“I have a right not to be resilient”: New Orleanians of color remember Hurricane Katrina

I moved to New Orleans in the overwhelming heat and humidity of early July for one reason: K10. Branded as such on banners, billboards, and a deluge of press kits, the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall (2015) promised to be a media circus rivaling that of the 1984 World’s Fair. For six weeks leading up to the anniversary, The Times-Picayune ran regular Katrina stories, eliciting hundreds of comments. During the same period, WWOZ, the local public radio station, aired a weekly hour-long show, “The Debris,” which focused on how the storm affected New Orleans communities. Residents used these forums to debate the merit of recuperating stories from a decade ago, at once questioning each others’ taste, tact and yearning for spaces to shed lingering pain and heartbreak.

During the week leading up to the anniversary, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration rolled out a press conference to make it plain that the “new,” post-Katrina New Orleans was economically and infrastructurally rebuilt and better than ever before. Landrieu used the K10 website[1], designed to aggregate and disseminate information about the week’s programming, to declare that “New Orleans has become this nation’s—and in many instances, this world’s—most immediate laboratory for innovation and change. Now, the opportunity is to position New Orleans as a global leader in resilience.” As a city that had not only survived, but in the mayor’s words, thrived, since Katrina, New Orleans could, with the nation and international community taking notice, retain and replicate its self-designated status as a model of return, rebuilding, and most of all, resilience. In this way, Landrieu’s administration presented New Orleans’ resilience as evidence for international and national visibility. By shifting the discourse from rebuilding to resilience, Landrieu set the tone for the whole week. Rather than focusing on what had gone wrong and what remained difficult, he wanted K10 to serve as an image makeover for New Orleans: globally competitive in the current fervor for innovative approaches to fortify urban and economic centers against impending climate (and attendant political, infrastructural, and resource-based) change.

My first exposure to this discourse came on the Tuesday of K10 week, when, in partnership with The Atlantic Magazine and The Rockefeller Foundation, Mayor Landrieu’s administration hosted New Orleans: Ten Years Later, a day-long series of roundtables and presentations. As part of Rockefeller’s global 100 Resilient Cities Initiative, Ten Years Later preceded their announcement of a “comprehensive” Resilient New Orleans Strategy (now Resilient New Orleans).

Upon arriving at the CBD Sheraton, I received a lanyard, pen, and program, all emblazoned with the logo specifically created for the week: the words “Katrina 10” were bolded in all caps, topped by a fleur-de-lis crown, flanked by the anniversary dates—2005 and 2015—and anchored by three capitalized words: “Resilient New Orleans.” The text and materials were alternating navy blue and white, a watery memory standing in stark contrast to the bright, blank slate of this, the decade-old New New Orleans.

Thinking I was attending an event honoring the past, the primacy of resilience language quickly reminded me that in fact, I was about to see first-hand how the city was designing itself into a global model of a resilient future.

***

The day began with a town hall-style talk, “What Does it Mean to Know New Orleans?,” featuring local writers, non-profit directors, city council members, and justice workers who had all personally lived through the storm and whose community-engaged work had often emerged in its wake. During this event, the panelists—including Lolis Eric Elie, one of the city’s most beloved social documentarians, Southwest National Student Poet Madeline LeCesne, Tracie Washington, Co-Director of the Louisiana Justice Institute, and Minh Nguyen, Executive Director of VAYLA, a non-profit designed to support young Vietnamese Americans and other youth of color—laid bare the city’s insistence on using residents of colors’ resilience as a tool. Addressing policing, education, and the low employment rates of the city’s Black men, those present critiqued how the city deployed its peoples as proof of its resilience, effectively using residents’ ability to survive immense hardship as evidence of its own resilience.

This was one of many panels centering on the experiences of New Orleanians of color in the decade since Katrina. However, they—often critical of the current administration and its uneven, slow progress in addressing the city’s ills both in light of the storm and in the present moment—were interspersed with others that were overwhelmingly policy-centered, intent on driving home the positive attributes of the New New Orleans. For example, Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, used her talk to paint a picture of New Orleans the template, learning experience, and laboratory for 100 Resilient Cities:

New Orleans in some ways was the hot bed, the testbed, for all of these ideas. And it was a springboard for us for more than half a billion dollars we’ve invested in resilience building in cities of all sizes around the world in the last 10 years. It inspired us to create a network to help Asian cities better prepare for climate impacts and gave us the expertise to help New York to think its own resilience after Superstorm Sandy. And it was the model for 100 Resilient Cities, an almost $200 million-dollar commitment to help cities globally build social, economic, and physical resilience. And of course New Orleans was one of the first cities selected to join.

100 Resilient Cities was born of Katrina, with a broken New Orleans as its model. As the soft side of disaster rebuilding’s neoliberal coin, resilience programming presents itself as people-centric, community-based work rather than being political or economy-focused. However, its operation and the results it wishes to produce lean on the same structural value systems and implementation models as local and national governments. Its acute interest in generating capital—for extant infrastructures rather than individuals and communities—belies its attachments to scorched-earth logics where, confoundingly, a city (and a people) can only secure an adequate future if they begin developing resilience from a blank slate. Katrina’s destruction and sustained impacts on historically Black neighborhoods have allowed New Orleans to move toward resilience. This state- and foundation-centered logic circulates in a vacuum, effectively denying the fact that for generations, coastal and urban communities had been building their own resilience to particular vulnerabilities long foisted on them as the byproduct of doing business as usual in South Louisiana. Unlike vulnerable communities, whose resilience is the direct result of having to develop survival responses to often targeted outward violences, Rockefeller’s resilience is systematic and careful, the result of academic expertise and research data derived from testing in an urban laboratory.

***

Rather than considering how governmental and other infrastructures might self-reflexively produce less change and disturbance, through resilience, cities and foundations seek to understand just how much pressure systems (in this case, communities) can bear before they break. This cognitive dissonance—between institutional and community-centered notions of resilience—becomes most clear when we listen to community leaders navigating the political and cultural vacuum created by the storm. At the town hall, each panelist had pointed and nuanced critiques of the city’s approach to post-Katrina rebuilding. While Rodin and Landrieu had alluded to the value of coalitional work, both held it firmly in the realm of governance and spending. In response to this, Minh Nguyen used his time to argue for New Orleanians’ strength and abilities, asking how those so often made invisible in and by the city might create new infrastructures, new values, new possibilities not with, but outside of governmental logics. Speaking to the by-products of what he and his peers saw as New Orleans’ misunderstanding of resilience, Nguyen said:

I am so sick of people telling our narrative and our stores. Even this whole entire week of Katrina 10, I’m kind of sad that the people who have been affected and impacted the most aren’t being at these events—haven’t even been invited to these events—and they’re the ones who we’re celebrating or we’re commemorating, and there are so many people who have made so much money off of them as well in our city, and they continue to be voiceless. We have to continue to fight, we have to organize, we have to take over our own media, we have to change our narrative. And that’s the reason why we’re being pushed down; we’ve been pushed away because right now, people are telling our stories. And that’s so sad, that we have to deal with [that]. And I think for us it’s just yes, we gotta fight, we gotta organize, we gotta stick together, we gotta work together, to make sure that our voices are being heard.

Nguyen’s critique of the way stories continue to circulate about Vietnamese and other underrepresented residents follows directly from The Rockefeller Foundation’s and Landrieu’s self-proclaimed resilience goals. He argues that rather than telling people what they need, rather than rebuilding at their expense—rather than profiting from their resilience—listen. It is important to note that this appeal was made in earshot of city and state officials, who used the same platform as Nguyen to underscore their commitment to New Orleans and its people. The fact that he was still asking them to shift both their understanding and their approach a decade later points to their unrelenting disinterest in doing so.

While I was galvanized by Nguyen’s remarks, I was most interested in Tracie Washington’s contributions to the discussion. Leading up to K10, posters featuring a quote attributed to Washington appeared on telephone poles and bulletin boards: “Stop calling me resilient. Because every time you say, ‘Oh, they’re resilient,’ that means you can do something else to me. I am not resilient.” Already the voice of a Black-led response to resilience-based policy, Washington’s critique made her a public figure over night.

As resilience became a formal tool of secondary and tertiary post-Katrina displacement—where communities displaced throughout the region and nation returned to their city to find their homes repossessed and neighborhoods rezoned and renamed—New Orleanians felt the profit-making gaze of gentrification rapidly steal and subsume their most important places. Sitting in that massive conference room, a five foot tall banner with the words “Resilient New Orleans” behind her, Washington deftly answered question after question, speaking for her self-identified communities and pushing back against the metrics and mobilization of resilience over the last decade. After generative exchanges with her fellow panelists, Washington closed her remarks with the following:

So how do we get noticed? Well, we get loud. I evacuated as a single mom with a 12 year old and a jacked up car, and an American Express and a law degree. So that was an awful combination for the evil ones who didn’t want Black folk back, cuz that law degree meant that I could get in any court and fight for anybody. And American Express said you can pay us when you can pay us. That was great. (to LeCesne:) you will vote, because you will get angry. You will buy a house because you will want a homestead. And you’re gonna say doggonit, I’m not gonna live being forced to be resilient. I don’t want to hear that word again. I’m sick and tired of people saying “y’all are so resilient;” resilient means you can do something to me. No! I’m not resilient. I have a right not to be resilient. How do we do this? We keep fighting. You know, I’m here, I told [a friend], I’ll be the one turning off the light. This city isn’t going anywhere without me. And I say to everybody else who has that same spirit, I say to you [audience member]: we keep fighting. We keep fighting. And we demand that our voice be heard. We just demand it. I got a law degree—25925, you can’t take it away from me, that’s my bar number. I’ll sue to be heard. And I mean that.

That both Washington and Nguyen’s arguments are grounded in storytelling—if you would just listen to us—is critical. The city’s primary relationship to communities of color is one of surveillance (much of Landrieu’s talk centered around policing better rather than putting an end to policing writ large), where their behavior is constantly monitored by law enforcement (specifically the New Orleans Police Department and ICE) who presuppose their criminality rather than, as most city officials would argue, to keep them safe. New Orleans’ reliance on law-and-order tactics of corporal and cultural management force particularly Black and Latinx community members to negotiate their relationship to space, place, self, group, etc., from a foundation of lack, where their experiences are immaterial in the face of narratives told about and for them. This is clear in Washington’s analysis—that there were and are “evil ones who didn’t want Black folk back [in New Orleans post-Katrina].” Here, she points out that in rebuilding, politicians, policymakers, and urban planners actively created barriers to Black residents’ return. Telling reporters that they wished to “clean up” the city to make it more navigable, liveable, and above all else, safe, officials made it clear that New Orleans, an historically Black city, could do without certain “unsafe” elements. Upon returning, Black New Orleanians were told they were resilient as planners rezoned their neighborhoods, seized, tore down, and rebuilt their homes for new residents for a considerable profit, and fed money into beautification and place-making projects rather than basic infrastructure like waste and water management, transit, or accessible grocery stores and pharmacies.

When Nguyen invokes who is missing from K10’s self-referentially commemorative programming—“the people who have been affected and impacted the most”—he too is indexing something of what was and continues to be missing from the post-Katrina landscape: a basic acknowledgement that the city has not in fact been rebuilt, revitalized, and reimagined the same way for or in service to every resident. In Michoud, the primarily Vietnamese American New Orleans East neighborhood, this looks like poor infrastructure and regular boil water advisories, local nonprofits being forced to provide the community’s basic necessities like a multilingual, low-cost health clinic, and an overwhelming concentration of industrial by-product in the air and water. It also looks like one public health study after another, used by the city and the state as the basis of policy, declaring Vietnamese/Americans’ resilience. This elision makes clear what the promotional materials did not: for New Orleans to move forward, some things must stay in the past.

Here, I do not mean to flatten the relationship between these abundantly heterogeneous communities and the city, nor between and across communities. Rather, in reading Washington alongside Nguyen, it becomes clear that while Vietnamese, Latinx, and Black residents of New Orleans have very different, nuanced relationships with these discreet and malleable categories of similarity and difference-making, the city’s primary frame in addressing all communities of color is one of management. Washington’s inevitable conclusion, that to be resilient is to be malleable to government needs, is the direct result of the New New Orleans’ self-actualized project. Framed from the standpoint of policymakers, it functions as follows: if we can’t rebuild without Black residents (and other communities of color), we’ll continue as planned and tell them their sacrifices are marks of adaptability and good character. If they push back, we’ll reiterate that the city—the place they fought to return to in spite of us; the place they will fight to stay and cultivate—can only survive if they remain resilient. In this way, it becomes abundantly clear that the New New Orleans, increasingly designed to be more resilient to storm surge, regional weather patterns, and economic fluctuation, demands a very particular kind of resilience of its residents. Relying on New Orleanians’ allegiance to the city, their families and personal networks, and to memory and tradition, the city requires their complacency in the face of blatant and ongoing structural violence. As Washington says: Every time they [tell me I’m resilient], that means [they] can do something else to me.

What was critical about the town hall was its direct response to past and the current administration’s use of the material, social, economic, cultural, and political landscapes of New Orleans to make claims about its present and future. Rather than forcing New Orleanians to be constantly reactive to and prepared for the worst, they implored, New Orleans should focus on making residents’ lives livable. This would be much easier, many of them claimed, if policymakers simply listened to the people they served rather than imposing resilience-centered values on how the space, economy, and cultural values of neighborhoods, communities, and the New New Orleans should look.

In Washington and Nguyen’s hands, it becomes clear that whereas the administration framed Katrina and present-day New Orleans through future-looking language, community leaders, while acutely interested in addressing current problems, synthesize their analyses of the city’s failure and its attachment to resilience most often through the past. As people made resilient rather than those making resilience, Nguyen and Washington’s communities are not the people for or about whom Landrieu makes his speeches. Instead, they are cautionary tales—we must address unemployment; tearing down housing projects improved the city’s landscape; fully returned communities will support their own—tools with which authors of the New New Orleans break with the past and formulate the present as already of the future. To be a people relegated to the past also positions New Orleanians of color outside of discourse, outside of place, and differently, out of time. When we disrupt the administration’s national, state, and urban scales of resilience, it becomes clear that what they are proposing is not resilience at all; it is the exercise of making communities abject, then sacrificing their attachments to place, to community and self,  in favor of urban capital. To be forced into this resilience schema is then to be asked to lose, live with scarcity, and survive without complaint.

[1] The website created to aggregate New Orleans’ schedule of events and policy-specific rebuilding targets, katrina10.org, appears to no longer exist as of this writing.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: