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The New Orleans that Race Built: Racism, Disaster, and Urban Spatial Relationships

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The Katrina catastrophe served to consolidate many long-term trends in the Gulf Coast region, particularly in New Orleans. Among these are a massive demographic shift following World War II that confined poor Black Americans within the older city boundaries, a changing economy marked by deindustrialization of the city and transfers of employment and resources to the suburbs, the decline of the welfare state which had supported many of the structurally unemployed/underemployed until relatively recently, the rise of a tourism economy, and the automation of particularly key industries such as shipping, refining, and chemical manufacturing. The disaster was structured by these long-term socio-economic transformations and consolidated through a punctuated moment of continuity called hurricane Katrina. In this sense, Hurricane Katrina merely brought the situation up to speed. Throughout this essay I explore some of these transformations while also touching on the politics of reconstruction; a Shumpeterian process whereby local economic elites are seeking to make an opportunity of the destruction by monopolizing the planning process and rebuilding the cityscape in a fashion more amenable to the accumulation of capital. Equally powerful and related are the gentrifying forces at work in New Orleans. The city has also become the wellspring for a powerful number of social movements seeking racial and economic justice, however. While we can trace these trends back across time and place in New Orleans, and while we can say that Katrina "exposed" or "brought to the surface" much of the structural racism operating in our society, the future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is by no means determined.

Keywords: Hurricane Katrina; New Orleans; disaster; place; racism; space

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2007

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