Massoud Hayoun

Impoverished district seeks to secede from New Orleans

Citing uneven post-Katrina development, Algiers wants to become self-governing, and it may inspire other districts

One New Orleans district’s bid to secede from the city over a number of grievances, including the uneven distribution of post-Hurricane Katrina economic development efforts, may inspire similar calls across the city, according to the state legislator behind the push.

Louisiana State Rep. Jeff Arnold’s proposal to incorporate Algiers — situated across the Mississippi River from New Orleans’ opulent French Quarter — as a self-governing entity will go before the state’s House of Representatives on Wednesday.

“The city has, in my opinion and many people’s opinions, not given Algiers the attention it deserves,” the Democrat said, adding that municipal business authorities have neglected his constituents.

“The administration has basically leased all its [development planning] out to the New Orleans Business Alliance,” Arnold said, referring to a partially privately owned organization. “They have not been visible on our side [of the Mississippi] at all.”

NOLABA declined to comment on the issue.

"It is NOLABA's policy not to comment on issues before elected bodies," said NOLABA spokeswoman Amy Ferguson. 

Arnold offered the New Orleans Police Department’s scant patrolling of Algiers as another example of neglect. Whereas the district – home to 60,000 residents – has on numerous occasions only been policed by two officers, the New Orleans City Council has sought to bolster policing in the French Quarter – where the bulk of the city’s hotels and tourist attractions are located.

Arnold told Al Jazeera that since he started waging his own Battle of Algiers in the state legislature this month, he’s received an outpouring of “phone calls, texts and emails” from community leaders of what he said are other underserved parts of the Greater New Orleans area — in particular, District 99, where the Lower 9th Ward that was devastated by the 2005 hurricane is located. They hope to join Arnold’s fight for independence before the matter goes to the House floor for a vote this week, he said.

Wesley Bishop, the legislator representing District 99 at the state House, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Arnold said he is not actively considering a joint effort with other districts to secede from the city because of Algiers’ particular circumstance as a parcel of land already separated from the city by the river.

“Everyone knows our boundary is the river. [If they decided to do the same in] New Orleans East, you’d have to delineate your territory,” Arnold said, referring to District 99, which is contiguous with the rest of the city.

Arnold also sees his district’s push as a move to right the wrongs of history. New Orleans annexed Algiers in 1870 without the consideration of its residents. Arnold says his bill would finally give them the right to decide whether that decision was in their best interest. 

However, the proposal to secede opens the way for other districts to become cities. One of the two bills that would pave the way for a ballot measure on secession for Algiers residents later this year would amend the state constitution to allow the incorporation of a city within a parish, the equivalent of a county in other states.

New Orleans, including Algiers, is located in Orleans Parish. Arnold's plan — which New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu's spokesman told local news site Nola.com he opposes, citing Algiers' economic and historical significance to the city — would grant Algiers its own mayor and city council.

If Arnold's bid is successful, other parts of New Orleans, like the Lower 9th Ward, could follow suit, essentially reshaping municipal boundaries to incorporate themselves into self-governing bodies — something that had previously contravened the state constitution. 

A decade after Hurricane Katrina, parts of the Lower 9th Ward remain unchanged, despite the efforts of philanthropists like Brad Pitt, whose charity Make It Right has built over 100 homes in the area. Boarded-up buildings and blighted plots of land are ubiquitous.

Ward residents told Al Jazeera in January that a lack of municipal tax incentives to attract business to the area not only keep the neighborhood underemployed but also underserved. Many of the supermarkets, drug stores and other outlets serving community necessities that left a decade ago never returned. 

Like the Lower 9th Ward, Algiers suffers from a high poverty rates: Between 14.3 percent and 40 percent in most census blocks, according to the most recent federal data collected between 2007 and 2011 and assessed by The Data Center, an organization that researches community demographics in Southeast Louisiana.

The majority of the district also houses more than the New Orleans average of low-wage workers, with most census blocks comprised of more than 24.1 percent of people making less than $1,250 a month, according to The Data Center’s findings.

The Lower 9th Ward is also comprised almost entirely of low-wage workers, with the exception of a few census blocks, The Data Center found. And between 14.3 percent and over 40 percent of the Lower 9th Ward’s population is living in poverty in all but one small census block, according to the group’s findings.

New Orleans has engaged in some economic development efforts in Algiers through private entities — some of which have failed to yield benefits for the local community.

In January, for instance, Al Jazeera reported that a city-backed bid to build a chain of businesses in Algiers with the help of private U.S. and foreign investors had failed to materialize, angering local residents.

Some said it was because, unlike the French Quarter across the river, many Algiers communities are predominantly black. 

Tabitha Nelson works at a payday lending office, one of a handful of businesses on the neighborhood’s main drag: Gen. De Gaulle Drive, the proposed site of the would-be businesses. 

“This is a black neighborhood," Nelson, who is black, told Al Jazeera. “Residents were hoping for business.”

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Louisiana, New Orleans

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