Chapter 1 explored how racial disparities, neighborhood conditions, and differences in mortality contribute to stunning gaps in life expectancies across the New Orleans metro. But how did such place-based inequalities come to exist in the first place? This chapter looks to the past, using historical data on changes in neighborhood racial composition and socioeconomic status to explore the evolution of neighborhood inequality over time. Chapter 3 concludes with a look to the future, returning to the implications of neighborhood life expectancy data for efforts to reduce racial and place-based inequality.
The emergence and persistence of place-based inequality may not be immediately apparent on maps that provide snapshots of data, like life expectancy. This chapter shows how the evolution and durability of place-based inequality relates to stalled progress on racial equity, as documented across a broader range of systems-level measures in The Data Center’s 2018 Prosperity Index and as implied by the disparities covered in the previous chapter.
A thread running throughout is that, while neighborhoods may stay the same, the people who live in neighborhoods change over time. As described below, during the latter decades of the 20th century, New Orleans suffered disinvestment as suburban parishes grew, leaving mortality rates in the city higher than in the rest of the metro. However, mortality rates in New Orleans have fallen dramatically since Hurricane Katrina and, since 2017, have actually dropped below mortality rates in suburban parishes. This reversal reflects changing mortality patterns, as well as uneven displacement and recovery since Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures.New Orleans developed in phases
|Inner Ring (historic or inner core)||Middle Ring (secondary ring)||Outer Ring (suburban fringe or newest development area)|
For a more in-depth historical account of these topics, see Rigging the Real Estate Market: Segregation, Inequality, and Disaster Risk and Three Hundred Years of Human Geography in New Orleans from The New Orleans Prosperity Index: Tricentennial Collection.
Between 1810 and 1920, New Orleans’ population grew from 17,000 to nearly 390,000. During this period of rapid growth, residential settlement expanded along higher-lying areas, where sediment deposited by the Mississippi River created a “natural levee.” As the urban footprint gradually encompassed all of today’s historic inner-ring neighborhoods, segregation often restricted working-class and black residents to settling in lower-lying areas, where land and housing were cheaper. This initial pattern of nineteenth-century neighborhood inequality left a lasting legacy. Even today, some “back-of-town” areas have lower life expectancies than other historic inner-ring neighborhoods.
New Orleans’ settlement patterns are closely tied to its natural environment and the efforts of humans to control it. For most of the city’s history, settlement was confined to the natural levee, where sediment deposited by thousands of years of Mississippi River floods left the ground higher and drier. Small differences in elevation dictated where neighborhoods could and couldn’t develop.
When New Orleans’ historic inner-ring neighborhoods first developed, wealthier residents often clustered along major streets where the elevation was high and the risk of flooding low. Recent immigrants, working-class whites, and free people of color tended to reside in “back-of-town” areas farther from the river and closer to the cypress swamps lying behind the natural levee. Here, land and housing were cheaper, and flood and drainage hazards greater. Even as the urban footprint expanded, this fundamental pattern remained until the 1920s and continues to echo across measures on place-based inequality today.Neighborhood segregation has exceptions and evolves over time
Discriminatory real estate practices and policies fundamentally reshaped cities across the United States during the 20th century. “White flight” and racialized federal subsidy drove the process of rapid suburban growth. Investment flocked to newly developed sections of the city of New Orleans and suburban parishes while highway construction, public housing, and “redlining” steered investment away from poor and black neighborhoods. The unmistakable correspondence between redlining maps from the 1930s and the map of life expectancy today highlights continuities with the policies implemented during middle decades of the 20th century.Redlining and racially restrictive covenants
19th century neighborhood segregation set the stage for the transformative middle decades of the 20th century. New Orleans’ map of neighborhoods was essentially fixed in place during the 20th century, when development in the middle and outer rings completed the geographic transformation of 19th Century New Orleans into the metropolitan region that exists today.
Draining the back swamp primed new land farther from the river for development, namely Gentilly and Lakeview by the 1920s and New Orleans East by the 1960s. The growth of middle-class subdivisions, both in suburban parishes and within newly developed areas of the city of New Orleans, reshaped the regional geography of race and class. “Rigging the Real Estate Market” documents how housing segregation was enforced during a time of transformative regional expansion. A tangle of discriminatory policies and practices held sway during—and in some cases, underwrote—this period of rapid development and redevelopment: restrictive zoning, redlining, racially restrictive covenants in tract housing developments, discrimination in federally backed mortgages, urban renewal and redevelopment programs, the siting and management of public housing, the uneven impacts of highway construction, the placement of water infrastructure projects like the Industrial Canal, and everyday discriminatory practices in the housing market. Similar factors entrenched segregation in most United States metros, but New Orleans is distinctive for how these processes interacted with the city’s pre-existing landscapes of environmental risk and racial segregation.Highway construction
Though racially restrictive covenants were banned in 1948 and redlining was abandoned in the 1970s, the practices had worked to exclude black and poor neighborhoods from the period of postwar expansion that fundamentally reshaped the metropolitan geography of the United States. Even in the absence of de jure segregation, the housing market continued to operate with different rules for black and white residents.
The metro area continued to add population as the oil and gas sector boomed, but the city of New Orleans’ population peaked in 1960. As “white flight” escalated, white, middle-class families left New Orleans neighborhoods for suburban parishes in large numbers. Similarly, the overwhelmingly white exodus from New Orleans public schools and the redistribution of the region’s tax base ensured that school desegregation would fail to achieve equitable access to quality public education, further amplifying the effects of residential segregation.
The black middle class also began to move out of the historic core, albeit to a narrower set of neighborhoods and in far more limited numbers to the suburbs. For example, faced with a black housing shortage in the 1950s, political and real estate interests aligned behind plans for Pontchartrain Park, which was originally developed as a segregated subdivision and park for black New Orleanians.Public housing
As residents move, the people who make up each neighborhood changes over time. Regional demographic and economic shifts also affect who lives in each neighborhood. Nonetheless, neighborhood inequality tends to be long-lasting. Reforms and policies since the Civil Rights era have yet to overturn centuries of uneven neighborhood investment and exclusion.Where did the neighborhood names in the chart come from?
The percentage of residents in poverty is a common measure of neighborhood socio-economic status, and long-term changes in neighborhood poverty rates provide a glimpse into the durability of neighborhood inequality. In New Orleans, most income-poor neighborhoods in 1970 continued to be income-poor in 2000.[note] During that time, New Orleans saw demographic changes, an unraveling of legal barriers to housing inclusion, the oil boom and bust, the rise of the tourism and service sectors, rising and falling rates of violence, and the beginnings of neighborhood gentrification. Poverty rates of individual neighborhoods fluctuated, but three decades later only slightly shifted the overall ordering of neighborhoods by poverty rate.Why do we begin in 1970?
While the distribution of neighborhood socio-economic status shifted only slightly between 1970 and 2000, many New Orleans neighborhoods underwent much more dramatic changes in racial composition. Much of the city’s white population either withdrew to the suburbs or consolidated into a subset of New Orleans neighborhoods. The black share of the population rose in dozens of inner-, middle-, and outer-ring neighborhoods, although the sequencing varied by decade. Some neighborhoods with large black majorities remained consistently black, while others with almost no black residents remained consistently white. In contrast, many neighborhoods transitioned from being racially mixed or even entirely white to majority black. A single neighborhood, Black Pearl, transitioned from majority black to majority white, which illustrates that housing markets remained segregated long after the Civil Rights era.Economic distress in the 1980s corresponds with life expectancy today
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failures brought the history of environmental risk surging back into the present. The immediate aftermath, response, uneven displacement, and uncertain recovery propelled New Orleans’ long-standing neighborhood and racial inequalities onto a national stage. Katrina dramatically disrupted demographic and housing trends, but how did Katrina change the long-term trajectory of neighborhoods? The data shows that Katrina marks a breaking point in the trends that prevailed from 1970 to 2000.Displacement and return after Hurricane Katrina
Though New Orleans remains a majority-black city, New Orleans’ black population fell from 67 to 59 percent, a net loss of over 90,000 people between 2000 and 2018. The redistribution of neighborhood advantage and disadvantage also quickened during the post-Katrina period. The shifts since 2000 reflect not only Katrina-related displacement but also the effects of the Great Recession and dramatic increases in housing costs. Between 2004 and 2018, the share of renter households who spent more than 50 percent of household income on housing costs spiked from 24 to 37 percent in New Orleans and from 22 to 32 percent for the metro.
Decreasing percentages of both residents in poverty and black residents offer suggestive evidence of neighborhood gentrification in some inner-ring neighborhoods. The share of black residents has fallen in many of these inner-ring neighborhoods, marking a reversal of the pattern that prevailed from 1970 to 2000. Meanwhile, across the metro, the incidence of poverty has, to an extent, spread both to suburban parishes and to outer-ring neighborhoods within the city. Poverty rates in several middle- and outer-ring neighborhoods with significant black populations (e.g., in Gentilly, New Orleans East, and Westbank) are higher than they were in 2000.
Between 1999 and 2018, the poverty rate in New Orleans declined from 28 percent to 24 percent, while poverty across the metro area remained statistically unchanged at 18 percent. However, the share of New Orleans residents living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty plummeted from a high of 30 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2000 and less than 11 percent in 2013-2017.[note]
Poverty may be far less concentrated today, but despite the effects of Katrina-related displacement and uneven neighborhood change, the past 50 years have left a measurably enduring legacy of neighborhood inequality.
Snapshot data on life expectancy may be informative, but it can only reveal so much about how place both reflects and maintains longstanding inequities. Throughout the course of their lives, people may move between different neighborhood contexts. As they do so, and as metropolitan economies and demographics evolve, neighborhoods change. Through continued migration to the suburbs, the rough 1980s regional economy, urban policy reforms, and the post-Katrina period, New Orleans’ neighborhoods have changed since the end of the Civil Rights era. Still, old patterns of neighborhood inequality continue to resonate across contemporary differences in life expectancy and economic opportunity. At the very least, these historical findings suggest that feasibly reducing place-based inequality would require sustained investment. What else do these findings imply for interventions to flatten differences in neighborhood life expectancies? Continue to Chapter 3 for implications of constraints on upward mobility—from place-to-place and generation-to-generation—for place-based policies.