Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson touched off a tempest by saying that a revived New Orleans may no longer be a majority-black city and that some of the low-lying and predominantly black neighborhoods probably should not be rebuilt.
Jackson said he expected New Orleans, a city of about 475,000 that was two-thirds black before Hurricane Katrina struck in late August, to emerge only 35 to 40 percent black and with possibly 350,000 residents.
"Whether we like it or not, New Orleans is not going to be 500,000 people for a long time," Jackson told the Houston Chronicle, which published his comments Thursday. "New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again."
Jackson's remarks drew protests from some black leaders, who said they would serve only to alienate Katrina's black victims. Some housing experts said they reflected the absence of an administration policy to deal with providing affordable housing for tens of thousands of displaced families.
Jackson, who is black, in turn took to task the black activists who have been criticizing the administration. "I wish that the so-called black leadership would stop running around this country like Jesse and the rest of them making this a racial issue," he said, referring to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
Jesse Jackson, speaking by telephone from Detroit, where he was meeting with families that had lost their homes in New Orleans, said the housing secretary's comments would make the evacuees feel they would get a hostile reception when they returned to New Orleans, which they want to do.
"The displaced persons have a right to return home," Jackson said. He accused the housing secretary of promoting the gentrification of one of America's historic cities.
Alphonso Jackson said in his interview with the Chronicle that he told New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin that "I think it would be a mistake to rebuild the Ninth Ward," the largely black area that lies mostly below sea level and was inundated after the storm. Any new buildings, Jackson said, should perhaps be on stilts, with parking places at ground level.
He conceded that Nagin did not respond warmly. "He wants to rebuild it like it was," Jackson said, "and I don't think I can give the president that kind of advice."
Yesterday, as some residents returned to parts of New Orleans that were relatively unscathed by the hurricanes, Nagin named a commission of 17 people to draft a rebuilding plan.
President Bush has said that one way to bring low-income residents back to New Orleans is through "urban homesteading." Evacuees could get federal land free in return for a pledge to build a home on it.
"We want evacuees to come home, for the best of reasons -- because they have a real chance at a better life in a place they love," Bush said in a speech from New Orleans on Sept. 15.