For the past few years there has been enormous resistance in St. Bernard Parish to the construction of new affordable housing complexes. This fits into a larger pattern of St. Bernard Parish's racially coded use of Parish law to prohibit rental properties of any kind, no matter their size or scale. A post-Katrina blanket construction ban on new apartment buildings and an ordinance forbidding more than one rental property in a 500-foot radius are other examples of efforts at the Parish level to keep St. Bernard as it was-- meaning, white.
It's hardly surprising, then, that the conflict over the new affordable housing complexes has been cast in racial terms: the (poor) white people of St. Bernard don't want (poor) black people moving into their parish. Racist graffiti and racist messages left on the developer's voicemail seem like clear evidence.
|Planning map. Pic from http://st-bernard-parish-now.smugmug.com|
Does this sound familiar? The people of a community resist something for years and years, exhausting every legal channel, and then it happens anyway. That's the story of the highway running through the middle of Treme, that's the story of the destruction of lower Mid-City, that's the story of countless Walmarts opening in neighborhoods where they were unwanted. Money is implacable. It doesn't matter what the people want: money always gets its way. Opponents of "progress" are demonized as necessary: Don't you WANT people to have medical care? Don't you WANT economic development and jobs? Don't you WANT groceries? Don't you WANT there to be affordable housing?
Let's take a look at "Provident Realty Advisors," the multi-million-dollar Dallas developer building these huge new complexes, complexes where formerly there were wetlands. When we visit their website, http://www.providentrealty.net, we learn that their primary interest is "distressed/opportunistic real estate assets." So, when shit gets fucked up somewhere, these cats dip in and snatch up cheap land, as they did immediately post-Katrina in St. Bernard parish. Do you think they give a damn about poor people? Surely no-one can pretend they have any agenda besides making money.
|Who owns the wetlands? Pic from http://st-bernard-parish-now.smugmug.com/|
The late Doc Meraux was St. Bernard's sheriff and tax collector. He became a massive landholder during the great depression by pressuring penniless & tax-defaulting residents into selling him their property at desperation prices. These days, the ill-gotten Meraux land is owned by a foundation trust run by a who's who of the parish's biggest power players, chief among them the current Sheriff, Jack Stephens. The Meraux Foundation has made millions doing business with Provident Realty. So, while the people of St. Bernard struggle for local control over land use, their own politicos and "community leaders" profit hugely from selling St. Bernard off to developers.
I would argue that this sale is not evidence Sheriff Stephens & the Meraux Foundation are more enlightened than those who oppose the projects.
St. Bernard, like many parts of the South, spent long decades of the twentieth century in the grasp of insane racist autocrats. Avaricious strongmen like Doc Meraux and Leander Perez were repeatedly elevated by the (white!) voters to Khan-like regional omnipotence, explicitly in exchange for a commitment to protect the parish's whites from a perceived racial threat. The immigrant ancestors of most of Chalmette and St. Bernard's oh-so-reviled racist whites weren't themselves considered white by turn-of-the-century America, but race as a concept, like most prejudices, has always existed in its own reality.
This self-sabotage by voters, letting a fear of some alien "other" prompt them to consolidate political power (& resources) into the hands of an elite, is not a phenomenon limited to St. Bernard Parish. Replace the black bogeyman with terrorists, communists, immigrants, or in the case of most leftists, Republicans, and you get the same results anywhere: people eager to cede their rights, via democracy or other means.
|Progress. Pic from http://st-bernard-parish-now.smugmug.com/|
I make NO excuses for the outright and pervasive bigotry expressed by many of the opponents of these new housing developments. The brutal & ongoing consequences of this institutionalized race-hatred should not be belittled, minimized, or "contextualized" into abstraction. But just because people are racist, does that mean they aren't our neighbors? Do working-class people who openly express prejudice lose the right to self-determination, while those who have the privilege and education to cloak their agendas roll on unopposed? Should rich out-of-town developers get to do whatever they want when an entire community opposes them?
Of course, "entire communities" were opposed to school integration, as well, and there are echoes of that in this case, especially with the role federal judges have played. But if we castigate the poor whites of St. Bernard for not making common cause with poor people of color, for being duped into viewing their class comrades as enemies, haven't some of us been guilty of a similar oversight? Has our legitimate revulsion towards racism led us to side with a cynical megadeveloper or the profiteering Sheriff Stephens? This complicated story is, in part, a story of poor locals resisting the will of a wealthy out-of-town developer partnered with the US Government... and if we ignore that aspect, we ourselves have been duped.
|Ain't dere no more. Pic from http://st-bernard-parish-now.smugmug.com/|