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LUMPENPROLETARIATJohn (Jay) Arena, assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York’s College of Staten Island, lived and worked in New Orleans for over twenty years and was involved in various community and labor organizing initiatives in the city.  This afternoon, John Arena, shared some of his experiences in New Orleans with free speech radio’s Against the Grain (94.1 FM, KPFA/Pacifica, Berkeley, CA).  (Listen and/or download here or here.)

John Arena also discussed his book, Driven From New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization (2012:  University of Minnesota Press).  The findings John Arena presents, of the callous way city leaders displaced blacks and poor residents from public housing in New Orleans, particularly the Florida projects and the Desire projects, echoes the findings documented in Kevin Fox Gotham’s Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000.  Like Gotham, Arena describes how these projects were deliberately segregated.  Arena confirms Gotham’s argument that segregation was key in capitalist elites’ creation of ghettos.  Despite the challenges faced by public housing developments, by projects, rather than providing resources to improve housing or social services, the profit motive of developers has lain waste to black communities through the betrayal of non-profit organisations.  Arena described how the New Orleans Black Panthers, for example, had faced repression from militarised police, which even included the use of a tank.  With the more vocal of social justice groups having faced state repression, community leaders in the 1990s began acquiescing, selling out, to capitalist elites bent on profiting at the expense of human lives.  Arena explained how non-profits gradually abandoned their deeper principles of social justice, in favor of narrower identity politics devoid of class consciousness:

“At one level, they’ve expanded because they’ve, simply, stood in for where the state had been.  Right?  So, the state is not delivering public housing or some other service; and these non-profits have emerged to deliver that.  And we see that, particularly, in post-Katrina New Orleans.  And the rights of the workers are much less, a whole host of other problems.  But [non-profits] have grown in that way.  But the other way, which maybe is even more pernicious, and it’s partly, I would argue, they’re linked to a kind of identity politics organising.  It is that they channel struggles, resistance, into narrow forms of challenges to the neoliberal agenda.  And, so, they undermined building, kind of, a broad front, a broad class challenge to the neoliberal agenda.  And, so, they tend to cultivate this tendency toward realism, that we can’t take on this—we can’t mount a major challenge.  We have to, kind of, work out a reasonable agenda within the neoliberal project.  […]  But I would argue they’ve undermined building, kind of, a broad class front to challenge the neoliberal agenda and its deeply racist edge.”

Communities were promised urban renewal, but what that meant was bulldozing of buildings, displaced communities, and exacerbated poverty.  Urban renewal has been a favored method for elites to privatise public housing since the post-WWII period when the federal government provided money to localities to acquire slums, which would then be bulldozed, so they could be turned into upper income homes.  This was a form of gentrification, as it involved the displacement of existing communities.

Like Gotham, Arena confirms the way blacks were ghettoised through their exclusion from FHA loan subsidies, preventing most from owning homes.  Unlike blacks, whites were given FHA subsidies, so they could buy houses.  Prior to the FHA loans, home mortgages were usually 10-year mortgages, which required about 50% down payment.  Notably, Arena points out how the Democrat Party has been just as complicit as the Republican Party in hurting working people.  Arena points out how the attack on HUD and public housing began under a Democrat administration, which Ronald Reagan then continued.

Also, under Bush I, the National Commission on Severely Distressed Housing, ostensibly for helping families living in blighted communities, opened the door for privatisation of public housing.  Then, the Hope VI plan developed by HUD, and which emerged under Bush I, “is pushed much farther by the Clinton administration”.  This law, said Arena, required “downsizing” of housing buildings as well as requiring “refurbishing” upgrades, which ensured displacement of most existing residents.  From Bush II on down to the Obama administration, Democrats and Republicans have continued the anti-working class policies.  Arena explained:

“For the majority of Katrina survivors, Katrina was a disaster.  But for the wealthy, people like Joe Canizaro, and the developers and the neoliberal public officials, they were ecstatic.  Right?  This was an opportunity, with the evacuation of the city, to finish off public housing.  The destruction of St. Thomas, before Katrina, was part of a 50% downsizing of public housing.  It went from 14,000 to approximately 7,000 units.  After Katrina, even though the public housing developments came through the storm in relatively good shape, the authorities—it was, actually, controlled by HUD at that time—they swooped in, closed down the developments, and locked people out.

“The one development they couldn’t get their hands on was the Iberville, just outside the French Quarter, which had been the focus of an organising campaign before Katrina, C3/Hands Off Iberville.  So, it was forced to be open.  The other four were demolished after a long bitter struggle that gained national attention.  But, now, the Obama administration has, kind of, picked up where the Bush administration left off, and now is in the midst of demolishing the Iberville development, even though we have a horrible homelessness crisis in the city.”

It’s notable to see, historically, how the worst abuses of the capitalist mode of production against the working classes have consistently worsened, whether Democrats or Republicans have been in power.  This speaks to the problems with having a two-party cartel control our political process through the exclusion of alternative political parties.

-Messina

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AGAINST THE GRAIN—(94.1 FM, KPFA/Pacifica) “From the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, CA, this is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.  I’m Sasha Lilley.”

SASHA LILLEY:  “It’s no secret that Hurricane Katrina devastated the poor of the Gulf Coast region in many ways.  One of those was the decimation of public housing in New Orleans, a story that gained national attention.  But the attacks on public housing in New Orleans started decades earlier and was initially met by remarkable resistance.  Yet, according to sociologist John Arena, a participant in housing and labour struggles in New Orleans, something changed. The combative community tenant leaders of the 1980s became, in the 1990s, the shepherds getting poor people to accept the downsizing and, then, demolition of their publicly-owned dwellings.  How and why that happened is the heart of John Arena’s book, Driven From New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization.  John teaches at CUNY’s College of Staten Island.  When I spoke with him I asked him to begin by telling us about his own involvement in social justice organising.”

JOHN ARENA:  “Yeah, Sasha.  I moved to New Orleans in the mid-1980s.  I’m originally from upstate New York.  And I had gone there with the idea of labour organising, community organising.  My first job was working in the Upper Ninth Ward.  And I worked at a social service center, a food bank, that served the Florida Housing Development and the Desire Public Housing Development.  And, so, I was involved with social service.  But I was involved in a number of social struggles around cuts in, at that time, in the mid-80s, welfare.  And there were a lot of anti-police brutality struggles as well going on.  And, so, I learned about the struggles that were going on and about public housing, in particular.”

[full transcript pending]

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AGAINST THE GRAIN (.org)—Nonprofit organizations make up much of what we often think of as the left in this country — focusing on housing rights, the environment, and many other deserving issues. But is their influence benign? Could there be a connection between nonprofits and the neoliberal project of privatization and cutting back public services? Activist and sociologist John Arena contends that nonprofits were key in getting poor people to go along with public housing privatization in New Orleans, with terrible consequences.

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UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS—How public housing advocates in New Orleans became active supporters of privatization

Driven from New Orleans explores the drastic transformation of New Orleans’s public housing from public to private in the early 1980s, exposing the social disaster visited on the city’s black urban poor long before Katrina. John Arena reveals the true nature—and cost—of reforms promoted by an alliance of a neoliberal government, nonprofits, community activists, and powerful real estate interests.

“John Arena has written an important book on an important topic. New Orleans stands out because of the travesty associated with Hurricane Katrina; however, Driven from New Orleans tells a much deeper and broader story that could be replicated in many cities. Arena provides a sorely needed account of neoliberal reorganization of American cities with the active support of nominal advocates and representatives of the impoverished populations who are displaced as part of that reorganization. It is a signal contribution to the study of black urban politics, the political economy of urban redevelopment, and the concrete dynamics of urban neoliberalism.” —Adolph Reed, Jr., University of Pennsylvania

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[last updated 17:30 CDT 14 APR 2015]

[transcription work by Messina]

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