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A geographer creates a stir with an essay on gentrification

To hear Sharon Litwin’s interview with Richard Campenella on WWNO radio, click here.

Richard Campanella is a professor in the Tulane School of Architecture … but he doesn’t build structures. Rather, he’s a geographer and mapping scientist whose research integrates those skills with the social sciences and humanities.

An illustration with Richard Campanella's essay in New Geography contains a map of post-Katrina gentrification 'hot spots.'

So why has a recent article he authored in the well-respected online website New Geography reverberated around town? (Read the story here.)

It’s because of the subject matter: gentrification. And it’s not just gentrification in general, but gentrification specifically here in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans.

“I see myself as a student and observer of this city rather than a proscriber of solutions to problems that oftentimes are not problematic,” Campanella says. Not problematic, because generally, well-accepted results are associated with gentrification: the preservation of historical architecture, upgrading of housing stock and rising real estate values.

But, Campanella adds, he, like many of his readers, harbors a certain ambivalence and conflict over some of the other aspects of gentrification: rising rents for those who are not home owners and the displacement of other, often less affluent, residents driven out of their neighborhood when landlords sell the properties they have occupied.

A Bywater resident since 2000, Campanella views what is going on around him and his family as one more phenomenon of change in an old city.

“I see it as the latest chapter in a history of ever-changing urban geography,” he says. “And rarely are there happy campers on either side of that change.”

Campanella, 47, a Brooklyn, NY, native who has lived in New Orleans for more than 13 years, sees his adopted city from the unique vantage of one who bicycles to and from his Bywater home to Tulane University every day. In his continuing observation of this town’s urban geography, he has watched his once fairly rare form of transportation also change, with the recent addition of bike lanes for the increasing number of others opting to leave their cars in the driveway.

The author of six critically acclaimed books on the geography of New Orleans, Campanella’s unique perspective on the CrescentCity has been featured on the CBS Evening News, PBS NewsHour, CNN and the BBC. The article published in New Geography, he says, was more essay than academic paper, fully accepting and understanding that “a volatile topic draws volatile comments.”

And, he adds, because it is an essay, “there is definitely a slightly wry and bemused, perhaps world weary, tone to the article that might have been lost on some readers. But that is the nature of an essay, not something you would see in my academic articles.”

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie.



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