Through the Eye of Katrina  •  special issue, december 2007

Markers indicate locations discussed in this article; click on a marker for more details about a location.

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Neighborhoods: Read more about the neighborhoods mentioned in this article. [+]

Central Business District
Bordered by the Garden District, Mid-city, the French Quarter, and the Mississippi River, the Central Business District was call the "American Quarter" in the early 1900s. More >

French Quarter
Bordered by the Mississippi River, Canal, Esplanade, and Rampart streets, the French Quarter is the original site of New Orleans. It is also known as the Vieux Carré, or the “Old Square.” More >

Garden District
Bordered by St. Charles, Louisiana, and Jackson Avenues and Magazine Street, the Garden District is a residential neighborhood in the heart of New Orleans. It is known for its lavish gardens, elaborate architecture, and the famous St. Charles streetcar. More >

Bordered by Lake Pontchartrain, the Louisville and Nashville Railroads,Peoples Avenue and Bayou St. John, Gentilly is a culturally diverse, residential community. More >

Irish Channel
A narrow strip of land from Magazine Street south to the Mississippi River, the “Irish Channel" was settled by large numbers of Irish immigrants in the 1840s. Today, residents celebrate their heritage with an annual St. Patrick's Day Parade. More >

Jefferson Parish
Bordered Lake Pontchartrain, the Gulf Coast, and the Mississippi River, Jefferson Parish is widely considered the first suburb of New Orleans. More >

Lower Ninth Ward
Border by St. Bernard Parish, the Florida Canal, the Industrial Canal, and the Mississippi River, the Lower Ninth Ward is one of the last districts to be developed in New Orleans. More >

St. Bernard Parish
St. Bernard Parish is a predominantly white residential area. Breaches in the Industrial Canal flooded the community during Katrina. More >

Bordered by Rampart, Broad, and Canal Streets and Esplanade Avenue, Tremé is one of the oldest black districts in New Orleans. More >

An Ethnic Geography of New Orleans

Richard Campanella

Journal of American History, 94 (Dec. 2007), 704–715

As Hurricane Katrina’s surge filled the bowl-shaped metropolis of New Orleans, the simple geography of rising water came face-to-face with the complex human geography of a nearly three-hundred-year-old city. Whose homes were flooded, in terms of race, ethnicity, and class, became the subject of national discussion. This article describes how those residential patterns fell into place beginning in colonial times, and how they were affected by Katrina’s flood.

Historical Diversity

Travelogues testify to the extraordinary diversity of early nineteenth-century New Orleans. “No city perhaps on the globe,” wrote one visitor in 1816, “presents a greater contrast of national manners, language, and complexion, than does New Orleans.” Marveled another in 1835, “Truly does New-Orleans represent every other city and nation upon earth. I know of none where is congregated so great a variety of the human species.” “What a hubbub!” gushed another visitor, “what an assemblage of strange faces [and] distinct people!”[1]

That was not the case during the colonial era. The isolated port, founded in 1718, struggled with sparse population and little attention from French and Spanish colonial governments. Events around the turn of the nineteenth century transformed New Orleans from an orphaned outpost of a descending colonial power to a strategically sited port city of an ascendant New World nation. Agricultural technologies facilitated the rapid shift of its hinterland crops from tobacco and indigo in the colonial era to expansive plantations of lucrative cotton and sugarcane in the antebellum era, both of which profited New Orleans enormously. Agricultural developments also breathed new life into the institution of slavery, and New Orleans became the busiest slave market in the South. Finally, the slave insurgency in Saint Domingue, which began in 1791 and eventually expelled the French regime, diminished Napoleon Bonaparte’s interest in the seemingly unpromising Louisiana colony and motivated the emperor to sell it to the United States in 1803. Authorities regularly predicted that the strategically located port of New Orleans, now under American dominion, would become the most important city in the hemisphere.[2]

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Thread: The city’s early topography Expand thread [+]

From the beginning, New Orleans had a strained relationship with its environment. Follow thread in Kelman, “Clarifying New Orleans’s Murky Edges” >

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Ethnic Geographies of Antebellum New Orleans

The ethnic geography of New Orleans circa 1800 was relatively simple. Locally born French-speaking Catholics (Creoles), from various Francophone/Hispanic regions and racial backgrounds, were spatially intermixed throughout the city, with the enslaved living in close proximity to the enslaver. The foreign-born residents, including Anglo-Americans, were too few to form significant ethnic clusters. In 1809, over nine thousand refugees from Saint Domingue doubled New Orleans’s population, revived its Francophone and Afro-Caribbean culture, and reinforced its intermixed settlement patterns.[3]

Settlement patterns began to change after the Louisiana Purchase. Anglo-American emigrants seeking opportunities on the Mississippi Valley frontier brought to the Old World–oriented, French-speaking Catholic city the external influences of American commerce and culture, the English language, Protestantism, and new concepts in everything from jurisprudence to architecture to race relations. They gravitated to the uppermost blocks of the old city or the adjacent Faubourg Sainte Marie, today’s Central Business District (cbd). (The term faubourg [false town] was widely used in New Orleans to mean new subdivisions or inner suburbs. It fell out of use by the early 1900s but preservationists revived it in the 1970s.) By the 1830s, Anglo surnames numerically outnumbered French ones in that suburb, known then as “St. Mary” or “the American Quarter.”[4] Economic, religious, political, and cultural institutions arose among those uptown Anglos, further reinforcing the trend of Anglo settlement there. The pattern of an Anglo-dominant upper city versus a Creole lower city would deeply influence the cultural geography of New Orleans to this day.[5]

Cost surface map of historic New Orleans

Cost surface map of historic New Orleans. Adapted from Richard Campanella, Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics before the Storm (Lafayette, 2006), 193–370. Base map adapted from 1891 U.S. Geological Survey map of New Orleans, courtesy Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas, Austin.

Cost surface map of historic New Orleans

Cost surface map of historic New Orleans showing generalized patterns of risk, nuisance, and convenience in the city during the late 1800s. Adapted from Richard Campanella, Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics before the Storm (Lafayette, 2006), 193–370. Base map adapted from 1891 U.S. Geological Survey map of New Orleans, courtesy Perry-Casta–eda Library Map Collection, University of Texas, Austin.

View larger image (1000 X 704).

The domestic nature of urban slavery drove a salt-and-pepper pattern of racial distributions in antebellum New Orleans, as enslaved blacks usually lived adjacent to their owners, often in appended quarters. That so-called early southern, back-alley pattern of low-density intermingling has been documented in Charleston, South Carolina; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Maryland; and elsewhere.[6] But the Creole/Anglo ethnic geography of New Orleans affected that dispersion in an unusual manner. Free people of color numerically overwhelmed the enslaved population as one went deeper into the Creole side of town, but as one went upriver into the predominantly Anglo area, the ratio reversed: slaves significantly outnumbered free people of color. The lower-city preference among the gens de couleur libre reflected that area’s Creole culture, which, like its Caribbean and Latin American antecedents, “developed three-tiered, multiracial social structures in which a class of marginal status and frequently mixed origin was inserted between blacks and whites.” The English-speaking world on the upper side of town, on the other hand, exhibited the “rigid, two-tiered,” white-or-black racial caste system associated with Anglo society, which thus fostered an African-ancestry population that was more likely to be enslaved.[7]

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Thread: Public rights-thinking in a multi-tiered social structure Expand thread [+]

Early forms of public-rights thinking were visible among some of the thousands of migrants who arrived in New Orleans from Saint Domingue in 1809. Follow thread in Scott, “Road to Plessy v. Ferguson” >

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The Catholic, Latin ambience of the Creole quarter also attracted southern European, Caribbean, and Latin American immigrants in greater proportions than did the Anglo sector. For most of the years between 1837 and the Civil War, more immigrants landed at New Orleans than at any other southern city. Nationally, only New York attracted more immigrants.[8] Understanding how those groups dispersed themselves across the deltaic cityscape requires a discussion of the city’s physical, economic, and urban geography.

Geographies of Nuisance, Risk, and Convenience

Although urbanization occurred almost entirely on the higher, better-drained natural levee abutting the Mississippi River, not all sections of that feature were equally valued. Those closest to the river boasted transportation and elevation advantages but suffered environmental nuisances associated with wharves. While areas along the immediate riverfront were ideal for commerce and replete with low-skilled employment, they had lower quality housing and were less desirable for residential living.

Areas farthest from the river were lowest in elevation and closest to the mosquito-infested, flood-prone swamp. This so-called back-of-town suffered environmental risks and primitive infrastructure, cost little, and inspired the humblest housing stock. But it was not without jobs: canal excavation, railroad construction, and other hard-labor jobs, which could not be found in the city center, abounded there.

Desirability of land also varied with distance from the urban core. Lack of mechanized transportation made life on the periphery inconvenient and thus cheap, even more so because of the abundant supply of land. Inner-city land was convenient but scarce and therefore valuable. The pattern is an ancient one—“in many medieval cities in Europe, the city centres were inhabited by the well-to-do, while the outer districts were the areas for the poorer segments of the population”—and persisted in most New World cities.[9]

Desirability of land thus varied directly with distance from the river and from the backswamp and indirectly with distance from the city center. Areas that lay farthest from sources of nuisance and risk and closest to amenities and opportunities commanded the highest prices and attracted the best infrastructure and housing. Those areas—the middle of the natural levee near the inner city—comprise the present-day historic neighborhoods of the central French Quarter, cbd, Coliseum Square, and Garden District. Affluent St. Charles Avenue bisects the natural levee perfectly, equidistant from the riverfront nuisances and the backswamp risks. By the late antebellum era, those highly desirable, convenient, low-nuisance, and low-risk zones were home to the most prosperous families. Encircling them was an annulus of middle- and working-class neighborhoods. Further out was a periphery of low-density village-like developments where the unestablished and the poor gravitated.

During the first great wave of nineteenth-century immigration to New Orleans from the 1820s to the 1850s, laborer families (mostly Irish and German) settled throughout that semirural periphery. There they found both affordable housing and low-skill employment at the flatboat wharves, warehouses, slaughterhouses, tanneries and in public-works projects for canals, drainage, and railroads. They established social networks and religious institutions that attracted additional brethren. Throughout the periphery, Irish and German immigrants settled, forming a galaxy-like pattern of greater and lesser concentrations, with no intense clusters and no complete absences. Ethnic intermixing prevailed markedly over segregation. Because of that the location of the legendary Irish Channel—a famous neighborhood of working-class immigrants sprawled nebulously along the uptown riverfront—remains a hotly debated subject locally, and why no particular neighborhood claims a German sense of historical place. It is difficult to pin down the exact location of a dispersed phenomenon.[10]

Ethnic geography map of New Orleans c. 1850 to c. 1910.

Ethnic geography map of New Orleans c. 1850 to c. 1910. Adapted from Richard Campanella, Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics before the Storm (Lafayette, 2006), 193–370. Base map adapted from 1891 U.S. Geological Survey map of New Orleans, courtesy Perry-Casta–eda Library Map Collection, University of Texas, Austin.

Ethnic geography map of New Orleans c. 1850 to c. 1910.

Ethnic geography map of New Orleans showing generalized distributions of ethnic and racial groups in the city, c. 1850 to c. 1910. Adapted from Richard Campanella, Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics before the Storm (Lafayette, 2006), 193–370. Base map adapted from 1891 U.S. Geological Survey map of New Orleans, courtesy Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas, Austin.

View larger image (1000 X 715).

Postbellum Ethnic Geographies

After the Civil War, emancipated people from nearby plantations doubled New Orleans’s 1860 black population from 25,423 (14,484 enslaved) to 50,456 in 1870. Destitute and the target of racial prejudice, the freedmen settled mostly in the least desirable, highest-risk areas in the back-of-town. Working-class black families later settled along the immediate riverfront, which afforded low-priced housing and dock jobs, and in blocks developed with vernacular housing set in walking distance of mansion-lined grand avenues, where many worked as domestics.[11]

Creoles of color, most of whom were economically and socially better positioned than freedmen (though far worse than whites), generally remained in their historical lower-city location. Creole cultural influence was declining in the late nineteenth century, and old Creole notions of a “gradient” between white and black polarized into the American notion of strict racial distinction. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) formally sealed the fate of Louisiana’s complex racial caste system and replaced it with the carefully policed racial exclusivity practiced throughout the South.[12]

As social structures changed in the postbellum era, so did cities. Industrialization, telephony, electricity, mechanized transportation, and the rise of centralized, high-rise business districts effected massive transformations in urban America in the late nineteenth century. The change coincided with the second great wave of immigration to the United States, mostly from southern and eastern Europe. In New Orleans ethnic urban residential distributions would transform accordingly, driven by three factors.

First, as streetcar networks were installed, gentry departed the inner city and resettled in what had previously been the inconvenient semirural periphery. Those once-poor areas of market gardens and municipal projects developed as trendy streetcar suburbs, particularly in Uptown and Esplanade Avenue. Second, the exodus of the wealthy from the inner city, which began as early as the 1830s–1850s but was mostly a postbellum trend, opened up hundreds of spacious town houses in the inner city as potential tenement housing for incoming immigrants. Third, jobs for the unskilled poor shifted from the periphery, where they had been in the agrarian days before the war, to the urban core. Neighborhood municipal markets provided many of them. The Poydras and Dryades street markets attracted Orthodox Jewish vendors from Russia and Poland; the French Market drew Sicilians; the Irish dominated the Suraparu and St. Mary’s markets, and the Chinese created a series of shops on Tulane Avenue, which became known as Chinatown.

Thus, unlike antebellum immigrants, those of the late 1800s settled in a concentric zone immediately around the inner core. That “immigrant belt”—New Orleans’s answer to the “zone of workingmen’s homes” described in Ernest W. Burgess’s classic concentric zone model—offered enough advantages (convenience, work, housing, and social networks) to make life easier for impoverished newcomers but suffered enough nuisances (crowding, noise, and crime) to keep rents affordable.[13] The immigrant belt ran loosely from the lower French Quarter (Little Palermo) and Faubourg Marigny (Little Saxony), through Faubourg Tremé and the Third Ward (Chinatown), around Dryades Street (the Jewish neighborhood), and toward the riverfront in what is now called the Irish Channel.[14]

Twentieth-Century Ethnic Geographies

Between 1893 and 1915, New Orleans installed a world-class urban drainage system. The Progressive Era municipal-improvement project effectively neutralized topography as the premier factor restricting urban expansion. Nuisances and risks long associated with swampland soon disappeared. The concurrent rise of automobiles and streetcars diminished geographical distance as the other constraint on urban expansion. New Orleans began to expand off the natural levee of the Mississippi and into the lowlands near Lake Pontchartrain.[15]

Show Glossary Term

Glossary: Levee timeline More [+]

Before 1717 - Early attempts to control the Mississippi River consisted mainly of fortifying the river’s natural levees.

1717 to 1727- The French built the first man-made levee system near New Orleans. The levee measured only three feet in most locations and failed to contain the river during periods of heavy flooding. The levees are privately maintained by area landowners, who use slaves, state prisoners, and poverty-stricken Irish immigrants to perform the work, and death rates were high.

1859 - A levee breech near New Orleans flooded two hundred city blocks and displaced thousands of residents. In response, Congress passed the Swamp Act and sponsored surveys of the lower Mississippi River. The findings sparked a debate on how best to control the river—more levees versus Man-made outlets and spillways.

1861 to 1865 - The levee system was damaged by military actions during the Civil War. Following the war, the State Board of Levee Commissioners alloted funding to replace the damaged sections, but by 1870 little work had been completed.

1879 - Congress created the Mississippi River Commission (mrc) to replace the State Board. The federally funded mrc was responsible for maintaining and controlling the Mississippi. Aided by the Army Corps of Engineers, the commission sought to deepen the river to make it more navigable and less likely to flood.

Destruction of the Caernarvon levee

Destruction of the Caernarvon levee. The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University (cwru) Department of Geological Sciences.

Destruction of the Caernarvon levee

Destruction of the Caernarvon levee. The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University (cwru) Department of Geological Sciences.

1885 – Under the leadership of Andrew A. Humphreys, the Army Corps of Engineers adopted a “levees-only” policy. For the next forty years, the corps extended the levee system, sealing many of river’s natural outlets along the way. By 1926 levees extended from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans.

1927 - Unusually high amounts of rainfall across the Mississippi River valley triggered the great flood of 1927. As the river swelled to record levels, New Orleans city politicians ordered the destruction of the Caernarvon levee to avoid catastrophic flooding in the city.

1955 - The Army Corps of Engineers conducted the first hurricane impact studies, shifting its focus from flood prevention to storm surge protection.

1962 - The Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans District submitted the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project (lp&vhpp). Designed to protect residents living between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River levee, the project called for the construction of surge barriers along the lake. The barriers were intended to prevent hurricane-driven surges from entering Lake Pontchartrain by dispersing the water among the existing local levees.

1965 - Following the devastation caused by Hurricane Betsy, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1965. Included in this legislation was authorization for the lp&vhpp. The Army Corps of Engineers assumed sole responsibility for levee design and construction in the New Orleans area.

1977 - The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued an injunction against the continued construction of the lp&vhpp, finding that the project’s environmental impact statement did not comply with National Environmental Policy Act.

1985 - The lp&vhpp was reevaluated and modified, replacing surge barriers with taller levees. Construction proceeded under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers.

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California bungalows, English cottages, and Spanish revival villas arose along orthogonal grids throughout lakefront New Orleans from the 1910s through the 1950s. Concerns about storm surges were abated through the construction of upraised artificial land along the southern lakeshore from 1926 to 1934. Blatantly racist deed covenants excluded black families from the new land, and the white middle-class denizens of the front-of-town leapfrogged over the black back-of-town and settled into trendy low-lying suburbs such as Lakeview. The neutralization of topography and distance, along with legally sanctioned racial polarization, helped disaggregate the historically intermixed racial geography of New Orleans.

Those trends intensified in the late twentieth century. Between 1960 and the 1980s, many whites departed again, this time for the recently drained suburbs of Jefferson, St. Bernard, and eastern Orleans parishes. “Push factors” included resistance to school integration, crime rates, the decline of public schools, and urban decay; “pull factors” included better school districts, safety, suburban life-styles, less congestion, and lower costs of living.

One of the strongest factors that racially disaggregated New Orleans began as a progressive program to help the poor. In the late 1930s, the Housing Authority of New Orleans razed old neighborhoods for subsidized, legally segregated housing projects. When the projects were integrated in the 1960s, white residents departed for affordable-living alternatives in working-class suburbs and were replaced by poor blacks. In a few years, thousands of the city’s poorest African Americans had become intensely consolidated into a dozen housing developments. “The Projects”—about ten complexes, scattered throughout the city—furthered the paradoxical de facto segregation of residential settlement patterns of black and white New Orleanians, even as they mingled in newly integrated schools, offices, and lunch counters.

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Thread: Poverty and Public Housing Expand thread [+]

In the depths of the Great Depression, the federal government oversaw the passage of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937. New Orleans was one of the first city to qualify for funds. Follow thread in Long, “Race, Poverty, and Public Housing” >

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Ethnic geography map of post–Hurricane Katrina flooding on August 31, 2005 Ethnic geography map of post–Hurricane Katrina flooding on  September 8, 2005.

View color image, overlaying all 4 groups.

Ethnic geography map of post–Hurricane Katrina flooding on August 31, 2005, and September 8, 2005. Map by Richard Campanella, using U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Population Tables by Block—Short Form 3 (sf3), digital data as packaged by GeoLytics, Inc. Flood interpretation based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (noaa), Louisiana Geographic Information Clearinghouse–Louisiana State University (lgic-lsu), New Orleans Times-Picayune data, and personal observations.

Ethnic geography map of post–Hurricane Katrina flooding on August 31, 2005

View larger image (653 X 1000).

Ethnic geography map of post–Hurricane Katrina flooding on  September 8, 2005.

View larger image (580 X 1000).

View color image, overlaying all 4 groups.

Ethnic geography map of post–Hurricane Katrina flooding, showing extent of flooding on August 31, 2005, and September 8, 2005, in contiguous urbanized portions of Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard parishes. Map by Richard Campanella, using U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Population Tables by Block—Short Form 3 (sf3), digital data as packaged by GeoLytics, Inc. Flood interpretation based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (noaa), Louisiana Geographic Information Clearinghouse–Louisiana State University (lgic-lsu), New Orleans Times-Picayune data, and personal observations.

Suburban life-styles also beckoned to immigrants. Central Americans and Vietnamese war refugees, who arrived in modest numbers in the late twentieth century, tended to settle in distant suburbs such as Kenner, eastern New Orleans, and the West Bank. Again, the pattern in New Orleans parallels national trends: immigrants to the United States now regularly gravitate toward suburbia. Popular notions of immigrant-dominated inner cities and homogenous white suburbs are increasingly obsolete.

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Thread: Vietnamese communities in New Orleans Expand thread [+]

New Orleans is home of one of the largest concentrated settlement of Vietnamese Americans in the nation. Follow thread in Leong, et al., “Vietnamese American Community in New Orleans East” >

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Suburban life-styles also attracted the black middle class. Because that group historically comprised the downtown-based Creole community, its expansion into suburban-style subdivisions tended to occur in the drained backswamp adjacent to the old downtown Creole (eastern) faubourgs, particularly the Seventh Ward. When white philanthropists funded the first modern suburban subdivision for blacks (Pontchartrain Park) in 1955, they furthered the spread of the black middle class in this eastern area. The transformation led, in the 1970s and 1980s, to the departure of many whites from Gentilly, opening up more fine housing stock for middle-class black families. The same was true for far eastern New Orleans, the last major suburban development in Orleans Parish. Mostly white in the 1960s and 1970s, “New Orleans East” swiftly became mostly black in the 1980s with the oil bust and the rise of subsidized, multifamily housing. Areas west of City Park, such as Lakeview, were unattached to historically black source regions, particularly middle-class ones, and remained mostly white.

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Thread: Economic depression in New Orleans Expand thread [+]

In the 1980s two primary engines of the local boom failed. The oil market went bust, which compounded problems associated with a long-term decline in the number of jobs at the port of New Orleans and left the metropolitan area in a depression from which it has never fully recovered. Almost at the same time, the federal pipeline to the cities almost shut down. Follow thread in Germany, “Racial Inequality and the Long Prelude to Katrina” >

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The city of New Orleans as a whole had a white majority from the 1830s to the 1970s. The population of the city proper declined from a peak of 627,525 in 1960 to 462,269 in 2004. Over two-thirds of the 2004 population was black.[16] Wealthier whites predominated in the higher-elevation swath from the French Quarter through Uptown and in low-lying Lakeview; while middle-class African Americans, including those of Creole ancestry, predominated in the eastern half of the city, an area intersected by navigation canals connecting with the Gulf of Mexico. Poorer African Americans settled there too but largely remained in the historical former back-of-town and immediately along the high riverfront, while the poorest blacks resided in high-density subsidized projects. Most immigrants lived in the suburban fringe.

The Ethnic Geography of Catastrophe

Early on Monday, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s winds forced gulf waters over the eastern navigation canals’ guide levees and into low-lying New Orleans East. Two breaches opened on the Industrial Canal, sending a torrent of water into the mostly black Lower Ninth Ward and predominantly white St. Bernard Parish. Additional breaches on the London Avenue Canal filled the mostly black areas east of City Park. At 9:45 a.m., the Seventeenth Street Canal levee failed massively and inundated predominantly white Lakeview.[17] Scores of citizens perished in their own homes.

When the winds died down, journalists unaware of the rising tide mistakenly reported that New Orleans had “dodged the bullet.” It was not until Tuesday that most evacuated residents learned the jolting new truth: the flood-protection and drainage system had not neutralized topography. The city’s ancient geographies of risk, supposedly subjugated by technology a century ago, came rushing back to life. The bowl was filling up. While the historical neighborhoods on the natural levee remained dry, vast expanses of low-lying twentieth-century subdivisions drowned. A city once predicted to become one of the most important in the hemisphere stewed in its own filth for weeks.

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Thread: Geographical risk in New Orleans Expand thread [+]

New Orleans’s geographical situation and levee system has always been a source of community concern. Follow thread in Kelman, “Clarifying New Orleans’s Murky Edges” >

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As the catastrophe made headlines worldwide, observers remarked openly about the overwhelming preponderance of the African American poor among those stranded within the city. Many explained the disproportion as a product of historical spatial correlations between class and topography. The Herald in Glasgow, Scotland, reported that “the poorest groups have lived in the low-lying areas which have been devastated by Katrina.” The New York Times editorialized that “it is not a coincidence that many of those hard-hit, low-lying areas have had poor and predominantly African-American residents.” USA Today reported that “the low-lying wards that suffered the worst damage were mostly black neighborhoods.” A local activist commented that “black people only moved [to low-lying Gentilly and eastern New Orleans] because all the good high ground had been taken.” Editors of the journal World Watch drew attention toward the article “Race and the High Ground in New Orleans” with the sub-headline “Poor and black = low, wet, and maybe dead.”[18]

A spatial analysis helps clarify the relationships among race, class, and susceptibility to hurricane damage and death. Throughout the metropolitan area, 40 percent of the total population of 988,182 resided in areas that were under water on September 8, 2005.[19] Blacks outnumbered whites in that flooded area by over a 2-to-1 ratio, 257,375 to 121,262, even though whites outnumbered blacks metropolis-wide, 500,672 to 429,902. People of Asian and Hispanic ancestry numbered 9,240 and 11,830 among the flooded population and 25,552 and 49,342 among the total population, respectively. Thus, while one in every four whites’ homes, one in four Hispanics’ homes, and one in three Asians’ homes flooded throughout the tri-parish metropolis of Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard (24, 24, and 36 percent, respectively), close to two of every three African Americans’ homes (60 percent) were inundated. In sum,

whites made up 51 percent of the pre-Katrina metropolitan population and 31 percent of its flood victims;
blacks made up 44 and 65 percent;
Asians made up 2.6 and 2.3 percent;
Hispanics made up 5 and 3 percent.

Considering only New Orleans, 61 percent of the total population of 480,256 resided in areas that were flooded on September 8. Blacks outnumbered whites in that flooded area by over a 3.8-to-1 ratio (220,970 to 57,469). Blacks also outnumbered whites citywide before the storm, 2.4-to-1 (323,868 to 134,012). People of Asian and Hispanic ancestry numbered 7,753 and 7,826 among the flooded population, and 10,751 and 14,663 citywide, respectively. Thus, 43 percent of whites, 53 percent of Hispanics, 68 percent of African Americans, and 72 percent of Asians saw their homes flood in New Orleans. In sum,

African Americans made up 67 percent of New Orleans’s pre-Katrina population and 76 percent of its flood victims;
Whites made up 28 and 20 percent;
Hispanics made up 3 and 3 percent;
Asians made up 2 and 3 percent.

There are similar statistics from those killed by the storm: African American victims outnumbered white victims by more than double, they comprised 66 percent of the storm deaths in New Orleans and whites made up 31 percent, fairly proportionate to pre-storm relative populations.[20]

Selective reporting of the above statistics can spin interpretations to favor certain narratives regarding the geographies of ethnicity and risk. Focusing on absolute figures lends support to the case for disproportionate suffering of certain groups, whereas reporting relative figures makes the victimization seem more ecumenical. Citing metropolis-level versus city-level statistics, or the number of those initially flooded versus the number persistently flooded, can also buttress preconceived themes. There is no question, however, that those who were stranded in the inundated city and suffered excruciatingly long delays in rescue were overwhelmingly African American and poor—in both absolute and relative terms.

The reason for the nuanced nature of the residential flooding statistics and their openness to multiple interpretations, is the complex historical geography explaining how current demographic patterns fell into place. Those reports that erroneously implied a strong positive correlation between elevation and class (and by extension race)—in other words, higher elevations hosted wealthier residents—reflected a failure to understand how the perceived technological neutralization of topography originally effected a negative relationship between the two: middle-class whites in the 1910s–1950s moved enthusiastically into the lowest-lying areas and excluded African Americans with racist deed covenants. White, prosperous Lakeview lies significantly lower than the poor, black Lower Ninth Ward. Additionally, oversimplified reports revealed a misunderstanding of the role of historical economic and environmental geographies, which explain the otherwise counterintuitive settlement of working-class African Americans along some of the highest land in New Orleans—the riverfront. Most reports also failed to recognize that the pull factors of suburbia and the push factors of the inner city have inspired, in New Orleans as in the nation, an out-migration among middle-class nonwhites as they earlier did among middle-class whites. In seeking better lives in the suburbs, New Orleanians of all races, classes, and ethnicities, falsely secure in flood-protection and drainage technologies, moved into harm’s way in fairly proportionate numbers.

Richard Campanella is assistant director for environmental analysis at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane University.

Readers may contact Campanella at rcampane at tulane dot edu.

[1] William Darby, A Geographical Description of the State of Louisiana (Philadelphia, 1816), 186; Joseph Holt Ingraham, The South-West (2 vols., New York, 1835), I, 99; H. Didimus [Edward Henry Durell], New Orleans as I Found It (New York, 1845), 29–30.

[2] On the colonial and early national history of New Orleans, see Glenn R. Conrad, ed., The French Experience in Louisiana (Lafayette, 1995); Gilbert C. Din, ed., The Spanish Presence in Louisiana, 1763–1803 (Lafayette, 1996); and Dolores Egger Labbé, ed., The Louisiana Purchase and Its Aftermath, 1800–1830 (Lafayette, 1998).

[3] Paul F. LaChance, “The 1809 Immigration of Saint-Domingue Refugees to New Orleans: Reception, Integration, and Impact,” Louisiana History, 29 (Spring 1988), 111.

[4] Joseph G. Tregle Jr., “Creoles and Americans,” in Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization, ed. Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon (Baton Rouge, 1992), 154–57, 164.

[5] Numerical evidence of this and other ethnic geographical patterns is detailed in Richard Campanella, Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics before the Storm (Lafayette, 2006).

[6] Peirce F. Lewis, New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape (Cambridge, Mass., 1976), 44; David C. Rankin, “The Forgotten People: Free People of Color in New Orleans, 1850–1870” (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1976), 81; Larry Ford and Ernst Griffin, “The Ghettoization of Paradise,” Geographical Review, 69 (April 1979), 156–57, esp. 156.

[7] Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Population of the United States in 1860; Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census, under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington, 1864), 195; Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon, “Introduction: Franco-Africans and African-Americans,” in Creole New Orleans, ed. Hirsch and Logsdon, 189.

[8] Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Statistics, Tables Showing Arrivals of Alien Passengers and Immigrants in the United States from 1820 to 1888 (Washington, 1889), 108–9.

[9] Ronald Van Kempen and A. Şule Özüekren, “Ethnic Segregation in Cities: New Forms and Explanations in a Dynamic World,” Urban Studies, 35 (Oct. 1998), 1631.

[10] On early nineteenth-century immigration to New Orleans, see Campanella, Geographies of New Orleans, 227–62, 369–79.

[11] Lewis, New Orleans, 44–46; Sam R. Carter, A Report on Survey of Metropolitan New Orleans, Land Use, Real Property, and Low Income Housing Area (New Orleans, 1941), fold-out map following p. 136.

[12]Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).

[13] Ernest W. Burgess, “The Growth of the City,” in The City, ed. Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKenzie (Chicago, 1925), 47–62.

[14] For maps of the immigrant belt and its underlying geographical explanations, see Campanella, Geographies of New Orleans, 372–73.

[15] On the twentieth-century ethnic geography of New Orleans, see Campanella, ibid., 191–380.

[16] U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1961 (Washington, 1961), 17; U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2006 (Washington, 2006), 34.

[17] Guide levees line manmade navigation canals. Bob Marshall, “City’s Fate Sealed in Hours: Timeline Maps Course of Post-Katrina Deluge,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 14, 2006, p. A1.

[18] Lucy Bannerman, “The Big Uneasy: Katrina Exposes Race Divide That Splits American Life,” Glasgow Herald, Sept. 3, 2005, p. 11; “Hard Decisions for New Orleans,” New York Times, Jan. 14, 2006, p. A14; Susan Page and William Risser, “In New Orleans, 4 out of 5 Want to Stay There; Blacks Report Being Harder Hit by Storm Than Whites,” USA Today, Feb. 28, 2006, p. 1A; unnamed local activist quoted in Frank Donze, “Rebuild, But at Your Own Risk, Nagin Says; Recommendations from bnob Come with Warnings and Worries,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 20, 2006, p. 1; Eric Mann, “Race and the High Ground in New Orleans,” World Watch: Vision for a Sustainable World, 19 (Sept.–Oct. 2006), 40–42, 1.

[19] Analysis by Richard Campanella using Census 2000 demographic data at the block level and flood extent of September 8, representing deeply and persistently flooded areas. “Metropolitan area” is defined here as the contiguous urbanized portions of Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard parishes. U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Population Tables by Block—Short Form 3 (sf3), digital data as packaged by GeoLytics, Inc. (in Richard Campanella’s possession).

[20] Computed by Campanella using “Vital Statistics of All Bodies at St. Gabriel Morgue” (Feb. 23, 2006), update to Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, “December 13, 2005: Updated Number of Deceased Victims Recovered Following Hurricane Katrina,”