Oct 192015
Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

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.

  19 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Creating SoDoSoPa in NOLA”

  1. I’d prefer a CtPaTown

  2. What’s the alternative? Let the buildings and neighborhoods decay? It’s not like there were lots of people living in the buildings along OCH – they were mostly vacant and are now being put to use. Sometimes it almost seems that any attempt to improve the city ends up being decried as gentrification. Perhaps that’s how it got to be in such a dilapidated condition. How can we expect to attract businesses and put people to work if we can’t encourage areas of development?

    I do agree with your point about government interfering with development and this leading to gentrification. If developers were able to build more apartments and hotels in taller buildings in the CBD there would be less pressure on housing prices in many of the “gentrified” neighborhoods.

    • Phillip,

      The alternative would have been to loosen the zoning to allow commercial redevelopment and let the chips fall where they may. I don’t think that in the absence of city pressure, there was ever really any market pressure for upscale development on OCH, and I also don’t think that upscale development is the only type OCH should have been hoping for.

      • Owen, I’m not really sure what you mean here. The “chips” have been falling where they may for decades on OCH. The zoning wasn’t loosened or tightened on OCH really. It has been B1a and C1a all along. It’s always been available for development. As you point out nothing was happening for some very specific reasons. Complete urban decay. I don’t get what you mean by “I also don’t think that upscale development is the only type OCH should have been hoping for”. Hope built nothing for 30 years there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for what’s being pushed on OCH but it’s pretty obvious that nothing was going to happen there ; it had fallen to pieces flat out. I might make the argument that the destruction of historic housing and the addition of huge numbers of govt, housing absolutely destroyed all hope in the end of something organic sparking there. The govt. intrusion and rebuild is definitely artificial and seems (feels) really odd and it’s not really driven by entrepreneurs or true “gentrifiers). The reason that nobody was building there was because it was/is dangerous and there were no customers living around the street who could support anything remotely profitable. I really don’t think that this experiment of “if you (govt.) build it they will come” is what people are talking about with gentrification locally really, but I agree with you that govt. planned business districts are the worst. I don’t agree they are really gentrification though. Most gentrification locally has been based on people moving to neighborhoods to work on old houses they can afford and then that improves the neighborhood cohesiveness and dead streets and abandoned houses become alive again, THEN the businesses would form naturally as support to the new populace. OCH is trying the exact opposite which is why I think it has a much lower chance of succeeding the first time around and is therefore just not true gentrification. I’ve spent some time there and right now it’s really a bit creepy. Most of the people you see around there just work there. It doesn’t really feel like anybody LIVES there.
        On the flip side I’m all for true organic gentrification. People come first, business come to serve them.

        • Privateer,

          They could have loosened zoning further, allowing new bars and entertainment venues that might not be so upscale but would still be profitable. Also, the city council had made pretty clear that it was opposed to new take-out restaurants and discount stores throughout Uptown. Even though technically permitted, it had been made fairly clear that certain types of development, particularly those that might actually appeal to local residents, were not going to be welcomed (which is well-heeded by anybody looking to invest).

          Admittedly, any development was a hard sell for OCH given the level of blight, but surely businesses that would actually appeal to nearby residents would have been an easier sell if the city had simply been open to commerce generally, as opposed to pushing it as, well, a SoDoSoPa. I do think we would have seen some organic development in the absence of the artificial planning you decry, even if it might have taken longer.

    • What the city is doing is like trying to make the far end of the tub deeper by pushing water from your end.

      Building a lot of government sponsored boutique shops is not going to invigorate OCH. That kind of development is the result, not the cause, of prosperity.

      There is a constant tension between commerce and crime; one forces out the other over time. When people feel safe walking around OCH, the businesses will follow, and we won’t have to subsidize investment.

  3. Oh my, Owen, do you draw liberal scorn when you advocate such a libertarian approach to issues? I do.

    Kenner has been wasting other people’s money on Rivertown for decades.

  4. I can’t wait for Central City to become the next hot spot. It may take 5-10 more years but it’s going to….be….hilarious.

    • Relocating the henhouse next to the fox’s lair.

      “Central City: you’ll come for no apparent reason, but you’ll leave as a statistic.”

      Trying to gentrify one of the city’s worst homicide clusters. Really, Mitch.

  5. In the linked article (written 4 months ago) you wrote “Gator’s reopened after Katrina but closed several years ago. It is unclear (at least to me) exactly why Gator’s shut its doors.” Have you learned something since June about the circumstances surrounding its departure that supports your gentrification hypothesis?

  6. None of the “gentrification” efforts you mention displaced anything.

  7. Rob,

    No, I’ve heard nothing more about exactly why Gator’s closed, although I still regard the general timing as being highly suspicious.

    • The buildings housing Gator’s were for sale for at least 2 years before SoFab and the Jazz Market bought the buildings. Both buildings were owned by Gator’s not some 3rd party landlord.
      I completely agree that the renovation of OC Haley has been artificial, and a lot of the NORA money had strings attached and actually slowed down the progress on the Avenue.
      Just wait until they remove the neutral ground from Felicity to MLK as part of the streetscape project. That will be happening soon

  8. Deux,

    I still think Gator’s was probably pushed out, and other types of development were foreclosed by the city’s plans. But my focus isn’t on displacement, it’s about the creation of artificial, government-drive development that caters to the wealthy and tourists inside an impoverished neighborhood, the goal of which seems to be to force demographic change within the neighborhood.

    • Owen, it’s pretty easy to see that you are off base. Assessor records show the Gator’$ building was sold by Cayman Realty, LLC to the Jazz Orchestra. Cayman Realty’s registered agent, according to the SOS records, was G. Gregorio Ortiz. His obituary, available online, shows that he started Gator’s department store. Gator’s is not a victim here.

      • Fat Harry,

        That doesn’t show that they weren’t pushed out. I never claimed they rented; just that they may have seen the writing on the wall and that they were no longer going to work in the area.

  9. OCH is played. LoLoCa’s the place to be! https://youtu.be/i9Nv3z5g76k

  10. Revitalization is needed but in many cases it’s done with the attitude of “we know what’s best for the area” rather than understanding the needs of the current & future residents. It appears people want to improve neighborhoods until they’re changed beyond recognition. I don’t want to see vacant abandoned poverty areas but I hate to see the character of NOLA buried beneath the vision of nouveau urban chic.

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