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Catastrophe as Blueprint

by Mike Davis Sunday, Jan. 29, 2006 at 7:00 AM

"The majority of the electorate is now living outside the cities. The people there don't want to spend one cent for the cities. This rejection of all public spirit arose through America's suburbanization."


Interview with Mike Davis

[In this interview, the American urban researcher and historian Mike Davis reflects on the causes and consequences of the flood disaster of New Orleans. This interview published in Suddeutschen Zeitung and SoZ-Sozialistische Zeitung, 10/11/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Q: To what extent is the catastrophe of the last days symptomatic?

Davis: A year ago New Orleans was evacuated before Hurricane Ivan. At that time the whole poor population of the city, seniors without cars and many blacks, were completely abandoned. This abandonment is typical in American politics. The New Orleans disaster could have been predicted decades ago.

Q: Was carelessness or intention responsible?

Davis: It is like a Russian puppet inside another Russian puppet. The neglect of the cities by the federal government is first and foremost. Bush was elected in the suburbs; the big cities have become a taboo theme in American politics. For a generation, there has not been investment in their social and physical infrastructure any more. Secondly, New Orleans has the largest share of black people among big American cities and is one of the poorest. Thirdly, the Bush administration refuses to pay for urgently necessary public projects while dumping billions in so-called homeland security. For years, New Orleans has been infamous for trying to drive out the poor black population. The elite ruling the city are composed of the traditional white economic class and a Creole political class. The shared goal of both groups is to gentrify New Orleans as happened in San Francisco.

Q: How did this neglect of the cities begin?

Davis: President Nixon began diverting public funds from the cities to the suburbs. In 1978, in the second half of Carter’s term in office, Congress voted against many programs of he federal government established under Kennedy and Johnson to support big cities. Two years later Reagan came to power and radically cut the funds once again. This went hand in hand with the change of the American electorate. The majority of the electorate is now living outside the cities. The people there don’t want to spend one cent for the cities. This rejection of all public spirit arose through America’s suburbanization.

Q: Is this also true for New Orleans with its special history?

Davis: In New Orleans, a politics of fear is displayed. The city has a high rate of criminality that is used to enforce a policy of ethnic cleansing as some say. The same people who should be driven out of the city now face the armed National Guard. The architect’s plan of the city is unique. The stately manorial houses are on the boulevards. Behind them live black people in huts as in the past when the black slaves lived behind the white slave holders. This nearness is seen as a problem since the crime rate of New Orleans in the last 20 years has surpassed the rate of Washington and Detroit. At the same time the attractions of the city are those poor quarters that are now seen by the elites and building entrepreneurs as hindrances that the city could transform into theme parks. The rebuilding will be an opportunity for realizing their vision in a dramatic way.

Q: Will the old residents resist?

Davis: Many of the houses will be destroyed. New Orleans was already in a very poor state. Only a few know that termites had caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Many of the people who were deported to Houston and Baton Rouge will never return to the city. Most of them had no insurance. They are impoverished lodgers and the supply of dwellings will shrink. Therefore many fell behind. They followed their instinct and clinged to the city. Many devastated places in Alabama and Mississippi are majority black. I believe one result of this catastrophe will be a new civil rights movement.

Q: Will they convince the middle class?

Davis: The early Victorian illusion prevails that cities falling out of control do not matter. This changed in the 19th century when the sicknesses from the slums moved into the noble suburbs. Now New Orleans is also a test for what will happen when we experience an epidemic like the bird flu. In the emergency, the suburbs will first understand that the cities cannot be simply abandoned. American politics still functions according to conflicting priorities. Instead of redressing the problems and their causes, barriers are erected and as many police as possible stationed to blur the social problems. The middle class and the rich leave the cities in large numbers. This withdrawal from the cities is carried out as a self-chosen retreat from all urban communities throughout the world.

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