December 1, 2005
With hundreds of thousands of people from New Orleans still dispersed throughout the United States, a struggle is brewing. Will New Orleans be rebuilt? And for whose benefit?
Will the African-American communities in the Lower Ninth Ward, where generations of families spent their lives, be rebuilt? Or will the city be built for the benefit of wealthy property owners and corporations?
Black Commentator publishers Glen Ford and Peter Gamble warned of the “ethnic cleansing of New Orleans.” (“The Battle for New Orleans,” Oct. 27, 2005) “Katrina hurled New Orleans into a kind of time machine, instantly fast-forwarding the city to an advanced stage of the gentrification process,” they wrote.
While the process in New Orleans may be on fast forward, gentrification—the displacement of poor and working-class communities, most often Black and Latino, by wealthy, high-rent districts—is taking place in cities around the country.
Stages of gentrification
People frame gentrification in different ways. Some people think of it as a process of displacement of people, creating changes in the social, economic, cultural and physical aspects of a neighborhood. Others believe that gentrification is essentially an economic process that converts working-class neighborhoods into more affluent communities. Both characterizations are correct. Gentrification brings economic change to communities as it displaces long-time residents. It is primarily an urban phenomenon that adversely affects working-class communities.
Gentrification is not new to the United States. In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government sponsored urban-renewal—or what was popularly described in the Black community as urban removal—in certain cities with lower economic development. Later, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the “back-to-the-city” movement developed. Today, working-class neighborhoods in major U.S. cities, like Harlem and Washington Heights in New York City and San Francisco’s Mission District, are the targets of major gentrification efforts.
Most of the communities that face gentrification have suffered population loss over a period of time. Higher-income residents and others with economic means have left these communities. Banks, landlords and business owners have disinvested in the communities and drained their economic resources.
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