Cities Need Grassroots Democracy for Renewal, Not Apocalyptic Hurricanes

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RESET

August 13, 2015; Chicago Tribune

One presumes Chicago Tribune editorial board member Kristen McQueary was focusing on questions of changes in New Orleans governance, not the immense human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina when she wrote in an op-ed that she finds herself “wishing for a storm in Chicago—an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops.”

Notwithstanding her regrettable tone deafness, McQueary was trying to convey her admiration for the “reset” in governance that occurred in New Orleans, albeit a reset that was spurred by “Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.” In the spasm that followed the hurricane, the style and substance of governance changed in New Orleans in ways that McQueary thinks would be beneficial to Chicago:

Residents overthrew a corrupt government. A new mayor slashed the city budget, forced unpaid furloughs, cut positions, detonated labor contracts. New Orleans’ City Hall got leaner and more efficient. Dilapidated buildings were torn down. Public housing got rebuilt. Governments were consolidated. An underperforming public school system saw a complete makeover. A new schools chief, Paul Vallas, designed a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur. No restrictive mandates from the city or the state. No demands from teacher unions to abide. Instead, he created the nation’s first free-market education system. Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth.

McQueary’s admiration for the New Orleans reset is built on a pile of myths about the success of a free market–oriented New Orleans. A few obvious points might help McQueary reset her thinking:

  1. Education: The hurricane meant that the New Orleans public school population dropped from 65,000 before Katrina to 25,000 after, making pre- and post-hurricane comparisons more than a little unreliable. But this year, the public school system, now a charter school system with schools managed by nonprofit operators, tried to suppress the release of information about high school students’ ACT test scores. A score of 18 in English and a minimum 19 in math is required for students to attend a four-year college or university in Louisiana. According to Mercedes Schneider, who got ahold of the test scores that the school district was reluctant to disclose, of some 1,151 Recovery School District high school students who took the 2014 ACT, only 12.3 percent met the minimum English and math standards. Most of those students attended one  high school; if that high school is removed from the calculation, only 52 out of 840 students for the remaining high schools—6.2 percent—met the minimum standard. Five high schools graduated no one meeting the minimum standard, another six graduated less than one percent hitting an 18 in English and a 19 in math. That doesn’t seem to add up to the free-market education success story that McQueary imagines.
  2. Housing: In a depopulated city, one might think that housing would become more affordable after Katrina because of reduced demand. But Gillian White writes in The Atlantic that post-Katrina, 35 percent of New Orleans residents pay more than half of their income toward rent and utilities compared to 25 percent nationwide. Part of the problem might be that unlike Chicago, the free-market post-Katrina New Orleans has unemployment higher than the national average and average weekly wages much lower (and no state minimum wage law, meaning that the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is it, compared to Chicago’s minimum wage which was raised to $10 an hour for 2015 and will rise to $13 an hour by 2019). Contrary to McQueary’s view, New Orleans didn’t rebuild public housing. It demolished four out of every 10 public housing units post-Katrina, even units that White says were salvageable. Many pre-Katrina public housing units were vacant due to a terribly mismanaged public housing authority, but tearing down units rather than rebuilding units simply exacerbated a housing crisis for a city where nearly one-third of the households live below the federal poverty line. That doesn’t add up to a positive New Orleans “reset.”
  3. Governance: New Orleans, like Chicago, has had a history of municipal government corruption. The replacement of the corrupt regime of Mayor Ray Nagin by Mayor Mitch Landrieu shouldn’t be seen as a deus ex machina housecleansing. The story of the recovery of New Orleans isn’t the free-market takeover of city hall, but the grassroots work of New Orleans residents who have been rebuilding their neighborhoods despite free market predators in the school system and, even more notably, in the plans to revive the New Orleans tourism industry, the latter hitting government-supported homeruns while many residents languish in poverty. Mayor Landrieu may be an improvement over Nagin, but some of the same stuff from City Hall is still fed to citizens with the expectation that they’ll buy into it without criticism, such as Landrieu’s announcement that he had reached the goal of eliminating 10,000 blighted properties. Although lauded by municipal government boosters who were excited by the city’s “BlightSTAT” data system, it took reporters in the local press to point out that BlightSTAT couldn’t identify where these formerly blighted properties were, that the 10,000 number came from a study by an independent geographer, and that there is no indication which of the properties were removed from their blighted/dilapidated condition due to city action. To the extent that government’s role in taking 10,000 units out of blight is hard to specify, it appears that a noteworthy and much less positive factor in the blight story may have been the rampaging gentrification that has afflicted many New Orleans neighborhoods in recent years. The parts of the St. Roch neighborhood that gentrifiers have rebranded as “New Marigny” (or “Faubourg Marigny”), Bywater, “Faubourg Treme,” and the Holy Cross area of the Lower Ninth Ward all represent a dynamic that is removing housing from affordability and continuing a trend of massive shrinkage of the city’s black population being replaced by predominantly white in-migrants.

The remarkable book by Roberta Brandes Gratz, We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City, is a story about the people of New Orleans overcoming the torpor of government—and sometimes the self-congratulations of government—and the pro-business biases of the development process. Gratz describes community-level activism, both formal and informal, that fights to redevelop New Orleans for New Orleanians. It is a story of grassroots democracy in action.

The disaster-induced reset that McQueary dreams of for Chicago skips over something that is just as important as the ability of a city like Chicago or New Orleans to balance budgets or operate more efficiently. Whether facing a paroxysm of crisis like the one that swept out Ray Nagin in New Orleans or an inundation of big campaign money like that which cemented Rahm Emanuel as mayor in Chicago, McQueary might want to look at how to induce, support, vitalize, and sustain citizen-led democracy as the sine qua non of real city renewal. Chicagoans and New Orleanians will continue to wonder how, amid all the progress supposedly happening around them, they don’t seem to be beneficiaries but McQueary’s free-market acolytes seem to be making out like bandits.—Rick Cohen

  • Kebo Drew

    Word is, folks are trying to turn Chicago into Detroit, or use it as a wedge to get residents to accept draconian cuts to fix the budget. Really, it’s just transferring burdens onto the middle class and the poor by gutting public pensions and other programs.