Neutral ground: Finding political unity in a divided city

In 1874, during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, the racially integrated New Orleans police and their allies clashed with the segregationist White League and their allies on Canal Street. Credit: Newspaper drawing Wikipedia: Public domain/Verite design

by Robert Collins

March 14, 2023

The City of New Orleans has been divided in one way or another since its earliest days. In the early 1800s, French Creoles settled in the area now called the French Quarter. Anglo Americans settled on the other side of Canal Street in the area now called the Central Business District.

Speaking different languages and practicing different cultural traditions, the two groups did not get along and each stayed on their sides of the Canal Street dividing line. The March 11, 1837 edition of The Daily Picayune declared the median of Canal Street to be “The Neutral Ground.”

The divisions too often turned deadly.

During the post-Civil War Reconstruction period in 1866, political conflicts between racially integrated Republicans loyal to the Reconstruction government, and Democrats sympathetic to the former Confederate States, resulted in a massacre of more than 200 Black freedmen. In 1874, at the Battle of Liberty Place, the Democratic White League attacked the racially integrated Republican Metropolitan Police in a pitched battle to take over the city. The conflict resulted in more than 30 combatants killed. Both events needed federal troops to restore order.

With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the Louisiana Legislature moved to disenfranchise Black voters through poll taxes, property and literacy requirements, enforced by local city officials in a discriminatory manner. It would be another 80 years before Black people were active in city government.

In the 1960s, federal civil rights laws began to dismantle voter suppression. At the same time, white flight to the suburbs increased the proportion of Black voters in the city. The civil rights movement brought street protests, sit-ins, arrests, boycotts, and the types of unrest seen in every major U.S. city during this period. Then the late 1970s began a period of racial conflict where Black residents and white residents fought, not in the streets, but at the ballot box. Election results tended to follow racial lines.

A string of Black political organizations formed in the ‘70s to advance voting rights and facilitate the election of Black public officials. Once the city became majority Black in the 1980s and the numbers favored them, those organizations transitioned from fighting the white establishment for voting rights, sliced the city up into political factions based on Black neighborhoods, and started fighting each other to secure government patronage jobs and city contracts for themselves.

After Hurricane Katrina, the rebuilding process was delayed by class, race, and neighborhood disagreements over who could rebuild where, when, and how. Katrina exposed longstanding class conflicts when many poor and working class residents accused city leadership of planning to steal their land. 

More recent conflicts are between natives who are from families that have lived in the city for generations and non-natives. Many natives blame recent transplants for buying up property in historic neighborhoods and converting the property into short-term rentals. They argue it drives up neighborhood rents, pricing out locals, and changes the historic character of the neighborhood.

There are also nuanced cultural differences that cause conflicts. Black Creoles have been influential in the city since its founding. Descendants of free people of color, all of the Black mayors prior to the current mayor have come from one of these Creole families. Some have argued the current mayor is experiencing opposition because she is from Los Angeles, and although she married into a local Creole family, she is not a Creole. They argue she has not adopted the social norms expected by natives. Political conflicts between Black Creoles and Black non-Creoles is a longstanding historical feature in the city.  

The reason these historical and current conflicts matter is because they keep the city from working together to achieve common goals. Every group tends to focus on its own self-interest, not the overall good of the city. A city divided cannot unify to solve major problems.

So how does a city of competing interests unify? City leadership needs to find common ground that affects everyone, regardless of group identity. Polling shows that the No. 1 complaint of the voters is crime. Crime is the common ground that everyone can rally around. Crime is where everyone can come together on the neutral ground.

Of course, crime does not exist in a vacuum. In addition to law enforcement, long-term solutions to crime include more jobs and increased wages for the poor and working class. It is not an easy fix. However, unless city leadership – the mayor, City Council, civic and business leaders – can unify the people around these common interests, groups will continue to pursue self-interest, the city will stay divided, and the status quo will continue.

It’s time for a meeting on the neutral ground.