Post-Katrina Gentrification Battle Heats Up in New Orleans

Wendell Pierce's Blighted Property

Wendell Pierce’s Blighted Property

New Orleans    Sometimes where there is smoke, there is in fact a lot of fire, and the raging heat around gentrification is steadily increasing in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Wendell Pierce, the well-known actor from HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme,” and a New Orleans native, partnered with a local pal, politician, and operator, slung the charge at neighbors complaining about a plan he and his buddy had to expand a gas station on the corner of St. Claude and Franklin, across the street from the sizzling Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, near the equally hot Bywater, and abutting the wannabe warm St. Roch community. Of course he was right, but neighbors were also right to complain that the property they owned next door to their Shell station had been allowed to rot and serve as a safe house for mischief. Furthermore, the local redevelopment authority had taken the property off the auction block and sold it to Pierce et al for what looked like a sweetheart price of $19,000 which is unheard of on St. Claude Avenue now. A lot of smoke, and maybe some fire there as well.

Meanwhile,  the partners had lost out on a supermarket plan in the Holy Cross area of the lower 9th ward that many developers salivate to gentrify because of its close proximity to the Mississippi River and some fairly good housing stock and slightly higher ground, given the alluvial flood plain of the River. The old Holy Cross High School is being redeveloped into 264 apartments and more, towering over the River with six floors, seeped in controversy and community contention where the cry of gentrification is common. A feature in Southern Living magazine highlighting the work of the local Preservation Resource Council and showed four shotgun double cottages that had been pimped out in the Holy Cross area, three of them by white couples, needless to say.

Not far from the gas station controversy the St. Roch Market reopened. Before the storm it was the last operating public market in the city of New Orleans and a place where you could get fresh seafood and an inexpensive poorboy sandwich. Now it’s seen as gentrification on steroids. Neighbors thought they were getting respite from the food desert and instead got high-end tourist fare and venues. Anarchist vandals hit quickly, and despite tut-tuting from local officials from the Mayor on down, the developers continue to be on the defensive for misleading the community and accelerating gentrification.

An article in the sometimes newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, led with a story of a service worker making the minimum with some small change trying to find an apartment for $650 and noted that before the storm he would have easily found a place in Bywater, but now he was stuck. Part of the problem was the failure of FEMA after the disaster to support rebuilding affordable housing units owned by moms-and-pops who had dominated the market previously. 4500 applicants got assistance, but that was only one-quarter of the applicants. Meanwhile up to 3000 properties have been forfeited to the government for long-term failure to pay taxes. NORA, the local redevelopment agency, owns 1872 properties obtained through the Road Home program for flooded homes where owners could not return. The housing authority owns 700 units on 230 properties still uninhabitable and not redeveloped. All of which means a chokehold on affordable housing pushing up prices and rents, still double those before the storm, and propelling the market to more and more gentrification.

When there’s this much smoke, there must be a raging fire somewhere, but this is one that the City of New Orleans and its various firefighters seem loath to fight, even in the low waged service economy that dominates all of these communities. At the ten year anniversary of Katrina there will be lots of commemorations, but few celebrations of this increasing crisis.

Rewriting the Rules

Rewriting-rulesNew Orleans              The AFL-CIO has already begun the process of vetting potential Presidential candidates, offering the opportunity to any of the score that has an interest in coming by, which so far means all the Democrats and Republican ex-Arkansas Governor and current TV commentator Mike Huckabee. Interestingly, Rich Trumka has indicated that the AFL’s key benchmark flows from a new report spearheaded by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz of Roosevelt University with the input of a host of others. The report is called “Rewriting the Rules,” so let’s take a look at its proposals.

Not surprisingly, Trumka and the house of labor are no doubt pleased to see the ringing endorsement of expanded labor rights and promotion of collective bargaining as important principles to re-establish in the economy. The clearest proposal in this area recommended that the federal government add clear conditions not only to governmental subcontracts but to development grants to protect and advance union protections and bargaining. The rest was predictable.

The point of the report is that the rules matter. No rules, which is what the long desert of deregulation in so many sectors produced, tilted the economy to the 1% and allowed Wall Street and other cowboys to herd us into the Great Recession. Remember it wasn’t just “no rules,” but “bad rules,” which is the point here, too. “Rewriting the Rules” is an argument that in order to re-balance the economy and its myriad winners-and-losers, our politicians and the government need to put new regulations in place that would allow us to prosper and to do so more equitably.

Perhaps most interesting were the recommendation for reforming the financial sector, because this is right in the wheelhouse for Stiglitz and many of his helpers:


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMEnd “too big to fail” by imposing additional capital surcharges on systemically risky financial institutions and breaking up firms that cannot produce credible living wills.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMBetter regulate the shadow banking sector.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMBring greater transparency to all financial markets by requiring all alternative asset managers to publicly disclose holdings, returns, and fee structures.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMReduce credit and debit card fees through improved regulation of card providers and enhanced competition.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMEnforce existing rules with stricter penalties for companies and corporate officials that break the law.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMReform Federal Reserve governance to reduce conflicts of interest and institute more open and accountable elections.


Some of those recommendations would make a difference, particularly impacting on banking and credit access and affordability. The report also takes some clear shots at what is needed to rein in the quick buck artists of business for the protection of the economy and the public.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMRestructure CEO pay by closing the performance-pay tax loophole and increasing transparency on the size of compensation packages relative to performance and median worker pay and on the dilution as a result of grants of stock options.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMEnact a financial transaction tax to reduce short-term trading and encourage more productive long-term investment.


Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.02.33 AMEmpower long-term stakeholders through the tax code, the use of so-called “loyalty shares,” and greater accountability for managers of retirement funds.


I wouldn’t hold my breath about any of this, but it is reassuring that labor at least is asking the right questions and pointing the way to some hard decisions and clear policies.


Please enjoy Rickie Lee Jones’ J’ai Connais Pas (I Don’t Know).

Thanks to KABF.

Alternative Parties have to be Built Now to Contend in the Future

third-partyNew Orleans    In recent weeks Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor with deep roots on the left dating back to the 1960’s, the student movement, and the Students’ for a Democratic Society (SDS), wrote an interesting survey piece called the “Bernie Sanders Moment” in the New York Times.

He looked at the rise of Bernie Sanders from alternative politics in the sparsely populated conservative communities of the frozen north in Vermont to these days where he is exciting crowds with progressive plain talk on the presidential campaign trail in what many had assumed would be at best a quixotic exercise. He quoted Lee Webb, another former student activist and director of a program on alternative state and local politics from DC decades ago as having advised Sanders that “you’re never gonna get anywhere in politics if you don’t join the Democratic Party.” He astutely underlines a strategy for progressives that he refers to as building “the left wing of the possible,” attributing the line to writer, activist, and socialist Michael Harrington. He then runs through the long shots, near misses, and moon shots sometimes exploding on takeoff from the Citizen Party and Barry Commoner through Jesse Jackson’s two shots within the Democratic ranks and Ralph Nadar’s Green fling, saying “…to put it mildly, third-party politics has not been popular on the left.” For Gitlin it’s enough for Sanders, like so many others before him, to be “a force” and for his brand of progressivism to achieve a longer half-life with “influence” that will “persist.”

As a broad brushed overview all that seems fair enough, but part of his conclusions are based on a weirdly perverse view of organization and party building and a contradictory understanding of his own analysis of Sanders’ success in Vermont as someone who proved he could deliver to voters and constituents. Perhaps the victim or participant in too many sectarian political debates, Gitlin believes working within the Democratic Party is hard, tedious labor and building alternative parties that achieve electoral success as Sanders did, is somehow easier, saying “Because deliverable results are so hard to come by, progressives of various ages have gone for electoral politics of the proudly, defiant independent sort.” Contrary to Gitlin’s argument or assumptions or whatever is driving his viewpoints here, not only is independent politics brutally hard work, as veterans of the New Party, Working Families Party, Richmond Progressive Association, and countless others can attest, but also, like Vermont, with persistent effort and commitment, such work elects people!

So, fifty years of organizing and what do we have to show for it, many days older and deeper in debt? Building an alternative progressive party is long, disciplined work, but it needs to be done. If Gitlin’s point is that it cannot – and should not – be done from the pride and presidential level down, then I heartily agree, but whether it is or not, the work absolutely needs to be done from the ground up now, so that ten, twenty, thirty, or another fifty years from now there is a viable political party formation that may have roots and branches in various other local and statewide manifestations, but can legitimately contend for power at every level from bottom to top. And the work needs to start yesterday, as it has in a number of communities and states around the country, and it needs to be pursued earnestly and aggressively today in the wake of what Gitlin calls the “Sanders Moment,” and build the momentum to carry forward into the future. I even think that Sanders needs to help out in the building.

The existing two-party political structure is not ordained from on high or embedded in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. These were built environments and not part of a natural order. They are political institutions welded together by people and politicians in other circumstances in local soil. These parties have been deeply embedded and privileged for a long, long time, but around the world we see regular evidence of similarly calcified institutions unshaken and unseated. It confounds me to believe that it is impossible to imagine, and then to build, something different and something better.

Or, that it is impossible for quite a long time for us to walk and chew gum simultaneously, as Sanders is doing now. Progressives can make it for a long time into the future by voting as Democrats, if that’s the best choice, every four years, while building an alternative formation from the ground up in the meantime. Candidates walk on their knees to move independents to vote for them every cycle, why should progressive not be wooed with the same ardor, rather than forced to vote by default, hand pinching nose?

That’s just sound tactics, but sound strategy is building now so that we have real options – and real power – in the future.


Please enjoy Pattie Griffin’s There Isn’t One Way.

Thanks to KABF.

An Arm’s Length Away, Then Tragedy, Then What?

8417189_GNew Orleans     A couple of weeks ago my daughter and some friends had gone to see a band from Lafayette playing at Chickie-Wah-Wah, a local New Orleans music club. She thought the price was a little steep, but paid it. Servicing and organizing bargaining units around that part of Louisiana she has come to love the music scene and the whole Acadiana vibe. As she told me later, she was so close to the band that Jillian Johnson, one of the women singers was hardly an arm’s length away. It was great!

Days later a man described as a “drifter” and a mental patient from near the Alabama-Georgia border who had been staying at the local Motel 6 in Lafayette walked into a showing of Amy Schumer’s reportedly hilarious Trainwreck and started firing. He wounded a bunch of people, many badly and he killed two young women, Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson.

This was just another in a series of tragic killings that we have allowed in the United States through our unconscionable lack of community and political will to do the right things about guns for the good of society as a whole and the families affected. Ironically, even Louisiana’s Governor, and wannabe President, Bobby Jindal, tried to jump into the fray and shame other states into at least having a program to automatically register people with mental health issues in a federal database.

Guns are not unknown to our family, but they’re not “familiar” with them. They’ve shot them. Relatives and friends hunt. I owned a BB gun as a boy and have a shotgun safely in Arkansas. We’re not fanatics, but there’s no excuse for not being smarter.

Social Policy Press is preparing to publish an e-book this fall by distinguished law professor, Franklin Strier, called Guns and Kids: Can We Stem the Carnage? It’s a good question and Strier has a lot to say about it and solid policy proposals for what needs to be done, especially to protect children. Children, include those of families victimized in Lafayette.

We often say that real social change in this country only comes whether it be about war-and-peace, women, race, gay rights, or many other issues, when it comes home to people. Where is the tipping point after Colorado, Connecticut, South Carolina, and now Louisiana when such tragedy has finally come close enough to enough of us that it is at “arm’s length” and forces change?

Reading a New York Times’ quote from Mary Tutwiler, mourning her friend, Jillian Johnson, and wanting her life to have more meaning, makes me hope that we are finally coming to the end of this road, as she says:

“In the past few days, I have been so sad and so angry, I didn’t know what to do with myself. But the thing about knowing Jillian is that in the same place, she would have taken it upon herself to do something. Things flash through my mind: better federal and state laws regulating the sale of guns, better databases, assault weapon bans. The national conversation is now personal – it’s my conversation as well.”

These words should be on the tip of all of our lips until there is real change and we have put this problem and the tragedies it brings much farther away than arms’ length.

Field Operations are Still Key in the Land of Big Data

maxresdefaultNew Orleans     Sitting around a barbeque grill in Missoula, Montana recently,  I found myself in a mini-debate with a former political science professor at the University there who taught Jim Messina, a former Obama campaign manager and master political consultant. My friend’s position echoed Messina’s own post-election spin about bad political polling, arguing that “Cameron was the only one who wasn’t surprised at the election results.” I took the position, based on discussions with ACORN United Kingdom organizers throughout the country who were in the streets organizing in the communities of Bristol, London, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Birmingham that the extent of conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s victory might have been a surprise, but from listening to our organizers on the ground, the fact that he won over the Labour Party candidate was predictable.

My friend’s point was that the campaign mechanics had gone past “big data” allowing micro-targeting to the level that in his words the Conservatives “could count the individual votes.” My point, held with equal stubbornness undoubtedly, was that field work still mattered the most and that no one trusted polling anymore anyway. Outside of the range of the barbeque’s heat the debate is really one where there is little difference in the distinction. I would agree that the tech side of political campaigning is now off-the-chain as it has advanced over the last decade, and my friend would probably agree that the field programs have as well. Our real argument might have been how in the world could we reconcile Jim Messina, long known and admired by both of us, working for David Cameron?!?

Reading reports of the early work in Iowa, the field is still the trigger there. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has 47 paid organizers already on the ground and is recruiting up to 7000 volunteers to work the caucuses more than a year away. Senator Bernie Sanders’ effort isn’t slouching on the field front either,  claiming 33 paid staff and 10 field offices. Those are small organizing armies!

Many of the organizers in both campaigns are veterans of the Obama campaigns. It is worth noting that the campaign manager for the Clinton machine is Robby Mook, who, according to the New York Times “rose through the ranks of field organizing, which has revolutionized modern campaigns.” Wish I had that quote with me in Montana!

Part of the new volunteer field methodology Mook drew from “organizing techniques of labor groups like the United Farm Workers,” according to the Times. Much of this seems to focus on the work of volunteers, using them to recruit other volunteers, and now in the Clinton campaign promoting some of the volunteers as “engagement directors” who develop the “internal organization” or “’captains’ who oversee specific tasks like canvassing.” Of course all of this is coupled with digital technology, both counting and targeting. And, of course none of this really sounds all that novel or unique, and most of it sounds like the reporter was being spun by the campaign. Other reports have already quoted Marshall Ganz, a UFW veteran, essentially prospecting for work, and we’ll be reading about “relational” organizing soon I’ll bet as well.

All of which is important for sure, but the classroom and the computer are still no substitute for hitting the doors and doing the work on the ground. Heck, the candidates – and the issues — even turn out to be important still in campaigns, which is worth remembering, too.

Grace Wherever We Find It

9780300180275New Orleans     When we hear that someone handled something with grace, we instinctively know, deep inside, what that means, but it’s hard to put a handle on it, teach it, or pass it on.  The Oxford English Dictionary takes two and half pages to try and put their arms around it for goodness sakes!

I found myself thinking of this when I read The New Yorker story of David Bradley, the very wealthy publisher of The Atlantic magazine and his role in trying to help free five hostages held, largely by ISIS, in Syria.  Part of what deepened his commitment to such an extraordinary effort had been a letter he had received from James Foley, during Foley’s first stint as a hostage.  Foley, once freed, had written Bradley a “thank you” note for his help.  Two months later Foley wrote a second, longer “thank you” note, when he had learned more thoroughly about the special role that Bradley had played in his release then.  The story by Lawrence Wright said that Bradley had copied the letter from Foley and given the copies to his children as examples of “grace.”

Grace in the religious tradition is a gift given without hope of thanks or reward, and, secularly, grace has seeped into our realities as a favor or gift without a quid pro quo or in the terms of the OED, without implying “a right or obligation.”  In their more classic language grace is the “share of favour allotted to one by Providence or fortune; one’s appointed fate, destiny, or lot; hap, luck or fortune….”

Do we see so little of this now that implicitly we have to almost collect and memorialize the examples, and, if so, how tragic that we are so beggaring our lives.  I found myself looking for more examples all around me.

Reading the paper, Dan Barry of the New York Times wrote a long column in which the word “grace” is never mentioned, but where it shone tellingly.  He was writing the follow-up to a picture taken of an African-American South Carolina state trooper, who turned out to be Leroy Smith, the head of the troopers, helping a white, elderly, black-t-shirted protestor with a Nazi-sympathizing, racist group protesting the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the capitol.  The man was suffering from what appeared to be fatigue and heat exhaustion, and Smith was helping the man up 40 stairs to the air-conditioned part of the Capitol.  There’s a picture of grace.  The story says an elderly white woman protestor trailed behind them asking the trooper if the other protestor was going to be all right.  If she did not thank Smith, that would be a good example of the absence of grace.

Maybe it’s not so rare.

Just yesterday on a scorchingly hot New Orleans day I was driving down St. Claude within blocks of my home and pulled up to a stoplight at Desire Street.  Driving this old beater, my windows are down because the air-conditioner is a historical artifact.  A man approached the window from in front of the liquor store on the corner with a sweating plastic bottle of water and reached it towards me.  I said, “No, I’m good,” assuming it was probably some kind of scam, like a free-window wash.   He kept his hand outstretched and said, “What you’re not hot? Take this water, since we can’t drink our water anyway.”  There had been a boil water notice for two days from the Sewerage & Water Board for our local water.  I took the water and then noticed behind him on the curb an open blue cooler with a handwritten marks-a-lot sign saying “Hank’s Free Water” and two young children, probably his sons, standing next to the cooler.

I yelled thanks and drove the rest of the way home.  I didn’t drink the water though.  Only minutes before I had been reading Paul Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, about “effective altruism.”    Hank and his water seemed such a vivid example of grace in action, and perhaps a small manifestation of “effective altruism,” that I knew immediately that water would never touch my lips.  It would have to find its way to my children, or better, the next stranger I see hot and thirsty on the street.