American cities contended was exacerbated in New Orleans by the sheer number of residents who “require[d] services but who [we]re less capable of paying for them.”4 Careful to evade comments on the economy, Landrieu described what Moynihan had characterized as a stage of “demographic siege,” attributing the accelerating insecurity of working class families to an imbalance in demography and failure of individual responsibility.5 Depicting federal aid as the only means by which to pursue an antipoverty agenda, the mayor also argued that diminishing program funds required the city to grow in ways that reflected the vested interests of those fleeing the city center in order to facilitate their return. Already in the process of shepherding tourism and real estate development interests to the city, this narrative willfully erased material inequalities produced by codified segregation and unequal access to housing, employment, and education as well as hardened conceptualizations that blamed poverty on individual choices. Thus, this logic rationalized the market relations of a gentrification economy by implying it was imperative to defray costs for serving the poor. Ultimately, local governing officials deployed these assumptions to sanction their own participation in the making of middle-class neighborhoods.
Planners and local administrators found justification for this rationale in the shifting federal urban legislation that consolidated an array of Great Society programs into a multi-purpose, locally controlled, physical development block grant.6 Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs), enacted in 1974, ideologically reconfigured the “antipoverty” aims of local administrators around the elimination and prevention of blight.7 Though the grant was purportedly designed to streamline funding for low-income neighborhood development, its codification under the umbrella of blight rested on the premise that causes of poverty and those of physical decline could be conflated, and were most often mutually constituted. Because blight remained intentionally undefined under federal legislation, planners had the room to extend definitions beyond the stated purpose of the grant itself. During the 1970s, planners reinforced these assumptions by generating a swath of statistics—for which the lexicon originated in Moynihan’s conceptualization of poverty—which they insisted revealed the roots of blighted conditions in low-income residents themselves. At a moment where local government touted its commitment to racial liberalism, local officials nevertheless ensconced racist and sexist conceptualizations of the poor in the making of blight. Planners thus operationalized culture of poverty theories toward new ends, ascribing pathologies onto residents that worked circuitously to blame low-income black communities for the decline of their physical environs and to present physical fixes as a solvent to issues of urban poverty.
While this interpretation sanctioned place-based fixes that systematically partitioned low-income residents from citywide economic development, planners invoked the threat of blight toward other objectives as well. Local administrators, increasingly obsessed with reconstructing the city as a site for middle-class consumption, deployed the threat of blight and its implicit prejudices as tools to initiate middle-class settlement and buttress homeownership. Thus, initiatives deployed under the city’s community development program were also designed to justify residential revitalization schemes that reinforced the city’s broader speculative growth agenda. Throughout the 1970s, conceptualizations of blight would have little to do with the programmatic approach to poverty implemented in low-income areas, but instead fueled a city-sponsored attempt at making a middle-class metropolis.8
Ahead of the enactment of Community Development Block Grants, Mayor Moon Landrieu announced the creation of the Office of Policy Planning and Analysis (OPPA). Landrieu described the new unit as designed to discern the real causes and right responses to issues of poverty and blight while developing a systematic approach to data analysis, planning, and evaluation.9 Although formed in accordance with federal guidelines that accompanied decentralizing funding, OPPA was also a response to a national movement to employ a scientific approach to policy and planning. Stemming in part from Moynihan’s demands for the professionalization of reform, this trend— whose supporters contended that quantifiable measures and scientific surveying could be used to generate better programs—hinged on claims to expertise and objectivity.10 In practice, expertise presented an opportunity to distance planning and policymaking from low-income residents’ demands for socioeconomic inclusion by maintaining that professionalized training was necessary for rational decision making.11 In New Orleans, where the core team of analysts personified the city’s new elite, all trained in social and polling sciences, these claims to objectivity were quickly replaced by the need to generate data that mirrored the city administration’s broader development aims.12
Thus, while analysts certainly believed their expertise was vital to better reforms, as the Landrieu administration marshaled funding to support downtown touristic development, they also adhered to methodology that reflected these particular market-driven urban revitalization aims. Charged with constructing a neighborhood-level blight index that would guide the distribution of aid, OPPA analysts set out to collect more quantifiable information on neighborhoods than ever before. In a matter of months, analysts identified seven measures and twenty-five sub-measures upon which to rank blighted conditions that they claimed represented an accurate portrait of the city’s conditions. The indices combined statistics on unemployment, substandard housing, and poverty with a host of familial measures that analysts dubbed trans-economic.13
The inclusion of the latter indicators—which charted the number of female-headed households, juveniles living in female-headed households, and out-of-wedlock births in a given neighborhood—pivoted analysis from substantiating links between unemployment and the burgeoning tourism economy (as well as physical deterioration and state-sponsored disinvestment) to maintaining that conditions in low-income areas were the result of personal decisions.14 Analysts further shored up the association of working-class black residents and blight, recording only the percentage of black residents in each neighborhood. The resultant index as it were was imbued with racist and sexist assumptions that made residents and their family arrangements responsible for physical deterioration, and attributed material inequalities to individual decisions and not as the result of uneven development. Knowing the number of female-headed households in a given area mattered little to conducting a street-paving program, but local officials hoped to mask their attempts to avert socioeconomic inclusion by reorienting discourse to focus on the perceived self-contained deficiencies of low-income communities.
This conflation of people and place was reinforced by the discrete neighborhood-level approach employed through community development.15 On its surface, the targeted strategy appeared to correct prior misappropriations that had had little influence on the conditions in low-income areas. As city officials framed the onset of CDBGs as a radical step toward better programming, they employed this slant of a more tailored program with new vigor. Neighborhood-specific treatment, OPPA director Emmett Moten argued, would “allow government to key in on particular problems in particular neighborhoods” and develop programmatic approaches that were reflective of these needs.16 Yet targeting strategies reinforced the assumption that the needs of low-income residents originated in some sort of organically produced and self-perpetuating decline of low-income neighborhoods and could be assuaged through a trained approach that addressed visible problems. While such programmatic assumptions worked to divide low-income residents from one another—inhibiting the formation of cross-area demands for socioeconomic inclusion by tying specific neighborhoods to specific funding—they also routinized the larger separation of “neighborhood issues” from decisions regarding economic development, investment, and growth. With this function, community development programs operated foremost as a very real containment strategy.
Programs in low-income neighborhoods thus advanced as place-based, discrete, and ludicrously inadequate.17 When used correctly, community development activities paved individual streets, though almost never in the same neighborhoods; built playgrounds, yet without the multiservice centers for counseling and educational programs that residents said they required; and rehabilitated owner-occupied homes, though often those of slumlords because loan rates were egregiously high for low-income owners and the majority of working class residents were renters. Programs remained largely uncoordinated with no connection to or implication for the broader political economy in which residents lived and worked. The making and fixing of blight thus worked to legitimate isolation.
In that sense, neighborhood boundaries were not simply used to justify targeting in low-income areas, but also to insulate pockets of middle-class and private-sector growth from the effects of uneven development.18 Neighborhoods being revitalized through municipal revenue streams, in particular the Central Business District, were bounded in jigsaw-like ways to conveniently skirt low-income areas where inclusion might highlight the incongruence of speculative growth and the material needs of low-income residents. While the blight index was used to containerize low-income neighborhoods, planners found that in moderate-income neighborhoods, it could be used to formulate a case for government-subsidized gentrification.19
Blight in the Irish Channel
In 1973, OPPA analysts proposed an area-gentrification project in the Irish Channel neighborhood that would extend revitalization efforts in the Central Business District to nearby residential areas. The neighborhood, though historically working class, was ripe for revitalization in the eyes of local administrators. Its historic architecture and proximity to affluent areas of the city could be construed as a boon, planners argued. A resident-led gentrification project had recently “revitalized” an area once considered part of the Irish Channel—the Lower Garden District. Over the course of just a few years, the area, which sat between the Irish Channel and the Central Business District, had flourished as young professionals (many of whom were members of the Landrieu administration and were overseeing the broader restructuring of the city’s economy) took to the neighborhood and rehabilitated the area’s Victorian and Greek revivalist houses, exploiting connections to city government to draw distinctions between new growth and areas where black working-class residents remained.20 The renovation of the area had been so complete that residents had successfully petitioned the city to secede from the Irish Channel in 1973.21
The “public improvement project” would extend the design of the Lower Garden project, but with upfront public investment and government oversight. Pitched as a comprehensive program, the project would combine superficial landscaping, street paving, home improvements, and rehabilitation of historical structures with efforts to cement political influence by building strong community associations around middle-class interests.22 Most importantly, the project was centered on strengthening the area’s homeowners.23
Planners were concerned with buttressing an environment whereby middle-class and private-sector investment would flourish, and contended it was necessary to exclude residents from the St. Thomas homes, a 1,510-unit public housing project situated on the periphery of the area.24 It was the racist and classist allusions supplied by the blight index that bolstered their argument for this exclusion. Appealing to middle-class gentrification pioneers, planners relied on OPPA’s pseudoscience that conflated blight and the perceived pathology of low-income black residents to argue that it was imperative that the city protect against the spread of the area’s physical deterioration. Fed by the data collected and disseminated on female-headed households and black poverty, city planners manufactured a crisis. Blight did not “limit itself to a small area…it spread, bringing surrounding areas down with it.25 In not so thinly veiled racist rhetoric, analysts detailed the contagion effect set in motion without intervention: Housing conditions would continue to deteriorate, the area’s density would increase rapidly, maintenance of city streets and parks would decrease, and soon enough, “the social and psychological problems so well documented in the daily news” would begin to take over.26 Reminding local officials of the “social problems” that constituted blight, planners hammered home that the purpose of this project was not to ameliorate low-income conditions, but instead to “reverse the trend” of the pathogen-like spread of conditions and mindsets that, unattended, became persistent and self-perpetuating and would inevitably facilitate the flight of remaining capital and middle-class residents.27 Accordingly, residents had only themselves to blame for their exclusion.
While planners relied on the abstraction of blight-as-pathogen to cloak what was essentially a state-sponsored removal project, this gross misappropriation of resources was by no means unique to New Orleans. Planning theories furnished in conjunction with new federal urban aid actually emphasized the need for neighborhood revalorization over approaches that attempted redistribution. In 1974, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a series of planning recommendations compiled under the direction of the Real Estate Research Corporation (RERC), chaired by Anthony Downs.28 It was this set of ideas that OPPA planners looked to as a means to legitimize area-revitalization projects. The HUD report outlined a model that defined characteristics believed to produce urban pathologies and calculated action strategies as a matter of responding to the specific needs and realistic potential of each area.29 Planners at HUD depicted healthy, functioning neighborhoods as populated by residents who were white, middle class and, most critically, propertied. Cities, embroiled in fiscal crisis, could not jeopardize funding on neighborhoods where the presence of public housing, crime, substandard and abandoned housing, and a ubiquitous number of welfare mothers made intervention untenable, RERC argued.30
As a transparent strategy of benign neglect, HUD sanctioned the utilization of funds to foster abandonment and revitalization in ways that privileged higher-income residents as well as the broader reconstruction of urban economies through uneven forms of development. The recommendations, which treated national economic restructuring and policies of devolution as a simple reality, argued that, in actuality, there were some neighborhoods where inaction was warranted. According to the RERC, in the lowest-income areas of US cities, the situation was clear: “Neither great intensity of needs nor past receipt of funds alters the hard fact that further upgrading efforts in these areas is not likely to work.”31 Employing all the same racist and class assumptions about working-class residents, the RERC argued that as these areas would eventually die, planners needed to commit to a “long-range strategy of emptying out deteriorated neighborhoods.”32 As for redevelopment, the RERC suggested instead a strategy of modified triage that would work to preserve “in-between” neighborhoods capable of fostering investment. For planners in New Orleans, this model normalized economic growth that encouraged displacement as part of gentrification and lent credibility to the action of local officials as they pivoted resources toward increasingly uneven ends.
Ostensibly, the Irish Channel was one of those “in-between” neighborhoods, analysts thus argued. Ignoring the fears of low-income renters who worried that their interests could not possibly be protected in a project that targeted only 25 percent of the neighborhood’s residents (the area’s homeowners), the city approved the design. Though planners justified diverting CDBG funds by arguing that the budget was limited to $250,000, this rationale was misleading. From the outset, administrators demanded agreements from city departments including sanitation, streets, and the notoriously rogue Sewerage and Water Board to increase and enhance services in the area: junk cars and debris were to be cleared, garbage picked up, rodents exterminated, and an exhaustive list of streets repaired. While city officials had long argued that there were few ways to compel cooperation from its departments, the city proved it could be mobilized accordingly around certain kinds of efforts in certain kinds of neighborhoods.33
With unified city support, the public improvement project oversaw comprehensive development throughout the area. Over the course of two years, streets were paved, sidewalks were fixed, and trees were planted. Homeowners received counseling on how to obtain and negotiate loans, and benefited from spot-rehabilitation conducted by the city’s urban renewal agency. With the backing of major city departments, the project went well beyond its original scope. OPPA planners lobbied for the enactment of a series of stringent zoning codes that eliminated the already negligible presence of industrial employment in the area and undermined working-class businesses.34 Where conflicts arose, as they did around the renovation of Clay Square when gentrification pioneers wanted to fill in basketball courts in favor of an old-time promenade, the city shut down resident protests.35 By the mid-1970s, the designation of historic districts had become a predictor of “back to the city” settlements; accordingly, the city moved to secure landmark status for the area.36 In a matter of years, housing prices doubled and tripled.37
Though city officials claimed victory, the improvement program had been calamitous for lower-income residents. Residents who had feared that the program was designed to displace them found their predictions substantiated by what followed. The “strictly profit” attitude of project planners had replaced original promises of supporting neighborhood stability with rampant gentrification encouraged by the needs of downtown growth.38 Residents reported gentrification pioneers rapidly descending upon the neighborhood—young professionals moving in and buying two or three houses at a time, renting barely refurbished houses to college students and new urbanites with the capacity to pay over the area’s median rent.39 The city’s role in fostering rent intensification was clear to the area’s working class residents. As one resident told reporters, “People only move when they’ve got a reason: if the city comes around and tells your landlord to renovate, then you got to move because you know your rent’s going up.”40 Indeed, the city, which had been reluctant to enforce housing codes in working-class neighborhoods and failed to support a broader landlord-tenant agreement that would protect their rights, was now at the forefront of ensuring that working-class residents would no longer be able to reside in the Irish Channel. The process set in motion by systematic exclusions and subsequent uneven investment was simple— rents went up, working-class residents suffered as higher-end shops replaced mom-and-pop businesses and both led to an exodus of lower-income residents from the area.41
Paradoxically, as city officials facilitated the displacement of low-income residents in the Irish Channel, administrators displayed a stunning unwillingness to sponsor new low-income housing construction or to support in earnest that which was already in place. City officials balked at even modest proposals to use local power to expand low-income housing, suggesting that such action would be perceived as hostile to private-sector and middle-class investment.42 The development-oriented City Hall was, in fact, active in facilitating the destruction of much of the city’s private low-income housing. From 1970 to 1976, 80 percent of demolition permits authorized by the city were awarded to projects that cleared low-income housing units; when city-issued permits went to private contractors, this figure rose to 95 percent.43
Thus, instead of safeguarding tenants from eviction in an already precarious affordable housing market, the development-oriented local administrators acted as tendentious arbiters in conflicts between private landlords and residents by running interference for real estate interests. One such battle occurred over the Parkchester Apartments, a privately owned 1,200-unit complex in the city’s Gentilly neighborhood. For years, Parkchester residents had sent complaints to the city about the numerous code violations and service disruptions suffered as the result of the city’s refusal to hold absentee landlords accountable. The building maintenance of the Parkchester Apartments, which were built in the 1940s on a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan, had become more and more shoddy as new tenants were increasingly lower income. The city, made aware of the conditions by the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corps, waxed rhetoric about the need for decent affordable housing, but did nothing to force landlords to address the nearly 150 code violations found in just one of the complex’s buildings.44
Instead, in 1974, the city announced that it was assisting in the property’s sale to an Atlanta-based company seeking to turn the units into an upscale mall. Outraged residents and University of New Orleans planning experts implored the city to intervene: The eviction of the nearly 6,000 tenants would be devastating, particularly in a housing market unfriendly to lower-income residents. Tenant leaders argued that the city could mobilize a mass-scale rehabilitation of the buildings and surrounding area if they were to award community development funds to the complex. Indeed, the primary utilization of first-year Community Development Block Grants had been to facilitate private-sector housing rehabilitation; the city need only to advocate for low-income residents’ rights in order to ensure the stability of the buildings, tenant leaders told city officials. As residents reported, “Our first need is housing, and it’s our second, our third, fourth, fifth, and sixth.”45
Despite the opposition of residents and leading housing experts, the Landrieu administration continued to side with developers and advocate demolition as the only realistic course of action. Blight was simply too prevalent to combat, Landrieu argued, making use of the loaded terminology to garner middle class support. In 1975, the remaining Parkchester tenants were forcefully evicted.46 The land remained condemned as rumors abounded that the city had intentionally blocked a sale to nonprofit developers seeking to build low-income housing. Five years later, a developer would take over the lot to build single-family homes and condominiums.47 While displaced residents searched for new housing, city administrators extolled the development as a means of “creating a [residential] market” that could now partake in the consumptive growth of downtown.48 Despite their reticence to support any substantial public or affordable housing measures, local administrators continued to marshal development, both public and private, for the purposes of attracting higher-income residents. Blight, as a malleable ambiguity, had once again been utilized to remove low-income residents from growth.
Where the city assisted in the destruction of much of the private housing market’s low-income units either through supporting demolition as in the case of Parkchester or state-sponsored rent intensification as was true in the Irish Channel, public housing increasingly became the scapegoat (and indeed, the last frontier) for uneven growth. By mid-decade, there were 53,121 residents in public housing, representing more than 20 percent of the city’s black population.49 A survey by the New Orleans Housing Authority (HANO) reported that every public housing building in the city was in need of full-scale modernization.50 Tenants began to demand that the city reckon with the promise of livable public housing, but city administrators contending with the increasingly unprofitable HANO and the rapacious demands of the tourism economy turned to another theory: Concentrated poverty had given rise to self-reproducing “project pathologies” personified by “dwellings filled with not only black, but also female-headed, multiple-child, welfare-dependent households.”51 Relying on the blight indices, local administrators argued that it was this cycle, not state neglect, that caused the degradation of buildings and kept people in poverty.
By 1976, city analysts and their university advisors began intimating that the measure of female-headed households was the most critical socioeconomic predictor of potential zones of blight: In areas where there were female-led households, analysts could predict to find high rates of unemployment and poverty, they told governing officials.52 Analysts reiterated politically salient ideas that pointed to cultural deficiencies of the poor at the root of economic inequalities. Thus, they explained the failure to expand the low-income housing market by the lack of “social acceptability” of their clientele, and rising unemployment rates as a consequence of the “social disorganization and maladjustment” of young black men.53 This “self-perpetuating cycle” that left families without even the ability “to love” threatened the very stability of the city as well as its new middle-class growth.54 Public housing had become the intractable impediment to blight clearance in the city, administrators warned.
This convenient victim blaming was rooted within the aggressive needs of the expanding gentrification economy. As the city marshaled resources toward speculative real estate and tourism growth, local administrators argued that the public housing crisis could be resolved through a process of deconcentration. Deconcentration, which purported that simply dispersing residents throughout the city could eliminate urban poverty by bringing working class residents into contact with middle class ways of living, hinged on ‘culture of poverty’ narratives and masked the market aspirations that motivated the city to dismantle public housing. As early as 1973, administration officials suggested that the city begin to sell public housing buildings in areas that bordered gentrification zones, claiming that such sales offered the opportunity to enact deconcentration in areas of high density and pay for maintenance of other buildings.55 This preposterous suggestion, though neither a realistic long-term strategy nor credible means of fixing the declining conditions of public housing buildings, most certainly characterized an attempt to remove public housing from areas of growth altogether, foreshadowing the actions of local administrators in the years to come.56
More and more, low-income areas were subject to clearance and removal projects, particularly when the land was valuable to growing the city’s gentrification economy. Residential areas, characterized in relation to antipoverty solutions as “futile,” were looked on with renewed interest when local officials discussed the expansion of the Central Business District.57 As a throwback to the days of earlier urban renewal, planners dismissed displacement as simply an unfortunate side effect to the windfall that middle-class development projects represented for the city’s future. As planners invoked blight to support the city government’s broader gentrification project, a study done by the local Urban League would correctly conclude that low-income black residents were no longer viewed as members of the city’s body politic, but as the “blight itself.”58
Making the Middle-Class City
This analysis seemed prescient in the days and months after Hurricane Katrina as pundits and policy wonks lined up to forecast the new New Orleans. Alongside conservatives like George Neumayr and Nicole Gelinas, liberal scholars and academicians found ways to draw distinctions between the future of the city and that of the city’s black working class. Where conservatives made these distinctions on the basis of culture and liberals through veiled rhetoric of opportunity, the overwhelming consensus seemed to be that the working class should not return; instead New Orleans should be remade as a wealthier, whiter, and more profit-driven city.59 These conclusions posited displacement of the city’s low-income residents as a rational opportunity to eliminate persistent poverty, a concept that recalled Moynihan’s reading of “demographic siege” and early attempts at deconcentration.60 Clearly neoliberal narratives have remained dependent on ideologies that speculate that low-income residents are poor for reasons disconnected from the inequality of market-driven development or the dramatic cuts to social and public services.
In such narratives, postindustrial inequality is ascribed as unrelated to state-sponsored development decisions—articulating processes of deindustrialization, white flight, union busting, corporate welfare, and privatization as simple consequences of history. Certainly, there is no doubt that over the past forty years, local administrators have borne witness to the constriction of their capacity to enact socioeconomic inclusion measures. Nevertheless, it is an egregious fabrication to rationalize massive gentrification (not to mention the fortification of uneven growth) as the only course of achievable action at the expense and livelihood of working-class residents. These racist, classed, and often gendered ideas are little more than an abdication of responsible governance.61 Blight, concentrated poverty, move to opportunity should be called what they are—containment and removal strategies calculated to exclude working-class residents under the auspices of securing fiscal solvency, or as was the rhetoric after Katrina, making “more livable neighborhoods.”62 Touted as benevolent, such narratives not only buttress increasingly unequal neoliberal development strategies, but also evade the numerous viable alternatives available to local administrations through initiatives that support public education, public works, and widespread unionization of service-sector industries, or with more radical restructuring, those that repurpose the numerous corporate abatements given out each year toward social and public services.
Strategies that place a premium on attracting a lost middle class, rather than sustaining an existing working one, do not offer a more equitable city. Rather, the New Orleans of the future exposes a horrific intensification of inequalities made worse by the current assault on city services and oversight, rampant privatization of public schools, large-scale speculative development projects, and state-sponsored gentrification. Where city-led post-Katrina reconstruction has decidedly focused efforts on making the middle-class city—utilizing the disaster to extend high-rise condominiums, tourist promenades, and speculative real estate ventures into traditionally working class areas—the future of New Orleans, which is likely the future of Detroit, Newark, and St. Louis as well, will be marked by revanchist policies that destabilize and displace low-income residents from city cores.