New Orleans’s "Uncle Lionel" Batiste: Feted in death, evicted after Katrina.

Assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York’s College of Staten Island

Uncle Lionel with the Treme Brass Band.

“Uncle Lionel” Batiste, the legendary bass drummer and iconic figure of New Orleans music and culture, died on July 8th at the age of 80.

Uncle Lionel — whose image was seen by millions in New York’s Times Square advertising Spike Lee’s documentary on post-Katrina New Orleans and on the official Congo Square poster for the 2010 Jazz and Heritage Festival — was commemorated in grand New Orleans style. Second line jazz marches were held by his admirers, while the city made available the regal Mahalia Jackson Theater for a veritable state funeral, with eulogies by city leaders and performances by well-known New Orleans musicians. The local Times-Picayune newspaper—which is suffering from a terminal illness of its own at the hands of its corporate owners who in September will turn the daily into a three-days-per-week publication—also provided wide coverage of his passing, as did the New York Times (obituary) and even international press.

The royal treatment that city and community leaders rolled out for Uncle Lionel in death is an extreme contrast to the way they kicked him and other public housing residents to the curb after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in late August 2005. Even though Uncle Lionel’s home, the Lafitte public housing development, faced little or no flooding, city and federal government officials closed the development, locking out Uncle Lionel and thousands of other New Orleans public housing residents. The Bush administration’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary, Alphonso Jackson, with full backing from Mayor Nagin and the city council, then proceeded, in collaboration with the Archdiocese of New Orleans, to demolish Lafitte. Demolition proceeded despite protests by residents, supporters, and a study by MIT Professor John Fernandez that concluded that a simple cleaning of the development’s plaster walls would allow resident to easily, safely, and inexpensively return home. The decision to demolish Lafitte and three other little-damaged public housing developments was also denounced by two United Nations-appointed human rights investigators. They called on federal and city officials to “protect the human rights of African Americans affected by Hurricane Katrina” by, among various measures, “immediately [halting] the demolition of public housing in New Orleans.”

The unflooded first-floor apartment in the Lafitte public housing
development—where Uncle Lionel lived when Hurricane Katrina
hit—taken just after the storm.

Depression and Demolition

The eviction and forced exile from his beloved New Orleans led Uncle Lionel to “become deeply depressed,” according to the Times-Picayune. Yet some of same honchos that evicted him and demolished his home after Katrina postured as his friend in death. One is Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, who joined Mayor Nagin and six other council members on December 20, 2007, in a vote to demolish Lafitte and three other public housing developments despite mass protest and international condemnation. Clarkson had the audacity to show her face and speak at Uncle’s funeral on July 20th at the Mahalia Jackson Theater, claiming she had been a friend of his since childhood. More crocodile tears were shed by lawyer Tommie Vassel, who showed up at Uncle’s wake at the Charbonnet funeral home. His record includes speaking in defense of demolishing Uncle’s home at the infamous December 20, 2007, city council hearing, at which public housing supporters were beaten and tasered.

Perhaps the biggest hypocrite here is Mayor Mitch Landrieu. At the July 20th funeral he lauded Uncle Lionel for “coming back [after Katrina] when they said he could not.” He forgot to mention that Republican and his fellow Democratic Party officials and their developer buddies were the ones telling Uncle he could not return home. Further adding to the Alice-in-Wonderland character of the commemoration is that both the Landrieu and Obama administrations, along with their developer allies, are currently spearheading a “revitalization” gentrification plan for a wide swath of neighborhoods that Lionel marched in and called home. This plan will drive out even more low-income working-class residents that make the city’s “magnificently authentic” culture that Landrieu touted in his eulogy of Uncle Lionel—a phraseology is that is also constantly invoked by the city’s other tourist boosters.

Uncle Lionel and the Contradictions of New Orleans Tourism

The city’s Iberville public housing development, which sits just outside the famed French Quarter, was the one traditional public housing development that the Bush administration and local officials could not get their hands on in the aftermath of Katrina. Protests before Katrina to defend the development, along with protests and residents reoccupying their apartments after the storm, forced authorities to reopen the badly needed apartments. Now, the Obama administration is trying to get away with what the Bush administration could not. David Gilmore — appointed by Obama’s HUD secretary as head of the local housing authority — along with Landrieu and developers Pres Kabacoff and Richard Baron, applied for and received a 2011 federal grant to demolish the Iberville and reconstruct it as a privately run development. The plans call for a massive reduction in the number of on-site public housing units, dropping from nearly 900 units to just over 300.

This is not all. Privatization of Iberville is part of a larger gentrification plan of a 1000-acre area in the center of the city, with extensive technical support and funding coming from the Ford, Rockefeller and Kellogg foundations (New City Neighborhood Partnership 2011).

The initiative, which is being pushed under an umbrella outfit called the “NEWCITY Neighborhood Partnership” and dubbed “one of the nation’s largest urban redevelopment initiatives,” is being sold under what political scientist Michele Boyd calls a “Jim Crow Nostalgia” marketing scheme. Consistent with this discourse, developers and public officials are framing redevelopment as one that will recapture the lost greatness of black New Orleans in area they have labeled ‘Treme” — even though Uncle Lionel and current residents refer to the area as the “6th ward” rather than the label preferred by marketeers and TV-series writer David Simon. Typical of the “Jim Crow Nostalgia” strategy is the description of the neighborhood provided in the grant application made to HUD by developers, the city, and housing authority:

Iberville/Tremé was the home of free people of color before the end of the 18th century, and by the first half of the 19th century, they held wealth, property, and power in a complex, racially integrated society. They were builders, architects, craftsmen, merchants, and bankers. In fact, artisans whose craftsmanship was responsible for the extraordinary quality and beauty of the New Orleans built environment were centered here. (Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Application, 2011)

Just as Boyd has critiqued, black life under Jim Crow — and even slavery in this case — is celebrated while “no mention of the more brutal aspects of racial segregation” are raised. Furthermore, in another feature of the Jim Crow Nostalgia redevelopment strategy, the plan to recreate this earlier imagined black community is presented as benefiting a generic, non-class differentiated, “black community.” “Our Plan,” the grant application explains, “will restore, secure, and build on that [black] heritage.” In fact, middle class black homeowners and black entrepreneurs at the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network who promote Treme as a racial tourism district—and who placed Uncle Lionel on their poster commemorating the 200th anniversary of the area — do clearly stand to materially benefit from the redevelopment plans, as do their allied white developers and tourist industry allies. In contrast, the “other Uncle Lionels,” who are low-income renters at Iberville and other neighborhoods targeted for redevelopment, can look forward to rising rents and displacement. Public housing, which provided a home for Uncle Lionel and other working class people that make up New Orleans’ “authentic culture,” is not part of the “heritage” that black and white public officials, bankers, real estate moguls, and tourist capitalists claim to be recapturing.

Is There An Alternative? Public Works Now!

Activists in New Orleans’s public housing movement are promoting an alternative to the exclusionary privatization and gentrification promoted by the national and local economic and political elite. While fighting against the destruction of Iberville and other public housing communities and public services, activists are also making clear what they are fighting for. Groups such as C3/Hands Off Iberville are calling for “Jobs For All” through a mass, direct-government-employment, public works plan, at good union wages, to rebuild housing, schools, hospitals, transportation, develop clean energy, as well as fund cultural workers — artists, writers, and yes, musicians like Uncle Lionel. This was done in the 1930s, as I explain in my book Driven From New Orleans, through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and can be done again on a much larger scale. Indeed this demand, which was raised in the aftermath of Katrina, is now gaining much more resonance and support in the midst of the greatest capitalist crisis since the 1930s (see Jobs For All). In contrast to the exclusionary redevelopment agenda promoted by developers and their Republican and Democratic Party allies, a public works program such as this could create a truly “authentic” racially and economically just reconstruction of New Orleans — and the entire country and world.

Winning a mass public works program would be an appropriate commemoration of Uncle Lionel’s life as opposed to the hypocrisy and opportunism we have seen so far from New Orleans rulers.


John (Jay) Arena, assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York’s College of Staten Island, lived and worked in New Orleans for more than twenty years and was involved in various community and labor organizing initiatives in the city. He is author of Driven from New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization

“John Arena has written an important book on an important topic. New Orleans stands out because of the travesty associated with Hurricane Katrina; however, Driven from New Orleans tells a much deeper and broader story that could be replicated in many cities. Arena provides a sorely needed account of neoliberal reorganization of American cities with the active support of nominal advocates and representatives of the impoverished populations who are displaced as part of that reorganization. It is a signal contribution to the study of black urban politics, the political economy of urban redevelopment, and the concrete dynamics of urban neoliberalism.”
—Adolph Reed, Jr., University of Pennsylvania

“Driven from New Orleans is an exciting and important book.  It provides compelling ethnographic detail on a highly visible and poignant example of the role of race in the neoliberal remaking of American cities.”
—Edward Goetz, author of Clearing the Way: Deconcentrating the Poor in Urban America

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