Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Public Housing in NOLA

The Huck Upchuck has been very quiet on the very problematic issue of affordable public housing in New Orleans and what to do about it. Why? Because I haven't been able to make a commitment to one side or the other. And, frankly, I get ticked off that I think this is what it has come down to: that one has to declare his allegiance in what is becoming an all-or-nothing controversy.

I have certainly been devouring all the news and spin and analysis of the controversy. I've even participated in some heated exchanges with some of my own immediate family members about the whole situation.

In general, my inclination is to try to come at this with a nonjudgmental mind and to be attentive to what the poor and marginalized are trying, in the midst of all the polemics, to convey, for it is the poor and the marginalized who are the subjects and objects of this debate. Being true to Catholic Social Justice teaching, my desire is to make a preferential option for the poor. And the voices of the poor and the marginalized need not only to be heard, but to be truly listened to. Carefully, compassionately, and empathetically.

What I hear the poor trying to convey is a frustration rooted in a fear of abandonment. Unfortunately, this often manifests itself in confrontation and antagonism in how the poor interact with authority. And for those of us who aren't the poor and who haven't been subject to a systematic and structural marginalization, there is a tendency to misinterpret this expressed frustration as impertinence and arrogance.

Regardless of how well-constructed the existing public housing units are, the reality that everyone clearly knows is that the housing projects are places where violence and fear and hard living have been the norm. Even public housing residents themselves aren't shy about admitting this. No one has ever said that living in the projects is a dream. But what often gets lost in this emphasis on the negative aspects of life in public housing in New Orleans is the reality of the negative's co-existence with a world of positives, too. Poor people in the public housing projects don't always live in fear and violence. They find joy and happiness and fond memories in their lives, too -- even while living in fear and in the midst of horrible violence. And it's a big deal (at least to them) when others decide unilaterally to take that away from them, even with the promise of a better future. So, I understand that public housing as it has existed in New Orleans has some elements about it that I would not wish for anyone to have to live. I don't think any of those protesting the scheduled demolition of public housing would (or could) contest this point. Because of this, I am open-minded to new ideas for public housing that can give the poor a dignified home and can try to eliminate some of the aspects of the public housing environment that diminish their capacity to experience a more joyful and happier life.

But I am reluctant to declare this hope because as soon as I do I will become tossed into the antagonisms of the issue. Protestors of the demolition might see this opening of mine to alternatives as a sellout of the poor. I am also reluctant to declare this fully because I really think there is something of substance to the positions of the protestors. I see the protestors as representing a very legitimate beef. And I see this beef as not really being about housing per se, as much as it is about the uncertainties the poor and marginalized have of the intentions of the authorities and the promises they make. I understand all too well that when the authorities plan changes that directly affect the poor and marginalized, the postive outcomes of such changes, all promises to the contrary, never seem to come to fruition. What I hear the displaced public housing residents conveying when they complain and protest is a kind of suspicion and lack of trust of the intentions of those in authority. In the midst of all the screams and chants and shouts and angry outbursts, I hear them wondering: Are they being sold a bill of goods by sweet talkers? Are they being patronized? Are they once again going to be beaten down by a system that has done nothing but beat them down from the beginning? The pleas to keep the public housing units open, to let folks come back to a renovated space, are so strong because the people for whom these units exist know these units are there. They can see them. Touch them. Smell them. They're palpable. They can clean them and mend them, if necessary. The alternative is just the promise of a better future, a future of mixed-income housing for all who want it, ready for them to enjoy at some indeterminant moment down the road. These promises sound nice; but the poor have seen this game before. They know that a promise is just that: a promise -- empty and meaningless and insubstantial. Even worse, it's a promise by the authority. Well-educated people with good salaries, nice clothes, and fancy words. People who are often so far from the experiences of homelessness, marginalization, and poverty so as to make their promises nothing more than a fleeting disturbance of the air. For people who have heard many promises and who have been routinely disappointed by the failure of such promises to materialize, who can blame them for longing for the tangible, the known, the real -- that which bears real memories for them? It's almost like it's better to take the devil you know, knowing that there are angels in the midst of that hell, than the wistful dream that, if history is any indication, is likely to turn into a greater disappointment, if not a worse hell, than the one before, with no promises of any angels at all.

This is what I hear missing in the discussions. I hear people yelling at one another. I hear charges of racism and greed and unscrupulous development on one side. And I hear charges of lazy, good-for-nothing, welfare queens, drug-addicts, and gun-toting hoodlums on the other side. I hear people talking past each other instead of to each other.

And what pains me the most is that the poison infects people whom I admire and whose sensibleness generally is enough to frame discussion. I have seen people who are normally hardcore advocates for the poor call for the razing of public housing with a glint of uncharacteristic intensity in their tone of voice. I have watched the NOLAbloggers split on this issue, sometimes viciously, with lots of acrimonious words hurled out there, which, I must say, has caught me somewhat off guard. (Just read the comment thread for this posting at Your Right Hand Thief for an example of this.) Passions are high and intense on this subject, and, from my perspective, it's doing no one any good. I agree with this posting by NOLAblogger Schroeder at People Get Ready, which he so perfectly titles: "Civil Spaces before Housing Spaces." What we need are the space and the inclination to listen, to truly listen, to one another -- without getting the hackles up or chanting revolutionary slogans or throwing out dismissive bromides about people's character or issuing grandstanding moral platitudes. And as we listen, we need to be willing to bend ourselves towards one another, with the goal of preserving and maintaining human dignity and promoting social justice for all individuals and for our community in the process.


Anonymous said...

I was trying to come up with a way to say what you just did.

Unfortunately, the hope of anything other than the shouting of unrealistic, emotionally driven extremes at this point is rather remote, at best.

Huck said...

I fear you are right, Celsus. What to do other than to plow on?

Schroeder said...

Fear of change. Lack of trust. You're right. And it's offered me a subtle shift in my own thinking on the issue. Thank you. I offered in a letter to Council members that tearing down buildings, and "re-developing" them would be easy once they get past today's vote. Much more difficult would be repairing the mistrust that's been sewn in the community because proper consensus building and, yes, public relations, hasn't been done. This was one of the worst days in New Orleans history, in my humble estimation, due in large part to the agitators who, although they may have had something to say, and served a narrow purpose, have caused more harm than good by their incendiary behavior. They have harmed, more than helped, the cause of the poor, turning them once again into victims by making them seem like a problem, rather than deserving of compassion.

Adrastos said...

Excellent post. I'm witcha, Huck.