August 25, 2010

New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Draws Tourists, Not Aid

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Kimberly Seals Allers

Recently I attended a conference on health disparities in communities of color. The National Health Policy Training Alliance for Communities of Color hosted over 40 journalists of all hues and ethnic origins to convene in New Orleans to discuss how we can better cover healthcare related issues and the health disparities that still plague our communities. For three days, we sat in a top floor of well-appointed hotel in the lovely French Quarter, having a lively discussion on how we can get better and more thorough coverage of the issues.

Turns out the real story about health disparities and racial inequities was but 20 minutes away, across the bridge and down Claiborne Blvd in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The Lower Ninth ward was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina five years ago. The area was the hardest hit when the levees broke and the low-income community residents were the last to get help. The images of bodies floating through the water still haunt me.

One would have no idea of what is still going on in the Lower Ninth Ward by walking through the downtown area of New Orleans. I too, enjoyed walking up and down Bourbon Street, looking at all the new apartments, shops and restaurants that were alive and bustling in the downtown area. There, you would think Katrina never happened. The city looks like back to business as usual.

Tale of Two Cities, Still

I’ve never been one to take things on face value. It is my experience that in most urban environments there is almost always a tale of two cities, and the tale of the brown city that exists across the railroad tracks or the bridge or whatever socioeconomic divide exists in that particular locale, is almost always starkly different.

So when a few of the local community leaders came to address us, what they had to say about the Lower Ninth Ward was appalling but not surprising. They said that of the $90 million that FEMA allocated to rebuilding, that the Lower Ninth Ward has not received any money. Nobody has been told a definitive answer as to why.

They said the Lower Ninth Ward only has one working school for kindergarten through 12 grade with 750 students and a 450 student long waiting list. There are no hospitals in the area and God help you if you need emergency care and have to travel across the bridge and across town to get it.

They expressed their outrage that tour companies bring bus loads of people through the Lower Ninth Ward everyday to gawk at their despair, yet never sharing any of their profits or stopping to support local businesses. They said that many displaced residents would love to return, but can’t because there are no schools and no real health care options for the elderly.

Concrete Steps Lead to Empty Lots

On my last day in New Orleans, instead of buying souvenirs and taking in the tourist traps, I asked a friend to drive me to the Lower Ninth Ward. It looked mostly like a wasteland with a few nice new homes put up. I saw plenty of concrete steps that once led to a house, but now only lead to a field of 5- foot-tall grass. I saw where do-gooders like Brad Pitt and other organizations have helped rebuild new and colorful housing, that quite frankly, ust looks weird sitting next to devastation.

But what I mostly saw was the biggest disparity of them all–the wealth disparity. Money given to help those who have and no money to those who don’t. In fact, it is clear that the powers that be have no intention of rebuilding that community. To them, Katrina has become a tragic opportunity to rid the city of some of its poorest residents–I mean, really, who wants them around anyway. So why rebuild so they can return?

Now a new plan for the Lower Ninth Ward is in the works and its message is clear: Poor blacks need not apply. New developments and higher rents are on the horizon, but there are no jobs to support them. Even though blacks built that city, created its music and its food culture, the winds of economic racism have no regard for history. So the displaced stay displaced. And the disparities linger. In health and in life.

Note: Please watch Spike Lee’s latest documentary, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise on HBO http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/if-god-is-willing-and-da-creek-dont-rise/synopsis.html for a real look at the Lower Ninth Ward and the impact of the BP oil spill.

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