Music as a Barometer of Our Times Calls for a Better Man

New Orleans   It’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I helped my son open up at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse for the regulars. Once or twice a year it’s “training day” all over for me. I’m help, just not great help, but I don’t mind getting bossed around. It’s fun to see everyone, wish them well. After decades, Mardi Gras is a chance for me to come off the road and get a day off for me and take a Trump relief break.

Alexa is playing alternative country and that’s a nice break as well. We’ve had some problems in country music recently. I’ve loved it for years, but almost had to swear off last year. It had become boring and ridiculous. Last year there was a song that said it all, as someone whose name I didn’t catch sang, “It’s hard to be a woman in a country and western song.” She mourned the fact that it all seemed about going after a girl and driving her to the lake or river in a big pickup truck.

But, maybe times are changing? I heard a song about how the trick of driving across the border was to put a Bible on your dash. A real sign of potential change though for women, and we can hope for their men as well, is a recent release by the group, Little Big Town, called “Better Man” where the refrain continues to “wish you were a better man.” No standing by. No taking the blame. None of what my companera calls “whining women singing.” It’s mournful about losing the man, but it’s clear it simply came down to the fact he just plain wasn’t a better man. That’s a standard we have to be ready to step up and be judged by.

Here’s Better Man:

I know I’m probably better off on my own
Than lovin’ a man who didn’t know
What he had when he had it
And I see the permanent damage you did to me
Never again, I just wish I could forget when it was magic
I wish it wasn’t four am, standing in the mirror
Saying to myself, you know you had to do it I know
The bravest thing I ever did was run

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again
But I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
And I know why we had to say goodbye
Like the back of my hand
And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
A better man

I know I’m probably better off all alone
Than needing a man who could change his mind at any given minute
And it’s always on your terms
I’m hanging on every careless word
Hoping it might turn sweet again
Like it was in the beginning
But your jealousy, I can hear it now
You’re talking down to me like I’ll always be around
You push my love away like it’s some kind of loaded gun
Boy, you never thought I’d run

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again
But I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
And I know why we had to say goodbye
Like the back of my hand
And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
A better man
Better man

I hold onto this pride because these days it’s all I have
And I gave you my best and we both know you can’t say that
You can’t say that
I wish you were a better man
I wonder what we would’ve become
If you were a better man
We might still be in love
If you were a better man
You would’ve been the one
If you were a better man
Yeah, yeah

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again
And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
And I know why we had to say goodbye
Like the back of my hand
And I just miss you and I just wish you were a better man
We might still be in love, if you were a better man
Better man

And, if those lyrics aren’t enough of a surprise, then here’s a big one: the song was written by Taylor Swift, who now styles herself a pop diva.

There’s some hope for all of us and a Happy Mardi Gras!

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The Forward March of “Free” Walking Tours

a rich Spanish family’s house on the plaza as they memorialize themselves and their conquering of the Maya underfoot and the “wild men” outside their gates

Merida   I’ve had some interest in the concept of “tours” for some time. The way in which a people, a neighborhood, and a city are presented is not a trivial concern either for those doing the looking and listening or for those being observed, usually silently and sometimes like animals in the cage.

the “weight” or responsibility for the building is pictured on the architect

There is a historic arch across the street from our house in New Orleans. On a normal day several local bicycle tours stop to look at the arch commemorating soldiers from the 9th Ward who fought in World War I. It’s hard not to hear the explanation of the guides and the stories they tell and sometimes fabricate about the arch. On the street side the names listed alphabetically are all white. If anyone happens to walk to the other side of the arch, the names listed alphabetically are all black, and so it states clearly. Some guides stand in front of the arch and lecture their riders without ever suggesting they get off the bike and walk to the other side. Others see the arch as simply a rest stop and offer the opportunity to rubberneck at the houses surrounding this one block green square as they talk generally about the neighborhood. I’ve never heard anyone describe the fact that the arch was moved to its current location from the center of what was known as McCarty Square. The history that led to it being fenced and gifted to the school board from the city because neighbors on the square became afraid of too many people, and increasing numbers of African-Americans, using the park day and night is never told. The very issue of the separate spaces for the names of neighborhood soldiers, black and white, is never mentioned or condemned, nor the relative irony that even listing the names at all and allowing them in the center of the small park might have been a bit radical for that time almost one-hundred years ago either.

Our union represented New Orleans buggy drivers for a while, and some of them were clear that they unabashedly made up stories and stops based on favors from businesses and tips along the way. In the Lower 9th Ward now the post-Katrina tours are a constant issue for neighbors, because they receive no benefits from the gawking and pointing. In the coming issue of Social Policy we offer an excerpt of a book dealing with slum tourism, pro and con, which includes a long interview with ACORN’s Vinod Shetty about our members’ view of tours in Mumbai’s giant Dharavi slum where we work. At the first Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue in Brazil, my companera and I spent several days in Rio de Janiero and took a so-called “slum tour” of the favelas as this trend was beginning. My point is simple. All of this is happening in the cities around you, perhaps off your radar, but has impact both profound and political, and benefits that are either nonexistent or minimal to the those living and working while the objects of the tourists’ gaze.

pieces of Mayan temples are used to build the church walls

And, I say this after our family enjoyed and learned from a free walking tour in Merida in Mexico’s Yucatan that essentially walked among the buildings, churches, parks, and cathedral located around the city’s central plaza. Free walking tours are sometimes touted as having begun in Berlin in 2004 and according to various websites exist in 18 cities around Europe and 60 cities around the world, although a quick look reveals that this is just hype and marketing. The US National Park Service has done an excellent free walking tour around the New Orleans French Quarter for decades for example. Our Merida tour in Mexico is not on any lists.

I’m not an advocate of free labor, but it is hard to deny that having the guide dependent on tips creates incentives for an excellent presentation. Our guide in Merida was Mayan, but his thousand watt smile didn’t disguise the political and religious facts of the Spanish colonization and enslavement of Mayans, the destruction of Mayan temples to build the churches, the apology of Pope John Paul II in the Cathedral for the historic abuses, the conflict of beliefs, his derision of the city’s upper class 19th century love affair with everything French from architecture to fashion, and more.

In his case, the two hour bilingual tour was a service to the city, and should have merited the guide a position on the municipal payroll. As free walking tours are exploding around the world, if communities want to receive benefits for their people as well as make sure that the whole story is told and the contributions go to the community and the organizations making a difference, rather than see their history and futures as little more than a gratuity, they need to take their messages more seriously and recognize the power they pack.

murals in the governor’s house depict the Mayan creation story

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Getting the Lead Out of Schools

leadpsymptoms

New Orleans       Increasingly, we are going to ask which school district is going to be the last one to stand up for its children and workers and test for lead.  There really is no rational reason in the face of the devastation that lead brings to children and others and the overwhelming evidence of its ubiquitously destructive impact in schools, and for that matter, other public buildings, for any steward of public trust and responsibility not to assure communities that they are protecting the safety of families and workers.

            After our success in Houston in winning testing for lead in all the districts’ water fountains and other water sources, and what seemed to be the quick agreement in New Orleans to move in the same direction, we have been heartened.  Attention is growing as well.  PBS is coming to New Orleans to film ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice and LSU Health Science Center’s testing program in both the schools and adjoining neighborhoods.  A lead education program that is embedded in the ACV housing education classes is also going to be filmed and featured.   Three New Orleans schools have already been tested for the impact of lead on both the soil and water sources.  The PBS angle focuses on the way in which science is being used as a tool for change in the communities, which seems spot on in this fight.

Local 100 United Labor Unions was somewhat surprised that Dallas continued to drag its heels in responding to us on this issue.  With fall and the return of classes, a meeting with a school board member and resumption of school board meetings as well as an emerging coalition of various groups united in their call for such testing, found a positive response finally.  Not only are they going to do the testing, but the Dallas Independent School District also finally agreed with our position to test retirees that had been exposed to lead and other chemicals in the warehouses.

            Dallas had little choice as well because they were beginning to seem a pariah in the metroplex.  Fort Worth had already not only agreed to test all of its water fountains, but having found evidence of lead already in several of them, has moved to replace them.  Arlington, half-way between Dallas and Fort Worth, has also announced a testing program as well.  Other school districts in the Houston area, including neighboring suburban districts of Alief and Cypress-Fairbanks are also moving forward on a testing plan now.   In Texas, districts are beginning to fall in line, but although Local 100’s representative in Arkansas reported some success in lining up allies among teacher groups to push for testing in Little Rock and Pulaski County, both districts are still lagging, even as so many of the trains have pulled out of the station on this issue.

            Other public buildings where we clean, as well as state and public facilities where our members work, are high on our list as well.  The simple rule of thumb should be that wherever there is a public water fountain, there needs to be a lead test. 

How hard is that to get done?

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Katrina at 11 Years

New Streetcar Line St. Claude Groundbreaking

New Streetcar Line St. Claude Groundbreaking

New Orleans    On the Katrina anniversary this year, I’m flying out of the country for two weeks to work in the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada. It wasn’t so long ago that this was a no-fly, must-be-home day because there were commemorations, volunteer projects, and other events that noted the progress or lack of it in the years since Katrina inundated New Orleans. Katrina is in the news now only as a reference point and warning since climate triggered 1000-year rains have recently flooded parishes from the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain across from the city up the river to Baton Rouge. It’s fair to say that Katrina has been off of the front pages for some time, and now is off the back pages as well.

So, how is New Orleans doing eleven years after the storm?

In the last year a hospital opened in eastern New Orleans for the first time, and the first project in the rebuilding of healthcare in the center of the city came with the opening of the new Veterans’ hospital. That’s good, and the expansion of Medicaid finally with the election of a new governor, the first Democrat since the storm, will mean a lot to the city and the state’s lower income families.

The schools are finally on a countdown to unification after their seizure by the state after the storm and the ushering in of the largest charter school experiment in the city. The schools will finally be under the democratic control of New Orleans voters soon, though the business and charter industry is moving rapidly to control the elections. The teachers’ union, decimated by firings after the storm, is organizing again and faced two more elections this year. There was a move finally by the state to equalize support so that some of the charters, many accused of not supporting special needs children but getting a premium for more advanced programs, are screaming in opposition to the new equity in the funding formula.

The slow, slough of rebuilding and downsizing public housing is still underway, and the crisis in affordable housing is still so intense that 80,000 can’t come home, even if they wanted to do so, because there’s no place for them. The major influx has been younger and whiter. A good example of the skewed public policy was the awarding of tax credits to a developer taking over an old school property in Treme to build more affordable housing for…artists. We now will have four housing complexes for artists while public housing is still half-done. There is in-fill construction in some of the older neighborhoods like Bywater that didn’t flood, but graffiti and anti-gentrification vandalism created the opening of the old public market as too upscale for the food desert that remains in the 9th ward.

The police have announced a training program that tries to reshape the culture of the department so that officers will act rather than conceal when they see their fellow officers involved in ethical breeches. The police department reassigned all of its community-beat police because of increased crime.

There is street construction everywhere, but there are estimates that it could take another $9 billion to put the city surface roads in safe condition. Neighbors noted that a project on Galvez has been stuck in a rut for a year now with water so deep when it rains, people fear drowning. A streetcar line though is scheduled for completion from Canal Street to Elysian Fields.

I should talk about jobs, but there’s not much to say really.

So, eleven years on, we’re moving in New Orleans, that’s for certain, but still it’s too often two steps forward and one step back, and that’s where there’s progress. Sadly, there are many areas that are just plain stuck.

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More Lead Drama in Schools, but More Progress

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

New Orleans  Why aren’t all school districts in the country simply crying “Uncle” and conceding that they will test all of their schools for lead in the water? They must know this is a tide coming towards them that they cannot resist. Yet, still we find foot dragging and, in some cases, the flimsiest of excuses thrown in our way.

Last time we visited this topic, we were noting the progress made by Local 100 with the officials of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) on this issue. As we reported, they were willing to finally accelerate the testing program so that all schools in the district would be tested within 2 to 3 years, rather than the 30 plus they had initially proposed at 10 or so per year. All good. Real progress!

But, not so fast. When Orell Fitzsimmons, director of Local 100’s office in Houston talked to them in more detail about the testing program and shared information about other school districts’ program, it turned out that they were NOT planning to test any of the water fountains. Bizarre, since this is perhaps the main entry point for water to get in our little darlings’ systems. When pushed by the union and some of our school board allies, the response from the district was, “No problem. We have filters on all of the water fountains.” Problem solved.

No, Fitzsimmons and some of our members in maintenance then checked on the water fountains including the models and serial numbers. Whoops! Turns out filters were not installed on water fountains of that era. So, check and checkmate, and the district has now agreed to check all of the water fountains. The question that lingers here and elsewhere, is why the obfuscation. We’re talking about children and their safety. Why play games?

There’s also progress in New Orleans finally. A front page story on lead and a picture of leaders and members from A Community Voice, affiliated with ACORN International, demanding testing in all of the schools is finally making progress. It’s slippery, but the response has come from one of the school board members indicating they will test all schools and are going to use the better protocols from West Virginia which have become the standard nationally exceeding that of the EPA. Louisiana is also pushing the Orleans School board to notify all parents that they need to have their children tested in conformity with Louisiana State law. Needless to say that it’s happening.

Meanwhile, Local 100 members are on the move towards the school board meeting in Dallas and Little Rock at the end of this month to demand testing in these district as well. A meeting with retired workers with lead exposure is also being scheduled in Dallas. It will be interesting to see whether Dallas and Little Rock are learning something from other districts and ready to say “Uncle” and get on with it, or is going to drag this out at the risk of more workers and students?

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits

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The New Orleans Street by Street Battle Between the Old and New

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 12.35.13 PM

http://www.nola.gov/city-planning/czo/

New Orleans     Urban planning isn’t easy in any city. Add more than three hundred years of history and the challenges of geography between the great Mississippi River, Lake Ponchartrain, and the residue of swampland, the long goodbye of Hurricane Katrina, and the diverse and competing economic interests, and modern city planning faces a constant challenge in New Orleans. A recent addition to this gumbo has been something called the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance or CZO, which proponents contended would bring the city into the modern era, and more pointedly for many interests pull politics out of the process which is always a suspicious, often coded claim, and usually specious.

The adoption of the new CZO found me sitting in a meeting of the City Planning Commission for four hours in order to seek an amended zoning specification where the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement (AM/FM) wanted to locate the studio for the coming internet radio station for ACORN International and our FCC approved 100-watt low power FM radio station, WAMF 90.3. The longer I sat there, the more I felt like I was witnessing in microcosm the battle between old and new for the future of the city as it crashed into the best designs of mice and men in the CZO.

Neighbors paraded back and forth to the microphone for and against something called a “poshtel,” a 50-room hostel-hotel that developers proposed to be built on an empty industrial site in the red-hot Bywater neighborhood near the River several miles below the French Quarter. The plans were clearly within the CZO requirements allowing both residential and tourist developments in the area. One neighborhood association was on board, but business and residents along the proposed site bridled at the notion that the poshtel’s size, patio, bar, restaurant, and itinerant clientele would make the area “party central” with traffic, noise, and bad behavior commonplace. Business owners, led by an impassioned, eloquent plea from a popular barbecue purveyor argued that the neighborhood was typified by “neighborhood businesses,” run by owners that lived in the area. Some opponents argued for an alternative development like the Art Lofts elsewhere in the neighborhood, which many around the city have seen as a poster board for gentrification. The Commission was in a quandary. The CZO clearly allowed the development. They punted in hopes that other design changes might make their decision easier to swallow by the opponents.

A community center specializing in art, performance, dance, and music wanted an exception in the Uptown area of the city to their CZO zoning to be able to do events and a couple of other things, and pulled out everyone they could imagine for an easy unanimous approval. Elsewhere uptown a hotel wanted to expand and also won support.

A proposed Adult Live Performance Venue Study to determine amendments to the French Quarter’s Entertainment District was another warm potato. Adult Live Performance Venue is essentially a euphemism for the “strip clubs” that have defined Bourbon Street and the reputation of New Orleans for generations. Church groups were out to testify en masse. Groups worried about sex-trafficking seeking an age limit of 21, rather than 18 spoke. Club owners spoke against T-shirt shops and in favor of a moratorium that blocked new competition for their businesses. Quarter residents complained about noise and public urination. The study was approved, another skirmish in a perpetual war.

Whatever the claims for the CZO, several thing became clear. Any central planning ordinance that is not porous won’t survive the attack of a thousand cuts, bumps, and bruises that are a standard part of the process. People in the neighborhoods basically don’t want change no matter what the plans might say, unless it is something driven by their friends and neighbors, so happiness will never be part of the process, but populism will also often prevail. No matter the intentions the process is still stacked towards those with resources and power. Politics will never be out of the planning process as long as people are allowed in the system both at the level of the Commission and of course even more so when bumped up to the actual elected leadership of the city at the Council level.

I ran out of the hearing glad to have escaped with unanimous approval for our non-controversial application to build out the studio in our building so that we can go on-the-air on the St. Claude Avenue borderline of the rapidly gentrifying Marigny and Bywater areas below the French Quarter. I was also pretty sure of a couple of things. I was confident that a parking ticket waited for me, and that people power would still overwhelm any planning regime, which I found reassuringly comforting.

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