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New Orleans' racial divide deepens over post-Katrina rebuilding

NEW ORLEANS — Nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina, it is the worry that will not fade, complicating the rebuilding of New Orleans and defining and reflecting this fragile city's racial divisions.

It is the fear of a shrunken city. Immediately after the storm, many residents, often black, worried that low-lying, flood-ravaged neighborhoods would be left unbuilt and turned into wetlands by urban planners.

Though that possibility has diminished, one fear won't dissipate — that those same areas may wither and die as a result of restrictive zoning changes or a waning commitment to rebuilding in certain parts of town.

It's the issue that tugs at New Orleans resident R.C. Brock, 68, more than the threat of another flood, even with the rapid approach of hurricane season. Brock is building a replacement home on a Lower 9th Ward block where water once covered the rooftops.

"We ask the question all the time: 'What are you doing for us in this neck of the woods?' " said Brock, whose new four-bedroom cottage is being erected in a battered landscape of empty lots and flooded-out houses. "We can't get streetlights down here. We got holes in the street."

The sentiment can be felt in neighborhoods across the city that have yet to see the return of schools, parks and other government services. And while it is not solely felt by black people, the issue has taken on a palpable racial dimension.

Since Katrina, white residents have gained more political power here, helping elect the first white-majority City Council since 1985. Historically, many of the city's white elite have lived in high-ground neighborhoods that were not badly flooded. A recent poll shows that a majority of white voters do not support rebuilding some vulnerable areas.

The result, among many blacks, has been a "justifiable paranoia" that parts of the city will be left to languish, said Mtumishi St. Julien, director of the Finance Authority of New Orleans and a resident of the battered New Orleans East area.

That paranoia is based, he said, "upon a historical legacy of privilege, which seems to be heavily based on race."

The fear has also complicated the fate of the city's proposed master plan, the much-anticipated document that will guide the city's poststorm redevelopment for the next two decades. In November, a citywide vote was required to give the plan the force of law.

The measure passed, but narrowly, after black voters rallied in opposition. They argued that a draft of the plan had not been written yet — and feared that it might be used to sneak in back-door limits on development that could slowly and subtly kill off struggling black neighborhoods.

"There are issues in terms of whether the shrinking city will take place by a declared policy, or an informal policy of neglect," said Ron Nabonne, a local attorney and political consultant who helped lead opposition.

A draft of the master plan was released in March; it promised to address "the needs and aspirations of every resident in every corner of New Orleans."

However, some black leaders are supporting state legislation, approved by a Senate committee Thursday, that would allow residents to vote again on whether a final draft should be implemented.

The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Ed Murray, a Democrat and black legislator who has announced his intention to run for mayor in 2010. He said the government never offered an equitable buyout program that would allow residents to move out of vulnerable neighborhoods, in many cases leaving them no choice but to move back.

New Orleans' racial divide deepens over post-Katrina rebuilding 05/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 10:26pm]
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