In the Bywater

New York        Trying to pull pieces of the puzzle together to get a snapshot of where one lives and works is a guessing game.  Reading the paper on the plane last night from Dallas to New York, I imagine that gradually as the water recedes they are allowing reporters to follow on the house to house searches where they are hard handling the survivors.

            It still comes as a surprise though to read about your own neighborhood in the lead story of the New York Times, but there it was in the third paragraph above the fold:  “In at least one neighborhood, the Bywater district, a working-class area east of the French Quarter, police officers and federal agents began on Wednesday night to press hard for residents to evacuate…” 

            In another article on page 21 under the eyebrow headline of “Staying Put,” comes a report on by Alex Berenson of another holdout, “But Michelle Loranger does not want to leaver her flood-battered city.  Sitting beside two of her neighbors on the front steps of a tidy house on Desire Street, in the working-class Bywater neighborhood, Ms. Loranger said Wednesday that she would not voluntarily leave New Orleans.  Her home, on high ground near the Mississippi River, survived the flood with only moderate damages, and she has plenty of food and water, she said….Like many other residents in the city’s dry zones near the river, Ms. Loranger appeared to be healthy and said she had taken reasonable precautions….”     Elsewhere in the same piece, “‘They’re going to have to drag me out kicking, screaming and fighting all the way,’ Melvin Johnson, who is living in a dry house on St. Claude Avenue in the same neighborhood, said Wednesday.  Mr. Johnson said he could not abandon his two dogs, and like some other residents, he hoped to find a job as the city’s cleanup progressed.  ‘There’s going to be work in this town,’ he said.  ‘ I need it.  I’ve lost everything I own.'”

            Ok.  So, now it’s official, as if everyone in New Orleans didn’t know it already, we live in the Bywater neighborhood and it is officially — right there in the New York Times not once, but twice! — a working-class neighborhood.  It is also well known in New Orleans, and now officially documented by the Times as the neighborhood of an eccentric collection of obstreperous folks, and Sister Loranger and Brother Johnson absolutely fit the time.  I never found it difficult feeling at home there over the last twenty-five (25) years I made my place in the neighborhood.  

Desire Street is six (6) blocks away from our house going towards the Quarter.  St. Claude is two (2) blocks away from our house going away from the River.  Our office is virtually at the corner of St. Claude and Elysian Fields (please remember this is the pathway to heaven in Greek mythology!).  It’s not a satellite photo of my exact address, but it sure is an indication that the odds are improving that — everything else being equal — we have a chance at still having a place to return in the coming months that we can call home. 

I wonder in the “new” New Orleans that rises out of this mud whether my “working-class” neighborhood and obstreperous neighbors will have a chance of staying.  Even before Katrina, there was starting to be gentrification leaking downriver from the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood starting to push values out and make the Bywater too expensive for regular, working people.  We are an old neighborhood of shotgun doubles with our stoops pressed up against the street.  This is not uptown where there are front yards and trees.  This is downtown where you live in the street and maybe there is a 10 by 10 patch of grass and plants in the back behind the shed.  The dividing line between Marigny and Bywater is not surprisingly the old Press Street railway tracks which ran to the cotton presses by the River.  There is even a marker proposed in hand lettered signs on the tracks where Plessey had the incident on the train right there on the dividing line that became the famous in the Supreme Courts’ “separate but equal” ruling. 

Race and class was not new in these neighborhoods.   All of our organizations through our building corporation, the Elysian Fields Corporation, had just completed fighting our way through the city planning commission to win approval of an expansion of the ACORN and Local 100 buildings on lots we had owned for years.  To our surprise the expansion had been vigorously opposed by parts of the yuppie civic association in the area, the Faubourg Marigny Association.  They had hired a lawyer with a long New Orleans bloodline, Gideon Stanton III, to oppose our redevelopment.  I had originally met Stanton 30 years ago when opening the ACORN office when he was a grantee of the Stern Foundation at the time and referred to me by the late, great David Hunter, who directed that outfit throughout his illustrious career.  They had to concede that they were not in love with the abandoned furniture store on St. Claude we would be demolishing and replacing and they could not contend that the architectural plans were not consistent and acceptable to the Historic District Commission, which had already approved them, but in a classic argument of New Orleanian racism and classism, Stanton had tried to argue before the City Council in his final pleas to have them deny our zoning and construction permits, that “we were a fine group of organizations, but that we had gotten too big for the neighborhood and would undoubtably be more comfortable and it would be more appropriate if we relocated and expanded in New Orleans East or elsewhere.” 

With its majority African American membership the City Council understood the coded language explicitly.  Stanton was trying to argue that Faubourg Marigny should be a “white” and upscale area and not be burdened with the headquarters of national and local organizations and its low and working-class membership coming in and out of the area.  New Orleans East would have been the code for the black dominated and increasingly lower rent areas of commerce and section 8 housing.  Council member after Council member demanded to speak in favor of our zoning not because they were surprised at the sentiment, but because usually uptown, upper class, white lawyers like Stanton were a little slicker with this stuff. 

The New Orleans one got to see at the Convention Center and Superdome was the New Orleans split for centuries by race and class long before Katrina.  Increasingly the surface layers have been washed away, so time and time again there is no denying the cleavages in American life that have always been symbolized by the great divides of New Orleans, and are now starkly presented for the entire country to see.

No place like home!  And, now in the New Orleans diaspora that we are everywhere in America and everywhere in America is our home, perhaps there is no way to avoid talking about the differences between Faubourg Marigny and New Orleans East that exist on the maps of almost every American city.

a holdout in the Bywater
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Falluja on the River

Dallas              My brother used to talk about the “architecture of the day” and why it was important not to allow it to be disturbed or unraveled.  It is an interesting existential jumble as the last bits of order leak out of life.  It is disorienting in a strange way.  One forgets to eat.  Sleep is strange and troubling.  One is surprised at how dark it suddenly became at six in the morning.  The calendar is no longer one’s friend as days run into each other.  We adapt.

            Yesterday I woke in Lafayette. 

            We drove through the traffic to Baton Rouge at 6:15 am.  Traffic has become horrible in this normally fairly sleepy capitol city.  Locals are putting a good face on it, but you can tell that many feel it’s about time we went home.

            Army helicopters in twos, threes, and fours are constantly buzzing across the interstates and down the river ways.  Always, like the convoys, headed south.  We now have two kinds of convoys:  brown and green.  The interstate system was built for them by President Eisenhower, but 50 years later they just lumber, as miles of cars and trucks slowly wend their way around them.  The brown and beige equipment is brushing the sand of Iraq off in the wetlands of Louisiana.  The green ones almost seem quaint. 

            Soldiers are quoted in the paper with comparisons between Baghdad and New Orleans.  New Orleans is not coming out well in these surveys.  One stares blankly at front page pictures of drawn guns, jeeps, house to house searches, and all manner of scenes that just don’t add up.  For the first time I think about where Orell’s dad’s old rifles were, whether or not they work, and whether or not I will have to be armed when I go home, and for how long. 

            Eighty miles away in Baton Rouge in the security of the windowless, bunker that is our union hall and community offices, we are now working.  More equipment, people, and systems are up every day.  The hall is across the street from a school.  Greenwell Springs is a busy road.  We have an acre of property.  Nonetheless, when I got in Baton Rouge one could still see the fear my staff’s eyes and hear it in their voices.  Before 8 AM I met Melvin, who is now our security guard.  Melvin is slight and unarmed.  He’s from Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish, south of New Orleans.  He has lost everything.  It is a stretch to see Melvin as protection, but he is security.  For a while he will be cheap at the price.  We visit early in the morning and both comment that we feel lucky that at least we didn’t lose our jobs.

            Pat McCoy had driven a van full of supplies, computers, and other equipment from Houston the previous night.  Yesterday the trip from Lafayette to Baton Rouge, normally hardly an hour, took him 3 1/2 hours.  He was lucky to make it shortly before noon.  On a quick turnaround within 20 minutes we were back in the van and driving to Houston.  We spent a good deal of the trip on mobile phones as they worked intermittedly. 

            At the Texas border we pulled over to switch drivers.  The welcome center had a hundred or more port-a-toilets still lined down the road from the building.

            In Houston I met the rest of our New Orleans staff in national operations, communications, and other departments as well as national staff we had bailed in from Wyoming, DC, and elsewhere who had parachuted in to help out.  We had picked up Max Pike, the young, strapping 18 year old son of good friends from San Francisco, who had come in to help any way he could.  You make decisions in 2-month frameworks, unclear what that might really mean.  Some problems you just throw money at.  You say not only “yes,” but “thanks!” when our partners at Ameriquest give us a block of rooms for our people, saving the two or three hours every morning rounding up the crew from rabbit warrens throughout Houston.    Max set up my new phone with the Houston area code so I could finally get calls reliably since my two 504’s were still so sketchy. 

            Organizers are on the ground in Houston, Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, and elsewhere talking to evacuees.   ACORN Housing’s first wave of ten housing counselors got on the ground yesterday at the Houston convention center, so they could begin dealing with all of the questions and issues faced by families confronting their finances — credit cards, bills, mortgages, and everything in between. 

            Ginny Goldman, Houston’s office director, meets with me and briefs me on the daily meetings Mayor Bill White has every morning at 8:00 AM.  There is generosity, but there is inequity.  One company will offer gas cards, and that’s good.  But, there will only be enough for so many, and that’s bad.  And, there is no system for distribution, so that it is fair, and that’s an outrage.  Say the same thing about loaded debit cards, provided by a major bank.  There is so much “this and that” going here and there and no way to explain why one person is lucky and the other busted. 

            Communications and coordination are the foundation blocks to begin to triangulate Houston to Baton Rouge to the rest of the operations and now even to DC where another team had to begin the sharp elbowed work under Lisa Donner, our public policy director, in order to translate the demands of the evacuees organizing to policy and politicians at the national level.  Start the daily meetings to bring order to the world, while the work falls into place.  Begin conference calls of the essential participants so everyone is up to date and on program.  Round up the strays, built the corrals, and stop the stampede.

            I caught the last plane from Houston to Dallas.  I was selected for screening.  The ATSA personnel were worried that the sunflower seeds and what not in my bag were all I had to eat.  I assured them, that I would be fine, but reading the papers finally on the planes for the last two days, I wondered how long our own private Iraq would last.

The ACORN & CCI staff gets down to business
Getting the job done
The new Baton Rouge office in progress
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