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.

IMG_1182

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.

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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.

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