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Becoming Blight: Property and Belonging in Post-Katrina New Orleans


This ethnography examines the politics of property in relation to emergent forms of urban citizenship and belonging in post-Katrina New Orleans. It focuses on controversial plans to redevelop thousands of vacant properties in New Orleans abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. These properties, which initially stood as symbols of the storm’s destruction, have recently become targets of municipal blight eradication efforts as the city transitions from post-disaster recovery to more contentious forms of urban renewal. City officials use code enforcement and auctions to transfer properties to new owners and demolish thousands more, reshaping property relations across an already fractured landscape. By redefining who will be included in the “new” New Orleans through a property’s material condition and effects, blight-fighting programs elide the race and class disparities that have shaped the city’s uneven recovery. While these programs have been contested by activists and community organizations, they are on the whole widely embraced by returned residents. Code enforcement and other blight-eradication efforts provoke reflection on property rights and responsibilities, and on private property in general, as socially and materially embedded projects of reconstituting the post-storm community. Based on twenty-seven months of fieldwork with residents, neighborhood associations, municipal bureaucrats, and urban planners, this dissertation examines the role of vacant properties in debates about urban sustainability, gentrification, historic preservation, and racial justice, ten years after the disaster supposedly ended. It expands on previous scholarly work to highlight changes in the meaning of recovery and community as the city moves beyond the “post-Katrina” moment. In so doing, it contributes to empirical and theoretical research on property and value, inequality, citizenship, and race in post-disaster and post-industrial cities around the country.

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