When a heavy rain hits my city, we never know what the consequences will be. Will floodwater enter our homes and businesses? Will cars float along the streets? Or in the worst storms and hurricanes, will residents scatter for higher ground or to their roofs to avoid drowning? Will the heavy winds accompany the rains ripping off roofs and collapsing unstable buildings? Welcome to New Orleans 2021, a 300-years-old city that is showing its age. Even after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005, the city is still trying to patch a 100-year-old sewage structure and strained drainage system. Who knows when methane gas will leak in sewer lines again, causing explosions that toss manhole covers through the air and threaten pedestrians and their cars like what happened in the Historic French Quarters in 2019? Or when explosions will rage at Sewage and Water Board plants like the Carrollton Plant blast in December 2019. Or when city government will be terrorized by another crippling cyberattack. These are the nightmares we live with in New Orleans, as do residents of other urban cities where their communities are under-resourced and some neighborhoods have suffered from decades of infrastructure neglect and systemic racism. The world is changing around us and we must rapidly adjust. Take climate change. New Orleans gets rained on more than ever, but because of poor infrastructure due to years of usage and deferred maintenance the city is less capable of handling the more frequent onslaughts. Whenever rain is in the forecast, residents are constantly on edge, especially minorities. The high side of New Orleans, which is above sea level, is where neighborhoods were first populated centuries ago and where the wealthiest citizens live. Blacks, Browns, and immigrants live in the lower areas, like the famous lower 9th ward, where the failing infrastructure frequently has devastating effects. What New Orleans, and many other urban cities lack, is infrastructure equity. What we find in too many communities of color is deteriorating infrastructure – vulnerable drainage and sewage systems, unsafe drinking water, and dilapidated bridges. The water crisis in Flint, MI started in 2014 and the mostly Black citizens are still protesting for clean water. Most recently, after a hard unexpected freeze, Jackson, MS, the capital city of Mississippi, went nearly a month without clean water. In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell has prioritized stalled drainage projects and sought resources to upgrade the drainage system and implement a comprehensive water management plan. Educating the community about the environment is also an important step towards improving stormwater management. With a better understanding of the causes of climate change, neighborhood and civic leaders can emerge as champions of green infrastructure as well as other measures that curb climate change. More important, however, is that a reckoning on infrastructure is emerging, a recognition of how poor infrastructure planning has harmed communities and is just as dangerous as failing to repair current structures.
President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan may be transformative – it addresses traditional infrastructure such as aging systems, roads, bridges and rail lines, but also journeys into new territory by earmarking billions of dollars to redress government decisions from the past that contributed to systemic racism. In fact, $20 billion will be available to reverse the impact of highway and other construction that divided inner cities, leaving Black residents isolated from economic opportunities. One such example was the 1968 Riverfront Expressway in New Orleans. Opponents prevented it from impacting the French Quarter, but the Black community didn’t have that clout. The roadway, often called “The Monster” by locals, cuts a path through the famous Tremé neighborhood along Claiborne Avenue, which has a unique distinction: it once had the longest single strand of oak trees in the country. Tremé is the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States. It didn’t matter. To build the freeway, the state cleared more than 200 oak trees. And where once there were 123 businesses in the area, by 2000 just 44 survived. The Biden plan provides funding for communities splintered by past red-lined infrastructure projects, specifically naming the Claiborne expressway as an example. His plan will also fund the replacement of lead water pipes as well as addressing environmental hazards in tribal communities and Hispanic neighborhoods. On a recent visit to New Orleans to promote his Infrastructure Plan, President Biden vowed to address the power, pumps, and pipes of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, which could present a drinking water crisis if not repaired. Funding for upgrading the system would keep the entire region viable. Clearly, the definition of infrastructure is expanding in ways that will aid minority communities today and tomorrow. Internet services, childcare, and job training are coming under the framing of infrastructure and are poised to receive investments under the Biden plan.
PolicyLink, a California-based think-tank, issued a report entitled “Investing in Community Infrastructure” that broadens the meaning of infrastructure. Their report asserts that for an equitable and lasting recovery from the coronavirus crisis, physical infrastructure such as food systems, water, housing, transit, and roads must be rebuilt along with social infrastructure—the trusted network of nonprofit, cultural, philanthropic, and local institutions that help our communities function. “Both types of community-building infrastructure will play a critical role in helping communities recover and thrive,” their report said. “Resourcing this infrastructure sufficiently is critical, and investments must be made with an equity lens, prioritizing programs and policies that focus on those most impacted by COVID-19. Now is the time to ensure that all people—regardless of race, income, or zip code—live in healthy communities of opportunity.”
The COVID-19 Pandemic underscored the importance of basic physical and organizational structures, facilities, and services working effectively, ranging from hospitals, broadband, and the internet to job training, the electrical grid, and other energy sources. In the 21st Century, the government, as well as the public and private sectors, must prioritize ensuring that communities of color have strong infrastructure. But we are also reminded that all of America needs our essential structures and services to excel for the nation to thrive.
For further reading, explore the links below! A Brief History Of How Racism Shaped Interstate Highways (2021) The Hidden Racial Inequities of Access to Water in America (2019) Crumbling Pipes, Tainted Water Plague Black Communities (2017)