No Black Plan for the Cities, Despite the Lessons of Katrina

“Katrina is a metaphor for abandoned urban America,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson as he prepared to lead a “Reclaiming Our Land” march in New Orleans, late last month. “There is no urban policy, and there must be.”

Rev. Jackson is wrong. An urban policy does exist, hatched in corporate boardrooms and proceeding at various stages of implementation in cities across the nation. Urban America is not being “abandoned” — rather, the corporate plan calls for existing populations to be removed and replaced, incrementally, a process that is well underway. And the land is being “reclaimed” — by Big Capital, with the enthusiastic support of urban politicians of all races from coast to coast.

The problem is not the lack of an urban policy, but the failure to formulate progressive Black urban policies and plans. Corporate America and finance capital have both general and detailed visions of what the cities should look like and which populations and enterprises will be nurtured and served by these new and improved municipalities — “renaissance” cities of the (near and, in some places, very near) future.

Corporate planners and developers believed they had been blessed by nature when Katrina drowned New Orleans, washing away in days the problem-people and neighborhoods that would ordinarily require years to remove in order to clear the way for “renaissance.” Greed led to unseemly speed, revealing in a flash the outlines of the urban vision that would be imposed on the wreckage of New Orleans. As in a film on fast-forward, the “plot” (in both meanings of the word) unfolded in a rush before our eyes: Once the Black and poor were removed, an urban environment would be created implacably hostile to their return. The public sector — except that which serves business, directly or indirectly — would under no circumstances be resurrected, so as to leave little “space” for the re-implantation of unwanted populations (schools, utility infrastructure, public and affordable private housing, public safety, health care).

The bargaining power of labor would be reduced to zero by the systematic introduction of itinerant and often undocumented workers to replace the exiled African Americans — who are the most union-friendly workers (“joiners”) of all, a documented fact well-known in corporate America. Much of the land previously inhabited by the now-superfluous exiles would be put to other uses (parks and golf courses, etc.) or designated for no use at all under flood safety or environmental rationales. As a result, the value of the remainder of land in New Orleans would in time increase dramatically, making some people richer than before and rendering low cost housing prohibitive in the future.NOLAnewNOLAmap

Most importantly, the “new” New Orleans would no longer accommodate a Black majority (previously 67 percent), thus ensuring that the “renaissance” could proceed politically unencumbered in what corporate folks call a “stable” and “positive” business environment.

Black New Orleans and its diaspora have heroically — desperately! — resisted the schemes of national, state and local capital and governments. They have won some tentative victories (among them, retaining a Black, although thoroughly corporate, mayor), and been joined by many ardent allies. Some reduced semblance of the old Black city will rise from the muck and ruin, thanks to sheer force of will on the part of residents and the solidarity of scores of progressive organizations and thousands of individual volunteers. Corporate plans for the “new” New Orleans — which began surfacing in the most grotesquely “ugly American” fashion just weeks after the Great Flood while hundreds of bloated bodies were still unidentified and unclaimed (some still are) — laid out in some detail schemes to reinvent the city by allocating land to its “optimum” uses (for business) and attracting and retaining the most “desirable” population (for corporate purposes). None of these grand plans projected a Black population numbering more than 30 percent; apparently, the maximum proportion tolerable in the “ideal” urban environment.

Against huge odds, Black New Orleans — including activists who commute to do battle from as far away as Houston — has struggled against the privatization and charterization of what remains of the educational system. They have fought to preserve the largely intact public housing stock, despite the Bush regime’s determination to wipe the projects off the face of the city map. They attempt to rebuild their homes in places where government at all levels erects every conceivable obstacle. Of necessity, these are largely defensive actions of a people under siege on all fronts, their ranks and resources drastically depleted. But Black New Orleans has not failed; they continue to struggle to overcome the greatest single calamity ever to befall a U.S. city, exponentially compounded by racist barbarians in government and business acting in concert.

It is African American leadership institutions that have failed Black New Orleans, and left inner city populations across the land defenseless in the face of Big Capital’s schemes to remake urban America in white-face. The exodus from New Orleans, and the effective lockout that followed, were like a giant wave crashing down on the city. Elsewhere in Black America, these same corporate Black-removal forces propel a rising tide of gentrification that does not ebb. Big Capital’s urban offensive threatens to irrevocably disperse the population base of Black political power, rendering forever moot all dreams of meaningful African American self-determination. If Black America fails to come to grips with the profound change in corporate investment and development strategies that has occurred over the past several decades, other “chocolate cities” will soon share the same fate as New Orleans — only on a slower schedule.

Of the top 12 cities in Black population, seven saw a loss in African Americans as a percentage of total residents between 1990 and 2000:

New York City (1)
Chicago (2)
Houston (5)
Los Angeles (7)
Washington (9)
Dallas (11)
Atlanta (12)

Katrina events, of course, would push New Orleans (previously Black city #10) into the African American population percentage loss column, in the most horrific fashion imaginable.

Four cities among the top 12 became Blacker in the 1990-2000 decade:

Detroit (3)
Philadelphia (4)
Baltimore (6)
Memphis (8)

(See U.S. Census Bureau links for Black city populations in 2000 and 1990, respectively.)

“The seven cities that became less Black in the Nineties are all concentrated corporate headquarters locations or, in the case of Washington, DC, the headquarters.”

There is no question that some of the slippage in the Black proportion of population in seven top cities is due to immigration, mainly Latino. However, the U.S. Census Bureau drastically changed the way it counts Hispanics between the 1990 and 2000 censuses, making it impossible to reliably measure the impact. What is immediately apparent is that the seven cities that became less Black in the Nineties are all concentrated corporate headquarters locations or, in the case of Washington, DC, the headquarters of the federal government. These are places that corporate and finance capital are most keen to “make over” in order to provide the urban “ambience” believed most amenable to their employees, management and clients, and for the general sake of corporate prestige.

Let there be no doubt, however, that the general “back to the cities” corporate imperative — resulting in gentrification — will soon begin tilting other heavily Black municipalities in the same direction. Newark, New Jersey, once considered among the quintessential “chocolate cities,” went from 58.5 percent Black in 1990 to 53.5 percent in 2000. Since then, the center city “renaissance” project has gone into high gear, attracting thousands of prized white professionals. By 2010, Newark is likely to no longer have a Black majority. Atlanta will be significantly less Black.

New York’s de-Blackening has been the most dramatic. For the first time since the so-called Draft Riots of 1863 (actually, a monstrous anti-Black pogram that slaughtered hundreds) forced tens of thousands of African Americans to flee the city permanently, the 2005 U.S. Census update showed a net loss of Black population for the city as a whole. Also for the first time, Latinos suffered a net loss in population in Manhattan, Ground Zero for the nation in both gentrification and corporate headquarters. Black numbers in Manhattan have been dropping for some time. Political impacts inevitably follow.

Others will maintain that the decline in Black proportions in central cities is a sign of progress, because African Americans are rapidly suburbanizing. However, as anyone who knows the environs of Washington, DC, understands, a great chunk of the Black exodus across jurisdictional lines is “push-out” — the direct result of gentrification of the inner city. In many cases, the ghetto has simply moved across the city line. Upscale Blacks — and the term is quite relative, especially when considering wealth, or net worth — are also priced out of the most attractive city neighborhoods, and encamp on the periphery to occupy homes formerly owned by whites who have fled the poorer Blacks who were forced out of the city.

The result is a scattering of African Americans and dilution of Black political power in a growing number of central cities. There can be no comparison between the political, cultural and social impact of Black majorities in suburban jurisdictions such as Prince Georges County, Maryland and Dekalb County, Georgia, and Black political control of great cities like Washington and Atlanta. And the frenzy of gentrifying in Chicago may preclude that city from ever again electing a Black mayor.

NOLAharlemMap The flow of Big Capital to the cities signifies the end of a cycle that began after World War Two. Fearing a return of Great Depression-like conditions with the end of defense industry hyper-production, and the political turmoil that would follow among the millions of returning soldiers and sailors, the federal government and corporate America launched the biggest public works and private investment project in human history: the suburbanization of a continent-wide nation. The grand design flipped the script on patterns of habitation that had prevailed since the dawn of civilization. The rich had always lived in the centers of cities, where the amenities are, while the poor were relegated to the periphery. That pattern still obtains everywhere else on the globe — except in the United States.

Blacks were left out of the Great Makeover, but inherited the cities — many of which lost half or more of their white populations to the suburbs, over time — by default. After many decades of suburbanization the inevitable happened, a phenomenon closely resembling a classic capitalist crisis of overproduction. The suburbs had stretched too far, commutes were too long, the infrastructure was strained by the artificial and historically unnatural sprawl and the impossibility of providing city-style amenities to far-flung suburbs. The over-stretched rubber band began to snap back.

In the interval between the post-war urban white exodus — which was well underway long before the Black rebellions of the Sixties, and was much more a “pull” than a “push” — and today’s encroaching gentrification, African Americans won nominal political power in many cities. Now the fin de cycle is upon us. African Americans in general, and Black politicians in particular, seem to have never considered that the era of “chocolate cities” might end, or the consequences to Black welfare and political power. On the contrary, most Black politicians, having had no plan of their own for their cities, made careers of bending over frontwards — deeply — to attract corporate investment on any terms (as do most of their white counterparts). At the current stage of the cycle, for many heavily Black cities, there is no need to bend over — the corporations are coming for their own reasons, with briefcases full of plans for another Great American Makeover. Large-scale Black removal is integral to the project.
“In the absence of Black plans for urban makeovers, corporate plans will prevail.”NOLAChicagoSside

Katrina showed everyone with eyes and ears the full scope of the corporate plan, whose outlines had long been evident in New York, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and elsewhere. Gentrification is actually the result of methodical corporate penetration, a planned process requiring intimate collaboration with local government. In the absence of Black plans for urban makeovers, corporate plans will prevail, and a slow and tortuous African American exodus will result. The conclusion is obvious: Blacks that aspire to leadership must dive into urban planning with a vengeance. As I wrote on July 29, 2004:

“We must disrupt and supersede corporate development schemes, by becoming city planners in the service of the people. We must take the initiative away from the corporations, who are currently in possession of all the data that make up the life of a city, and who use it selectively to present their self-serving brand of “development” as the only option available. We must redefine the term “development,” to mean change that benefits the people impacted by the project. Development that does not meet that definition, is unacceptable.”

Had the post-1970 crop of urban Black leadership used the intervening decades to formulate urban plans and policies that transformed the cities in ways that served the needs of the new Black majorities and pluralities, they would now be capable of bargaining with onrushing capital — and would have had something to offer to the people of New Orleans as corporations presented plans for the coup de grace on the Black majority. But the misleadership class spent their terms in office wasting the historical opportunity, and the window is rapidly closing.

Only an urban movement for democratic development, rooted in mass mobilization of city residents around comprehensive plans for the betterment of the existing population within the city’s borders, can tame the corporate juggernaut and preserve urban Black political power. When the window shuts — after Black populations are scattered — the game will be over.

Glen Ford is Executive Editor of Black Agenda Report, where this article first appeared. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Glen, or visit Glen's website.

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  1. James said on May 14th, 2007 at 9:11am #

    This is a great piece and is right on the money. However, I’m not so sure that the mass entry of African Americans into the field of urban planning will provide the answer that the author thinks it will. While the planning field has traditionally been the bastion of white good old boy types (think Robert Moses) and in the past has actively worked to promote inequality and racism, the majority of planners that I’ve encountered today are very much aware of the forces at work in our cities, but are powerless to make effective change. They are advisors and often end up as mere yes-men, beholden to both the bought-and-paid for city politicians and the imperative of doing whatever it takes to boost city property tax revenue, no matter who is harmed in the process. I wish I had the answer.