Prospect 1 in the Lower 9th

Prospect 1 in the Lower 9th
November 28, 2008
            New Orleans               I don’t claim to be any kind of big art guy, but I am a big “anything that’s good for the Lower 9th in New Orleans is good for me” guy, and, as we all say, I know what I like.  And, I definitely like the idea of a big-time, international art extravaganza coming to New Orleans three years after Katrina.   It is called Prospect 1, and has a bunch of art outside and inside of various places in a lot of different neighborhoods in New Orleans.

            On the website the curator, Dan Cameron, from the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans has this sum-up statement:  Prospect.1 New Orleans [P.1], the largest biennial of international contemporary art ever organized in the United States, opened to the public on November 1, 2008 in museums, historic buildings, and found sites throughout New Orleans.

            Sounds important doesn’t it, so a carload of us stuffed into a Saturn and zipped over the Industrial Canal on St. Claude not far from our house late Thanksgiving Day afternoon to see whatever was exhibited in the lower 9th and “represent.”  The Battle Ground Baptist Church was closed for some reason when we arrived, but through the window we could still see the giant diamond constructed in the middle of the bare studs inside the Church.  The diamond is filled with exercise equipment.  Not sure what that means, but, it was art and contemporary.  There was a sign on the street corner that said:  “Think That You Might Be Wrong.”  I hope that is meant to be an exhortation to passersby to get on the stick and kick start the rebuilding of the lower 9th.
            The artists were from all around the world.  One with Argentine connections did a particularly unsettling and dramatic installation that had a metal ladder going up to an open window on Deslonde Street within easy sight of the new concrete wall that now sealed the levee breach of the Industrial Canal.  Mi companera was disgusted by that one, but my son and I thought it had real power.  Another over in the Holy Cross section of the lower 9th near the Mississippi River done by an African artist had the painted studs of a house with Christmas lights all over it and one naked chair.  It was called Miss Sarah’s house and the artist seemed hopeful it would help raise money for Miss Sarah to rebuild her house there. 
            We had gotten too late a start to see anything more than the lower 9th.  Along with many of our Arkansas-connected relations and other family and friends, we had trouble rousting our crew from our Thanksgiving feast of Petit Jean ham, brine cooked turkey, and a heap of other treats from oyster dressing to artichoke and spinach casserole and of course my mother’s famous jam cake and the weight of the first big holiday with my father missing, but those of us who made muster still agreed that Prospect 1. New Orleans was a very good thing for the city, and a pretty good thing artistically.
            Driving from my office on Elysian Fields down St. Claude towards home, I had seen the signs at Colton Junior High School and the old Universal Furniture Store about Prospect 1 as well as the wooden horse thing across from the school, but hadn’t even slowed down.  I was still borderline bitter about the closing of Colton and its new life as some kind of artist thing this year.  I wasn’t all that happy about the old furniture store now being some kind of combination police station and voodoo and yoga palace.  Something about walking into a police station to gawk at art seemed unsettling to me.
            But, I’m going to have an attitude adjustment and man-up and go see all of this over the coming months while the exhibition is in place.  There’s a new New Orleans coming, and this is a good shot at doing the right thing in the city, so worth supporting it seems to me.


Mumbai Thanksgiving

Mumbai Thanksgiving
November 27, 2008
            New Orleans               In the late afternoon before Thanksgiving Prachee Sinha of the ACORN International staff and I were riveted to the Times of India website for news of the terrorist attacks throughout Mumbai.  Prachee was raised in Luchow and came over to work with me from Delhi, first training as an organizer with New Orleans ACORN and now working in the critical development area to support our embryonic operations on four continents.  Her count tabulated more than 65 terrorist attacks in India over 2008 thus far, but this was the worst of them all.  The demands, such as there was one, was for “all mujahedeen being held” in India prisons to be released, and was issued by a group hitherto unknown in India.
            Raising the specter of jihad in India has the ability to unleash the worst of communalist reactions around the historic tensions between Hindus and Muslims.  Here the terrorists targeted heavily trafficked and tourist areas around the city, and seemed to be especially looking for United States and English residents.
            Pictures on IBN, the CNN affiliate, showed the dome of the Taj Mahal Hotel on fire.  The Taj is a well known hotel in the Coloba area which more than many areas is a central tourist zone in the sprawling city once called Bombay.  The hotel is almost directly across from the Gateway to India in the old harbor area.  The Gateway was built to welcome Queen Victoria when she visited India during her reign, many years before Independence. 
            I had first visited Mumbai during the time of the Worlds’ Social Forum meeting there in 2004.  Donna Bransford, the first ACORN International employee, and I were staying in 200 meter Lonely Planet rooms along the waterfront a couple of blocks down from the Taj.  In the predawn I would frequently run through the Gateway plaza and along the sidewalk fronting the Taj with its sleeping doorman, cab drivers, and security.  While on that trip I sometimes would venture into the lobby to sit on a couch and read a paper on a steamy Mumbai January night to enjoy the air-con, as it was sometimes called.  If the Taj was not 5-star, lap of luxury, it must have been sitting right next to it. 
            On Thanksgiving morning the Times of India said there were than 100 dead and as many as 300 injured.  There were still perhaps 200 hostages in the fancy Oberoi Hotel.  There were an unknown number in the Taj.  Cherry pickers had pulled some of the guests from the upper floors, but it was also felt that the terrorists with AK 47’s were on some of the same floors.  Reports were that the basement was still fortified with hotel guests.  These are areas that in their own way are the twin towers of Mumbai or perhaps a better comparison would be if there was a famous, upscale hotel across from the Statue of Liberty or a similar iconic area, then you can picture the rambling Taj looking at the harbor through the giant Gateway.
            Unclear if this will move people in the city or even nationally so the analogy falls apart quickly.   This is a country that is not inured to terrorism but sees it too frequently to stop in panic. 
            Vinod Shetty, ACORN India director, sent us a message we received at dawn that speaks to the resilience of Bombay residents: 
Thanks for your good wishes, all of us are fine, and Mumbai will be back, I am at work and things are slow , but Mumbai is getting back on its feet, the spirit of the mumbai working class cannot be supressed by a handfull of gunmen.The people will overcome the terror unleashed on this country. Some of the politicians who otherwise go around making provocative communal statements are hiding behind their heavily guarded gates.
The rest of us will keep hoping and praying that there is much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving both here and around the world, including Mumbai.