A few weeks ago the animated TV show “South Park” premiered a new episode regarding an issue so close to our hearts here in New Orleans: gentrification.
The plot of the episode revolved around attempts by the fictitious Colorado town for which the series is named to attract a new Whole Foods Market. This, the city reasoned, would prove the backwoods hamlet to be progressive and forward-thinking.
Behind closed doors, discussions ensued where the decision was made to have the city invest public funds into a trendy, upscale neighborhood out of the bad part of town – which consisted of a single dilapidated home inhabited by the hilariously impoverished McCormick family. The planned development was dubbed SoDoSoPa, short for “South of Downtown South Park.”
To provide a fig leaf of public legitimacy to the project, a public meeting was held at the South Park Community Center. The only attendees, besides the wealthy community leaders at the dais, were the McCormicks.
“We realize that when a rejuvenation like this takes place, the lower-income residents fear they’ll be priced out of the area,” an aide to the mayor told the McCormicks.
“What lower-income residents?! Me?!” shouted Stuart McCormick. “I work hard and provide for my family just fine!”
In the end, SoDoSoPa was built anyway as a haven for the wealthy. Hipsters abounded around the “historic” McCormick house, eating expensive cheeses and drinking overpriced cocktails while shopping in upscale boutiques. The McCormicks, meanwhile, become unwitting ornamentation for the supposedly “mixed-income” development.
A Whole Foods representative visited the town, ultimately giving his stamp of approval. He reasoned: “I’ve never seen a town put so much energy into displaying an exaggerated sense of social consciousness.”
Now, at this point I’m sure you’re wondering whether I’ve gone nuts or become incredibly lazy, since I appear to be doing nothing more than summarizing a cartoon. Thankfully, there’s more to it than that. My point is that South Park managed to encapsulate precisely the type of thinking that is motivating so many of the ongoing “revitalization” projects taking place in New Orleans lately.
One need simply visit the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) website to see the connection. Right smack on the front page is a giant depiction of the new Broad Street Whole Foods, an iconic symbol of gentrification.
The ongoing effort to gentrify Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (OCH) in Central City is the most notorious example. Go down and look at the chic Jazz Hall – which was formerly a discount market. Look at the expensive restaurants – one of which was formerly a daycare. Look at the (opening soon) farm-to-market grocery – a former school that closed in 2002.
Is there anything whatsoever on OCH that actually seems to cater to, I don’t know, the people who actually live in Central City? A handful of older businesses still remain, but are their days numbered if the city succeeds in forcing gentrification?
Existing residents are treated as little more than curiosities for tourists and well-heeled interlopers – until they take the hint and leave.
This is why the South Park episode resonated with me. It’s because when people start crowing about gentrification, it is generally not the case that they simply believe that neighborhoods should never undergo demographic changes. There are undoubtedly some die-hards to insist that a moral imperative exists whereby wealthier people should not move into impoverished neighborhoods, but that’s atypical.
Rather, the problem with gentrification comes when it is specifically planned by the government. Oftentimes “socially-conscious” investment vehicles also play a role. Usually restrictive zoning is also employed to limit alternative options and herd businesses and developers to a certain location.
The bottom line is that gentrification frequently doesn’t occur organically as a result of market forces. Rather, the government tries to force it to happen when it wouldn’t occur otherwise.
From the perspective of community leaders and government officials, a wealthy, gentrified neighborhood provides more tax revenue and generates less crime than the veritable slums it replaces. Everybody gets to declare victory, and the poor are simply herded somewhere else. Superficially, the city looks far better off; in reality, it’s just a whitewash.
OCH is certainly pitching itself as being the next grand entertainment district, an accomplishment local officials can brandish on their political resumes.
Alas, in the end it’s just SoDoSoPa.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.