The Rules of Disaster Relief on New Orleans’s Main Streets

By Fallon Samuels Aidoo

Countless community economic development initiatives took place in New Orleans within a decade of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in August of 2005. Many foundation and charity funded organizations restored storm-damaged storefronts in high-income neighborhoods on high ground, where tourists, investors, and even city planners expected streetcars, shotguns, and short-term rentals to return.[1] Few prioritized dilapidated commercial properties in neighborhoods disregarded (at the time) by visitors and locals alike, who associated such historic places as Treme with crime and culture, not commerce and community resilience.[2] Façade Renew, a building retrofit and commercial revitalization program developed and administered by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) between 2010 and 2018, brought relief to six storied Main Streets serving minority communities despite disinvestment. However, in the process, the disaster relief program also brought low-margin buildings beyond the control of local landmark regulations within reach of the city’s police powers and under the control of Mitch Landrieu’s data-driven, market-oriented policing of New Orleans’ disaster recovery.[3]

In January 2019, standing at the intersection of Martin Luther King (MLK) Boulevard and Oretha Castle (OC) Haley Boulevard, the Executive Director of NORA could point to both the outliers and the outcomes of Façade Renew. Buildings displaying decades of disrepair and disinvestment abut beautifully restored and culturally reused schools, churches, and houses along OC Haley Boulevard. Recognized in 2017 as a Great American Main Street and a Historic Place, the corridor’s colorful, historic buildings exhibited how much NORA’s domain had expanded beyond land development and disposition to building preservation and adaptation. Ashe Cultural Center and Catering, the centerpiece of the corridor, demonstrated that a development authority with a checkered past could value what communities of color had built in the city before the storm while investing in the rebuilding plans of non-Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) after the storm.

A prized block of OC Haley Blvd, which contained restored and vacant buildings before COVID-19, September 2019. [Google Street View].

Vacant yet vibrantly painted storefronts also dot OC Haley Blvd, suggesting façade improvements made along this corridor missed the mark of economic recovery and resilience. Evidence of “market failure”—the closure of a grocery and workspaces to customers and workers—took place behind building facades within five years of their beautiful restorations and a year before the state’s stay-at-home orders took effect in March of 2020. Meanwhile, food stores and distributors that anchored the residential neighborhoods on either side of OC Haley Blvd for a century reopened within two years of Hurricane Katrina and remained in operation as a pandemic ripped through the predominantly African American community of Central City, New Orleans. The corner stores and shoppes that meter the oak tree-shaded “neutral ground” (median) of MLK Boulevard, for instance, gained official “essential business” status from the city and state officials managing COVID-19 after earning that title unofficially from neighborhood residents. Still, NORA included none of these storefronts or any other private properties on MLK Boulevard into Façade Renew and off-shoot place making and preservation projects.

Martin Luther King (MLK) Boulevard commercial properties at Oretha Castle (OC) Haley Boulevard, August 2019. [Google Street View]

Why have precious disaster recovery funds for façade improvements gone to the owners of buildings unoccupied by active businesses?  Moreover, if hundreds of MLK boulevards in the United States contain storefronts that reopen after environmental disasters and remain open during pandemics, why aren’t these streets the targets of commercial revitalization programs and community development block grants after disasters? A quick glance at the Façade Renew program and its participants and precedents offers no easy answers to these questions, for who and what matters after disaster takes shape long before the event. A growing set of books and articles unravel these “slow disasters” of disinvestment in Black placemaking and do justice to investments in Black preservation.[4] Façade Renew, nonetheless, opens a window onto the architects of resilience and the “null values” that preservationists assign to properties and proprietors that don’t follow their rules of rebuilding and resilience.[5]

Façade Renew is one amongst hundreds of federally- and foundation-funded programs of disaster recovery around the country that target the hard assets of historic corridors and communities, only a few of which have been in existence as long as façade improvement programs.[6] During the 1920s Black Chambers of Commerce organized some of the first storefront retrofit and store revitalization programs to redress the damage that racist rioters and arsonists wrought on corridors of cultural and commercial significance. Following suit, Chambers of Commerce focused on the downtowns of small cities and organized capital for investment in buildings of a similar scale and style exclusively for white businesses.

The African American Williams family, which owned and operated a theatre, a confectionary, a rooming house and a garage on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, rebuilt all of the buildings it lost in the Race Massacre of 1921.[ “Little Africa on Fire, Tulsa, Okla. Race Riot, June 1st, 1921.” American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress]

Instrumental to these remarkable revivals, licensed architects transformed rebuilding and recovery from domestic terrorism such as the Tulsa Race Massacre into urban renewal programs for riot-affected cities. Their most promising plans of the 1960s to restore Black business districts of Washington, DC, Newark, and other “chocolate cities” fell through the cracks of public-private partnerships that city planners and community philanthropists designed to implement these revitalization programs.[7] Decades passed without an influx of city support or foundation funds for Black entrepreneurship within storefronts on streets bypassed, literally and figuratively, by private financiers of business and building development. Funding for demolition flowed freely, however, within Black commercial districts and corridors from Historic Greenwood, Tulsa to Historic Roxbury, Boston.

Historic Greenwood after Urban Renewal. [Creative Commons license]

Façade improvement programs disappeared from urban policy portfolio for decades only to reemerge in the 1980s as the cornerstone of neighborhood and corridor plans drafted by cities recovering from fiscal crisis.[8] Infamously, New York City planners backed the neighborhood preservation societies of Brooklyn as they pushed back against commercial development corporations’ affordable housing and grocery projects. Elsewhere in the city, where people of color pleaded for preservation of neighborhood character and fabric, the city promised demolitions of historic buildings would make way for supermarkets and quality homes. Façade improvement programs thus limped along at the behest of neighborhood and business improvement associations in distressed places while city funds and real estate transferred to preservation societies in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Disasters of different kinds since the 1980s have spread the need for façade improvement funds and administration beyond neighborhood-sized pockets of preservation advocacy to city-wide commercial arteries. In response to such extreme events and exigent circumstances as the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion/Riots, the September 11th Attacks, and Hurricane Katrina, federal and state officials have rewritten community development block grant regulations and revised allocation formulas for disaster recovery grants and loans. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), notably, declared damage to Baltimore’s Main Streets during the 2015 Uprisings a major disaster and released funds to individual business and building owners in accordance with their verifiable injuries. Using methodologies tested in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA’s preservation corps determined, in a quick survey of “standing structures” and structures with 50% more or less damage, which buildings along inner-city corridors warranted aid from FEMA or administrators of the community development block grant for disaster recovery program (CDBG-DR).

Baltimore’s 2015 Damage Map.

While the definition of a disaster that triggers aid has expanded beyond “natural hazards,” the buildings and businesses that receive aid and the scope of relief has narrowed in ways that the Investment and Design Review Committees of Façade Renew attempted to circumvent. Convened by NORA in charettes and workshops in 2011 and 2012, architects of resilience in New Orleans—architectural historians, certified planners, licensed architects, approved preservationists, bonded contractors, and real estate developers—set out to prevent local regulation of façade improvement.

Local historic district and landmarks commissions sometimes serve as a city’s planner and/or regulator of preservation and development. In New Orleans, the Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC) possesses police powers of the local state to set design guidelines for ownership of properties in areas designated historic and to authorize liens against owners who fail to comply with these guidelines. Stricter than many of their peers, HDLC regulations cover any part of a building visible from the center of the street (including the roof line and overall mass of the structure). Violation of design principles brings property owners before the HDLC Commissioners, a set of City Council approved residents of locally controlled historic districts, to review and rule on the appeals of property owners. Effectively a pre-trial hearing of a civil complaint, the encounter between property owner and preservation regulator authorizes the policing of property owners and tenants on both procedural and architectural terms.

Violation of HDLC guidelines can lead to—and has resulted in—inequitable patterns and unjust practices of dispossession that HDLC Commissioners and preservation stakeholders acknowledge disproportionately impact the intergenerational wealth and mutual aid of African Americans. Already adopted by the City Council and approved by the state historic preservation office, HDLC guidelines for preservation also present a clear path to inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, a prerequisite for receipt of historic tax credits amounting to 35% of rehabilitation costs. Such guarantees of reimbursement could help property owners secure the bank loans needed to undertake repairs. Despite the pitfalls and because of the promises of HDLC compliance, NORA’s Commercial Revitalization directors selected development regulations and design rules of the Local Historic Districts Commission as the guidelines for Façade Renew properties and participants.

Sample of historical research conducted on a Façade Renew property for tax credit applications. [Courtesy of Beth Jacob]

Knowingly, the preservation consultants on the Façade Renew Design Committee took up an age-old challenge of their profession: to apply architectural standards of integrity and significance beyond the geographical and material bounds from which these standards were derived. Although HDLC jurisdiction could extend to any part of the city with properties at least 50 years old, many holes puncture its governance. The absence of Central City, an area of architecture built before World War II for the most part, creates a donut shaped jurisdictional map. What precludes most owners of Central City properties from encounters with HDLC commissioners—a lack of architectural conformity with peer property listings and a loss of structural integrity due to deferred maintenance and damage repairs—presented an opportunity for Façade Renew consultants to regulate eligibility for relief.

Between 2012 and 2018, Façade Renew Committees developed dozens of historic tax credit applications for building owners who were eligible for HDLC protection but at risk of HDLC policing. Consulting architects and developers first flooded the donut hole of HDLC regulation with preservation professionals capable of the historical research and property analyses that state and federal authorities require to register historic properties and receive tax credits for their rehabilitation. Their decision to focus all of their financial and human resources on OC Haley Boulevard, a corridor with more cultural institutions than commercial operators, drew criticism from the South Broad Business Association and other sources of mutual aid across Central City’s disaggregated commercial landscape. An exhibition of their OC Haley Boulevard work in a storefront off of Main Street illuminated the irony, but neither a feature article in Preservation in Print nor letters of support from foundations acknowledge this inconsistency between program intention and project intervention.

With the support of the Preservation in Print publisher and the Surdna Foundation, Façade Renew program officers and consultants expanded their services to suburban sections of the city, where a decades-long drought in access to capital from banks, insurers, and the government posed a greater threat than floodwaters. Property owners that struggled to match the grant from NORA at a required rate of 3-to-1, fund their project’s upfront costs, and/or secure a low-interest construction loan received loan guarantees and pro-bono professional services from the time of application through implementation of maintenance prescriptions three years after the grant award. Rather than police the paint, windows, doors, siding, and security features of historic houses and storefronts of these corridors, Façade Renew officers designed relief to remove and replace those building elements that regulators would restrict.

Façade Renew, which rectified out of place property features in “historic places” in accordance with preservation law, relieved proprietors of essential businesses and providers of mutual aid after a disaster of regulatory interference and takings. In this and other façade improvement programs that currently redress the racialized risk of regulation post-disaster, resilience relies on compliance. Not surprisingly, many property owners saw these HDLC-aligned recommendations as racist regulations by another name, for they restricted relief to compliant building and business owners. Legacy businesses that survived several disasters opted out, showing the program’s fault lines and showcasing its faults. In other words, any snapshot of commercial revitalization across American cities, within New Orleans, along Central City corridors, and the intersection of MLK and OC Haley Boulevards thus exhibit resignation and resistance to the regimes of relief.

Alumni, faculty, and students of the historic preservation program and community design center at Tulane University shared their skills with building owners and tenants of 1614 OC Haley Blvd., among others, in 2014. [Courtesy of Tulane City Center (now Tulane’s Small Center for Collaborative Design)]
Alumni, faculty, and students of the historic preservation program and community design center at Tulane University shared their skills with building owners and tenants of 1614 OC Haley Blvd., among others, in 2014. [Courtesy of Tulane City Center (now Tulane’s Small Center for Collaborative Design)]

Fallon Samuels Aidoo, PhD is Jean B. Boebel Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation in the University of New Orleans’s Planning and Urban Studies department. An engaged scholar and practitioner of preservation planning, she analyzes and advances the revitalization, retrofit and resilience of historic places endangered by acute threats and chronic risks. Her academic and public scholarship revolve around the cultural heritage of BIPOC, and stewards that safeguard it from disasters as varied as economic recessions, redlining, hurricanes and pandemics. Recent and forthcoming publications examine public, private, philanthropic, nonprofit and grassroots efforts to rebuild residential and commercial landscapes developed by African Americans. Her publications and projects can be found at www.fallon-samuels-aidoo.com. Contact info: faidoo@uno.edu

Featured image (at top): “Friends Outside a Humble Home with a Message, New Orleans, Louisiana,” Carol M. Highsmith (between 1980 and 2006), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1] For an overview of the politics of return and reinvestment after Hurricane Katrina, see Richard Campanella, “The Katrina Lexicon,” Places Journal, July 2015, https://doi.org/10.22269/150727.

[2] The aesthetic and spatial politics of commercial corridors, the focus here, are related to but distinct from that of residential neighborhoods. The latter are discussed and analyzed in Delia Wendel, “Chapter 6: Imageability and Justice in Contemporary New Orleans,” in New Orleans and the Design Moment, M. Frisch & J. Wagner, eds., (London: Routledge, 2013), 109-139.

[3] On the strengths and weakness of property policing under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, see Courtney Williams, “Fight Blight Right: Using Code Lien Foreclosure Auctions to Rehabilitate New Orleans’ Deteriorating Housing Stock,” MA Thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 2012. On their impacts, see Stephen Verderer, .”The un-building of historic neighbourhoods in post-Katrina New Orleans” Journal of Urban Design 14, no. 3 (2009): 257-277.

[4] A few of the most recent, relevant publications that synthesize the literature and contribute to new, nuanced understanding of Black placemaking and preservation include: Karla Slocum, Black Towns, Black Future (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2019); Brandi Thompson-Summers, Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2020); Anna Brand and Charles Miller, “Tomorrow I’ll Be at the Table: Black Geographies and Urban Planning: A Review of the Literature,” Journal of Planning Literature 35, no. 4 (2020): 469-474.

[5] Andrea Roberts, “The End of Bootstraps and Good Masters: Fostering Social Inclusion through Counternarrative Creation,” in Preservation and Social Inclusion, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).

[6] Allison Isenberg, Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People who Made it (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004)

[7] Summers, Black in Place, 48-52. Also, Julia Rabig, The Fixers: Devolution, Development and Civil Society in Newark, 1960-1990 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) and Lawrence T. Brown, The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2020).

[8] Brian Goldstein, The Roots of the Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); and Suleiman Osman, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

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