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Biden Seeks to Use Infrastructure Plan to Address Racial Inequities

WASHINGTON — America’s most celebrated infrastructure initiative, the interstate highway system, rammed an elevated freeway through the center of Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans in the late 1960s.

It claimed dozens of Black-owned businesses, along with oak trees and azalea bushes that had shaded Black children playing in the large neutral ground in the middle of the street, eviscerating a vibrant neighborhood whose residents fought in vain to stop the construction.

More than a half-century later, President Biden’s $2 trillion plan to rebuild aging roads, bridges, rail lines and other foundations of the economy comes with a new twist: hundreds of billions of dollars that administration officials say will help reverse long-running racial disparities in how the government builds, repairs and locates a wide range of physical infrastructure.

That includes $20 billion to “reconnect” communities of color to economic opportunity, like the Black residents still living in the interstate’s shadow along Claiborne.

unveiled on Wednesday in Pittsburgh, is the first step in a two-part agenda to remake the American economy. The president and his advisers have pitched that agenda — whose total cost could reach $4 trillion — in the grand terms of economic competitiveness and the granular language of shortened commute times.

But they have also stressed its potential to advance racial equity and bridge gaps in economic outcomes.

In addition to dedicated funding for neighborhoods split or splintered by past infrastructure projects, the proposal also includes money for the replacement of lead water pipes that have harmed Black children in cities like Flint, Mich.; the cleanup of environmental hazards that have plagued Hispanic neighborhoods and tribal communities; worker training that would target underserved groups; and funds for home health aides, who are largely women of color.

More traditional efforts to close racial opportunity gaps, like universal pre-K and more affordable higher education, are coming in the next phase of Mr. Biden’s plans. The exact mix of components is likely to change as Mr. Biden tries to push the plans through Congress.

Given the thin Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, the legislative battle is likely to be intense and highly partisan, with no assurance the White House will prevail.

corporate tax increases Mr. Biden has proposed to fund this phase of his agenda, and they have accused the president of using the popular banner of “infrastructure” to sell what they call unrelated liberal priorities — including many of the programs White House officials say will advance economic opportunity for disadvantaged people and areas.

But liberal economists say the spending on transportation, housing and other areas of Mr. Biden’s initial plan could help advance racial equity, if done correctly.

“This is a promising start,” said Trevon Logan, an economist at Ohio State University whose work includes studies of how government spending projects, like the one that built the interstate highway system, have excluded or hurt Americans who are not white.

The biggest single piece of the plan’s racial equity efforts is not a transportation or environmental project, but a $400 billion investment in in-home care for older and disabled Americans. It would lift the wages of care workers, who are predominantly low-paid, female and not white.

that was partially bulldozed to make way for Interstate 81, and the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans.

Government infrastructure spending is meant to make the economy work more efficiently. Freeways and rail lines speed goods from factories to market. Roads and transit systems carry workers from their homes to their jobs.

But for some communities of color, those projects devastated existing economies, leveling commercial corridors, cutting Black neighborhoods off from downtowns and accelerating suburbanization trends that exacerbated segregation.

“A lot of previous government investment in infrastructure purposely excluded these communities,” said Bharat Ramamurti, a deputy director of Mr. Biden’s National Economic Council. “So if you look at where we need to invest in infrastructure now, a lot of it is concentrated in these communities.”

Past projects were often built in communities that did not have the political capital or resources to successfully protest.

“When it comes time to build an interstate through a city, a pattern emerges: The areas that are displaced by that interstate will overwhelmingly be the areas occupied by African-Americans,” Dr. Logan said. Often, he added, lawmakers choose to build “in the places that have the least political power to make sure this doesn’t happen in their neighborhood.”

Eric Avila, an urban historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, said a consensus during the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration on the need to invest in highways that would connect neighborhoods to cities led to the exclusion of minority communities.

The federal government also used “urban renewal” or “slum clearance” redevelopment programs that often led to the clearing of the way for giant infrastructure projects like highways.

“These highways were essentially built as conduits for wealth,” Mr. Avila said. “Primarily white wealth, jobs, people, markets. The highways were built to promote the connectivity between suburbs and cities. The people that were left out were urban minorities. African-Americans, immigrants, Latinos.”

Mr. Avila pointed to how plans for the Inner Belt highway in Cambridge, Mass., were halted after protests by faculty members at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And in New Orleans, Mr. Avila said, plans for a highway called the Riverfront Expressway were canceled after officials faced pressure from protesters in the French Quarter. But Black protesters were not able to spare Treme, one of the nation’s oldest communities of free Black residents, from the construction of an elevated six-lane stretch of Interstate 10 along Claiborne Avenue.

Amy Stelly is reminded of that freeway each morning when the truck traffic causes her home to shudder. The emissions from the interstate a block away have turned jewelry that she placed near her window jet black.

“Anyone who lives near an urban highway knows what we’re breathing in every day,” said Ms. Stelly, an urban designer and activist against the project. “There’s a layer of silt that sticks on our properties and houses.”

It is unclear from the Mr. Biden’s plan, and conversations with White House officials, what the administration envisions for Claiborne Avenue. If the funding survives in any bill Mr. Biden might sign into law, those details will matter, said Deborah Archer, a director of the Center on Race, Inequality and the Law at New York University School of Law.

“I think it’s wonderful to be able to say and have the goal that this historic investment will advance racial equity,” Ms. Archer said. “It’s another thing to distribute these funds in a way that has impact.”

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How to Pretend You’re in New Orleans Tonight

While your travel plans may be on hold, you can pretend you’re somewhere new for the night. Around the World at Home invites you to channel the spirit of a new place each week with recommendations on how to explore the culture, all from the comfort of your home.

Over the course of the decade since I first visited, I have often imagined myself at home in New Orleans. I think of the syncopated shuffle of a snare drum, the simple pleasure of an afternoon walk with a to-go beer in hand and the candy-colored shotgun houses that sink into the ground at odd angles. And so it wasn’t a huge surprise when, at the beginning of 2021, I found myself packing up my life and moving to the Crescent City for a few months. Why not be somewhere I love at this difficult time, I thought? Why not live in my daydreams for a little while?

New Orleans is above all else resilient. Mardi Gras parades were canceled this year, though it didn’t stop New Orleanians from finding ways to celebrate (nothing ever will). In recent months, brass bands have taken to street corners in front of masked, socially distant spectators instead of packed night clubs. Strangers still chat you up about the Saints from their front porches. My visions of this city may still be filtered through the fuzzy lens of a visitor, but I know I’ll be pretending I’m still there long after I’m gone. Here are a few ways you can, too.

bounce, popularized by superstars like Big Freedia, the call-and-response songs of Mardi Gras Indians, and so much more. For an overview of the sounds of this loud, percussive city there is no better place to start than the wonderfully eclectic WWOZ, a community-supported radio station that has been on the air since 1980. Luckily, you can listen to it from anywhere online. It’s only a matter of time before you start getting to know the various D.J.s and tuning in for your favorites.

a show on WWOZ for more than 25 years, told me. “New Orleans is the reason for it all.” Soul Sister was one of a handful of local experts I consulted in putting together a playlist that will send you straight to New Orleans. Among her recommendations are a bounce classic by DJ Jubilee and the music of Rebirth Brass Band, which brings her back to afternoons spent celebrating on the street: “It reminds me of the energy and freedom of being at the second line parades on Sundays, dancing through all the neighborhoods nonstop for three or four hours,” she said.

Professor Longhair, for example, starts it off — recommended by Keith Spera who writes about music for the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate. By the end of the playlist, you will undoubtedly agree with Mr. Spera’s assessment of New Orleans music: “There is no singular style of ‘New Orleans music’ — is it jazz? Rhythm & blues? Funk? Bounce? — but you know it when you hear it.”

Dooky Chase Cookbook, the collected recipes of Leah Chase, who died in 2019, of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, an institution that has hosted civil rights leaders, presidents and countless regulars at its location in Treme, the neighborhood where jazz was born. Next, tap into the Cajun influence on the city with “Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes from a Disappearing Bayou,” by Melissa M. Martin who oversees a restaurant of the same name in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. Ms. Martin recommends making her grandmother’s oyster soup. “I can picture her stirring a pot on Bayou Petit Caillou and seasoning a broth with salty Louisiana oysters, Creole tomatoes and salted pork,” Ms. Martin said. “The marriage of three ingredients transports me to the tiny fishing village I call home, where salt was and still is always in the air.”

Anthony Bourdain for encouraging her to keep it secret). But she has shared versions of her recipe, so you can try your hand at it at home. “That will get you pretty close to the real thing,” she said with a wink I could almost hear over the phone.

Free Tours by Foot, which has transferred their expertise to YouTube. You can now stroll the grandiose Garden District, pull away the sensationalism around New Orleans’ Voodoo traditions and take a deep dive into jazz history in Treme. “New Orleans is full of painful history, and it’s also known as one of the most fun cities in the world,” Andrew Farrier, one of the tour guides, said. “I think it’s useful for all of us to know how those two things can live so close to each other.”

New Orleans’ drinking scene extends far beyond the vortex of debauchery that is Bourbon Street. There are the classic New Orleans inventions, of course, like the Sazerac, but for something a little different, turn to one of the city’s most revered mixologists. Chris Hannah, of Jewel of the South, invented the Bywater as a New Orleanian spin on the Brooklyn. “Among the ingredient substitutions I swapped rum for rye as a cheeky nod to our age-old saying, ‘New Orleans is the northernmost tip of the Caribbean’,” Mr. Hannah said.

your quarantine pod and a “set-up” and you might just get close. What is a set-up, you ask? It’s a staple dive bar order that will get you a half-pint of your liquor of choice, a mixer and a stack of plastic cups. It’s also an often-overlooked part of New Orleans drinking culture, according to Deniseea Taylor, a cocktail enthusiast who goes by the Cocktail Goddess. “When you find a bar with a set-up, you are truly in Nola,” Ms. Taylor said. “First time I experienced a set-up, it was paired with a $5 fish plate, a match made in heaven.”

“The Yellow House,” a memoir by Sarah M. Broom, which the Times book critic Dwight Garner called “forceful, rolling and many-chambered.” Going further back in time, try “Coming Through Slaughter,” a fictionalized rendition of the life of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden by Michael Ondaatje.

If you are in the mood for a documentary, Clint Bowie, artistic director of the New Orleans Film Festival, recommends Lily Keber’s “Buckjumping,” which spotlights the city’s dancers. For something fictional, Mr. Bowie points to “Eve’s Bayou” directed by Kasi Lemmons. It’s hard to forget New Orleans is a city built on a swamp when you feel the crushing humidity or lose your footing on ruptured streets, and this movie will take you farther into that ethereal environment. “Set in the Louisiana bayou country in the ’60s, we could think of no better film to spark Southern Gothic daydreams about a visit to the Spanish moss-draped Louisiana swamps,” Mr. Bowie said.

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