By Karl Seidman
At the eighth anniversary of when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and triggered the series of infrastructure failures that flooded the city, there are many signs of New Orleans’ progress in rebuilding and remaking itself. First and foremost is repopulation. Although still well below its pre-Katrina total of 455,863, New Orleans’ population continues to grow. It reached 360,250 in 2012, a 7.4% increase from the 2010 Census—putting it on the list of the ten fastest growing US cities in 2011.
New Orleans’ economy is performing fairly well in the post-recession period. Unlike the United States, which is still below its pre-recession employment level, New Orleans’ average employment in 2012 surpassed its 2008 peak by 1.8%. But with a smaller population, the city has three-quarters of its pre-Katrina jobs. The infusion of rebuilding aid clearly provided a stimulus, but New Orleans’ economy is diversifying and there is more appreciation and attention for new economic drivers, including its cultural and creative assets and entrepreneurs. One very promising aspect of the post-Katrina economy is a surge in entrepreneurship. New Orleans’ metro area generated 501 business startups per 100,000 adults from 2010 through 2012, a rate that was 56% above the national average. This reflects a shift from the pre-Katrina emphasis on the tourism and port as economic engines to new civic investments in a network of entrepreneurial support organizations: Idea Village, Good Work Network, NewCorp, and others.
Grass roots efforts, a key factor in the city’s early recovery, continue to spur improvements in specific neighborhoods and citywide. Broadmoor Development Corporation, which emerged from a resident-led recovery plan, has spearheaded blight reduction and housing restoration in a poor and heavily flooded section on their neighborhood. It has newly constructed or renovated 38 homes and partnered with Green Coast Enterprises to revitalize a key commercial intersection. Broad Community Connections, formed by several neighborhood groups after a planning project with MIT in 2007, is making great progress to revitalize the Broad Street corridor. It began construction of the Broad Refresh project in April to reuse of an abandoned supermarket into a new Whole Foods store, commercial and teaching kitchens, and new retail and office space. Despite their many accomplishments, New Orleans’ community development system is fragile, lacking strong local polices and financial support and declining interest among national foundations.
Post-Katrina grass roots activism also led government reforms and new leadership. The dysfunctional systems of elected property assessors and multiple levee boards have been eliminated and, as mandated by a voter referendum, the city adopted a new master plan and is revising its outdated zoning laws. Several grass roots leaders of recovery efforts, notably LaToya Cantrell and Kristin Gisleson Palmer, are now elected city councilors.
Despite this progress, New Orleans’ recovery is uneven and impaired by longstanding challenges. The rebuilding of rental housing and small commercial properties has lagged the recovery of owner-occupied homes. Recovery in heavily flooded and poorer neighborhoods and those with large public housing projects has occurred as a slower pace with many original residents unable to return. Moreover, widespread poverty remains (estimated at 29% in 2011) marked by racial disparity is education and income. The share of African-American men earning a bachelor degree has been stagnant since 2000, at only 11%, and median income for African-American households in the New Orleans metro area was 50% of that for white households in recent years. Overcoming these challenges requires more intentional and far-reaching investments and initiatives to advance economic inclusion. As the demands of recovery wane, the opportunity exists for New Orleans’ grass roots, civic, business, and government leaders to focus on how to link the benefits of an improving regional economy to reducing poverty and expanding access to economic opportunity and wealth, especially for the city’s African-American and Hispanic residents.
Karl F. Seidman is Senior Lecturer in Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT and author of Coming Home to New Orleans: Neighborhood Rebuilding After Katrina.