Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Katrina's Supremely Eminent Domain

There seem to be a few irrefutable truths that emerge from the Gulf Coast's experiences with the cataclysmic 2005 hurricane season. The most drastic shift in the societal balance of the New Orleans metropolitan region derives from the impossibility of resuming the erstwhile pattern of residential settlement. Given the utter destruction of areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward and the Route 23 corridor down south into the deepest reaches of the boggish Cajun-flavored bayou, it's become clearer that governmental authorities need to step in to prevent building in areas where further human habitation would be too costly. Such a prohibitive cost precludes the cultural or social contribution that continued community presence would offer to the region. At some point, the economic and practical pricetag of shoring up marshlands that have been degraded reaches the point of no return. The levee system has always been minimally comprehensive. It's just that a fully responsible government would insall a levee network that is far more foolproof and impregnable. The flood protection that existed pre-Katrina was no match for a beastly storm, and there's no reason to believe that local, state, or federal government will ever cough up enough funds to construct a system that would protect neighborhoods - whether wealthy or poor, black or white.

Controversies over land use reflect general patterns of sociological conflict between classes who have divergent ideas about how best to organize communities productively. In contemporary American society, there seem to be two opposite phenoms that characterize neighborhood change: gentrification and ghettoization. The first connotes increase in property value, decreasing crime rates, and domestication of chaotic neighborhood elements. The second suggests a decrease in property values, increasing crime rates, and the decline in neighborhood orderliness, generally associated in American cities with the influx of minority or immigrant groups. These contrasting movements are occurring simultaneously in America in different parts of every single city. While some neighborhoods are "going downhill" and "turning bad," yet others are "getting fixed up" or "developed." It seems like people sometimes perceive that cities are either proceeding in one way or the other. This is not the case. There is simultaneous movement in both directions. Certain neighborhoods are being vacated at alarming rates and are doomed to years of dilapidation and not-so-benign-neglect, leading to a state of under-development or regression. At the same time, many other neighborhoods in the same city may face rapid evolution.
These assumptions about "getting better" or "getting worse" exist aside a league of other variables that measure the health of cities, including educational opportunities, job availability, green space, and transportation efficiency. There are thus multiple ways of measuring the constantly evolving truths of urban life. No subjective evaluation is possible for urban fabrics in which competing classes and institutions vie for resources, and each demographic segment is not even wholly classifiable as benefitting from certain patterns of development.

New Orleans and Baltimore are the two primary cases that I'm envisioning as I explore the ramifications of urban geographic shifts. New Orleans, for one, was characterized by the severe indigence and urban blight of many predominantly African-American communities. While it is indeed presumptuous of me, as an outsider, to apply my scholarly understanding of urban change to concrete realities of habitation and development, I nonetheless am in a position to evaluate incipient changes in standard of living and quality of community interaction. The problem, which I do not pretend to be able to solve, hinges upon what most people would consider the worst neighborhoods of these two urban polities. The two examples are the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans and the MidEast section of Baltimore. While the conditions of renewal, population transfer, and so-called progress are different in both cases, there are similar fears and aspirations emerging from the clashing camps. The pro-renewal folks cite the ameliorated land use, public good, and progress. Those opposing the gentrification talk about the government-sanctioned destruction of a robust community, inadequate compensation for property owners, and the lamentable transfer of land to more powerfual socioeconomic agents.

While the New Orleans example does not involve the explicit use of eminent domain, the same justifications and methods are employed as in the legally sanctioned imposition of land use statutes. In the MidEast section of Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Hospital has convinced Baltimore City's quasi-governmental economic arm (the Baltimore Development Corporation) to incur the powers of eminent domain in commandeering 10 square blocks of raw ghetto and mostly abandoned blocks of rowhouses for use by nascent biotech research interests. Following the logic of the Supreme Court's ruling about the use of eminent domain in New London, CT, a host of American cities instantly applied this principle to their crusade to seize blocs of subaltern communtities for use by more powerful interests. Again, these processes occur simultaneously to stable, middle-class neighborhood "seizure" by lower class groups. Perhaps there is some metric that demonstrates the overall rate of progress in a city and suggests which way a city is moving in an ostensibly zero-sum development game. Is it ultimately productive, whatever that adjective entails, to destroy the most depressed neighborhoods in order to fulfill broader social goals? Some might argue that sense of community is the only thing that these neighborhoods still possess and that therefore it is not advisable to strip folks of their pride and communal sensibilities. On the other hand, why preserve ghettos that are some of the most perilous and scarred zones in America, for residents and passers-by alike?

Is there an objective arrow of development that captures the transformation of urban space? I don't believe that there is a generalized, simplistic, and objective evaluation of progress, when such an equation would aim to grasp an array of postmodern factors that involve multiple subjectivites and divergent intrepretations of value and public good. Yet, a few eternal political truths remain, as far as I'm concerend. The "less desirable" groups who are displaced by EmDo and gentrification deserve decent housing conditions. This can be achieved by illiberal policies that transcend the market's ability to optimize neighborhood arrangements. The free market usually does not provide profitable opportunities for betterment of heavily minority districts within racially and socioeconomically stratified cities.

Lastly, there are normative questions that attempt to address who exactly ought to live in certain places. Should decisions about residential location and community displacement be made by means of the general will, by nominally democratically-elected councils, or by capitalist elites? Who bears the right to occupy land, either in America or beyond. Psychological attachment to land is indeed a complex phenomenon that involves psychogeographic considerations that delve deep into history and multifaceted community relations. Consideration of public good as it relates to eminent domain must include concurrent articulation of the opposite and simultaneous social processes. This means that we all must realize that "there goes the neighborhood" is a reality for folks at both ends of the spectrum. It is not merely the downtrodden or merely the wealthy who triumph in the perennial exchange of land and population across the urban landscape.

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