Going Old School with the Teachers’ Union

indexNew Orleans    I have hugely mixed feeling about my old high school in New Orleans, but finally I found myself in a situation, sitting next to another alum, my daughter, Dine’, where I found that I had never been prouder of the teachers at Benjamin Franklin High School than on that night in that auditorium.   In the long and bitter post-Katrina story, these were real heroes as 85% of the faculty had stepped forward and stood up by organizing the United Teachers of Franklin affiliated with the United Teachers of New Orleans, a local of the American Federation of Teachers.

Few will forget that one of the most ignominious stories of the aftermath of hurricane was the “never waste a crisis” mentality that found the school board terminating more than 5000 teachers and school employees and not reopening the schools in the fall of 2005, allowing the state and those trying to take over the system to seize most of the schools through the so-called Recovery School District and launch what continues to be the largest charter school pilot in the country.  Part of the collateral damage of course was also the devastation of UTNO, the largest, and arguably the strongest, union in New Orleans and voiding of all collective bargaining agreements.  Successful lawsuits filed at that time for the termination and rehiring proved breeches of the contract and though they are still pending should add up to billions, if there was justice in any settlement.

The Franklin story was one of the travesties of that time, since not only was it universally seen as the best public high school in the city and state, but it was also ranked annually as one of the top schools in the country.  The charterization of the school was little more than unaccountable and unconscionable re-purposing of a huge public asset by an insider group wanting less interference from the elected school board, read African-American, leadership in the overall supervision of the school.  Sitting at the public hearing called by the board on the question of whether to recognize the Franklin teachers’ union, no one commented on the fact that in this majority African-American city the board sitting in the front rows lacked any African-American representation, but that’s another story.

The teachers were eloquent in making their presentation.  They wanted equity, rather than a wildly arbitrary pay scale benefiting “picks and chooses” of the principal, now being paid $172,000 according to the on-line Lens report, they wanted job security rather than an annual application process, and they wanted a voice in educational policy from their position in the classroom rather than lectures from lawyers and accountants.  Who could disagree?  As it turned out almost no one.  Parents and students spoke in support of the teachers.  A couple of alums demonstrated their anti-union animus in one case offending the teachers by calling them “amateurs” in a misplaced point about Latin roots, and in another case just sort of whining about the surprise to hear of a union and the wishing it would all go away.

I had my 2-minutes to express solidarity in behalf of our family.   It was easy to punch holes in the notion of “collaboration” when collective bargaining better expressed – and guaranteed – such a voice.  It was easy to remind everyone there that it was teachers and students that every study and all personal experience proved made education work and not “bricks and sticks.”   It was even easy to remind the crowd that the values of the school itself spoke to allowing these special teachers to have a special voice.  Finally, as an organizer of a union, I was able to remind them that the teachers already had built a union, now they had to get used to it.

Larry Carter, the head of UTNO, spoke shortly after I did and reminded them that UTNO was no longer the old UTNO and that the teachers at Franklin now had their own, almost autonomous union chapter.  He didn’t say that it was all different now because if the Franklin teachers are able to win a contract, they will be the only teachers in New Orleans to have organized independently and done so and won a contract on their own.  The anti’s were at best fighting ghosts.  The teachers were fighting for the future.

That’s the true Franklin spirit, and as proud as I was of the teachers, for a change I was even proud to say that I was a Franklin graduate.


Jazz Fest Highlights the Contractions of New Orleans

bicycle memorial on st. claude

bicycle memorial on st. claude

New Orleans     The annual Jazz and Heritage Festival or Jazz Fest, as it’s universally known in New Orleans, has become a big time event over the years.   I had folks come into town for a board meeting recently and trying to find a place the out-of-towners would like to try, several restaurants had special reservation requirements – and prices! – for what they called the “festival season.”  That was a new one on me, even though it makes perfect sense, because it used to be only the Sugar Bowl and Mardi Gras were the tourist scalping times, but now, it’s always open season for that, and French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest, and other spring music-themed promotions have become huge.   We don’t mind partially because we always see old friends from around the country who make this part of their regular pilgrimage, and of course with Fair Grinds Coffeehouse only a couple of blocks away from the racetrack Jazz Fest venue, it’s wild there for a couple of weekends, sometimes even making an extra dollar to support ACORN International’s organizing because of it.

Fair Grinds for Jazz Fest

Fair Grinds for Jazz Fest

Having friends and foreigners around though, they always ask about changes in the city, and the standard, post-Katrina question, now almost 9 years on, “how’s the city doing?”  Well, there’s never a simple answer for example if you take the 9th Ward and Bywater, where I live and in following my book a couple of years ago, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, New Orleans and the Lessons of Disaster, an area of the city I keep a close watch over.

Bywater didn’t flood, meaning that rents and housing values skyrocketed, and an influx of hipsters, newcomers, and randoms, find the neighborhood under full-on gentrification assault.  The hipsters are not without humor and perhaps they are keeping some of the gentrifiers somewhat at bay.

couch on press street...keeping sense of humor

couch on press street…keeping sense of humor

On one hand we see infill construction, which ONLY happens in gentrifying areas, including a squeezed in project to build seven shotgun singles in the former parking lot of the old Frey meat packing plan.

infill construction of spec houses from Frey Meat Plant in Bywater

infill construction of spec houses from Frey Meat Plant in Bywater

But on the other hand, the same developers off-loaded the Plant and did so when they couldn’t convince anyone that they wanted to live in $400-450000 condos that they had proposed building in the Plant, so they’re now trying to sell the whole shebang for $3 million.

failed project to create $400000 condos in the plant

failed project to create $400000 condos in the plant

For its part, the City seems confused.  On one end of the neighborhood sits the rusting, fenced in F. Edward Hebert defense complex, waiting for a plan not far from the subdued, much delayed opening of the city’s Crescent Park.

abandoned F. Edward Hebert Defense Facility and Crescent Park along the River

abandoned F. Edward Hebert Defense Facility and Crescent Park along the River

The bridge over the railroad track is one of the highest climbs many New Orleanians will ever muster.


the bridge climb

Farther down in the lower 9th ward, people are less happy about that park, because research done by A Community Voice, the former New Orleans ACORN, indicated that the money had been diverted for the park from recovery money designated for reconstruction efforts in the lower 9th ward.  Where Bywater between the 2000 census and the 2010 census saw its racial mix flip from 30% white and 70% minorities to 70% white and 30% minorities, the lower 9th ward, particularly in the areas hardest hit by flooding is still overwhelmingly African-American.  The Brad Pitt “Make it Right Foundation” and its architectural oddities have been curious additions, but not without their own contradictions, one of the most stark is an eyesore of an abandoned gas station near the bridge at the entry to the lower 9th which pretends to be for sale, but was bought by the Make It Right Foundation years ago, but shows no progress even after all these years.

gas station bought by Make it Right Foundation and still sitting abandoned 8 1/2 years later

gas station bought by Make it Right Foundation and still sitting abandoned 8 1/2 years later

The City of New Orleans is now the largest property owner in the lower 9th thanks to the buyouts after the hurricane, but their policies are nothing but contradictory.  On our ACORN Farm they whine if a piece of our grass, even where we have to hand cut, gets over 18 inches, even while other properties hardly yards away get the blind eye.

bushwacking at the ACORN Farm

bushwhacked at the ACORN Farm

a couple of blocks away

a couple of blocks away

All of which confuses individual homeowners who are still trying to rebuild on their own next to neighbors and an indifferent city administration who are still stuck at the storm.

trying to rebuild in the L9

trying to rebuild in the L9

rebuilding of your own

still stuck at Katrina’s door

So, how are we doing in New Orleans?  It depends on who you ask, where you are standing when you ask, and whether or not you really want to face the consequences of the answer.


Katrina’s 8th Anniversary and the ACORN Farm

New Orleans   Even in New Orleans we have been saying for years that the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and even the recovery has fallen off the front pages, but on the 8th anniversary, even in the local papers you have to search for any mention of the storm, and elsewhere the date is passing unnoticed, even though the aftermath of Katrina’s wake is still ever present here.

            We are noting the date in our own way though. 

Two years ago when my book, Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster  , told the story of successfully preventing large parts of the 9th Ward from being forced into a return to cypress swamps, I was clear that the work there had hardly begun.  Now at the 8th anniversary hardly 25% of the population in the lower 9th has been able to return and driving through the area is rough roads and a checkerboard of mown lots which are owned by the City of New Orleans by default from the Road Home program and overgrown and abandoned lots from owners still in limbo.   Six years ago, ACORN completed the construction of the first new homes in the lower 9th on Delery Street, and now at the 8th year mark we are signing the papers on what will be the purchase by ACORN International of four lots adding up to one-half acre at Law and Delery right down the block where we will develop the ACORN Farm.

            The ACORN Farm will be a sustainable organic operation growing fresh produce and over time hopefully citrus, bananas, and more for residents, members, and farm associates with a direct marketplace through the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse for its primary sourcing and to its customers for any surplus production.  Yesterday on the eve of the anniversary we began conversations with Sankofa, another urban agriculture project in the lower 9 and a farmers’ market operation, on locating their greenhouse on the ACORN Farm where we can all benefit.  There’s talk about chickens.  We are studying about bees and producing our own honey.   This is where another chapter starts for the future.

            I talked to the ACORN Farm neighbors on the same block.  One is in Gonzales near Baton Rouge.  His house sits empty across the street.  Next door to the farm is a metal building where he once stored the equipment for his lawn maintenance business.   He wishes he were not driving a truck for someone else now.  When I asked about the building, he is still unsure about his future plans.

            I understand him fully.  Only now have I finally made a plan with a friend to work with me in January next year to finally rebuild the decking on our now long fishing camp. We’ll put a tent up and a shed.   A new camp would just wash away again, but it will be fun with a smaller footprint in an uncertain future.   A map in the current National Geographic postulated that by 2100 on current models with melting ice caps and climate change, seas would be up 5 feet and we would be underwater along with all of Florida, the East Coast cities, Houston, and more.  We could buy waterfront property now in Pine Bluff and wait for the water to reach us.  Meanwhile a $25 billion debt in flood insurance without Congressional action could make anything other than a tent pitched on some pilings at our fishing camp across Lake Pontchartrain only possible for Wall Street bankers with fat wallets.

            Katrina and a full recovery can fall out of focus, but the aftermath and shock effects are still in front of us everywhere here and reverberating around the country.



Tom Wooten’s Disaster Myopia: Too Close and Too Far Away

9780807044636Rock Creek   Yes, I still read Katrina books, even as we are fast approaching the beginning of the 9th year since the storm on August 29, 2005.  Having written one myself, I respect the small fraternity of writers who have tried with varying success to put their arms around the disaster and somehow wrestle lessons from the tragedy.  Reading that Tom Wooten, a relatively recent Harvard graduate had written about flooding disasters in both India and New Orleans was especially interesting to me, so for my wor-cation, I brought both of them to river to read. 

            The first book written with Utpal Sandesara, No One Had a Tongue to Speak:  The Untold Story of One of History’s Deadliest Floods was a collection of both people’s stories and on-the-ground research about the killer tidal wave unleashed when a dam broke inundating the town of Morbi in the Indian state of Gujarat and killing several thousand easily on August 11, 1979.  Part of what made Untold Story both interesting and important was not simply the colorful cast of characters and their reflections thirty years later, but the fact that Sandesara and Wooten stumbled almost through pure luck into a trove of documents that actually shed light on investigations into the causes of the disaster.  Even thirty years after the fact and far removed from the events, Sandesara and Wooten in that book taught something important.

            Unfortunately, Wooten’s recent effort on Katrina, We Shall Not Be Moved:  Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina is only stories, some from his own interviews, and based on few facts and a fair dose of the author’s own biases and some of his myopia.  Some of his biases I was inclined to share:  the belief in local work thrumping planning, the belief that locally controlled organizations are strongest in a community, and, I stand second to no one in my belief that community organization is critical after a disaster.  Yet, despite how much I wanted to embrace the book, Wooten made it impossible, because his refusal to do the real research, rather than repeat wholesale what he was told in order to paint his just so, pat pictures crippled the book and even the stories of his recovery heroes. 

            For example his stories of the fight for recovery in the Lower 9th Ward are so naive and distorted that I found myself simply shaking my head.  Mainly Wooten wanted to pick sides.  He takes shots at the Peoples’ Hurricane Recovery efforts, which were certainly flawed, but had a place, branding them as outside agenda folks, but turns a blind eye on Common Ground’s work, which was only different because it was better, though certainly as outside.  For some unfathomable and certainly unexplained reasons he takes sides with the efforts of Holy Cross to soak up the Lower 9th Ward recovery dollars rather than sharing them with the rest of the Lower 9th, and does so by gratuitously quoting categorical falsehoods which he certainly didn’t bother to corroborate, simply sourcing them as having come from interviews by others.  One papered over the bitter fight between Holy Cross nearer the River and the rest, and poorer, Lower 9th, as if it were no problem allowing a leader in the Holy Cross area to claim that everyone supported recovery for Holy Cross first, which was absurd.  He quotes Brad Pitt in an another interview, but would have had to do some minimal research to uncover the fact that actions by ACORN members forced “Make it Right” to build outside of Holy Cross and added ACORN leader and longtime L9 resident, Vanessa Gueringer, to the advisory board.  In one quote that is beneath contempt, he uses one of his so-called heroes to take a slap at ACORN that is a complete lie, and I suspect he knows it.

            Wooten believes in outside planners if they are from Harvard and connected to the Kennedy School where he had a fellowship to write this book.   Wooten’s theory of change is that popularly driven and led membership organizations are effective (I guess other than ACORN, though everyone but Wooten acknowledges ACORN’s critical role in the recovery of New Orleans), if they start community development corporations (CDCs) and perhaps charter schools to boot, including his uncritical praise for Edison Schools, which puts him in a small camp.  Of course he also believes in “burnout,” as an excuse for stopping working, so who knows what he really thinks.

            I loved some of the people, and I loved some of his stories.  He ended one chapter on Broadmoor with a quote from Lynda Ireland, a lifelong friend of three generations of my family, who is deeply missed.  I can hardly wait to tell my daughter so she can tell one of her best friends about the fact that her mother was quoted in the book.  I learned things about Lakeview, which I had not properly studied in the past, since the middle to upper-middle income communities have never been my turf.  I gained some respect for one of the Landrieu brothers and might give the Superdome’s Doug Thornton a second chance because his wife seems like good people. 

            But unfortunately when you hitch your wagons to stars without any research, reports, or footnotes to give it the velocity to reach the moon you want to see, a crash is inevitable.  Having loved the India book, I was left worrying that perhaps some of what seemed critical there might have been a mirage as well.  Wooten says he loves New Orleans and that now the city is home, and that’s a good thing, so I will hope over time he learns more about his new love and appreciates that like any good, long relationship, the love is stronger when the understanding gets deeper, not when it is all superficial and just another pretty or sad face.


Locating Housing for the Poor: Good Intentions, Expediency, and Living with the Consequences

Robert Moses, seated at left in 1959, used his position as head of the Mayor's Committee on Slum Clearance to mass-produce thousands of units of public housing, often near the shoreline.

 Quito    One of the ironic outcomes of recent disasters, whether New Orleans or now New York, is that the public, policy makers, and politicians are finally forced to reckon with where the poor are, and often, where they have put the poor in ways that are hard to escape.  In a smaller way this is true of politics and elections as well, as we have recently seen in the sudden realization of the Republican Party that there are a whole, whopping lot of people out in America that don’t look or think like them.   Like disasters, democracy is an equally transforming experience, as I am also seeing daily in Quito and throughout Ecuador, as new and old parties try to calculate their appeal and power in places they do not know and with people they do not completely recognize because they are foreign to their daily experience.

In New Orleans ignoring the failure of public protection and the levee system, many areas that flooded were in places like the 9th Ward where land had at one time been cheap enough to allow African-American families to buy and build or where swamps had been filled sufficiently to allow developers to create cheaper land for housing expansion as the city grew.  In Quito or Mexico City or Lima, poorer and lower waged workers, immigrants, or migrants moved to where there was land, squatted, and tried to make the best of it, until cities were slowly forced to deal with the burgeoning populations and politicians were forced to figure ways to deliver to leverage their support. 

In New York an interesting piece today in the Times, “How the Coastline Became a Place to Put the Poor,” by Jonathan Mahler, looks at the role of legendary power broker and public developer, Robert Moses.

The Rockaways were irresistible to Moses. Once a popular summer resort for middle-class New Yorkers, who filled its seaside bungalows and crowded into its amusement parks, the area had fallen on hard times when cars, new roads and improved train service made the beaches of Long Island more accessible.

Never one for nostalgia, Moses saw the Rockaways as both a symbol of the past and a justification for his own aggressive approach to urban renewal, to building what he envisioned as the city of the future. “Such beaches as the Rockaways and those on Long Island and Coney Island lend themselves to summer exploitation, to honky-tonk catchpenny amusement resorts, shacks built without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living,” he said, making his case for refashioning the old summer resorts into year-round residential communities.

What is more, the Rockaways had plenty of land that the city could buy cheaply, or simply seize under its newly increased powers of eminent domain, swaths big enough to accommodate the enormous public-housing towers Moses intended to build as part of his “Rockaway Improvement Plan.” Though only a tiny fraction of the population of Queens lived in the Rockaways, it would soon contain more than half of its public housing.

In fairness of a sort, Mahler even concedes that maybe some of these re-locations might have not just been based on cheap land and eminent domain, but even “good intentions,” citing the efforts of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to clean up the slums on New York’s Lower East Side, pushing new housing towards the waterfront, which also flooded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

What interests me is not that plans go awry over time, that good intentions can create their own hells, or that concentrated high rises for the poor, the old, the infirm, and the challenged can re-ghettoize areas into new wastelands “…without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living” in the earlier words of Robert Moses, but the inability of governments, politicians, and the public to abandon their nostalgic notions of what they had hoped might be developed when they pushed the poor out of sight and fully meet the challenge of resolving the handiwork of earlier decisions and their consequences.  Without a doubt, cheap land is going to attract poorer families and poorly funded public works.  This is simply reality, regardless of the intentions, so let’s get past that.

The real problem is that whether governments push people there as in New York City or turn their heads and finally find them there in New Orleans, Quito, Lima, Mexico City, and thousands of other cities, small and large, ignorance of the government is not bliss, and the challenges created by reality have to be faced.  For want of a better way to say this, if housing is going to be separate, at least citizens and families have to be assured that it is equal.  Services have to be provided.  Transportation has to be affordable and accessible.  Jobs and work locations have to have incentives to move nearby.  Decent retail outlets have to be located in accessible areas and subsidized if necessary to ensure success.  Public schools, police, fire, health clinics and hospitals have to be built, supported, and guaranteed to perform at the same or better quality as provided anywhere else in the government’s jurisdiction.

The social contract between government and citizens cannot guarantee that there will never be mistakes or that perfection is possible, but has to warrant that every effort will be made to create equity and in simpler terms, to fix whatever is broken.  Ironically, doing so not only provides more citizen wealth, city stability and security, but on the long run saves money as countless studies have established.

Democracy encourages us to not avoid the messes we create and the problems around us because it allows people to have a voice and creates occasions where these voices cannot be ignored or silenced.  Disasters by definition are terrible and force us to stop ignoring the precarious problems we have created and reckon with the largeness of our “community” in terms of morality and human rights, easily swept aside in the hurry of everyday lives, but now no longer invisible, and recommit to the minimum standards that must be equitably guaranteed to all.

Land use is a public decision and commitment, not a matter of fate and possible fatality.


Hurricane Sandy Rapid Response from Occupy and Others

New Orleans   In The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, The Rebuilding of New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster, published last year, I had added the Lessons appendix as more and more community-based organizations sought to meet the challenges of the unexpected natural disasters that are cropping up all around us, whether in the US, Indonesia, or Japan, way too often given the crisis of climate change.  One of the clearest lessons we had learned in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was the incalculable value of volunteers.

It’s interesting, and important, to once again watch after Hurricane Sandy, in the largest city in the USA, how once again even there in the bounty of our harvest, so to speak, the quickest response in many difficult areas has been once again by volunteers.  The corollary to the lesson about volunteers seems to be that activists, often mobile with flexible or casual jobs, and a healthy dose of altruism, politics, opportunism, and tech skills seem to be an important spice in stirring the volunteer gumbo.  The Occupy Movement, which is no longer a movement, but has evolved into a loose network of activists with sporadic energy and capacity in various areas of pursuit around the country (and I mean this sincerely and in the most positive way possible!) seems uniquely able to fit this bill.  I had been hearing over the last two weeks some buzz about Occupy Sandy, being coordinated in New York City by a handful of Occupy Wall Street veterans and the energy of newbies looking for a way to be effective.

The New York Times ran a huge hooray for Occupy Sandy.  After Hurricane Katrina, we thought our coup was just getting something up on our website asking for (and receiving!) help in that long ago time of seven years ago before-Facebook.  The tech ingenuity of the Occupy Sandy crew is simply hats-off stunning!  They use Google maps for directions and drop-offs.  They were shrewd enough to get on-line on wedding registry sites for donations, which is drop dead brilliant.  And, proving again another “lesson” from my list, they have been able to use their national and even international network of “groups” and activist contacts to great effect, reportedly using a team of activist volunteers in London to keep the various facebook and other sites fresh and current.  They may not have an organization, but they certainly still have mad skills.

I’ve been proud to see the regular postings and exhortations from New York Communities for Change, the former New York ACORN, which has long had a membership base in the Far Rockaways, and the fact that they have been on a regular supply run to support their members who are still battling Sandy.  New York ACORN was a constant ally and advocate in ACORN’s Katrina work, even bringing Bloomberg down on his private jet to visit with our members in the 9th Ward, and organizing survivors from New Orleans who ended up in NYC.   It is good to see how hardwired the experience was then and how it continues to instruct the work now.

There are problems in the activist-volunteer post-disaster work, even at its best, which we may be seeing in Occupy Sandy.  I recently read The Fight for Home:  How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back by Daniel Wolff which focused heavily on the many ups and many downs of the Common Ground effort after Katrina.   The Common Ground Clinic operation in Algiers on the West Bank of the city which was not flooded by Katrina rightly earned Common Ground huge respect and support.  Sometimes dealing with their later efforts in the 9th ward were more challenging, since ACORN members didn’t always see eye-to-eye with some of the activities and practices of this more off-beat operation.  The book details the leadership problems of Common Ground which became somewhat notorious when one of the key architects of its operation later came out in Austin as an FBI informant causing havoc near and far.  I didn’t need the reminders of the more difficult experiences since the same guy had occasionally showed up in bizarre circumstances in ACORN’s office on Elysian Fields (shown twice in a recent Treme show incidentally).  Another time, I had just come into downtown from the airport and had to turn around immediately with organizers of New Orleans ACORN to pull the daughter of old friends and comrades out of a wildly sketchy and dangerous crash pad being run by Common Ground in a rough, unlit, unlocked part of central city.

The point being that as good as it all can be, the rough ledger of “by any means necessary,” here-today, gone-tomorrow can also leave many rough edges, and lots of local residents and well meaning volunteers, hanging a long way from high and dry.   We need the protocols and practices to build long term programmatic and progressive response to disaster that build our organizations and our political capacity, and volunteers and activists are a crucial part of these formulas, but in applying the immediate bandaids, we also need to be constantly vigilant that we are also providing the long terms cures and solutions.

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