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.

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.

LSU and Louisiana Silence the Truth of Corps of Engineers’ Levee Failure after Katrina

New Orleans   Seven and a half years have ticked off the calendar since Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  At this point it is widely conceded, common knowledge, and general consensus that the heart of the destruction of New Orleans came from the “catastrophic structural failure due to pressure bursts” in the words of Ivor van Heerden, who at the time was deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center and a professor at Louisiana State University (LSU) at the main Baton Rouge campus.

Van Heerden made it clear publicly that the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers was categorically wrong in saying that the levee breach was due to “overtopping” from the hurricane surge, which they were saying at the time.  He went on to say that that along the Industrial Canal that flooded the lower 9th Ward that the breechings “all show plenty evidence of catastrophic structural failure due to bad engineering or bad design or bad construction or bad foundations.”  Subsequent studies by various panels of structural engineers from throughout the United States and internationally have established van Heerden’s early analysis to have been accurate.

In classic “kill the messenger” fashion within months LSU muzzled van Heerden by blocking his ability to speak to the press, pushed him out of his Hurricane Center post, and deep-sixed his contract as a professor at the school.  LSU also claimed none of this had to do with him nailing the Corps of Engineers for the levee failure or the fact that LSU received grant money from the Corps.  Oh, no, they said.  Meanwhile van Heerden was standing on the platform of academic freedom and free speech and showing up on the news everywhere.  After being busted out of his job at LSU, he filed suit against the university and the state three years ago, all of which was scheduled to go to trial next week in Baton Rouge on February 19th, but suddenly last week a settlement was reached.

Thanks to the Baton Rouge Advocate it is now clear that the settlement was suddenly and magically reached when the judge ordered that hundreds of emails and other documents would not be excluded from evidence.  Now that the documents are part of the court record it is now clear that just as van Heerden alleged, LSU officials and state government officials had indeed moved quickly to silence him for his remarks at the breech at the Industrial Canal where hundreds of low income, African-American residents were drowned.

The emails are shocking and their attack on van Heerden was immediately in response to his report putting the responsibility at the feet of the Corps of Engineers.  An official of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources the next day had sent a message to Governor Blanco’s assistant for coastal activities and chairwoman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority suggesting that the LSU president be advised to “get his staff under control.”  She had then emailed van Heerden’s boss within 26 minutes saying “This is astounding and must be stopped!!”  After van Heerden briefed Governor Blanco for several hours on his analysis of the levee failure, the emails indicate his boss still sucking up Ms. Sidney Coffee on the coastal restoration committee, assured her that van Heerden was not part of the LSU team that had helped the Corps “develop the chief engineer’s report.  So, he does not represent the wider coastal science and engineering community.”  The head of LSU’s Office of Communications and University Relations put a sock in van Heerden’s mouth, but later had to rescind that order when LSU was overwhelmed by media requests, and then when the Times reported that there were on-campus criticism of van Heerden, he wrote the Times claiming there had been no such effort, taking the pattern of lies yet another couple of miles deeper into the hellish hole that LSU and the State of Louisiana had dug around their toadying to protect their measly grant monies from the feds rather than protecting the safety of residents in the 9th Ward of New Orleans or seeing that they would find justice in the future.

LSU and the State seem to have been particularly galled that van Heerden was a showboat.  The judge also ordered last week that van Heerden’s personal financial information, including the fact that he owned a $126,000 personal yacht, be allowed in the court record, which van Heerden had opposed.  Van Heerden was probably afraid that the jury would award him less money on the case if they were offended about the fact that he had done well on the grandstand even though given the hard backside boot by LSU and Louisiana.

I am confident that he this unreported settlement was a big payday for van Heerden, and clearly it should have been, since LSU and the state were guilty as charged.  The venality of relationships between all sorts of institutions, regardless of their claims of mission and principles, and their donors and constant pursuit of funding is so pervasive that it rarely provokes comment anymore.  Everyone seems to simply assume that that is the way it is so perhaps that is the way it should be.  Disgusting!

There is no one in the 9th Ward of New Orleans who cares whether van Heerden was a showboat or a working barge.  Both roll through the Mississippi River in sight of many of the houses throughout the neighborhood on a daily basis.  The riverboats blow their whistles on the calliopes on board.  No one minds, as long as they sail and don’t sink.  Same for this mess.  It’s the message that counts, not the messenger.  Who cares if van Heerden was rich or poor, a loudmouth self-aggrandizer or a humble public servant?  The point should have always been to come to the truth to correct the problem and protect people in the future, and after billions have now been spent on levee protection around New Orleans some small steps have been taken in the right direction.  It seems we still have van Heerden to thank for that and not LSU or some of the commissions and agencies and individuals sworn to protect us, and that’s the worst tragedy here and one that no amount of money will resolve.

[More information available on all of this through Social Policy Press and my book, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster.]

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.

Mandate Real Equity after Disasters with Democracy

New Orleans   Hurricane Sandy was tragic in every way that one can imagine, but it was also tragic in the same way that all “acts of god” reduce the scale of mankind’s hand in the environment as inconsequential in the face of nature.  In the wake of even larger devastation from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast were protected by some as exotic and unique cultural oddities and roundly condemned by others as fools who tempted fate with every breath and got what they deserved.  Outsiders, and even some insiders, argued that whole expanses of the city, somewhat randomly, should not be rebuilt but allowed to return to cypress swampland and natural selection.  ACORN was accused at one point of “reckless endangerment” for joining our membership in fighting for the “right to return” to their homes and communities, when some felt they should be forced to seek high ground.

Earlier I predicted that one positive outcome to this terrible Sandy tragedy, since it occurred in New York City and the East Coast heartland of opinion and policy, might be discussion and debate about realistic policy and solutions for communities at the blunt edge of the collective climate change catastrophe.  Michael Kimmelman in his column in the New York Times entered the debate today in an interesting, though ultimately unsatisfactory way.

Kimmelman makes several points about dealing with the impact of the New York City disaster.  He believes “business as usual,” should not be the default mode, and criticizes politicians including President Obama for promising to help people rebuild.  He notes that in a democracy confronting a disaster that there are important issues of equity that have to be addressed, including potentially why gazillions will be spent protecting businesses in lower Manhattan Island and trying to bar rebuilding in the Far Rockaways, some parts of Staten Island, and other barrier locations.

This sort of conversation is a third rail of American politics, so it’s no wonder all presidents promise to rebuild and stick taxpayers with the tab. That billions of dollars may end up being spent to protect businesses in Lower Manhattan while old, working-class communities on the waterfronts of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island most likely won’t get the same protection flies in the face of ideas about social justice, and about New York City, with its open-armed self-image as a capital of diversity.   But the decisions ahead come down to nature and numbers, to density, economics and geology. Our relationship to the water can’t stay the same, and at the same time the city is not worth saving if it sacrifices its principles and humanity.  So the real test post-Sandy will be negotiating between the two.

At the same time that Kimmelman seems to “get it,” he veers wildly off the road in crediting anti-democratic formations, think China, and then read the recent article on railway construction in The New Yorker:

Our election cycle tends to thwart infrastructural improvements that can take decades and don’t provide short-term ribbon-cutting payoffs for politicians, which is why it’s a wry commonplace among engineers and architects that autocratic regimes make the most aggressive builders of massive projects.

And, then after such a good start at recognizing the issues, even raising the right question about whether or not in dealing with climate change we can “accomplish this in time and fairly?,” he veers dangerously and nostalgically towards Robert Moses, who epitomized autocratic and undemocratic development in a democracy!  He finishes by walking away from the very questions he asks:

Robert Caro wrote in the 1970s that Moses “bent the democratic processes of the city to his own ends to build public works,” albeit “left to themselves, these processes proved unequal to the building required.” “The problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting,” Mr. Caro added, “is one which democracy has not yet solved.”   And it still hasn’t.

What a complete barrel of bull we end up with in this short essay.  Hardly reaches any standard of hope for a good policy outcome, including both citing Caro for belling the cat and then rationalizing the “by any means necessary” rationalizations of all developers and self-proclaimed harbingers of “progress.”

And, you wonder why liberals get a bad name?  It’s because they understand the questions fully, and then run from the logic of their answers!

Why not embrace full equity, once you acknowledge the issue?  Part of equity is realizing from the beginning that resources are unequal therefore solutions will be inadequate unless the root imbalances are leveled.  In New Orleans to call for moving everyone out of the Lower 9th Ward (ignoring the blatant racism for a minute that was involved) to “higher ground,” and not reckoning with the fact that higher ground had suddenly achieved premium pricing and no one was talking about covering the bills to achieve this goal, effectively ended the conversation.  When we traveled to Tokyo and walked on areas a dozen or more feet below sea level and saw massive locks and super-levees, it was impossible to ignore that the astronomical values of land in Tokyo rationalized the investment in real protection.  Kimmelman both argues that money is not the problem, and that residents of endangered areas have to embrace “moral hazard,” as the bankers call it for other people rather than themselves, and accept the fact of cyclical destruction and rebuilding.

Why in a democracy does it not occur that if you want to move people out of danger you have to not only provide the full resources to do so, but create incentives and equity in the relocation?  If working class communities like living by the water, why in the name of “civic unity” are they not moved to safer areas near the water?  The answer is partially that it is more expensive and that these areas are too often enclaves of the rich, so we’re dealing with the “not in my backyard” phenomena.  But, either way, moral hazard is a definition in these times of inequity.    Housing projects are homes as well, but sometimes tenants embrace moving if they are really getting better and safer housing.

Thank goodness we have some democratic norms still to force business to be “as usual” until there is a full recognition that equity must be achieved.  Kimmelman proves that the right questions are starting to be asked, but also that we have a long way before we’re still willing to grapple with real answers and humane, democratic public policies.

Battle for the Ninth: ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans & the Lessons of Disaster

As we are gearing up on the 7th Anniversary of hurricane Katrina, here is a look back on ACORN’s role in saving the Ninth Ward and lessons learned on disaster recovery and campaigns.  These video’s are from Wade Rathke’s discussion of his book,  Battle for the Ninth,  at Odyssey Bookstore in Springfield, Massachusetts on June 1st, 2012