I reached Gus Newport in Gulfport, Mississippi where he is working with residents to apply the CLT model to the rebuilding of traditionally African-American neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The North Gulfport and Turkey Creek communities were purchased and settled by freed slaves in 1866 and quickly grew into vibrant, self-sufficient neighborhoods made up of farms and small homesteads, surrounded by the marshland which was the natural protection against hurricanes.
By the twenty-first century development pressures were taking their toll. Higher taxes meant long time residents were losing their single-family homes to foreclosure to be replaced by infrastructure improvements to benefit tourism. Wetlands were being filled to build casinos, damaging natural defenses. A group of residents began steps to organize the North Gulfport Community Land Trust and Turkey Creek Community Initiatives to repurchase land at foreclosures in order to ensure that housing remained affordable to traditional African-American families, while maintaining the historic nature and scale of buildings, and protecting wetlands. It was a big undertaking.
After the wrath of the hurricanes, these fledging organizations are proving an important way for these communities to pull together to make their voices heard in the rebuilding effort. Gus is there to help. The tendency of a federal response to an emergency situation is to make it easy for large developers. Take the land by eminent domain, tear everything down and build strip malls and casinos for a newly envisioned tourist industry. Local people, local jobs, local culture, and local ecology are excluded from this vision of development.
The residents of North Gulfport and Turkey Creek know that it was their neighbors and friends who helped them through the trials of flooding and storm damage, not the government agencies. Their roots run deep, associations are long-lasting, and love of place is entwined with love of family. They will stay and rebuild. The rebuilding will reflect who they are as a people—predominantly African-American single-family home-owners with generational roots.
The CLT concept is a way of organizing and protecting that rebuilding so that the land, and decisions about its use, remain in local control—an alliance of residents, affordable housing advocates, environmentalists, history enthusiasts, and economists. They envision stable neighborhoods of home ownership and well-paid manufacturing jobs rather than the low-salaried employment of the tourist industry.
Much work is ahead to bring this dream to reality, to resist the pressures of big development schemes, to allow the democratic power of local people to stand against the power of central government bureaucracy. Gus is helping these groups to rally allies to their cause and vision. Once achieved, it will set an important example for other regions facing similar pressures.