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Volume 5, Number 1

Spring 2007

Race, Immigration and Economic 
Restructuring in New Urbanism: 
New Orleans as a Case Study*


Olivia Hetzler, Veronica E. Medina
David Overfelt

University of Missouri-Columbia

    In Gentrification, Displacement and New Urbanism: The Next Racial Project (Sociation Today 4:2) we addressed how scholars tend to discuss gentrification in a colorblind fashion which suggests that gentrification is solely a classed process.  It is not.  In this article, we move our attention away from a discussion on the colorblind features of New Urbanism to focus on how the shift from an industrial economy to a post-industrial service economy in New Urban "World Cities" creates a push that drives local minorities away from the city and a pull that draws new stakeholders into the city. 

Hands for Hire 
Economic Restructuring in the "World-City"

    Globalization of the economy plays an important role in New Urbanism, especially in terms of local economic restructuring and labor market transformation. As cities beautify and heal, they bring people back to the city center and vie against other global cities for their share of tourists and businesses.  Large urban centers such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are competing with other cities around the world (Tokyo and Shanghai, for example) to become "global cities" or "World-Cities."  These World-Cities, ultimately important as financial centers for multi-national corporations and locales for social, economic and political exchange between millions of inhabitants (Valenzuela 2003), cater to the expansion of business-related trades such as banking and finance and tourism industries.  Villanueva et al. (2000) suggest that World-Cities are characterized by a "cosmopolitan character and ethnically diverse population; high employment of workers in foreign firms; extensive commercial shipping and air freight" and are preferred locations for corporate headquarters, the corporate service sector and transnational investment and financial markers [as cited by Abu-Lughod 1995] (pg. 8). 

    A resounding theme in the World City is the emergence of service work; this sector plays a profound role in economic restructuring and the differential occupational opportunities available to local residents and workers migrating to gentrifying areas.  Valenzuela (2003) notes, "Economic restructuring profoundly affects who works, how one works, and how work pays (p. 315)."  Deindustrialization and the rise of service sector jobs have disproportionately negative effects on racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants compared to native white communities.  International trade agreements such as NAFTA, CAFTA, and GATT, allow the outsourcing of heavy industry work and replace these typically unionized jobs with light manufacturing and service work, which are typically non-union (Villanueva et al. 2000).  Valenzuela (2003) suggests the rise of service sector work contributes to "the creation of a tiered economy that includes services in hotel, entertainment, cleaning, and food industries (p. 315)."

   Citing Janet Abu-Lughod, Villanueva and her colleagues (2000) suggest that World Cities' "specific insertion into the global economy" increases socioeconomic inequalities between higher- and lower-income groups in these cities; income intersects with race and ethnicity (p. 8).  They find deindustrialization affects male unemployment rates in the Midwestern region of the United States, noting slight advantages for White and Latino males compared to African American males (Villanueva et al. 2000). 

   In his research on contingent employment in various American cities, Valenzuela (2003) discusses the connection between globalization, economic restructuring, and local labor markets through the emergence of distinctive forms of contemporary day labor.  Citing previous research by Saskia Sassen, Valenzuela suggests, "Globalization and the restructuring of regional economies, and the growth of informality, coupled with massive immigration, have resulted in unique labor markets where demand for part-time, low-skill, and flexible work such as day labor proliferates (p. 315)."  It is precisely the demand for labor which explains, according to Valenzuela, increases in immigration to the United States and, specifically, to American "World Cities" such as Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Miami, and contemporarily, New Orleans. 

Down on the Corner...-- Day Labor and New Urbanism

   Aside from emerging out of globalization and economic restructuring, contemporary day labor can be connected to the processes inherent in New Urbanism in at least three ways.  First, the characteristics of day labor are similar to the characteristics of general service sector employment.  Day labor is a form of contingent work and characterizes employers' management strategy of labor during times when demand for employees' services is uncertain.  Work arrangements are not typically permanent and employees lack job security; work hours are unpredictable and unsteady, wages tend to be low and worker's rights and benefits are generally absent.  Contemporary economic restructuring provides the foundation for "the informal economy and the growth of flexible or contingent work stemming, in part, from a decline of the manufacturing-dominated industrial complex of the postwar era and the rise of a new, service-dominated economic complex (Valenzuela 2003, p. 315)." 

   The growth of day labor meets the needs of employers in a global economy heavily dependent on service work.  Workers are "needed to service the lifestyles and consumption requirements of the growing high-income professional and managerial class who increasingly require the services of day laborers to refurbish their homes and domestic workers (Valenzuela 2003, p. 316)."  Aside from home improvement, and child and elder care, day laborers and other low-wage workers are necessary to fill a variety of low-level and behind-the-scenes positions in the hospitality industries associated with "World Cities" such as hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues, and retail outlets.

   Secondly, the geographical and spatial elements of specific forms of day labor are connected to "mixed-use zoning," and therefore the third wave of gentrification.  This is particularly true for "unconnected" informal day labor.  "Connected" day laborers avail themselves to potential employers at specific sites that are integral to the specialized skill or service one has to offer (i.e. a construction day laborer may market himself in front of a lumber yard or a home improvement store).  On the other hand, "unconnected" workers (those who do not rely on specialization for their employment prospects) find employment sites that are "located in mixed retail and industrial locations (Valenzuela 2003, p. 322)."  Valenzuela suggests that in these particular contexts, because of merchant and resident responses to "complaints of scruffy, unkempt men standing in medium and large groups," regulated or official "hiring halls" emerge, reflecting "best and highest use" values and "revanchist" notions toward development (Smith 2002, 1996).  The burgeoning of both formal and informal day labor hiring sites has led to the organization of coalitions in some cities that seek to resolve disputes over the uses of public space.  These coalitions are comprised of merchants, employers, workers, community residents, law enforcement officials, and community officials and their goal is to "make peace between contending factions," implying that each party has different expectations for public policy regarding day labor and the use of public space by laborers gathering for daily recruitment rituals (Valenzuela 2003, p. 326).

   Finally, the role of race and immigration in day labor provide important contexts for understanding its connection to broader processes of globalization, economic restructuring, and local community development.  Valenzuela (2003) notes the employment needs of immigrant laborers and native workers, marginalized from mainstream economic and occupational opportunities, fueled the rapid growth of day labor in the United States over the past 30 years.  Valenzuela (2003) contends that contemporary informal day laborers are predominantly "foreign-born, recently arrived and unauthorized, and have low levels of education and a poor command of English (p. 311)."  In 2000, Nik Theodore found that 80% of homeless workers involved in formal day labor in Chicago were African American, 14% were Latinos, and fewer than 4% were Whites (Valenzuela 2003).  Clearly, day labor reflects racialized labor market opportunities.

Clean Slate? 
New Urbanism in New Orleans
Recovery and (Re)-Development: Neoliberalism in New Orleans' Housing

    In looking at the ongoing recovery of New Orleans through a purely economic lens, we find that the city is getting back on its feet.  Important decisions to stimulate New Orleans’ housing markets are being made and government-business partnerships are a being forged in efforts to revitalize the local economy.  As of August 2006, the federal government dispersed $109 billion in federal aid to assist the five states hit hardest in the 2005 hurricane season (Liu 2006).  In October 2006, the unemployment rates of those in New Orleans and those still displaced from the city were lower than they have been since Katrina first hit the Gulf Coast (Liu 2006).  With the deadline for gutting damaged properties recently passing, the real estate market is finally on the rebound and the rate of blighted housing demolition is increasing drastically.  All sources indicate that a good deal of money is going to New Orleans and that this money is, in fact, being used to get the city economically grounded.

   Unfortunately, this is not the whole story, or even the most important part of this story.  With a long history of segregation, racism, and concentrated poverty created by investment policies, New Orleans has many hurdles to overcome if the city is to become better than it was prior to Katrina.  With the metro population still only 57% of what it was just prior to Katrina, New Orleans has an even greater problem of simply having enough people to get the city going again (Liu 2006).  We find that the city is reproducing old patterns in a mixed-use policy context.  Most importantly, the areas of the city that have seen the biggest booms in demolition, construction, and revitalization are areas least affected by the hurricane.  Furthermore, there are indications that even the safe or easily repairable public housing units remain locked behind barbed wire and money that could be used to bring back the displaced has been diverted for the benefit of the already wealthy (Quigley 2006).  Coupled with the spike in housing costs and the continuing increases in fair market rental prices set by the federal government, those who need affordable housing the most are the least able to fill their needs. 

   As expected, New Orleans has adopted popular trends of mixed-use housing. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans developers intended to incorporate mixed-use housing in five of ten major public housing projects; they slated other areas for demolition and redevelopment. Hurricane Katrina provided a means to complete the already proposed changes. Richard Baker (R-La) commented (very accurately), "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did (Hassan 2005)."

   An estimated 200,000 persons have been displaced since Katrina; as of fall 2006, only 20% of the population has returned.  The lack of public schools, health care, and housing, most importantly affordable housing, prevent many individuals and families from returning (Hassan, 2006).  Although other areas have experienced recovery since Hurricane Katrina, the lower Ninth Ward is not one of them.  The lower Ninth Ward housed the poorest of New Orleans' residents and was home to the majority of New Orleans public housing; only 1,000 of 20,000 of the residents have returned.  No public services have returned to this area including light, water, and electricity, yet all public services have returned to other areas (Goodman 2006) and this is significant.

   In addition, the major public housing units in New Orleans have remained closed and residents cannot return to them.  These areas remain shut; city officials continue to allow them to deteriorate to uninhabitable conditions.  This contributes to the inability of residents to return to the area. One must wonder whether this is a deliberate to control both the returning and migrating populations of New Orleans.  Displaced black residents comprise two-thirds of New Orleans pre-flood population and are noticeably affected by housing scarcity and the doubling and tripling of rents (Slaughter 2006).  Of the four largest public housing projects (which contained 8000 units), only 1000 units are re-opened since Katrina (Saulny 2006). Highlighting the issue of rising rents, a displaced resident reported, "My rent jumped from $167 a month to $430 a month. I can't afford to live here; I don't have enough to pay nothing but my rent (Bowser, 2006)."

   New Orleans presents a special case in terms of displacement.  In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina directly displaced particularly poor minorities.  However, as referenced in the redevelopment plans, this was the intention all along.  Katrina simply sped up the process of displacement making it indirect and outward rather than direct and inward.  Now it is a matter of pricing residents out if they are able to return or remained in the area after the hurricane.  In the time since Katrina, the community has become whiter and less poor. Census data demonstrates that prior to Katrina, New Orleans was 67.3% black.  Yet, by December 2005, the area was only 22% black, "while the white population grew from 60% to 73% of the total that remained (Ohlemacher 2006)."  In addition, there has been a reduction in poorer population and replacement by higher income individuals (Hassan 2006); one news report indicates that average incomes in New Orleans increased by 16% “in part because many of the poorest residents were forced to leave (Ohlemacher 2006)." 

Economic Restructuring, Local Labor Markets, Race and Immigration in New Orleans
"Now Hiring?"
Race and Immigration in New Orleans

   A survey of news reports that emerged from and about New Orleans in the months immediately following Katrina's landfall revealed that the effect of the hurricane combined with the effects of race and immigration on local labor markets to become a salient and volatile issue.   The express concern was that the influx of migrant and immigrant laborers to the city would replace the predominantly African-American population, displaced from the ravaged New Orleans area and dispersed nationally at an estimated level of 50,000 families (Navarrette, Jr. 2005).  In October 2005, Mandalit Del Barco, a reporter for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," interviewed New Orleans electrician Mike Morenz.  Morenz claimed, "All our workforce you see is all Mexicans.  They just come in by the drove.  They're overrunning our city (Block and Del Barco 2005)."  The influx of a predominantly Latino labor force to New Orleans left some remaining residents and business owners wondering if "Nuevo" Orleans represented the future of the city (Varney 2005).  Racial politics in the immediate aftermath of Katrina were tangible.  In an opinion article in The San Diego Union-Tribune, Ruben Navarrette, Jr. (2005) noted that both New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Reverend Jesse Jackson proposed such moves as chartering busloads of African American evacuees back to the city "so they could claim jobs that Jackson insists are rightfully theirs."  Navarrette continues, "This latest attempt to repopulate the city with black people so it doesn't get taken over by brown people seems motivated by nothing more than racial politics (Navarrette Jr. 2005, p. B-7)."

   Many news sources aptly pointed out that migrant and immigrant workers were quickly (and uncritically) blamed for responding to the demand for labor in the many undesirable jobs associated with clean-up and recovery work in New Orleans and surrounding Gulf Coast cities.  On the other hand, the recruitment and hiring practices of transnational corporations involved in and contracted by the federal government for such work went unexamined.  For instance, companies such as New York's LVI, Halliburton, ITT of Charlotte, North Carolina and Cartersville, Louisiana's Construction Management Services-- both subcontracted by German disaster recovery company Belfor-- benefited from the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act (Block and Del Barco 2005; Eaton, L. 2005; Pae 2005; Pickel 2005a; Pickel 2005b; Reyes 2005; Schieffer and Pitts 2005; and Varney 2005).  In the days following the hurricane, suspension of the Act allowed these transnational corporations to recruit workers, primarily migrants and immigrants, to fill their labor needs at a discount price.  White House officials argued that suspension of the act would encourage a rapid reconstruction of the city and encourage local competition for federal contracts for the rebuilding of the city infrastructure (Alpert 2005).  They also argued suspension of the fair wages legislation would lessen the amount of red tape involved in rebuilding efforts (Eaton, S. 2005); however, it took less than two months for the backlash to set in. 

   Reinstatement of the Davis-Bacon Act was hardly a generous policy shift on behalf of New Orleans residents, especially in light of the act's historical entanglement in explicit racism and discriminatory practices (Bullock and Frantz 2005).  Rather, reinstatement of Davis-Bacon served as an extension of previous neoconservative and neoliberal racial projects organized around labor:  it is "simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines (Omi and Winant 1994, p. 56)."  This occurs through two mechanisms: 1) racialization of laborers and 2) the state's use of color-blind language to initiate or amend a variety of policies.

   In the first instance, workers involved with the clean-up and rebuilding efforts are categorized as "illegal," which in American labor history has almost always been associated with workers' racial and ethnic identities and which has translated into important differential outcomes in jobs and benefits.  Many native-born laborers work along side Latino immigrants of varying legal statuses.  In fact, in her report on the Katrina recovery efforts, Del Barco noted, "Many of the Latino workers like Esquino are US citizens, others legal immigrants and some admit they're undocumented (Block and Del Barco 2005)."  Similarly, Mary Lou Pickel (2005a) finds work crews that are "a mishmash of North Georgia country boys, Mexican and Central American immigrants, displaced Katrina victims and at least one crew with many African-American women from Alabama (p.1A)." 

   In the second instance, the extension of this newest racial project occurs as government officials employ color-blind language and code words to influence and redirect policies.  In Katrina's aftermath, both neoconservatives and neoliberals employ code words, "phrases and symbols which refer indirectly to racial themes, but do not directly challenge popular democratic or egalitarian ideals (Omi and Winant 1994, p. 123)." Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, labor leaders and union representatives, and even Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, appealed to President Bush to restore the Davis-Bacon Act on behalf of "local workers" (Alpert 2005; Chen 2005; Eaton, S. 2005; and Palmer 2005).  Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) remarked that reinstatement of Davis-Bacon was "a significant victory for Louisiana workers and the basic American principles of fairness.  These hardworking, taxpaying Louisianians did not ask for special favors or handouts after the devastating hurricanes.  They asked only to participate in the rebuilding of their own homes and communities and to earn a fair wage in doing so (Alpert 2005, p. 3)."  These officials avoided addressing race directly, but their statements contained racial subtexts; they called for fairness, invoked nationalistic ideologies, and claimed ownership of, and for, New Orleans communities.  In other words, these officials expressed concern for the growing immigrant presence in New Orleans without directly saying so. 

   However, not all state officials avoided speculating directly about the intersections race and immigration in the New Orleans post-Katrina labor market.  In fact, Mayor Nagin commented to reporters in early October that he wanted to "ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers (Navarrette, Jr. 2005, p. B-7 and Varney 2005, p. 1)."  Nagin's comment conveyed a widespread concern that the influx of immigrant workers would limit employment opportunities for displaced New Orleans residents returning to the city.  The view of immigrant versus native competition is distorted, especially in the New Orleans context.  Waldinger and Lichter (2003) argue, "The word 'competition' connotes an equal, head-to-head contest for control over some desired good or outcome (p. 213)."  Focusing the argument about immigrant versus native workers is an attempt to divert attention from the real issue:  globalization's influence on economic restructuring and local labor markets.  In these processes, racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants rarely prosper.

Out on the Street
The Emergence of Day Labor in New Orleans

   Certain emergent features in New Orleans are steering redevelopment in a revanchist direction, especially as tensions increase with regard to race and immigration.  Leslie Eaton reports that informal day labor sites have popped up throughout the New Orleans area (Eaton, L. 2005).  According to New Orleans immigration lawyer David Ware, day laborer sites that are predominantly Hispanic never existed before.  "'That's a totally new phenomenon,' he claims (Pae 2005)."  Two issues are important in the analysis of day labor in New Orleans: the racial composition of the day labor workforce and uses of public space for day labor recruitment.  These two factors contribute to the revanchist tendencies of most third-wave gentrification projects.

   According to the 2000 Census, Hispanics numbered only 15,000, or roughly 3%, of the New Orleans population (Pae 2005).  Within four months of Katrina, almost 100,000 Hispanics made their way to Gulf Coast communities and New Orleans' Hispanic population increased to roughly 6% (Waller 2006).  Racial tensions underlie employment issues in New Orleans' rebuilding, particularly between "local" white and black workers and Hispanics.  In May 2006 Fussell stated, "Certainly tension exists, particularly in competition for the rebuilding jobs.  It hasn't escalated to physical violence, but we'll see (Roberts 2006)."

   Lack of symbolic and physical violence is a short-lived prediction in a post-Katrina New Orleans.  Within in months of Davis-Bacon's reinstatement, The Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency stepped up raids at day labor sites, looking for undocumented workers.  Since February of 2006, ICE apprehended between 400 and 500 immigrants.  According to Temple Black, ICE's spokesperson, "the agency focuses on calls about large gatherings or disturbances from local law enforcement (Waller 2006)."  (This move is suggestive of symbolic exclusion of Hispanics' stake in the rebuilding of New Orleans given that they comprise roughly 50% of the reconstruction workforce and that 65% of these workers desire to remain in New Orleans permanently [Waller 2006]).  Physical violence is a constant threat.  Vying for work at the Lee Circle day labor site, an African American worker told a reporter, "They got Mexicans out here that are not even supposed to be here... People feel like they can pay the Mexicans less and take more of them and get more work done.  If they run up to a car where I'm at, I'm gonna beat 'em up (Slaughter 2006)."  According to Saket Soni of the New Orleans Work Justice Coalition, "Pitting workers against each other makes all workers cheaper.  Both communities (local African-Americans and Hispanic immigrants) suffer when contractors compete for the cheapest worker (Bode 2006)."

    Neither poor native whites and minorities nor migrant and immigrant laborers (documented or otherwise) benefit when contractors and corporations hold power over employment opportunities and current working conditions.  Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans boasted the nation's fourth-highest unemployment rate, a statistic that reflects the preponderance of low-paying service industry jobs.  Since Katrina, service industry jobs abound. One news outlet reports that, under the auspices of a guest worker program, hotel chains recruited at least 300 Latin American workers specifically for the hotel industry within the year since Katrina struck New Orleans (Filosa 2006).  However, these workers face exploitation by the companies who seek their services.  At least eighty South American and Dominican workers filed suit against Decatur Hotels to claim back pay and reimbursement for travel and visa expenses (Filosa 2006).  Abuse is rampant in recovery and reconstruction jobs as well, and especially for undocumented workers.  Steve Smitson, an attorney for Casa of Maryland, assisted thirty-five day laborers in filing a federal suit to secure roughly $200,000 in back wages, overtime pay, and damages (Tilove 2006).  A study by researchers from Tulane University and the University of California-Berkeley found that undocumented laborers, especially those involved in New Orleans' reconstruction efforts earn significantly less than their documented counterparts did (Pope 2006).  They also have less access to health care, receive less information from their employers about the risks posed by materials they are working with, and do not typically have access to protective work equipment (Pope 2006). 

   With the lofty goal of building a healthy mixed-income community out of New Orleans, it is disheartening to see that steps are not being taken to ensure the same healthy future for displaced residents or the workers on whose backs these efforts rest (Blanco et al. 2006).  While it is apparent that the economy of New Orleans is well on the way to recovery, it is also apparent that this recovery is not being carried out in the names of those with little money and power.  Initially, we had high hopes for the prospects of redevelopment in New Orleans.  The devastation created by this disaster opened many discussions of racial and class inequalities and it gave New Orleans the opportunity to take serious steps toward redressing this long-standing inequity.  Instead, developers, policy makers, and corporations alike have taken this opportunity to thinly veil racist and classist New Urbanism in the name of development.  Much like the stories presented by Wolf-Powers (2003) with regard to development in New York, stories emerging from New Orleans suggest development is rife with squandered opportunities. 


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*Authors’ Notes: 

We have chosen to list our names alphabetically rather than utilizing the positions of first, second, and third authorship to reflect the collaborative nature of this paper and the unique contributions each of us make to its development. 

We would like to thank David Brunsma and the students of Sociology 8087, Graduate Seminar on Critical Race Theory, Fall 2005, for their comments and suggestions.  We would also like to thank George Conklin and our anonymous reviewers for Sociation Today.

Please direct all comments to Olivia Hetzler, Veronica E. Medina, and David Overfelt, Department of Sociology, University of Missouri-Columbia, 312 Middlebush Hall, Columbia, Missouri 65211 or via email:, or

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