Street Art

Torino  Somehow we had discovered the Museo d’Arte Urbano (MAU) or Urban Art Museum, the first of its kind in Italy, and a fascinating demonstration of the use of art and street artists to focus on the rejuvenation of a working class neighborhood in Turin. Their own description of their project indicates that 70 some artists and neighborhood volunteers participated in a self-funded project that produced 147 different works on buildings and walls throughout the community that they describe as “Borgo Campidoglio, which was born in 1853 like a working-class neighborhood. This area still maintains its original structure, made by low houses and narrow winding streets.”

There is no building or office. No tickets or museum shop and cafe. We caught the #9 tram and got off at the border of the neighborhood according to Google Maps and started walking down a main street of sorts past multi-story apartment buildings and churches, until we saw a low slung set of cobbled streets and figured we were close. Then almost magically we saw walls with designs here and there, and windows painted over colorfully, or with whimsy, a design, or sometimes a message.

We cut into the neighborhood near a small park with benches indicating that they had been part of the MAU project, some mimicking other artists like Mondrian and others original. There was no overarching direction or collaboration in the theme or placement of the murals that we could tell. We walked from block to block often in surprise at seeing something painted behind us after we had walked by or in an area we didn’t expect. Some of the murals were signed, but most were not.

We were actually somewhat surprised that most of the works seemed apolitical. Under the influence of Bristol’s Banksy and most street artists in communities in the United States, we expected more of the works to have a message or some critical content. Of course we didn’t see all of the pieces in our random walk, but did see more than one-third. We probably could go back again and tackle another part of the neighborhood and see a completely different set of works. The UAM website says that they regularly renew the art, which may mean that the content changes over time as well. Perhaps the neighborhood itself wanted the work to to be brighter, more colorful, and less critical, since the works are on someone’s house, so it would be right for them to have a voice. It’s hard to tell.

What is easy to tell is what a difference it makes to a community. I think of the murals that have enlivened our own neighborhoods in New Orleans from the fence of our building and the wall of St. Claude Fair Grinds Coffeehouse to others throughout the Bywater and even the Marigny. Some hardly survive a season, while others seem permanent. For the most part, similar to Torino, they are free of graffiti, as if through there is an unspoken street artist code at work.

It would seem that similar self-generating and regenerating “museums” of urban art could be cobbled together in many cities bringing excitement and liveliness to lower income and working neighborhoods. Doing so might also help protect them and assure their survival and identity in the face of gentrification and other assaults for the future.

The benefits seem obvious, and what could be the harm?

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De Jure versus De Facto Racism

Torino As we move forward on the Home Savers Campaign we are finding victims of predatory practices among all communities black, white, and brown, but more often than not since these are lower income communities, there seems to be a significant tilt towards residential segregation. Lawsuits in some cities and research reports are starting to argue that this is blatant discrimination.

Reading an excellent, recently published, book, The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, marshals the evidence that the impact on our communities was not accidental. He makes the case overwhelmingly that, contrary to recent Supreme Court decisions, this is not de facto racism, meaning just the fact that that people are prejudiced and don’t care to live near each other, but is de jure racism, a matter of longstanding public policy. Rothstein sums up the argument of his book early, writing,

The Color of Law demonstrates that racially explicit government policies to segregate our metropolitan areas are not vestiges, were neither subtle nor intangible, and were sufficiently controlling to construct the de jure segregation that is now with us in neighborhoods and hence in schools. The core argument of this book is that African Americans were unconstitutionally denied the means and the right to integration in middle-class neighborhoods, and because this denial was state-sponsored, the nation is obligated to remedy it.

Rothstein demonstrates how de jure segregation worked most effectively in general housing and housing finance policy, but also in the areas of school location by local communities and tax assessment policies that over assessed lower income areas and under-assessed largely while middle income areas. The situation around redlining and the failure of the Federal Housing Authority to guarantee mortgages in non-white areas until the mid-1970s is well known, but Rothstein moves the clock back as well, citing a 1910 Baltimore “ordinance prohibiting African-Americans from buying homes on blocks where whites were a majority and vice versa.” He notes that similar zoning restrictions were passed in Atlanta, Birmingham, Miami, Charleston, Dallas, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, and Richmond among other cities.

De jure segregation was not just a Southern and border state phenomena. Taking the segregation and siting of public housing projects as an example, he notes that a dozen states passed laws in the 1950s requiring a popular vote before approval of a location. That dirty dozen included California, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, hardly Southern strongholds. He tells the story of the committed segregationist city fathers of Boston, Massachusetts who built the Mission Hill housing project, where I hit the doors as a young organizer, and then built a Mission Hill Extension, so that the first was black, and the second was white. The fight to keep Detroit a haven for white homeowners propelled neighborhood segregationist into the mayor’s office there. Rothstein also effectively argues that suburbanization was a governmental supported and enabled segregation project.

And, of course he revives the argument that rent-to-own and installment land purchases in urban areas, forced by the inability to acquire home ownership by minorities in any other way, created ghettos and exploited African-Americans. As we know from hitting the doors in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Detroit, Akron, and so many other cities with ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign, that’s still the case.

Finishing the book or walking the streets of urban America, there’s never a doubt that governmental fiat blocked natural integration and mandated segregation. When will justice be served and a remedy be offered?

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On the Espresso Trail in Torino

Torino It was a good day at the main location of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on Ponce de Leon Street in New Orleans. Largely due to the inspiration of Cafe Degas across the street from the coffeehouse the Saturday evening after Bastille Day for something of a block party celebration. We do our small part by waving French flags from the balcony and see who wants a cup of coffee before they head home. There’s good spirit, and it’s not one of the military parades that President Trump greets with such relish, since it’s much more of a family affair.

In solidarity, my companera and I walked the streets of the city from dawn until dusk in Italy in the fascinating city of Turin, as English maps call it, and Torino, as the city calls itself. In a full disclosure, I’m a Fair Grinds blend coffee-and-chicory guy. I squirrel away a pound for an over two-week trip like this and try to ratio it so that I can have one or two cups of home brew every day on the road. Mi companera though has become an espresso girl in recent years. She was a stove topper in the manner that we learned in Buenos Aires for a while. Then she went with an Italian brand made somewhere around Milan. I got her an espresso maker for her birthday last year, and recently she got it working to her satisfaction.

recycling in Torino

But, as they say, “when in Rome,” and in this case we were in Torino, and though I was hoarding Fair Grinds coffee-and-chicory, it only make sense and good company to join my companera for an espresso in a bit of field research for our coffeehouses. Howard Schultz, the billionaire behind Starbucks, famously claimed that his experience drinking espresso in Italy drove him to evangelize for coffee and propelled his chain forward. In truth Starbucks did a lot of things but not as much for coffee as it did for milk, by creating a fetish for all manner of drinks that were not simple shots of espresso.

super recycling station

I’ve had some good espressos with perfect crema, the layer of foam on top, but what has amazed me more is the wide variety in pricing. We had a near perfect cup this morning on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II for one euro a cup and I spent another euro on a delightful nut and confection bar called a “torinocino.” That might not be exactly the right name, so I’ll obviously have to go back and have another and write it down this time to see if we can get someone to make them at Fair Grinds. Darned this field research is hard work. Elsewhere it has been a euro thirty, a euro twenty, and a euro fifty. In France sometimes it was two euros. One euro seems right, since that’s more than a dollar in the States, and no matter how good, there are only a couple of sips to it.

Mi conpanera thought she should help out and wanting something cold she spotted some women at the coffee bar in the marketplace near the River Po spooning a white substance out of their glasses from a machine with Eraclea labeled on it. Turned out this was a granita, and Eraclea makes a bunch of them with different mixes. Hers had a lemon flavor, I thought, and pineapple she felt, so maybe it was both or neither.

one of many public water fountains in Torino

Of course one of the reasons she swears by espresso is that the machines require filtered water to work well, and of course that means no lead to the head. Fair Grinds uses filtered water on all of our machines, and we assume the same goes for the espresso makers of Torino.

There are worse ways to spend your time that trying to figure out the city and stand at a coffee bar and take a couple of quick sips to down an espresso shot.

park bench along the River Po

A glass espresso on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II

Eraclea granita machine

An espresso along the River Po

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Seasonal Dilemma: Piling on the Work and Building Momentum

Torino, Italy  Bastille Day is a big celebration in France. Heck, President Trump even came over for the party, because he heard there were going to be tanks, troops, and tricolors everywhere. He also reportedly wanted to practice his handshakes, and see if he could get his grip on.

In Grenoble, it was business as usual. We had seen a stage being erected in a city center park the night before, but the streets and passersby seemed the same as always. For our part we were meeting right until we had to shuffle off to catch the train to Torino, the million-person industrial city in northern Italy.

Summer in the United States for a rural membership-based organization is difficult, because farmers and ranchers are working from dawn to dusk, but for an urban organization, it’s “hot times in the city,” and an opportunity to pour it on and make things happen. Looking back on ACORN’s history, I often thought that August was the month when we pulled off some of our largest actions and won some of our biggest victories. Momentum would build throughout the summer as new organizing drives were underway, offices were swelled with staff, interns, and volunteers, and major campaigns were launched before Labor Day in early September. Days were long, so doorknocking could go past 9 PM. Weather was good. Tempers were short. We planted and reaped the organizational harvest in summer.

Planning is hard this time of year for our French affiliate. From almost the middle of July until early September, and certainly most of August, many people take vacations, including our organizing staff, so the month almost becomes an entitled holiday and the organization and its offices virtually shut down as well. That means a flurry of planning and meetings before the end of July, and then the difficult task of reestablishing consensus and rebuilding momentum for a furious September through November, before work comes almost to a stop in December in order to rekindle in January. Organizing prime time is vacation time. Leadership and organizing directors have to puzzle through how to come out of the blocks running in September as everyone drifts back from the holidays. That’s not easy!

We found ourselves in a similar flurry. Timelines had to be established so work could begin on the Organizers’ Forum the last week of September in Casablanca, if not the work would not begin before the August shutdown. The community-labor training outside of Paris at the end of November also had to be sequenced and tasked. Campaign negotiations on both sides of the Atlantic had to be factored in and scheduled. Memos organized, training sites identified for next year, and on and on. Hiring and filling in for staff leaves and transitions had to be factored.

The list seemed endless. Trump caught the fireworks. We caught the train.

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The Pleasures of Meeting with Local Leaders

Grenoble   Your average person on the street would say that sitting in a meeting for a couple of hours conducted in a foreign language with only occasional translation would be right there on the list with watching paint dry, but they would be wrong. For perhaps the fourth time in the last two years I was a guest at the local board meeting of the Alliance Citoyennne, ACORN’s affiliate in Grenoble, and, as always, it was a pleasure. As a leader said during our meetings in Paris earlier, “Grenoble is the Little Rock of France,” meaning that just as Little Rock was the founding city of ACORN, so does Grenoble have the pride of place in starting the Alliance on its successful path.

It was hot in Grenoble and though the office has small fans propped on many a desk, and none of the humidity of New Orleans, making it all still highly tolerable, meetings quickly move to the shade of the trees in front of the coop offices. A card table holds the papers, and chairs are clustered around. I enjoyed the fact that when I sat down, I knew everyone of the board members now from my last visit, so it was like seeing old friends. Even the one member who missed his train, was well known to me. Rather than stumbling through the cheek kissing greeting of France, I could appreciate the good will of greeting people again. It was cool in the shade and there was a steady breeze, so who could complain?

The agenda before the board was difficult. There had been a hard slough of conflict with mistakes made and tough lessons learned throughout the last year. Some leaders had left. There had been difficult staff transitions. The mere fact of conflict itself had been trying on everyone. I could repeat how natural and normal this was in a new organization’s life a million times, and that would not have made anyone feel any better. The board had grown though. These were now veteran leaders well used to each other and prepared to lead. The board had also completed the transition to a governance structure that was almost completely composed of members elected from the local group membership which also made a difference.

The hardest issue the board tackled was how to deal with the decision around a new head organizer for the Grenoble organization. They had a strong 3-person staff, but that almost made the process more difficult, wanting to both keep everyone on the team, but also pick a leader of the team. Any decision would set an important precedent throughout the organization about how much the leadership wanted to manage and direct the process, and once in, would there ever be a way out? There was a lot of discussion back and forth and various proposals, including individual interviews with each organizer. The added difficulty had been the fact that the staff had proposed a candidate in recent weeks, but the board had not come to consensus around the candidate. Finally, the board directed that the overall Alliance head organizer needed to meet with the staff and essentially, work it out, and come to agreement with the staff and then make a recommendation that the board could either accept or reject, while protecting its position to determine policy. It was the right decision.

Talking about the future, they planned a discussion on an exciting campaign to run their members and leaders to the government boards of all of the public housing projects where they had strength. The elections are held every four years and the next is in 2018. This is the area where leadership that has been developed in these kinds of struggles can shine. I was enthusiastic.

The meeting ended on a high note, and, this being France and Grenoble, and this great group of leaders, then we ate homemade chocolate cake with raspberries and whipping cream on top! C’est bon!

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Musicians are Permanent and Precarious Gig Workers

Grenoble  We have spent a lot of time trying to figure out if there are effective ways to organize informal and precarious workers. This was a front line topic for our organizers from around the world when we gathered in Paris recently. A pilot is making progress with hotel housekeepers and cleaners in Lyon, France. In the UK, our ACORN tenants’ union is increasingly getting questions about whether we can be their union on the job as well. Certainly in the United States this is part of our daily work, and we are soon launching a project in New Orleans among itinerant and precarious hospitality workers. Certainly we have experience in this area in organizing home-based workers in childcare and home health, as well as street vendors and waste pickers in India and elsewhere.

The constant publicity and attention given to the gig economy and its economic challenges questions whether or not there is any consensus that such an economy can produce wage security. A unique plan under discussion by ACORN’s New Orleans affiliate revolves around whether or not people can save their homes and livelihoods by adding additional, affordable housing units on their existing home lots in a different kind of in-fill development. Others are even trying AirBnb, if they can master the confusing local regulations. Uber, under pressure, seems to be adding a way for drivers to collect tips and calculating refunds where it scammed drivers on taxes.

I’m skeptical both philosophically and practically. At home or on the road, email is still everywhere, and as the manager of both radio stations like KABF and WAMF and performance venues like Fair Grinds Coffeehouses, I am constantly, and creatively, being solicited by aspiring musicians to play their music or allow them space on the calendar, despite the fact that the stations are noncommercial and playing the coffeehouse means busking for tips. I’m sympathetic to both their dreams and ambitions, as well as their plight, which sometimes includes where they can get cheap housing or free food, even though, as nonprofits and social enterprises, we are too strapped to be helpful without robbing Peter to pay Paul ourselves,.

All of which pushed me to read How Music Works by former frontman of Talking Heads and longtime musician and artist, David Byrne. This is a love letter to music and a Cook’s tour of his career, but the book is also an invaluable primer on the business of music, and there’s no sugar in that coffee. Byrne makes a case for how important “event” spaces and venues are in creating and supporting a music scene. I wish we could provide that, but we fall short on his standards. It is hard for us to supply food and drink to traveling musicians when that means taking food and drink out of the hands of organizers and our members around the world, but I hope he would understand that.

Byrne is clear about his situation. He’s successful and makes a good living, but he certainly didn’t get crazy Rolling Stones rich from his music or other songwriting. When he goes through the various business models on record deals, the old ACORN chant of “predatory lender, criminal offender” was ringing through my ears. On my blog we try to feature a song sent to KABF from time to time to help out the artist. Recently, I got a note from one of the musicians about whether I could link to streaming or something too complicated for me to follow so that maybe he could pick up some iTunes purchases. In a similar way, a friend recently posted on Facebook how she pledges to radio stations to fight the notion that good music and entertainment can be provided for free.

If musicians are a good example of the gig economy, then the verdict is already in, and if music does NOT pay, even when musicians are doing the work, and their work is generally valued and respected more than other precarious workers like cab drivers, cleaners, and hospitality workers, then we’re simply watching the creation of a permanent underclass, not a tech-miracle. Spin that record differently the next time you hear it.

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