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New Orleans shouldn’t let uneven recovery continue: George Hobor

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There is much to love about New Orleans, but the city's landscape remains uneven and marked by inequalities. To truly improve upon its progress, local organizing from within neighborhoods needs to continue, and strengthen, in order to build a stronger civic infrastructure.

The Louisiana Public Health Institute has observed New Orleans' rebuilding over the past 10 years. We, and many others, have worked with local government and neighborhood organizations to create a better city because everyone deserves good health. The primary factors influencing health are socioeconomic and political, including neighborhood conditions like poverty and poor quality housing; employment status; inequality, and environmental conditions, such as safe streets and secure public spaces — also known as the "social determinants of health."

Unfortunately, repopulation trends suggest that the social determinants have worsened in some New Orleans neighborhoods. Vulnerable neighborhoods prior to Katrina – those with high poverty rates, low median household incomes, and a high concentration of racial minorities -- came back more slowly and are worse off today than before the storm. Additionally, high ground became a hot commodity, driving riverside gentrification and cementing racial boundaries between the city's haves and have-nots, resulting in neighborhoods becoming even more polarized by income and race.

This uneven landscape is not easy to fix, but three vulnerable neighborhoods had strong recovery stories and suggest a solution. The Broadmoor neighborhood regained population greater than the city average (75 percent) and retained its racial diversity while increasing incomes and decreasing poverty. Freret Street is similar but gained more white residents, subtly shifting its racial, but not income, composition. Data lag behind real-time trends, so Freret's initial income stability has likely changed, but its early recovery remains interesting. The Tulane-Gravier neighborhood recovered population at the city average, and although it remains poor and predominantly black, it experienced a slight gain in household income and a decline in poverty. All three neighborhoods are on lower ground, making their recoveries even more meaningful.

Understanding the factors and evidence that enabled these neighborhoods to be uniquely resilient post-Katrina shows us how to fix New Orleans' uneven landscape: creating civic infrastructure. These neighborhoods have lively community, faith-based, economic and other nonprofit organizations.

While all New Orleans neighborhoods can claim to have vibrant civic organizations, data show these three neighborhoods are distinct in their organizational strength. They have a higher concentration of nonprofits, and they received more grant money from philanthropy since 2006 than other vulnerable, low-lying neighborhoods.

The importance of organizational life in preserving more equitable places raises the question of how strong civic infrastructure can be built into neighborhoods where it is weak or lacking. Research suggests that the best way to accomplish this is to build from within, from the ground up. Organizing, the difficult door-to-door work of volunteers and activists, is needed to bring neighbors together under a community-wide narrative and encourage the creation of entirely new organizations.

Some may argue New Orleans has too many organizations after a post-Katrina nonprofit surge. But the city's current number of nonprofits per 10,000 persons is actually less than the U.S. average, as are private contributions and government grants per capita. Others may question the capacity of existing organizations, suggesting we don't need more organizations, but better ones. However, organizational studies show change is more likely through competition than reform. Also, the capacity argument misses the mark because we need organizations in places where there are none. Research has shown it's important that these organizations develop from the ground up as part of the community rather than come in as an outsider.

The New Orleans we see today was unfathomable before Katrina came ashore. However, the future is also unfathomable if how we continue to rebuild doesn't change. For its part, Louisiana Public Health Institute is committed to supporting a more equitable future, and civic organizing is the proven route to delivering sustained, positive change. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, "knowledge of how to combine [organize] is the mother of all forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all others." Basically, for New Orleans to be a better, more equitable city, we need to encourage organizing to build a stronger civic infrastructure where it is needed.

George Hobor is the director of the Healthy Communities focus area at LPHI.

See the article on NOLA.com.