Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Cafe Mawonaj, New Orleans and Gentrification

Last week a fire in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. damaged a restaurant tucked away on T street, just blocks from Howard University. While the damage from the fire was confined to just a few rooms upstairs, the water damage from fighting the fire was serious. Furthermore, the front door seems to have been left open after the fire, allowing most of the sound and restaurant equipment to be looted during the night.

People from outside the beltway may not think much of this little tidbit of news, but Mawonaj represented more than just a restaurant, especially to the people of the surrounding community. In addition to offering African and vegan fair, Mawonaj, which means liberation (from slavery) in Haitian Creole, also offered its space to local community organizations and used its money for support and solidarity of less fortunate peoples. According to the owners, the profit from the Cafe helped run a local breakfast for kids program and helped support three orphanages in southern Africa. In addition, the restaurant became a local D.C. organizing base from which many activists organized support caravans to help the Common Ground project in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans following the Katrina hurricane and flood.

While workers at Mawonaj are soliciting help to rebuild the restaurant, tension between the owners of the building and the cafe threatens to become a full blown battle. Mawonaj has long claimed that the owners of the building and developers have been trying to kick Mawonaj out so that they could build condos in the fast gentrifying Northwest section of D.C. Now they are reporting that Mr. Chip Ellis, representing the owners Radio One have "threatened not to allow Mawonaj to be rebuilt because they have different plans." This argument with management comes despite the 7 year lease that Mawonaj has on the property. In fact, the argument is already turning ugly. The original posting on the Washington D.C. Independent Media Center about the fire now contains some anonymous comments attacking the restaurant, a few of which make demonstrably false allegations.

Indeed, Mawonaj's participation with the Common Ground reconstruction in New Orleans and with the New Orleans Diaspora illustrates a profound connection between these groups and marginalized communities everywhere. Local D.C. activists have begun to talk about the effects of the flood in New Orleans as "gentrification in fast forward," as some 200,000-300,000 New Orleanians remain displaced. These people are largely the poor black people from neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward and East New Orleans.

Although wealthier neighborhoods like Lakeside were also flooded, as WikiPedia explains,
If the storm and flooding did not respect economic class distinctions, repopulation is quite a different matter. The poorest of the city's residents often face the greatest obstacles to returning. Landlords of still standing or easily repairable housing have been evicting poorer tenants, back in the city or still absent, in hopes of renting to more prosperous people looking for housing.
Meanwhile, developers and government officials are talking about a new "Whiter" New Orleans and many evacuees complain of "ethnic cleansing" in their hometown.

The troubles that Cafe Mawonaj faces after the fire in this way are becoming a microcosm of "disaster profiteering" and the coercive removal of marginalized communities by developers and capital investors.

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