7.28.2006

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.

http://www.flaneur.org/04_02/0402_walker.html
http://www.gnocdc.org/orleans/4/14/snapshot.html

7.24.2006

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!?

7.19.2006

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.

7.15.2006

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.

7.13.2006

Priorities…

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?

7.11.2006

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.

7.09.2006

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…

7.08.2006

There’s some strange music popping up in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Probably the worst of it is Chuck Redden’s racist and ignorant tune called “The Battle of New Orleans Katrina.” The chorus goes:

“And they blamed George Bush,
and they blamed the head of Fema,
they told everybody that would listen to em’ shout.
They blamed the mayor,
and they blamed Governor Blanco,
cause nobody came to get their sorry asses out.”

It’s pathetic enough that the lyrics don’t rhyme or have any flow, but the whole thing is a waste of your ears if you have the patience to listen to it. The rest of the song focuses on many of the myths about what New Orleanians did in the aftermath of Katrina, including the supposedly widespread looting, raping, murder, and assaults on first responders, non of which were true. (The so called “looting” was mostly a rational response by citizens of New Orleans to attain food and supplies during the several days that they were without any assistance whatsoever.)

On a lighter note there is an underground release supposedly penned by 10th Ward Buck entitled, “What is your FEMA number?” The track samples the embarrassingly (yes people, we should be embarrassed) popular “Shake that Laffy Taffy!” beat, and rolls out lyrics like:

“I think it start with 9,
I think it start with 3,
Look I ain’t getting’ off the phone till you give me, me.
I done walked through the flood with these shoes on my feet,
Man I need a fresh pair, give me my 23…”

By far the best post-Katrina musical release to date is Dynira’s soon to be legendary “Spirit of New Orleans.” Dynira’s LP (2 tracks) is set to hit stores in August, but you can sample it here - http://www.dynira.com/. Set to some serious beats he explains:

“Bye bye, then they played us like we was nothin’,
Big families a bunch scattered us like we was puppets, trust me,
That ain’t the last you niggas heard of us,
I’m with that phony state of Texas,
Yeah enough is enough, but,
I ain’t gonna sit and watch my people just get slaughtered,
We was born in New Orleans, we gonna die for New Orleans.
We gon’ bounce back, we gon’ bounce back,
We gon’ bounce back, put New Orleans back up on the map!”

I ran across some high school kids playing their horns along the railroad tracks in the Bywater today. They were blasting some powerful tune that carried for miles. It began modestly enough, increased its pitch, then the trumpeter kicked in with this screeching noise followed by the rest. They were loud and furious enough to even drown out the noise of a train passing by only yards away. It’s good to see some music back up in this city. Music is, after all, what put New Orleans on the map.

7.05.2006

Yesterday was a big day for the right to return movement. Check out this story I posted at New Orleans Indymedia on the St. Bernard housing rights protest. Truthout.org also has an excellent piece of reportage posted on their website - Independence Day in New Orleans.

Before the day got started I rode my bike through the St. Bernard complex. It’s an enormous collection of buildings in the city’s Gentilly neighborhood built during the 1930s. Public housing developed under Roosevelt’s New Deal administration tended to be much nicer than what the government invested in later on. Perhaps this is due in no small part to segregation. A number of historians and sociologists have show that once public housing was integrated (mostly during the 1960s) whites abandoned it in mass followed by the black middle class who sought the newest form of subsidized housing available to more privileged segements of the population - suburbia. This is, in part, how public housing became synonymous with poverty and the ghetto in America.

Riding through St. Bernard early on the 4th I could only Imagine what the place was like before the storm. It’s very beautiful. The streets are lined with enormous oak trees, no building is over three stories tall, and there is a lot of greenspace throughout. Right in the middle of the complex I stopped to take a short clip of video about St. Bernard but was drowned out by two fighter jet aircraft screaming by overhead.

The housing rights coalition is facing a serious predicament. During the rally I couldn’t help but think of something George Lipsitz said about organizing in New Orleans; one of the biggest problems is that the constituents of this social movement are scattered far and wide without a surefire means of communication. They face a daunting geographic barrier in terms of organizing. Several of the residents I spoke with reaffirmed this point. They told me that they had driven out from Houston in a rental van with 15 other people in order to attend the rally. Few of them have reliable internet access. They rely on cellphones and word of mouth to stay in touch.

While looking around on the web for more information about St. Bernard I ran across Joshua Cousin’s blog. Cousin is a now former resident of St. Bernard living in Houston. Of HUD’s plans he writes;

“Tearing Down The Biggest Hood Will Keep ALL OF US OUT!.. You Dont Want us Back man.. Those Hoods Saved Lives.. Now You Wanna Build those SAME CONDOS THAT GOT TOTALLY DESTROYED IN KATRINA ... Hopefully that wont happen... [….] I’m Gonna Miss My Hood.. New Orleans... Man... Hud Just Took Away Apart of Me......”




7.04.2006

I took a jaunt down to the Bourbon Street tourist trap yesterday just to get a sense of how the tourism industry is doing. Since I was never here to see this place pre-Katrina ("PK") I can't say whether the business has recovered or whether there are fewer tourist than usual during the summer. The place is packed, though.

People are smoozing, chugging daqueries, and gawking up and down the 5 or 10 block radius of Jackson Square and the French Market. There's a really interesting example of disaster capitalism to be seen down in the French Quarter also. It's not the disaster capitalism of big crony corporations (for that, check out Naomi Klein's article in the Nation http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050502/klein). Rather, it's disaster capitalism from the competative sector of small highly competitive businesses - souvenir shops.

Every shitty thing that happens to New Orleans seems to get emblazoned on a T-shirt and sold to drunken tourists. There's "Willy Nagin and the Chocolate City" poking fun at the mayor's now (in)famous comments about New Orleans' complexion. There's some rather racist shirts commenting on the influx of migrant/immigrant Latino workers into the city "FEMA = Find Every Mexican Available." And, it just wouldn't be N'awlins without some blatently sexist shirts, thus "Katrina blowjobs" and "construction hookers" (incidentally, my new roomate who works in the construction business says that many of his workers spend their weekend money on prostitutes and booze, if that gives the hooker construction T-shirt any more context).

My favorite - actually the only T-shirt I like whatsoever - is the "Make Levees Not War" design. The logo and slogan is spreading across town in stickers and window signs also. People here in NOLA know why there's not enough money to rebuild...







7.03.2006

The rain is incredibly thick in New Orleans. It comes down as if it were a wet blanket over the streets and smothers the people like little sparks into the buildings or under covered porches and awnings. Too much rain right now is a bad thing here. According to city engineers there are an unknown but large number of ruptured water mains across the city. When Katrina uprooted trees and pummeled the cityscape it did widespread damage to the system. Now water is bubbling up under the city – which is always a problem given the height of the water table and that much of the city sits below sea level – and the heavy summer rains is only adding to the problem.

All of this is ironic because as I sit in this little coffee shop in the Marigny trying to escape the thunderstorm there's a duet playing over the joint's speakers: it's Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing "isn't it a lovely day to be caught in the rain?" I can imagine it must have been lovely once, but now it doesn't strike me that way at all. New Orleans is caught in the rain in a very bad way.

The smell of sewage is all over. The city is just now getting a handle on the disposal of the thousands upon thousands of abandoned “Katrina cars” destroyed last year. In spite of the $33 million contract let to DRC Recovery Services to tow, store, and crush them one can still find them all over the city. There are still piles of trash, especially in the 7th and 9th Wards.

The whole place is an enormous contradiction. One cannot walk a block without seeing signs of rebuilding, cleaning, and preparing for the future. And yet the whole city looks to be dying. Bob, the owner of one of the only other caf├ęs in the Faubourg Marigny told me yesterday that the widespread consensus is that is another hurricane of potent force strikes the city this year then the city truly will die. It cannot sustain any more. “There has been terrible damage to the people’s psyche,” he explains. The mood of the city has never been this demoralized. If anything else happens then it's unlikely that the people will return. Bob remarked that he's never felt so connected to any place in his life (he grew up in the French Quarter before it was the tourist trap it now is). But even with his fanatical love for New Orleans, even knowing that many of his friends and neighbors share that love, he can't imagine the people coming back and rebuilding if another major storm runs the city through this season.

And yet even with all this hanging over their heads there are people here rebuilding, and more are coming back everyday! It’s a confusing scene. There’s no gas, electricity, or sewerage extending to most of the city. Only along the natural levee, from the Uptown to the Bywater along the riverbend does life in New Orleans seem normal to any degree.

All of this is to say nothing of the thousands of New Orleanians who have been effectively banned from coming home and rebuilding. Many of these people are the inhabitants of the city's public housing. They constitute a major portion of that carless, mostly working-poor population that was most severely displaced following Katrina and the city/state/FEMA's bungling efforts to evacuate and shelter citizens. Some are back, quite a few are clamoring to reopen their homes, but large numbers are still living in uncertainty beyond city limits, wherever they found themselves after the floods forced them out.

Tomorrow, July 4th will be a major day for the right to return movement. The residents of the St. Bernard public housing project along with several key activist organizations are planning a rally to reopen public housing across the city. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has stated that they intend to demolish thousands of units of public housing in the city, including the St. Bernard projects. They plan to use HOPE VI funds to redevelop the sites, or to possible create “greenspace.” The residents and activists have other plans.

Below is a description of the event posted on the web by an activists who works with the Survivor’s Village. Survivor’s Village is a tent city established outside of St. Bernard by residents to protest the city, and HUD’s plans to demolish their homes.

“Survivor's Village on July 4th: Day of Protest, Rally and Unity
On July 4th public housing residents and community supporters from all over the country will gather at the Surivor's Village for a Day of Unity, Protest and Rally.

The Survivor's Village is located on the 3800 block of St. Bernard Ave., across from the St. Bernard Housing Development.

The Day begins at 10am with the rally scheduled for 3pm. Water will be available, but please bring food or drink (non-alcoholic) to share with the group.

July 4th as Independence Day is also Freedom from Oppression Day as public housing residents continue their battle with the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs (HUD) to reopen public housing.

Yesterday, a new battle front was opened in this fight when residents of public housing filed a law suit against HUD, alleging civil rights violations in HUD's refusal to repair and reopen the public housing developements damaged by Katrina.

Residents and supporters are determined to continue this grass roots movement for the Right of Return and the right to affordable housing for working class people everywhere.”

See - http://www.survivorsvillage.com/ for more information.

I'll let Ella and Louis have the last word, cause I don't want to sound too pessimistic.

"The weather is fright'ning
The thunder and lightning
Seem to be having their way
But as far as I'm concerned, it's a lovely day
The turn in the weather
Will keep us together
So I can honestly say
That as far as I'm concerned, it's a lovely day
And everything's O.K.

Isn't this a lovely day
To be caught in the rain?
You were going on your way
Now you've got to remain

Just as you were going, leaving me all at sea
The clouds broke, they broke and oh!
What a break for me

I can see the sun up high
Tho' we're caught in the storm
I can see where you and I
Could be cozy and warm

Let the rain pitter patter
But it really doesn't matter
If the skies are gray
Long as I can be with you it's a lovely day"

7.02.2006

Sleepless on the bus...

The Greyhound is always a trip, even if you’re not going very far. This is the furthest I’ve ever taken it. I left on Friday at 7am from Santa Barbara, was routed through Los Angeles, Phoenix, El Paso, Dallas, Houston, and Baton Rouge, before finally making it to New Orleans. Quite a journey, and I arrived rather late. From Los Angeles to Phoenix I sat next to an eight year-old boy named Miguel. Miguel’s parents, he explained, are from Mexico, making him “half Mexicano, half Americano.” Miguel wanted to make it home to Phoenix before wrestling came on. Apparently we rolled in too late for that, Miguel was upset.

From Phoenix to El Paso I slept as best I could and talked to the various people who sat beside me for a while. So many stories, so many lives. People are fascinating. By the time I changed buses in Dallas I was surrounded by the Katrina diaspora – mostly women and children headed back to the Big Easy (what a misnomer for the city now!) for the first time since they evacuated. In Houston a mother and her two sons cut in line in front of me. I said nothing. Their faces were all bright and smiley. The kids were jumping around their mother and laughing, they were so happy to be headed back home to New Orleans. The mother carried Time’s special edition book full of hurricane photos.

The bus ride from Houston to Baton Rouge was through much of the night, but I could feel the happiness and anticipation from those around me. Strangely, by the time we changed buses in Baton Rouge the mood changed. The station had that deep dirty south feel to it. Everyone was smoking, spitting, and limping. The mood was sour for some reason. Back on the bus and down the highway, down river, and down in topographical elevation we hit a powerful thunderstorm. The sky was dark grey and rumbling with thunder and the cypress swamps around us were filling up with rain. The mood picked up again on the coach.

When we stopped in New Orleans everyone poured quickly off the bus, into the giagantic station, and out toward taxis and waiting cars. During and after the storm the NOPD used parts of the station as a temporary jail. Writing in the New Standard in October of 2005, Jessica Azulay described the makeshift jail in these terms:

“At the converted Greyhound terminal, which now serves as a different kind of way station, no passengers arrive with luggage. Instead, police bring people in and book them at what used to be a ticket counter. In the back, where travelers used to board buses, police now push detainees into wire pens where they sleep on the concrete in the open air.” (http://newstandardnews.net/content/index.cfm/items/2475)

Not today. The Greyhound is back to its normal function, and it looks like many residents are using it to return to the city. Prior to Katrina neither the city, the state, nor the federal government used the station or the Greyhound lines to evacuate the poor, elderly, or automobile-less New Orleanians, many of whom ended up stranded in the Superdome and Convention center for many days surrounded by floods without food, water, and sanitary facilities. Many of these citizens were abandoned and ignored by the authorities, or else they ended up in the makeshift Greyhound prison. Now many of them are scratching up the money to make if from Houston, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, or elsewhere by bus.

I walked through the downtown in the light drizzle. It looks the same as when I was here in December. Very little has changed. Whole blocks are boarded up and empty – including many of the office towers. Construction crews can still be found all over the place gutting buildings and cleaning streets. I briefly stepped into the Holiday Inn off of Poydras Street to get out of the rain and talk to the desk clerks about temporary housing in the city. They said all the hotels were doing good business. As I pondered asking them who their “business” was – knowing that still relatively few residents have been able to return to the city, and that few can affort the going rates ($75 - $150 a night average) – a couple of National Guardsmen rounded the corner and headed out into the hotel’s parking lot. The parking lot is a virtual military base full of humvees. More Guardsmen came walking into the hotel and headed toward the elevators, toward their rooms. In another hotel down the street where I stopped to use the bathroom the only customers I could see were construction tradesmen coming down to check out, get coffee, and ask for other services.

But the residents are back in force, more so than when I was here in December! Walking through the Seventh Ward I found nearly every other house occupied. Very few looked like they had not been at least prematurely cleaned and gutted. The sidewalks are bustling with people. At a Family Dollar Store on Claiborne Avenue and Elsyian Fields dozens of residents lined up at the registers purchasing everything from ultra-thick trash bags and bleach, to chips and soda. Business is booming, at least here.

I don’t want to sound too charming of a picture. The neighborhood is still wrecked, and well coordinated government assistance is nowhere in sight, not for these folks. And I’ve yet to walk through the Lower 9th Ward again. Common Ground appears to be focusing many of their efforts there. There’s also a big protest action coming up in a few days in support of the St. Bernard Housing Project residents who are demanding their right to return. But that’s a post for later.