The Road to Privatization...

The recovery effort for hurricane Katrina has been dominated by a neoliberal ideology that promotes privatization over all. One example of this is now reaching a head with the case of ICF, a private management firm hired to oversee the state's Road Home program - a multi-billion dollar grant system that will dish out money to homeowners across the parts of the state hit by the hurricane and flood.

But in an indication that privatization and the larger neoliberal creed is failure, legislators and homeowners are blasting ICF for its incompetence and unaccountability. Pro-privatizers claim that by contracting out programs and government services a higher level of work is done at a cheaper price. With ICF in Louisiana neither is panning out to be true.

Today's Times Picayune reports on the details.

The failure of the ICF Road Home Program should be an ominous foreshadowing for many of the other services and government functions that have been privatized fully or partially in the aftermath of Katrina. Everything from schools and healthcare to public housing is on the chopping block. The neoliberal opportunists would like to gobble it all up and convert it to profits on the market. ICF should be a warning to the state's political leaders - more disasters are coming.


Sean Bell’s murder by the New York City Police makes me think about the hard wiring of racism in the mind.

Pundits are saying that racism wasn’t involved because the officers who killed Bell were white, black, and Latino. How can a multi-racial police force commit a racist act? One reason among many is that racism is a much deeper structure in the mind than most people recognize.

Occasionally I assign the Harvard Implicit Association Test to students who are in my sociology or black studies courses. All of the students are generally skeptical of its validity. (I’m pretty convinced, the methodology is pretty solid. Read here about how the test works.) The test basically measures the implicit, that is pre-conscious associations we make between different objects, concepts, categories. Several of the tests show that implicit associations and basic motor skills are conditioned by discriminatory racism. Some of the Implicit Tests deal with associations between race and weapons and race and emotions (see – “Race IAT” and “Weapons IAT”). Most people who take the test are surprised that they associate weapons with African Americans, as they do negative words/emotions. Even blacks who take the test generally find that they negatively assocate with African Americans.

There’s a great deal of systemic racism throughout police forces in the United States. But with the Bell case I can’t help but think a little more about the power of racism on this psychological level at which white cops, black cops and brown cops murder innocent non-whites.


UC Nuke Free…

I was arrested last Thursday by UC police officers and cited on charges of “failure to disperse.” I was cuffed and “processed,” as the officers called it in the basement of Covel Commons at UCLA along with 8 friends.

The charge of failure to disperse is so arbitrary and meaningless. The 9 of us had decided to attend the UC Regents’ meeting at UCLA (with three other key supporters) in order to speak up against the UC Regents management of the nation’s two primary nuclear weapons research and design labs. We’ve been doing this for a long time now, but this time we decided to take a stand. We were not going to allow the Regents to move forward and take care of any lab related business.

So you can imagine what happened next. The Regents slipped out the back of the room and let the police loose on us. To their credit the police who dealt with us were very kind. They are only doing their jobs. I doubt any of them believe in the nuclear weapons mission that they were made to protect on this day. I only hope that their beliefs in a world without nuclear weapons will lead them in the future to question their roles as protectors of these weapons. Those police who were involved in the tasering of a UCLA student the day before, however, are cruel and deserve to be fired for their violent outburst. Hopefully this will lead to the banning of tasers at UC campuses as well as a more thorough investigation of the rise in police violence against students over the past few years.

There’s been a lot of Indymedia coverage of the anti-nuclear weapons action including photos and video which you can check out here: http://indybay.org/newsitems/2006/11/17/18330589.php

The next UC Regents meeting is in January at UCSF. See you there?


Protest Politics is back at UCSB....

It's been a long time since my last post mostly due to the everyday hustle and bustle of politics and school. I'll be heading back to New Orleans in December to pick up my work with housing rights activists. In the meantime a group of UCSB students is beginning to organize for a larger group trip. Last December we brought almost 50 people from Santa Barbara to NOLA. This year it looks like the group will be smaller, but still a worthy contingent.

Here at UCSB over the past few months a housing rights struggle unfolded between a rental property corporation and its low-income tenants. The episode drove home the point for me about the ubiquity of this larger problem we all face concerning access to and power over place. The trouble began when a corporation, Conquest Student Housing acquired a large apartment building in Isla Vista near UCSB's main campus. Conquest (an apropos name if there ever was one) decided quickly that the majority Mexican immigrant families who resided in the building were not the clientele they could reap the most profits from, so the corporation quickly issued eviction notices to the 55 some-odd families living in the Cedarwood building.

The families began organizing, they quickly linked up with students on campus, and throughout the late Summer and Fall quarter they organized marches and demonstrations, fundraisers, and parties to spread the word and build support. By October it was clear to the students and families that Conquest wasn't going to budge and that true to its name it was out to steamroll the tenants in a modern day conquistador power play. With funds raised by the students and families a law firm was retained to make a lawsuit against Conquest on the grounds of discrimination.

As the court battle loomed students took the conflict onto campus. First the established a "Tent-City" on a prominant site underneath Storke Tower. Dozens of students camped out every night, myself being one of them. The atmosphere was decidedly defiant. On the first day of the Tent-City the students rallied a crowd of approximately 50 supporters and marched to Cheadle Hall, the Chancellor's Office. Walking right past administrators on smoke breaks the students strode through the front door and climbed the 5 flights of stairs, sitting down in the hallway right outside the Chancellor's door. Chants rang out:

"Everywhere we go,
People want to know,
Who we are,
So we tell them,
We are the tenants,
The mighty, mighty tenants..."

The Chancellor was out of town, so a few students remained seated while the others regrouped at Tent City. After this day the students settled in to their new homes on campus. At 30 minutes past midnight the Chancellor made an appearance at the Tent City to speak with the protestors (by now the Tent City had adopted 2 other issues - campus workers' wages and benefits, and diversity and racial justice at UCSB. Chancellor Yang listened and spoke and listened for over and hour in the early morning. The students left him with thier judgement that support and sympathy is good, but what we need from the administration is not goodwill, we need policies that get results.

Yang left. Over the next two weeks the students would reoccupy Cheadle Hall several more times in addition to several other high-profile campus actions. One of the more memorable was several men stripping down to almost nothing and simply holding donation boxes. Nakedness, no matter the cause, is always popular at UCSB. They raised some serious cash that day.

Concessions won from UCSB's administrators included the establishment of a fund to help the Cedarwood families financially (although students are fighting to free this money up for legal work, it looks like it will be set aside purely for moving expenses). The court battle ended up being more of a massacre with a conservative judge siding handily with Conquest's "property rights" and forcing out the remaining families. The last few days of Tent City were pretty emotional and downcast.

But there's a lot of talk now of a proactive campaign to establish a just cause ordinance in Santa Barbara County to prevent evictions of this manner. There's also talk of building a boycott against Conquest (it owns several other properties in IV) in order to punish it for its anti-community actions and show other landlords that it doesn't pay to drive people out of their homes. Student organizers are also talking about ways of reigniting the direct action on campus. On key organizer said to me the other day, "now that the heat's off the administration they've only raised $300 bucks for the families in the past week, whereas before that they were raising $3000 a week. That's got to change. We need to keep pressure on them."

Wherever the tenants struggle goes from here depends on too many factors for me to make sense of. But one other effect of the Tent City that wasn't anticipated was that it has brought activism back to UCSB. The campus mood has changed because of it. Sure, the majority of students still go about their daily lives quietly, but the tents and the ruckus was impossible to ignore. Who knows how this shift in perspective might play out?

One final note: as of late I've been working a lot on a political campaign of a rather different stripe: stopping the UC's involvement in the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons labs. Here's a flyer for an upcoming action we're prepping for: http://la.indymedia.org/news/2006/11/187208.php


There was a spirited march and rally yesterday in San Francisco's Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood to fight the SF Redevelopment Agency's planned overhaul of the area. Residents, activists, and supporters walked up 3rd street for several blocks and rallied on the spot where exactly 40 years prior to the day National Guard troops were brought in to quell a rebellion that sprang from the shooting of a local youth by city police. This "riot" was one of many that shook the nation during the late 1960s as ghetto communities erupted in anger and frustration at city regimes and a federal government that were actively working to dispossess people of their homes and businesses, not providing meaningful employment, waging a wasteful war abroad, and criminalizing non-white youth and the poor at home.

The march and rally was called in response to the City Attorney's decision to invalidate the more than 30,000 signatures gathered to place the Redevelopment Agency's scheme on a referendum this Fall for voters to decide. The City Attorney, doing the bidding of the Mayor and other powerful players, fears that San Francisco's voters will reject the plans which call for a drastic overhaul of the neighborhood that would, opponents believe, push out the region's poor and effectively destroy the city's last majority black community. Organizers made repeated references throughout the day to the Fillmore which was redeveloped decades ago in a way that pushed out many poor and black families and broke the community's political power within the city. The Fillmore was once known as the Harlem of the West. It's redevelopment was one of the high profile projects nationwide that gave urban renewal its more straightforward nickname "Negro removal."

"Hands Off Bayview" is becoming a rallying cry out here echoing the name of the New Orleans based C3/Hands Off Iberville housing rights organization. Activists here in San Francisco identify with the struggle in New Orleans to save homes and community from the teeth of developers and politicians. Many speakers today acknowledged that the only difference between Bayview and New Orleans is
a hurricane. Otherwise the plans are the same: drive out the poor, especially poor people of color, and build highly profitable housing and amenities. But folks here are indignant and clearly won't let the land grab proceed without a fight.

There's more info at


Frustrated with the way reconstruction in New Orleans is being handled I've written up a policy paper that critiques the dominant paradigm for post-Katrina planning and redevelopment and offers up a simple policy to achieve maximum justice.

You can download a draft of it here: The Failure of Good Intentions

My intentions with this paper are to influence and hopefully chip away at the ideological frames that the dominant school of thought is using to reshape New Orleans: namely that we must take advantage of this "opportunity" to deconcentrate pockets of poverty and desegregate residential areas of the city by building mixed-income developments.

While these goals sound laudable, they are in practice bound to fail. The good intentions of planners, architects, and academics are causing a great deal of harm that could be avoided. In their quest to build a better society, the experts and their seemingly logical theories of poverty and urban social dynamics are creating great obstacles to the homecoming of tens of thousands of families. Furthermore, some parties in the city are using liberal social scientific theories and the professionals that proffer them to legitimate their agenda of clearing out some sections of the city of their pre-Katrina populations of poor and predominantly black communities in order to build more profitable hotels, housing, tourist attractions, and offices, without a care to those who will be displaced in the process.

All in all we need to promote policies that allow for the right to return and the right to rebuild communities, even the most troubled and oppressed communities like those found in public housing or Central City. These communities must be respected and incorporated into any process that will shape the future of the city. This means that the people need to come home. Now. There can be no just or effective reconstruction to build a better New Orleans without the people of New Orleans. If policymakers will not bend to this need, it is very likely that highly disruptive protest movements will step in to fill the void. This is perhaps the best hope for the future of New Orleans.



I've left New Orleans and won't be back in town till December, but I've got enough afterthoughts to fill this blog for quite sometime.

I make no pretensions to understand the pain and loss of those being displaced and dispossessed in the aftermath of the great flood, but sitting here in Cali I do feel that in some way I know what it means to miss New Orleans. It's hard to leave that town. It's hard to say goodbye to all the people I've met.

For those who've been reading, keep posted. For those of you in NOLA, keep fighting! I’ll see you come Christmas.



What's really cruel, sick, and harmful?

On Monday August 28th the Yes Men managed to call the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s policies out for what they are; ethnic cleansing. By posing as HUD officials and announcing a dramatic shift in the Department’s plans for public housing they have forced HUD and HANO to explain why they are choosing to close and demolish perfectly good housing.

Posing as “Rene Oswin” a HUD assistant undersecretary, one of the Yes Men announced that HUD has chosen to rededicate itself to building up strong communities. One immediate action announced by the fake HUD representative would be to reopen public housing in New Orleans which remains closed off to residents more than a year after the storm even though the majority of units experienced only minor damage and flooding.

After the Yes Men’s ideal HUD announcement the real HUD and HANO shot back calling the hoax a cruel joke. They claimed that it was just another way of victimizing the victims of hurricane Katrina. Several large corporate media outlets have fallen in line with HUD’s attempt to speak for public housing residents.

But public housing residents feel differently about the hoax. Sam Jackson, a former resident of the B.W. Cooper development responded to the real HUD and HANO statements by saying, “I don’t want them speaking for me. They’re the ones who have cruelly shut families out of their homes. What the Yes Men did was great. It exposed the real HUD and what they’re trying to do – get rid of people.”

I interviewed Patricia Thomas, a resident of the Lafitte development, where the Yes Men staged a ribbon cutting and hosted a party for contractors who they asked to help them in reopening public housing. Thomas participated in the hoax and ribbon cutting event on Monday. Local and national media, including the New Orleans Times Picayune, claimed that Thomas was one of the many residents who were cruelly tricked into thinking that public housing was reopening. Below is the transcript of our conversation. Far from being cruelly tricked, Thomas says she was “tickled” by the Yes Men’s prank.

Speaking with residents who were involved in the Yes Men’s hoax, as well as with residents who were fooled like the rest of us communicates something far different from what the media spin doctors at HUD, HANO, and Fox News are trying to say. Rather than condemning the prank or feeling hurt from false hopes, many residents are cheering the Yes Men for their critical intervention into their ongoing struggle with HUD and HANO to reopen their homes. By making an announcement that HUD and HANO could easily make, and by getting contractors on record as stating that public housing could easily be cleaned, repaired and reopened in New Orleans, the Yes Men have exposed HUD’s policy of keeping housing closed as nothing more than an attempt to carry out crass social engineering, to hand land over to powerful real estate developers, and to get rid of thousands of the city’s poor black citizens.

Interview With Patricia Thomas, Lafitte Resident Who Helped the Yes Men Publicly Shame HUD (Conducted August 29th, 2006)

Darwin – Alright, what’s your full name?

Patricia – Patricia Savero Thomas.

Darwin – And you live in the Lafitte?

P – 2213 Lafitte.

D – Tell me about, what did you do yesterday? What was the action that you took part in yesterday?

P – Well, we wanted, you’ve seen that girls behaving badly? We wanted to do Housing behaving badly. You know, we invited the contractors out to see the houses, that the houses wasn’t messed up. Yeah, it was a hoax, you understand me? But they [HUD] done pulled off hoaxes too by telling us that we would be able to go back in our units and leaving us with nowhere to stay, and leaving me living in a deplorable house. I wasn’t angry or appalled at all. I was tickled that they [Yes Men] did that, because that shows that what ya’ll say is ‘messed up’ is not messed up. And Ray Nagin, I think you is sick. I think you need to see the doctor.

D – Yeah, so this was a way to show that what HUD is doing is cruel and is a hoax and a lie.

P – HUD, which one of the HUD’s the real HUD or the other HUD….

D – The real HUD.

P – The real HUD is a poor excuse for people, because you took houses from people that is houses that is still livable. And, you know, you’re telling us all these lies. Then you wouldn’t let us in our apartments while the media is down here. So I want to show parts of the world what you all is doing and what you all have done to us.

D – Now let me, let’s be real clear. So yesterday in the Times-Picayune they wrote up an article, and they said that you and other housing residents were duped into thinking that HUD is reopening apartments and that this was a cruel joke perpetrated on you, and… Now, now were you duped by these guys that were impersonating HUD, or were, you, you were in on this right?

P – Yes, yes, yes, yes…

D – And so explain to me, the strategy was what, to shame them?

P – Let me show you, it was to shame them [HUD]. It was to shame them to being a part of all these killers and murderers with the levy breaking and them saying that they’re not a fault with them shutting us out of our homes that’s possible to live in, leaving us homeless, sick, and dying. You know, it was, they didn’t hoax me brother. I was there all the while. She [Yes Men prankster] told me, she told me, she told me. And I didn’t care. You know, I just wanted, you know, for the people to come see know. Some of the people that came to see was from out of town, so whether they looked at me being hoaxed or not is going to be seen on television. And I spoke to some people from Russia. So prepare yourself. I was not hoaxed into doing nothing. I was not appalled, I was happy. I was eating barbeque chicken, potatos, salad, pork and beans, ribs, bread, water, they had cold drinks, That means if they did have a hoax they paid for it. FEMA ain’t given you nothing!

D – One more thing. Explain, explain, okay… So they brought in all these contractors, right,

P – [Laughing]

D - …tell that story again, and then what did the contractors say?

P – You see now, this man [Yes Men prankster], this man isn’t from the projects, but this man could feel what was going on with people in the projects so he went to one of the bigger meetings and invited the contractors out there, cause I was at the meeting, I thought the man was real. You dig? But then he told me, she [Yes Men prankster] told me that ‘no, it’s not real, but we just want to call their hand, we want to let HUD look like the pigs they are, the killers, the murderers they are. You understand me? They need to re-elect resident councils out of each and every development. Excluding Ms. Cynthia Wiggins, because she been there for her community, and I think you know Mr. Jomo, know a little more about the St. Bernard, the St. Bernard has been out here real in the Survivor’s Village….

D – But when they invited all these contractors out to Lafitte Yesterday, and they said, they said to these contractors, the fake HUD people said to these contractors ‘what would it take to re-open this development,’ what did those contractors who know what it would really take say…?

P – Let me tell you… They said it would take less than it costs, 30% of what it cost to put them iron gates on to fix them houses, because we climbed up ladders and looked into the upstairs unit, and they was like ‘awe, man!’ And if it was a hoax on me, it was a hoax on them too. But we still led them, ate barbeque chicken, like I said, potatos, salad, pork and beans, ribs, bread…

D – To conclude, to conclude. What should happen at Lafitte?

P – They should just open up the houses and go in on with their foolishness, you know what I’m saying. They’ve been letting people into their houses to look in their houses, but not since they knew that people [media] was going to be in there, you know what I’m saying, that they told us we can’t get in our units for a whole week. They want the contractors and stuff to leave, but that was the only way we was going to get the contractors to stay, you know, come, because they’re going to be leaving in a minute. You understand? So they had to see it. And it will be shown all over the United States and the world. I was not hoaxed into anything. My name is Patricia Thomas, being of sound mind and body, you heard that.

D – Thank you Sister-Sister.


Heavy day today. Check out my post on New Orleans Indymedia.


Most of those taking part in this action were not residents of public housing. The majority were white. Many Lafitte residents came by during the reoccupation of DJ Greg's apartment and expressed support, but also were wary of being arrested or hassled by the HANO and city police who where present.

A crew of public housing organizers from Chicago (Coalition to Protect Public Housing) were present and provided some very inspiring support.

Earlier in the day the Yes Men successfully impersonated the Department of Housing and Urban Development and announced to the news media and a group of contractors that all public housing in the city will reopen. Contractors were asked how quickly they could fix up the Lafitte and have it opened to residents. Many responded that it would only take days given the low level of damage.

Tomorrow the people are marching from the Lower 9th and the St. Bernard development to Congo Square where we will remember the dead and continue the political fight to bring everyone home.


27 Plus Katrina...

Katrina was the 28th hurricane to strike New Orleans since the National Weather Service began tracking storms in 1860. The National Hurricane Center's historical storm track viewer illustrates the path of these 28 storms showing that while some took pretty straightforward paths to the mouth of the Mississippi others wandered wide and circled around before making landfall.

I only post this to keep folks on their feet. Just because Ernesto is "weakening" and veering toward the west coast of Florida doesn't mean it won't threaten the already wrecked Gulf Coast. Meteorology is imperfect, and storm forcasting is highly imperfect. A storm could easily change direction and strengthen regardless of what forcasters say.

And even if it does veer this way and spare New Orleans it'll be heading toward the Florida Keys. It's not widely known, but the Florida Keys were decimated by last year's hurricanes, as were areas outside of the Gulf Coast.


Sitting ducks...

The National Hurricane Center's advisory today states:



It's eerie that as the one-year mark approaches so does a tropical storm that could soon strengthen into a hurricane. Ernesto is forcasted to head almost right for the Gulf Coast and New Orleans [as of Saturday, August 26th].

And even if Ernesto fizzles out or spins off some other direction [which it has] we've still got to get through September.

If there's one point that the entire city, regardless of race, class, Ward, or political party can agree upon, it's that the levees haven't been rebuilt adequately, the pumps aren't working up to par, and the pace of putting a systematic flood protection system in that can withstand another Katrina is too slow.


When the Right uses the language of the Left…

One of the ways that conservatives managed to disable affirmative action programs and scale back civil rights advances that were making a real (albeit somewhat lacking) difference in dismantling racial inequality during the 1960s and 1970s was by using the language of colorblindness. Conservatives say;

‘Giving jobs or admissions slots over to someone because of their race is racial discrimination.’

‘The state should never take someone’s race into account. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.’

These were things that used to be said by anti-racists activists who were struggling to dismantle the power of white supremacy. Few antiracists would be so naïve as to argue these same points now. But the right has adopted colorblindness with a passion. In fact, they have adopted much of the language used by social justice movements in the past, and they have done it to support a whole array of state policies and practices that have had the effect of stalling progress and even retrenching the power of white supremacy and socioeconomic inequality.

One particularly pertinent example of this is on display in the post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans. On Monday, August 21st HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson visited the city to show off the New Fischer homes and apartments, a HOPE VI redevelopment which he hopes will become a model for the rest of the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Of the new project Jackson proclaimed;

"Low-income people don't deserve to live less than anyone else. Remember, we're all human being with the same sense of worth in God's eyes."

Of his department’s plans to shut down, demolish, and redevelop 5000 units of public housing in the city Jackson has stated that:

"Every family who wants to come home should have the opportunity to come back,"

Jackson has said that, “Hurricane Katrina was necessary in order to show the potential harm of these areas of poverty.”

To solve these problems HUD’s chief has lined up behind a program to, "replace the concentration of poverty with mixed-income families."

Doing so will supposedly better the lives of those who inhabited high poverty areas prior to hurricane Katrina. It all sounds logical and their intentions seem good and genuine if we take their words at face value. The discourse centers on bettering the lives of the poor, providing hope, desegregating cities, and ending public housing as we know it. In numerous personal conversations I’ve had with many well meaning liberals and some conservatives they have called public housing an urban reservation; the same as those created by the federal government to intern Native Americans (and there’s some kernel of truth to this).

Critical race theorists have for a long time asked that rather than judging a policy or law by its face value, we should look instead at outcomes. If a policy has the effect of creating racial disparities, then it is racist. If a policy has the effect of exacerbating economic hardships on the poor, then it is a punitive and regressive policy. HUD’s policy agenda over the past decade and a half has had the effect of destroying tens of thousands of units of public housing in more than 166 cities in the United States. The rational has been to “de-concentrate” poverty in our urban areas and provide better opportunities for the poor, especially highly segregated racial minorities. These opportunities have not emerged. The supposedly “mixed-income” communities that are supposed to emerge have remained elusive. Our society remains highly polarized along lines of income, wealth, and race.

So was this ever really the prime motivating force?

What if the desired outcome at the core of the agenda to delete public housing and other low-income urban programs isn’t what proponents advocate first and foremost? What if the language doesn’t line up with the reality? Consider what has actually been accomplished in the post-civil rights era of compassionate conservativism. An essential entitlement program of the federal government, public housing, is slowly being dismantled in the name of creating mixed income communities. Hundreds of thousands of poor predominantly non-white Americans have been pushed out of their homes and communities onto which upper-income housing has been built and untold profits have been made on real estate speculation. Public tax dollars have been shifted into housing and urban development programs that increasingly subsidize the rich and affluent.

Achieving these outcomes would be impossible if the Right advocated for them in a straightforward manner. As far to the right our nation has shifted since the 1970s, it is still politically unfeasible to openly talk about withdrawing the state and completely dismantling its functions that keep the heads of the poor above water. It’s also somewhat unfeasible to openly advocate greater and greater subsidies for corporations, the wealthy, and programs that unequally benefit whites.

So the language of social justice and compassion is used. The logic of this language in post-Katrina New Orleans is that we have an “opportunity” to get rid of poverty and crime by rebuilding our neighborhoods the right way. It’ll be better for everyone, especially the poor. The outcome is shaking down right now. Tens of thousands of families are locked out of public housing. If the course stays the same they’ll never be able to come home. Perhaps a hundred thousand or more are unable to return to their houses in the hardest hit sections the city. HUD’s policies are promoted with niceties and hat tipping toward a better future for everyone, but it’s the outcomes that count. So far the outcome is proving highly unequal. And this inequality is drawn sharply along lines of race, class, and certain status factors such as residing in public housing or specific neighborhoods like the Central City or 9th Ward.


The 29th is almost here and still half the people of New Orleans haven't made it home.

Consider donating to the Survivor's Village, a grassroots group working to secure public housing residents' right to come home. Your contribution will be used to fund everything from our website to direct actions aimed at opening up the 5000+ apartments still shuttered by the Housing Authority. Give to the best plan for the future of New Orleans.


On the 29th a coalition of community groups plan to march from the Lower 9th Ward and the St. Bernard development to Congo Square. We will celebrate the lives of those lost and look toward the future. New Orleans' ain't back until ALL THE PEOPLE ARE HOME.


How will the Left rebuild New Orleans?

What’s unique about the post-Katrina reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, especially New Orleans, is that it’s much more of a political struggle than a technical or civic effort. The lines of battle aren’t neatly drawn, but to sketch out a set of competing agendas one could say that there is a conservative and a progressive approach to bringing the city and region back to life, back to something respectable, something where people can live beyond the day to day worries that now consume so many.

Much has been written about the political Right’s agenda in rebuilding New Orleans (I’ve written quite a bit about it on this blog. Jay Arena has a concise piece on the neoliberal agenda for the city) so let’s not linger there.

What about the Left? What kind of more participatory and egalitarian reconstruction could there be? For those of us who want something other than a society based on individualism, competition, and profit, what’s possible? And how will we achieve it?

In the weeks after the storm one model emerged. It’s called Common Ground. Common Ground is a mutual aid organization. Its guiding ideas are somewhat anarchistic. The group’s motto is “solidarity, not charity.” The rallying cry that it sent out to folks around the world was, ‘the government will not help the people of New Orleans, so the people must help the people themselves.’

After traveling to the city in December of 2005 I worked with Common Ground gutting houses, shuttling people and supplies, and cleaning debris. When I returned to California I was asked by a friend at a forum on the recovery efforts about government assistance. Her point was this: solidarity is wonderful, help from civil society is necessary and helpful, but without a massive governmental effort to fix what it helped to break, can there even be a true recovery? Don’t we need a modern version of Reconstruction, and don’t we need to go all the way with it?

I agreed with her wholeheartedly. I still think this is true. Practically speaking, there is nothing short of federal legislation and action that can restore the region to its pre-Katrina status (not that we should aim this low). Collective efforts like Common Ground (or the work of ACORN, Catholic Charities, Habitat for Humanity, to name the tip of the NGO iceberg) have brought something to the post-Katrina recovery that would otherwise have been missing. They’ve helped shape the course of history by empowering the people of the Gulf Coast to make choices and take chances on rebuilding their communities. Without the work of these groups government inaction would have crippled many hundreds of thousands of families.

New Orleanian and housing rights activists Mike Howells recently wrote a sharp critique of the mutual aid model of Leftist activism in New Orleans. According to Howells, the massive non-governmental effort is actually playing into the hands of the neoliberal agenda to privatize numerous functions of government, to scale back the welfare state, dismantle public services like schooling, and more:

“Dovetailing the actual downsizing of local public services is a relentless propaganda campaign by the corporate media and government agents that depict private relief efforts almost exclusively in glowing terms. News broadcasts by local television stations invariably carry a story that praises the relief efforts of this or that non-governmental organization. Newspaper articles applauding private relief groups for their efforts locally are a staple of the Times-Picayune. At the local political level the Mayor and the City Council incessantly heap praise upon the good works of charities and community groups involved in the Katrina rebuilding effort. At the national level conservative think tanks closely linked to the White House, most notably the Heritage Foundation, drum up position papers maintaining that the rebuilding of New Orleans is an endeavor best led by the private sector. The propaganda apparatuses of national foundations can also be counted on to cheerlead the contributions of non-governmental organizations to the Katrina crisis. Collectively the cheerleading now underway for the humanitarian assistance of civil society groups to Katrina survivors gives the impression that help is not simply on the way but actually here. But the reality is that even with the incredible outpouring of generosity from private citizens and civil society groups since the storm humanitarian services for the people of the city are woefully inadequate. New Orleans is a city in ruins and New Orleanians are a people in despair. The good works of non-governmental organizations are not the answer to the crisis even though ruling class propagandists want the people to believe they are.”

While I don’t quite see the efforts of non-governmental organizations playing the smooth role of legitimizing the government’s withdrawal from its obligations that Howells points out, I do believe he is touching on an important dilemma for the Left. It’s important for the Left to recognize what it ultimately cannot do. It cannot be responsible for the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast. It can only the political force that compels the state and major corporations to cease their gutting of the region, and to turn full circle, to reinvest in the people and places most devastated.

Mutual aid in spite of the government is a beautiful and essential thing, especially in times like these. There is no reason to expect the Bush administration, Governor Blanco, Mayor Nagin, or the Congress to help. The political climate lingers too far to the right. This is what makes Common Ground’s work so important. But it must be paired with the long term nitty-gritty of moving the struggle from one of mutual aid to one that changes the grounds of political action. We need to prepare for the long haul. We must build a movement capable of forcing the federal, state, and local governments not only to stop their assaults on social welfare, but to provide the resources and structures that people need to rebuild their lives. We want a restoration of the pre-Katrina scene, and we want to move beyond, to expand general welfare, to provide healthcare, transport, quality education, low-cost housing, honorable police and city government, job opportunities for all, living wages, and much more.

The movement in New Orleans still lingers on as primarily a mutual aid effort to provide those things the government is not. If we didn’t collectivly provide these things for our brothers and sisters it’s true that the people of the Gulf Coast would starve, their homes would crumble and be seized, and they would be forced to wander off quietly into the night of America. At this point in time the government really does not seem to care. But as this first year commemoration passes it’s time for the Left to think about moving from this battle to survive to an offensive political strategy aimed at forcing the state to once again provide for the people.

On a related note, I saw Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” at its debut in the New Orleans Arena last week with 7,000 other folks. Excellent film. It looks to me like Spike is attempting to build bipartisan and multi-racial support for a genuine reconstruction effort. His film is critical the weak government response, and especially the lackadaisical attitude of the Bush administration. He also correctly portrays the savior of the people as the people themselves. However, he doesn’t conclude that because the people pulled themselves from the floodwaters that they will also rebuild their communities alone or with the support of some yet to appear web of civil society and mutual aid. It will take a federal commitment – billions of dollars – dealt out in a just and intelligent manner to restore social and environmental health. Seems to me like Spike is aiming right at this.

“When the Levees Broke” should be required viewing for all Americans. Not because it’s the definitive statement on Katrina, but simply because it’s probably the only thing capable of restarting the conversation we were supposed to have after the floods. Rember that one? That national conversation about poverty and race? That conversation about a government’s obligation to its people? The conversation that almost got started when we all looked into our televisions and saw those faces staring back at us from the sinking city of New Orleans.

Yeah, that one.


Planners, architects, go home.

Before the Rockefeller Foundation, Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Mayor of New Orleans decided to privatize the planning process for the city of New Orleans the City Council had hired a planning firm to draft blueprints for the 49 hardest hit neighborhoods in the city.

Called the Lambert-Danzey group – after the consortium’s principal consultants, Paul Lambert and Shiela Danzey – this effort was given a budget of $125,000 and charged with rethinking the physical and social composition of the city. The Rockefeller/GNOF/Mayor’s process, called the Unified New Orleans Neighborhood Plan (UNOP), has essentially cancelled the Lambert-Danzey group’s work once their contract money runs out. The Lambert-Danzey team intends to finish their plan and present it to the city council, but it’s unlikely that their ideas will carry much weight in the reconstruction of the city. The UNOP organizers have said that they will incorporate aspects of the Lambert-Danzey plan into their final city master plan and individual neighborhood plans. They’re not required to do this however.

I attended a meeting today with a planner and an architect from the Lambert-Danzey group. At the table were several social workers, public housing residents, and housing rights advocates like myself.

The idea of the meeting was to inform the Lambert-Danzey planners about the needs and desires of public housing residents who have thus far been entirely shut out of all planning processes (mostly because they’ve been shut out of their homes by HUD).

The two Lambert-Danzy planners (actually employed by the Zyscovich urban planning and design firm) stated up front that they’re not experts on the social issues facing New Orleans. They explained that they don’t have solutions for every problem facing neighborhoods. They’re right, and they’re good to admit this. But they’re interested in redesigning public housing in the city. They told us that they believe one way to rebuild a better city is to disperse the poor. “Concentrating the poor is a bad idea,” they explained. They mentioned rebuilding mixed-income communities as a viable option for public housing sites. They both said that it would be a good idea to tear down the large public housing complexes because their size and location made them bad places for the residents to live inhibiting successful transitions from public housing to the market. Although they didn’t state it I could tell they believe that the design of large scale public housing creates concentrated pockets of poverty and crime.

This is known as the Pruitt-Igoe myth; the fallacious idea that bad architectural and urban design causes social problems, and therefore the solution is also a design issue (Bristol, Katharine. “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.” Journal of Architectural Education. Vol. 44, No. 3. May 1991.). It “shifts attention from the institutional or structural sources of public housing problems.” It also conveniently assists the planners, architects, real estate speculators, developers, and city boosters in their attempts to gain control over land, gentrify neighborhoods, and make a killer profit all in the name of “revitalization.”

I attempted to make a critical intervention during the meeting: “If doing no harm is our goal, if we want to do what is best and hurts the fewest people,” I said, “we need to simply reopen public housing. We cannot sit here and create plans for the future of these communities. Only the people living in public housing know what they need. If we create plans that advocate the demolition of public housing or even its eventual redevelopment into mixed income communities, no matter what our intentions are, the end result will be the permanent displacement of thousands of families. It will be racially discriminatory, it will destroy communities, harm families, and it will mean that the city of New Orleans is never coming back.”

I’m not sure they heard me.

The problem with planners and architects is that even with the best of intentions they can only think of design solutions to problems. When the problems you’re facing are fundamentally based in social and economic inequalities there is very little that even the most brilliant planners can do to help. Oftentimes their work does more harm than good. I see further pain and the permanent loss of community on the horizon for many New Orleanians, especially public housing residents if the planners are allowed to run wild with their imaginations.

Planners deal with abstract space. In the case of New Orleans planners see an “opportunity” to deal with a blank slate because the hurricane and flood destroyed so much. This has led them to think in increasingly abstract ways about how to not only rebuild the city, but to push it toward utopian limits and solve numerous social problems with spatial fixes. They’re not dealing with the real worlds of lived experience. They fly in from distant cities, or if they are a native they come from posh sections of the Uptown. They know little to nothing about the actual communities their plans will be affecting, especially communities like the Iberville, Lafitte, or St. Bernard housing developments to name several. Their assumptions are too long to list. Most of these assumptions are faulty. They think they know best. Their plans could be benign in the end, but they also hold the potential to do great harm. Timothy Gibson explains the problem facing the people of New Orleans as the struggle to come home and reestablish community:

“As a longtime resident, you might even have some good ideas on how your neigh-borhood could be rebuilt. But again, the planners and builders of abstract space are way ahead of you. While the former residents of Ward 9 [or public housing] huddle in distant shelters and contemplate the magnitude of their dispossession, the city’s economic and social elite are drawing on their resources and spatial mobility to plan the New New Orleans.” (Gibson, Timothy. “New Orleans and the Wisdom of Lived Space.” Space and Culture. Vol. 9, No. 1. Feb. 2006).

The men from Zyscovich, the rest of the Lambert-Danzey group, the UNOP crowd, all of them are dealing in abstract space where you can socially engineer solutions to the problems of poverty and inequality. They’re proposing to shuffle persons about at will, tearing down entire communities, remaking the cityscape in wholesale fashion. All for what? Their hearts are in the right place – at least most of them. They want to help. They honestly believe that they can better the lives of New Orleans poor.

But they can’t.

If you’re a planner or an architect the only thing to do now is to do nothing. No demolitions, no redevelopments, no mixed-income housing, none of it. Just reopen the projects and let the people come home. It’s the only just thing to do. Once the people come back, then we can all get down to the work of re-planning our communities. Anything else is theft and murder, plain and simple. Anything else will mean dispossession.

But some folks are aiming for this. I tend to take people at face value. If you say you want to help “the people” I’ll likely think you really do. But as some local activists and residents say, “the sharks are circling.” Re-planning poor communities is a smooth method for them to acquire “vacant” property. All in all some people just don’t care. They’re just out for power and wealth. And they’ll use and abuse the naïve architect, urban planner, and sociologist to get it.

My plea to the planners and place makers; do not cooperate. Do not lend your talents to anyone who would have you draft plans for public housing or low-income communities until all of the people are home. At this point your plans must be short term and radically pragmatic – get everyone home. Otherwise the only “opportunities” you’ll be taking advantage of are the opportunities that some see to make a quick buck, to snatch up valuable land, and to get rid of the poor.


I began hearing about the “Basin Street Corridor” after only a few days of being down here. Most people who use the phrase are developers and the planners or architects who work for them.

In the context of post-Katrina New Orleans the Basin Street Corridor refers to a zone of particularly important real estate that many now feel is up for grabs. It’s important land because it sits on the edge of the French Quarter and connects the I-10 freeway to Canal Street. One developer summed up its importance by noting that the only exit sign for the “French Quarter” on the entire freeway through New Orleans leads motorists down an off ramp and onto Basin Street – the “Corridor.” From here they can drive to Canal Street or turn left into the French Quarter. From here on it’s all “laissez le bon temps roule!”

Combined, the French Quarter and Canal Street are at the core of the tourist economy. Hundreds of millions of dollars are made off of conventions, gambling, food, hotels, and alcohol sales in this relatively small geographic area. Moguls of the industry believe that this number could one day inflate to billions, but that requires drastic changes in the cityscape.

If you’re a real estate capitalist, a hotel owner, or anyone with an economic imperative to increase property values and “Disneyfy” the Canal Street/French Quarter area the Basin Street Corridor has one fatal flaw. It’s called public housing. It’s populated mostly by poor and working class blacks. Nearly all of the low-income housing in the Basin Street Corridor is contained in the Iberville public housing project.

Built in 1941, the Iberville wasn’t always a thorn in the side of the New Orleans growth machine. In fact, when it was built the Iberville replaced the Storyville district. It was an all white public housing project and the construction of it allowed city leaders to demolish a largely poor black community – a community they deemed a slum – and banish its inhabitants to less valuable, less central real estate.

But the Iberville eventually became an all black project. Legal scholar Martha Mahoney says that the process was not purely a matter of white flight after public housing was integrated. Rather, housing and job discrimination that locked blacks out of the suburbs and left them structurally un/underemployed mean that while whites easily transitioned out of public housing at higher rates than they entered it, blacks were stuck (it’s important to point out, however, that even though many black residents were stuck in public housing, they remained productive and responsible citizens. The notion that the projects are “black-holes” of economic and social hopelessness is patently false. The projects have their problems, but they are still vital communities).

Thus racism and structural unemployment created New Orleans’ public housing ghettos. Many Iberville residents did manage to gain employment in and around the downtown in spite of the enormous barriers they faced. But the projects eventually became what they are; harsh environments with high unemployment rates and endemic drug and crime problems.

Downtown elites have big plans for Central Business District, French Quarter, Canal Street, and Warehouse District. They believe that transforming the Basin Street Corridor is a prerequisite to realizing these plans. They are well on their way to realizing this goal.

Read my recent post on New Orleans Indymedia for the rest of the story….


It's going to take all the people...

I met Alice outside of a local community center in downtown New Orleans. She and I had just come out of the same meeting. It was a town hall and potluck. The topic: to reopen all public housing in New Orleans, to secure affordable housing across the city, and fight for everyone’s right to return. About fifty of us circled up eating deviled eggs, finger sandwiches, red beans and rice, and cup cakes. We talked about everything from getting the gas and electricity turned back on to re-occupying housing in spite of the law.

Afterward Arpil was sitting on the stoop of the building enjoying a cigarette while I perched over my old bike asked her questions. “Where are you living now?”
“In here, in a homeless shelter.”
“Where did you live before the storm?”
“I lived in St. Bernard Parish, but I grew up on St. Claude Avenue in the 9th Ward. Now I’ve gotta go back to Houston in the morning. I got my bus ticket right here,” she says as she flips open her purse to show me it, as though I needed to see it in order to believe it. She’s doesn’t seem to have accepted her second departure yet herself. Something about the ticket makes the situation all the more real and heavy.

Alice tells me that she’s been squatting all over New Orleans for months trying to find a job and an affordable place to live. She has a baby daughter, two years old, and wants nothing more than to come home to her city. She’s just like every other New Orleanian I’ve met. She loves her town, cares not for Texas or whatever phony state have you. I’ve yet to meet that mythical Crescent City native who having been displaced from his or her hometown into Houston, Atlanta, or beyond finds that other cities are better, jobs more plentiful, schools better, opportunities brighter. I’m sure they exist. The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, and every paper in between has made a point of writing up stories on these NOLA ex-patriots who choose the “opportunity” of a new life in a new city over the prospect of returning to the bayou. But I’ve yet to meet one. Every New Orleanian will acknowledge that their town had pre-K problems, but every last one that I’ve run into has told me with dying conviction that they’re coming home.

Alice came back and lived in a gutted church, squatted in two houses, and even lived outdoors in a park for weeks on end. She spent her days trying to secure a good job and a new house. Her baby stayed with grandmother in Texas. Alice failed, but not for lack of effort.

“New Orleans is gone,” she says. “It’s not the same, and not because Katrina flooded it and ripped it apart. The people are gone, and New Orleans is made of its people.”

The place is the people.

I ask her, “what’s it going to take?”

She doesn’t hesitate for a moment: “It’s going to take all the people getting together and acting as one. Otherwise New Orleans is lost for good.”


The Claiborne Neutral Grounds has never been a neutral place, so to speak. Stretching fifteen some-odd blocks from St. Bernard Avenue in the east to Canal Street in the west the Claiborne Neutral Grounds consist of the extra wide median that separates traffic bound in opposite directions. It’s called a “Neutral Grounds” just like every other broad avenue’s patch of land between lanes. In the 19th century many of these strips had canals dug down their centers providing a means of drainage for the city into Lake Pontchartrain. What makes the Claiborne Neutral Grounds different from those running down the city’s other grand boulevards – St. Charles, Esplanade, Elysian Fields, Nashville, Broadway, Carrollton, and Napoleon – is that instead grass and elderly oaks with yawning branches draped in Spanish moss and ferns, the Claiborne Neutral Grounds has no grass and is shaded only by eight lanes of interstate traffic on the elevated I-10 freeway running above it.

Claiborne used to have oaks and grass. The Avenue also used to be a thriving business district lined with tailors and tuxedo shops, delis and restaurants, cobblers, music halls, barbers, beauticians, and grocers. Prior to the 1960s (Mardi Gras celebrations were slowly integrated during this decade) black New Orleanians would celebrate and parade along Claiborne. It used to be a vibrant neighborhood. So what happened?

In 1966 the federal government was hard set on linking the entire nation with highways. A major reason for building the interstate highway system was to link the expanding suburbs with their metropolitan cores. In Southern Louisiana this meant connecting Jefferson, St. Bernard, and St. Tammany Parish with New Orleans. Another reason involved a fundamental shift in the volume and velocity of interstate trade. New technologies like containerized shipping – which was being adopted by the Port of New Orleans meant increased tonnage. Much of this would soon be transported into and out of the city via truck on the new freeway system to the suburbs and the suburbs of other distant cities. The feds along with state and local authorities decided to route the I-10 freeway through New Orleans by running it right along Claiborne Avenue. In part this was a logical choice. There were few other routes wide enough to put up the mega eight-lane thoroughfare without tearing down many more homes and businesses. In part the decision was also facilitated by the needs and desires of the downtown growth machine and tourist industry. And it was in no small part facilitated by the fact that Claiborne Avenue was a working class district inhabited predominantly by blacks (many highways in many cities were built along similarly defined routes).

Businesses, hotels, and landlords in the Vieux Carre along with the growing corporate employers (mostly in the oil and gas industry, finance, and commerce) along Poydras street needed a freeway that could dump suburban commuters and tourist straight into the downtown. Tourist would exit the ramps and find themselves guided to hotel parking garages, the convention center, French Quarter, Riverwalk, Aquarium of the Americas, and other attractions. Commuters would exit into the CBD. The freeway would increase land values downtown by making the land more accessible and it would ensure the port and tourist industries a steady flow of goods and customers. In short it was the ticket to making some very powerful and wealthy people even more powerful and wealthy.

So the I-10 went up. Elderly folks in the Treme and 7th Ward, in the Lafitte and Iberville projects, in the French Quarter, and other surrounding communities will tell you about the struggle against the I-10 if you ask them about it. But the federal highway-building program was just too irresistible at the time for Claiborne Avenue residents to successfully fight back. According to some locals many of the business owners and homeowners along Claiborne who would have been displaced by the project were bought off until there was too little opposition left to make authorities think twice. The oaks were cut and the grass was paved over. No longer would children play on grass or would men and women gather under the shade of oaks to mingle. The Mardi Gras Indians, social aid and pleasure clubs, and second lines would never have quite the same sylvan parade route.

But the memories of what the Claiborne Avenue Neutral Grounds was remains. And it’s important to point out that although the area was irrevocably changed, as a cityscape it is not entirely dominated by the architectural and aesthetic needs of the downtown businesses, tourist industry, and predominantly white suburbs that the I-10 was built to serve. Over the years the Neutral Grounds have been reclaimed in a way that has stubbornly transformed the kind of place it is. One part of this reclamation is simply the fact that locals refuse to avoid the neutral grounds and accept it as a hard and undesirable place. Men still gather to sit and drink, play a game of cards, or just chat beneath the concrete piers. Teens walk up and down the neutral grounds socializing. The displacement caused by hurricane Katrina has reduced the neighborhood’s general population by quite a lot, but even so today there is still a social life along the grounds.

Over the past few years muralists have painted the concrete piers of the I-10 creating scenes from the Neutral Ground’s past, but also scenes relevant to the history and culture of Southern Louisiana. These works of art and the general way that the whole space has been struggled over and reclaimed is similar to many other nether-regions under freeways and in the shadows of other “urban renewal” type projects put in place from the 1940s through to today. San Diego, Oakland, and Miami, among many other cities, have similar spaces. Neutral in no meaningful since of the word, they have always been sites of struggle over the meaning and power of place.

There’s a few other good essays and articles on the net about the Clainorne Neutral Grounds worth checking out.



River Rip Off – A Beautiful New Development – Homes from the low $400,000s – Move in Today!

The two biggest questions along the entire Gulf Coast; “what are we going to rebuild here?” And, “for whom will we rebuild?” Katrina and Rita provided not just an “opportunity” to remake urban landscapes, as many officials, architects, and citizens have been claiming, the disasters have also created an imperative to do so. Because so much of the built environment was destroyed something will have to be done regardless of what it is. But justice is an elusive thing, especially when we’re talking about place and urban power. It’s unlikely that the powers that be will draft just and equitable blueprints for the new urban landscapes east and west of the Mississippi river.

A socially just reconstruction of the Gulf Coast will mean a lot of things. But let me try to describe some of the injustice already deforming the process and product so that you can get a sense of what’s mostly happening right now.

One example is the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Chartered by the state of Louisiana to help homeowners rebuild, the program entirely ignores those without property. One activist and friend recently described it as a “pre-Jacksonian” form of governance. “It’s as though we’ve reverted to a United States where only the landed upper classes can vote or participate in civic life,” he explained. While property owners in Louisiana stand to receive a combined federal subsidy of $10.4 billion to recoup the wealth they lost in their damaged homes, rental units, and estates, those at the bottom of society who for whatever reasons have not been able to build wealth through purchasing a home or land get nothing more than the totally inadequate and stigmatized “handouts” that came down in the form of debit cards, hotel vouchers, section 8 increases, charity, and other programs that do nothing to build their powers of self-determination or wealth.

Another way of gauging the reconstruction effort’s injustice is by looking at what sorts of real-estate redevelopments are underway right now, and what’s not. There’s a real-estate boom (buying and selling, and building) along much of the Gulf Coast. But this economic activity is not benefiting all groups equally. It’s concentrated at the top, for the top. While low-income renters worry that their landlords will use LRA or other recovery funds to rebuild their units on the cheap – thereby pocketing much of the money intended for physical rehabilitation of their buildings – condos and homes for the affluent are being built and converted left and right. They’re nice, they’re new, they’re big and shiney, and you can move in real soon if you’ve got a down payment for several hundred thousand.

In New Orleans, before Katrina, gentrification wasn’t quite as big a problem as it was in other cities (although public housing has been under the gun for more than a decade now with city officials, developers, and the upper classes pushing for its demolition to be replaced with “mixed-income” homes – mixed-income being a euphemism for many units of upper-income housing garnished with a tiny number of lower-income units to legitimize the whole process and claim it’s good for the former residents). Now gentrification is easily one of the biggest problems facing the working class. People feel pushed out of certain neighborhoods. There’s simply not enough housing for those who cannot afford the $700 dollar a month rents that are becoming de jour throughout the city. Along the major avenues in New Orleans old factories, schools, and warehouses are being converted at ever-quickening paces into loft-style apartments, condos, and bourgy cafes for the stream of yuppies that the rentiers and builders estimate will be converging on the city over the next few years. Indeed, attracting this new demographic is a central part of the “opportunity” that many developers, rentiers, and the city’s upper class see as a result of the disaster.

This estimate relies on the ability of the tourist/hotel/gambling/conventioneering industry to remake New Orleans into a Creole-jazz-crescent-cajun theme park, or what Tulane history professor Lawrence Powell fearfully predicts; a “place where Orlando embraces Las Vegas? [an] American Pompeii I apprehend rising from the toxic sludge deposited by Lake Ponchartrain: an ersatz city, a veritable site of schlock and awe.” Many fear that they’ll be successful, but lots of residents I’ve talked with aren’t so sure that the city’s power elite will be able to accomplish this goal. Some of them think it’s simply impossible because of the corruption at the top. My friend Reggie (born and raised in the 7th Ward, and a resident of the Lafitte housing projects before HANO locked him out in October from his home) thinks it’s “crooked at the top,” and that this why their plans will fail. He also points out that no matter how much some would like to gentrify the city they’ll still need a workforce. Their plans are contradictory. The requirement that dishes be washed, cars be parked, rooms be cleaned, songs be sung, and drinks be served up means that the workforce has some power – if they can get organized.

It appears that outside of New Orleans entire communities are being developed for some of the more privileged evacuees who are choosing to permanently leave the city behind. In the July 16th edition of the New York Times Susan Saulny writes about River Ranch, a development going up in Lafayette catering to ex-patriot New Orleanians. It is, “a virtual re-creation of much of historic residential New Orleans, meticulous in detail and substantial in size, with a growing population of more than a thousand on about 300 acres.” It has a Garden District, a French Quarter, and “blocks of Creole cottages.” I wonder if they’ll be true, if they’ll really go for authenticity and put up slum housing to be inhabited by 30% of their residents, if they’ll build massive public housing developments, fill them, then demolish them and send those residents out into River Ranch’s equivalent of the Lower 9th Ward on section 8. I wonder if they’ll allow massively polluting industries to dump on the land under the developments. And I wonder if they’ll build shabby levies around the town designed to fail. After all, it wouldn’t be true to form, it wouldn’t be the authentic New Orleans if it were anything else.

The plan in River Ranch is, of course, to build homes for upper-income residents. That’s the plan now in New Orleans too. Funny thing is that the creators of this bourgeois utopia west of New Orleans didn’t reach too far from the maestro to come up with a name for their imitation Big Easy. The most well-known pre-Katrina effort to gentrify New Orleans was the River Gardens. River Gardens was built on top of the St. Thomas housing projects. It displaced thousands across the city. All in order to build a smaller number of condos, houses, and apartments that have mostly been filled by, well, you guessed it, people who aren’t as poor and aren’t as black. River Ranch, River Gardens…. What’s going on down here is the big Mississippi River Rip Off. It’s new, sparkling, pastel in color, it looks like a wonderful place to live, it’ll replace the slums of the past, and it will do virtually nothing for the poor and displaced.

Now the biggest and baddest real-estate tycoon is weighing in on what should be rebuilt and for whom. Donald Trump is planning to put up a 67 story building on Poydras Street. It’s going to be a hotel/condo/retail mega-project, and in many ways it represents what men like Trump and his partners have in store for New Orleans. It will be the tallest building in the city knocking the Shell building out of first place. It’s a symbolic marker trumpeting the ascension of tourism as the biggest player in the city’s economic future, above oil and gas, and above the port. There are other big projects like Trump’s in the works. Trump and company are now pressuring the city to provide more staff and support in the city’s planning office to “roll out more red carpet, less red tape,” as a recent editorial in the New Orleans City Business journal advises. Lack of city revenues means that the planning office is understaffed. This means that Trump type towers aren’t going up as fast as the banks and financiers would like. To push these plans through and reshape the downtown wholesale the city is supposedly applying for a grant from the American Institute of Architects to provide planners pro bono. Moral of the story here: where you can’t get the taxpayers to support your private real estate schemes, privatize the process. Forget that the city’s staff might (or should) be more consumed with helping residents and local small businesses recover….
All work and no play makes Darwin a dull boy. We've been playing some woofle ball on the weekends down here to relax. Isn't this the most flattering picture you've ever seen of me!?


Liberty Place...

Last night I had the privilege (sorry, bad pun) of hearing Tim Wise speak at Common Ground in the Lower 9th Ward. If you're not familiar with Wise or his work you should know that he's an antiracist writer and activist who spends a lot of his time working with white folks to better understand and dismantle racist systems and structures of privilege.

Wise explained that he is in New Orleans to speak to the Left. He used to live in the city and said he originally moved here to attend college, an institution (Tulane) that just so happened to be a “plantation,” founded by confederates and slave owners. (Indeed, almost all of the land up and down the banks of the Mississippi River used to be parceled as plantation estates owned by absentee Masters and tilled by African Slaves). He says of the many post-Katrina political efforts to reshape New Orleans that he is most concerned about the Left and how bad it could mess up the very important work that needs to be done. The Right-wing is certainly out to do some horrible things to the city's people, especially if they're poor and black, explained Wise, but the Left could also do tremendous harm if the activists who have descended here do not hold themselves to account.

One thing he said that really struck me had to do with the memorial landscape of this city. He explained that earlier in the day when he checked into his hotel downtown he got curious about the view, so he peered out his window, and remembering that there was a certain monument located at the base of Canal he looked closely to see if he could spot it. There it was!

It's the city's memorial to the Battle of Liberty Place, a bloody massacre that took place on September 14th, 1874. According to Wise there was quite a debate about what to do with the monument in the 1970s. You see, it's a tall and imposing marker that was built and sited to celebrate the sacking of New Orleans' and Louisiana's reconstruction government by white racist reactionaries known as the White League. They killed police, Republican representatives, and many others in order to establish control over the government. Their official reign was short lived, but the rise of American apartheid was not far over the horizon. Their goals would eventually be achieved.

Wise believes that the monument's location is can teach us some important lessons about racism in America. First of all, that it still stands is quite strange. It no longer brandishes a plaque commemorating the defeat of the Reconstruction government as it once did, but it's current inscriptions are more than troubling. On its street side face it reads, “In honor of those Americans on both sides of the conflict who died in the battle of Liberty Place. A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.”

Inscribed between these quotes and on the sides of the marker are the name those police officers, state infantrymen, and representatives who were murdered or forced to flee on that day. The names of White League members are listed on the back, presumably those who died in the successful coup. No reference to what actually happened that day is made anywhere on the monument or anywhere nearby.

The monument is located in a corner, between a concrete wall that separates the Canal Street rail lines from an access road to a major parking garage. All of this is in the shadow of an electrical substation and utility poles.

Wise says that it's “out of sight, out of mind.” The inscriptions seem to say the same thing. The White League's actions of that day are deemed, “a conflict of the past,” not the violent overthrow of an integrated (if imperfect) government to reestablish white supremacy in Louisiana. That the monument still exists is shocking enough, but the ahistorical, neutral tone of its inscriptions, and its location in a place not frequented by pedestrians all lends it an unspoken power and legitimacy. White racism, power, supremacy, and privilege; it's alive and well. It's not in your face. It's not overt and celebratory. That's how it works. It's a big solid structure as real as any twenty feet of sculpted granite, but you're not likely to run across it unless you're willing to look really close and read the fine print. Well, that's if you're white. The rest of America knows it's there because they don't have the privilege to ignore it, to put in the corner, off the beaten path where few will be forced to confront it.


Life, Death, the Second Line….

Last night my housemate Chikodi and I went for a bike ride across the city. We originally set out for a few bars along Magazine Street and Oak Street. We quickly got lost in the Central and Mid-City neighborhoods. By the time we made it to Oak Street we had lost most of our interest in going into the Maple Leaf (some Uptown Bar). The crowd was far too “frat boy” and self-obsessed. Fortified with some beer and iced-tea we decided to head back into the Central City to see what sorts of nightlife the place has to offer.

Central City is a rough neighborhood, not yet fully repopulated, but still crawling with people. It contains several of New Orleans housing projects. A few of its main streets are sprinkled with small corners bars out of which music is pouring. It’s a section of the city that few people think of heading to for a drink or to see a band play.

We weren’t quite out of uptown when we spotted some college party and decided to crash it. Perhaps there was a keg and a few college undergrads worth talking too. I figured I could find some informants to give me the straight drunk-honest down low on being a bourgy Tulane or Loyola student in the midst of a disaster zone. Inside the kids looked really young, mostly 18-20 year-olds swilling hard alcohol. The soundtrack was rap, probably the beats produced by young black men who lived in projects like the Calliope, not far by car or bike from this house party, but inaccessible in other terms.

We left quickly and rode through the Calliope (now known as B.W. Cooper homes). Right now it’s abandoned, not because residents have chosen to leave, but because they’ve been shut out and the housing authority plans to demolish it. Around the corner from the Calliope we spotted a small corner bar. It was right across the street from one of New Orleans’ above ground cemeteries. I said something to Chikodi like, “life, death, it’s all so close and intense here,” referring to the projects, the cemetery, the bars and social clubs.”

A few young men walked out as we walked in. There must have been only half a dozen people inside, but it was impossible to tell as couples could have been hiding away in the darkened corners. The joint’s juke box was filled with Soul, R&B, and a little hip hop. The walls were painted black and the decorations were spartan. We struck up a conversation with a guy who wanted to sell us his $300 food stamp debit card for $100. I turned him down.

Chikodi asked him something about the future of the city. He explained it really straight and clear with a cynical twist at the end: “We’ve got no homes, we’ve got no healthcare, we’ve got no schools, we’ve got no money, but shit, the Saints got Reggie Bush. Reggie Bush is going to save the day!” (The New Orleans Saints football team drafted Reggie Bush this year. Our friend’s comments were poking fun at the idea that this was a good thing.) “Who’s going to watch him play? Who’s going to buy the tickets? How are they going to pay him,” asked our friend.

I decided to ask him how Mayor Nagin got reelected. Simple, he said, “because Nagin is going to protect the interest the city’s powerful.”

Straight talk, no foolish ideas up in here.

We left and headed to another Central City hole in the wall (the bar was literally called “hole in the wall”). Inside we tried sparking up a conversation with one fellow who apparently had too much to drink. He railed on us for several minutes for being fools. Our faux pas was Chikodi’s mentioning that he worked for ACORN (gutting houses and organizing homeowners) and my feeble attempts to calm the fellow down. He said he was a contractor, that he “was in business,” and that we were jokes. The rest of the bar just laughed it off and reassured us that “he’s been looking to ‘talk to’ someone all night.” We came upon him like he was a coiled spring.

We asked another fellow if he knew anything about any second lines having occurred lately in the Central City. A second line is basically a parade that follows the first line of music and key participants in whatever is being paraded for – it could be a funeral for instance. The second line follows the first. It’s there for the music and it’s there to dance and have fun in the streets, not necessarily to grieve or whatever it is that the first line is doing. The second line is never supposed to disrespect the first, however.

He said he hadn’t heard or any. It’s the kind of thing you just have to keep your eyes and ears open for. Chikodi went on one a month ago and says it was a blast. The second line included coolers full of beer and water, and trucks with grills in the back dishing up barbeque. The whole procession would stop at every bar and establishment on its route. It just so happens that the hole in the wall we were in tonight was a frequent stop for many a second line.

We left the bar about one or two in the morning. There hadn’t been a crowd, in fact the streets around the whole area were mostly deserted except for some late night characters looking for a fix or some sort of need. We rode back up Bourbon Street just for the contrast. It was full of drunks and fools pounding away hurricanes, hand grenades, and plastic cups of cheap domestic beer. Sometime around 2 or 3 am several more people were murdered on the streets of New Orleans.



Prior to hurricane Katrina New Orleans’ public schools were in total disrepair. The system was plagued with every possible problem you can imagine. Why? I’m betting you can guess: this was a major urban public school system serving mostly poor people of color. If you were the son or daughter of one of the city’s better-off families you probably went to a private school, or else you lived in the suburbs where the educational system is much better off.

Katrina laid waste to the public schools. The private schools located in higher/drier neighborhoods sustained relatively less damage and have already re-opened. Many of the public schools have been commandeered by parents and neighborhood groups and turned into charter schools, but it’s unlikely that these schools will serve the majority of youths in the New Orleans area. Again, they’re mostly going to serve the city’s better-off residents.

On September 7th only 15 public schools will reopen in New Orleans. New Orleans is scrambling to hire teachers. The Times-Picayune reports that they have hired no one as of today.

Any takers out there?

It would be an amazing opportunity to work in a seriously damaged community. It would be hard as hell and probably equally rewarding if you can manage the insanity of teaching in a seriously under-funded, segregated and troubled urban school system. (Think Jonathan Kozol). You’d be working with some direly underprivileged students. It would be some seriously righteous work if you’re up for it.

What would you be paid?

You’d be paid the going rate that most teachers get – peanuts.

30K/year with a bachelor’s degree. If you have a Master’s they’ll give you an extra grand. And if you decided to make a career of it, if you spent 25+ years dedicating your life to education? They’d pay you no more $50k.

Or you could go work at Harrah’s Casino on Canal Street, dish out booze or cards to drunk gamblers and make more money.

Why are our priorities so wrong?

I rode by William Frantz Elementary School in the 9th Ward yesterday. It was the sight of one of the nation’s most well known integration struggles in 1960. Doesn’t look like Frantz is opening in September, there’s probably not enough money to clean it up. There’s still a waterline from the floods ringing the building. Harrah’s is open and doing pretty good business though.

As I walk around this city I can’t help but think of all those phrases that have been floating around lately: “Disaster capitalism.” “Casino capitalism.” Whatever happened to the idea of well funded public education, integrated and equitable for all children, regardless of their zipcode, skin color, or parent's income?


Dredlocks and “Chee-Wee”

At a press conference earlier this month St. Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain called displaced New Orleanians "trash," and "animals," and stated that, "if you're gonna walk the streets of St. Tammany Parish with dreadlocks and chee-wee hairstyles, then you can expect to get a visit from a sheriff's deputy."

St. Tammany Parish, to the north across lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans is one of the most affluent areas in Louisiana. Throughout the 1990s it has experienced more economic growth than most parts of the state. It's mostly a suburban landscape. It's 87% white in a state that is only 63% white. And it's apparently policed by a racist Sheriffs department that intends to keep blacks and poor people out.

Strain seems to be convinced that hurricane Katrina has washed legions of mostly black underclass criminals ashore into his backyard. "For some reason New Orleans chooses to coddle criminals in that area that tend to get away with a great deal. We will not coddle that trash in St. Tammany Parish. If they come to St. Tammany Parish, we're going to pursue them, we're going to arrest them, our prosecutors are going to prosecute them and our judges are going to convict them," said Strain in response to questions about a recent high profile murder involving victims and presumably perpetrators from New Orleans.

As if to underscore the racial divide, a Deborah Knorr of Mandeville (a small St. Tammany town with a black population not even breaking 5% of its total) writes:

"Most of us [One has to guess who the "us" she refers to is. I'm betting that it's her friends and neighbors, again, mostly affluent white people] moved here to get away from city crime. We don't want it! If anyone in our parish is afraid to go out because they wear dreadlocks or "Chee-Wee" hairstyles, maybe they have something to hide."

Knorr also links what she perceives to be a declining quality of life in St. Tammany with those displaced by Katrina: "We are overrun with traffic, litter and rapidly losing our beautiful trees to make way for more subdivisions and shopping malls to accommodate the overspill from Katrina."

Did it ever occur to Knorr - someone who "moved" to St. Tammany from the city - that those subdivisions and shopping malls were built for her ilk?

The St. Tammany branch of the NAACP is now calling for a federal investigation into Strain's comments noting that they constitute racial profiling. Strain is remaining defiant, and it appears that many of his constituents are going to support him. It’ll be interesting to see how this unfolds. Hopefully we still hold the high ground and this sort of overt and ignorant racism won’t be tolerated.

Finally, if anyone knows what the hell “Chee-Wee” even means, please let me know.


New Orleans finally has a unified plan to rebuild… or so they say.

On July 6th Mayor Nagin announced the creation of what is being called the Unified New Orleans Neighborhood Plan. It will presumably be the final and authoritative planning process that will determine the future of the city. The reason I say “presumably” is because the city has already seen 2 official master planning efforts launched alongside dozens of autonomous neighborhood efforts. The planning process has been nothing short of chaotic so far.

First there was the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB). BNOB is now pretty much a dead fish. Part of its demise had to do with lack of funding (although the people behind it could have easily raised the cash to keep it going if they wanted to, so it’s a little mysterious as to why this has been reported by the press as a reason for its disappearance). Another factor in BNOB’s dissolution was its starry eyed plans for the city that called on the federal government to bestow billions in funding for wild projects like commuter rail networks and massive downtown cultural developments. Congress apparently balked at this almost arbitrary wish list. But another significant factor was the grassroots protest against BNOB’s blatant plans to wipe whole neighborhoods off the map. After BNOB released its final report on urban planning both rich and poor, black and white communities erupted in protest.

The forces behind BNOB are probably happy to see their commission receed from the foreground. After all, it brought too much attention to their interests without giving them any more actual power over the planning process and the future of New Orleans. This set of real estate developers, financiers, and local business elites will have enormous power over the process anyway. The new plan provides more cover.

The second plan was initiated by the New Orleans City Council earlier in the year when they retained the Lambert Group, a planning firm charged with drafting concrete ideas for the future of the city’s 49 most damaged neighborhoods. When the City Council initiated this process it was clear that they were openly cutting into the authority of Mayor Nagin’s BNOB Commission. Mayor Nagin and the City Council now say that the Lambert Group’s work will be folded into the Unified New Orleans Neighborhood plan so as not to waste the effort and progress that many neighborhoods have already made.

The Unified New Orleans Neighborhood Plan is being funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to the sum of $3.5 million with the Greater New Orleans Foundation adding another million.

Now that the city has a real plan it is expected that work will be completed by the end of the year. At this point New Orleans will finally be eligible to receive funding from the Louisiana Recovery Authority (billions of dollars).

Beneath this surface dozens upon dozens of local groups and activists organizations have been working to rebuild sections of the city and plan for the future, all them operating in spite of what the authorities decide. It’s unlikely that their work will find its way into any official plan. But that’s not the point for these homeowners, public housing residents, renters, organizers, and agitators. For them the point is to make sure that whatever plans the powerful come up with cannot be implemented in the face of community resurgence. If the powerful choose to plan for the future without democratic participation, then they will no realize their plans. The People’s Hurricane Relief Fund has a slogan that captures it well:

“Nothing about us, without us, if for us.”

So folks make their own plans while the officials announce yet another master plan of their own…