Tag Archives: City of New Orleans

Peer Power, Crowd Sourcing, and Fixing Cities

New Orleans   The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board broke up about 10-feet of the sidewalk in front of my house to do something with their pipes six months ago.  Three months ago a truck with two of their workers parked in front of the house and looked at it without getting out of the pickup.  I asked if there was a plan or a timetable to comeback and finish the job by repairing the sidewalk.  Oh, yes, they replied.  We’re making sure it’s on the list now!  Living in the broke-ass City of New Orleans, I’m pretty relaxed about the sidewalk.  I only really remember the problem every time I mow the yard and the pebbles come firing back at my legs.  If I could choose, I would have some of the potholes that almost swallow my truck fixed elsewhere, but of course that’s a different city entity with different funding sources….

In the spirit of neo-liberalism, transferring the responsibilities for common issues to regular citizens rather than public authorities, I constantly read of these magical solutions brought to us by either the internet or….each other?  Some of it sounds great and in fact would be a real contribution.  We were big fans of what crowd sourcing might do in the Korogochu slum in Nairobi if we could have figured out a way to get text messages on cell phones to alert people about crime and security issues in the community and pressure police for action.  The lack of confidence in the police acting and technical problems stalled that notion, though it still seemed promising.

Reading the Wall Street Journal recently, an op-ed book promotion by Steven Johnson touted “peer power.”  He told of an organization in New Haven, Connecticut called SeeClickFix, where “ordinary citizens” have reported “potholes, abandoned cars, graffiti.”  He claimed that “city governments have used the data to address more than 125,000 cases in neighborhoods across the U.S.”  Interesting, but is reporting really the problem or is the real problem the actual fixing?  Having worked in organizing communities for decades, I’m really pretty sure it’s the fixing part of the equation where we stumble.  Cities may prefer getting a message via the internet rather than a screaming rant from an unhappy taxpayer or worse a group of neighbors showing up at City Hall or Public Works, but all of this ignores the real problem by promoting something that is nowhere near a solution.

Even better or worse, Johnson celebrated something called “neighbor.ly” which had created a classic neo-liberal “solution” and created a “Kickstarter-style platform where people can propose and crowdfund new projects in their communities:  bike racks, community gardens, playground swings.”  Well, at least they weren’t funding basic city services on a voluntary basis, but neither are these kinds of initiatives creating public consensus on quality of life issues.  Instead they are creating a facility for self-funding separate projects not based on community decision making but on self-certified and resourced groups.  Tending a community garden may be one thing, but why aren’t bike racks and playground swings pure-and-simple public goods and therefore public responsibilities?

Where Johnson was right was in promoting “participatory budgeting” based on the Porto Alegre, Brazil model, but that’s a whole different situation where a municipal budget is cobbled together in a city over a million people with an elaborate – and equitable – system of full citizen participation to make decisions about how to spend their public dollars in the best way.  Not surprisingly the access to potable water and building adequate sewer systems increased dramatically once the ruling municipal party, the PT or Workers’ Party, instituted this process.

Porto Alegre is a model for real citizen empowerment, not the replacement of public functions by private citizens.  We need to not be confused.  Apples are not oranges anywhere in the world, and the right and the neo-liberal advocates should not be allowed to hide their efforts to push public responsibilities onto private citizens by conflating real power with an artificial substitute.


The Real Danger in Treme is HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods and Heritage Tourism

New Orleans  The HBO show Treme is gearing up for another go in their efforts to Disneyland New Orleans as a constant musical carnival and cultural minstrel show.  In the past I’ve had mixed feelings about David Simon’s show and the fact that though he means terribly well, but is missing the heartbeat and essence of the city and is miles from the mark he set in The Wire, his exceptional series set in Baltimore.  Now I have to admit that I’ve allowed myself to get distracted by the fantasy of HBO’s  Treme, and have been overlooking the real and present danger faced in the New Orleans Treme neighborhood by the United States Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency and its vision in the Choice Neighborhoods redevelopment of the area.

Sometimes you only see what is under your nose, when you see something somewhere else.  This happened to me yesterday morning while I met with several colleagues from Memphis before they embarked on a dog-and-pony tour in New Orleans organized by the City of New Orleans and our Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO).  They had sent me the agenda for their tour and were interested in a reality check before they were trotted around the city to look at Treme in what New Orleans was touting as a coming model for “heritage tourism” and the impact of a “bio-district.”  Having been in Memphis only weeks ago to work with scores of organizations on the proposed “redevelopment” (read destruction) of Foote Homes near the Civil Rights District and the Memphis Bio-District, suddenly it hit me what was slipping under the tent in our own city.

Part of the dispute here was well known and a battle seemingly already lost when HANO and its partners including Pres Kabacoff’s Historic Restoration Inc. (HRI) Properties and others had been chosen to redevelop the old, solidly built Iberville Housing Project abutting the French Quarter.   The post-Katrina reshaping of the city’s public housing in the so-called “big four” projects had delayed the return of thousands of tenants and its shrinking number of units had pushed many lower income families into mini-ghettos in rental housing elsewhere in the city at premium prices.  Kabacoff and HRI had been locally and nationally controversial and infamous for their earlier pre-storm devastation of the St. Thomas Housing Project and its conversion into River Gardens and hasty record of systematic exclusion after completion in what was supposed to become a viable mixed income development.  Iberville had long been felt to have been in the HRI sights and their emerging partnership was unsettling to many.  Timing is everything and HANO and HUD took advantage of the dislocation post-Katrina to push through its plans when opposition was disjointed and local residents were scattered.

The $30 million from HUD through its Choice Neighborhoods project though is a much bigger problem than just what happens to Iberville in the destruction of yet another housing project.  The footprint of the project when I looked at the map is huge and encompasses a lot of the 7th Ward and virtually all of Treme in a 300 square block area bounded by Tulane Avenue (which puts the program into the CBD and the “bio-district” and new hospital construction across Canal Street), St. Bernard Avenue, Rampart (one of the boundaries of the French Quarter) and Broad Street going West and into Mid-City.  The “heritage tourism” notion may currently be aimed at taking over control of Armstrong Park that includes historic Congo Square, and several cultural buildings like the Mahalia Jackson concert hall, which would fit hand in glove with the tune Simon and HBO’s Treme have humming and distracting us with its siren song.

In a story in the New Orleans Tribune, reporter Lovell Beaulieu quotes ex-SNCC organizer and long time Treme community and cultural activist, Jerome Smith, on how he sees the threat, including from self-styled groups like People United to Save Armstrong Park:

We were too busy smoking a cigar and drinking a root beer.  There was a lot of displacement, promises.  Let’s go after the promises.   The folks who had the resources were busy battling each other.  I think we have a class thing here.  There’s this big eraser, and because of our absence from a historical consciousness, we are allowing ourselves to be erased.  When the water came citywide, it also came with a rope.  It’s the new day lynching.  We have to be cautious.  We speak about the hood.  They have something more vicious than the hood.  Before they used to kidnap us, now they take the property, with our assistance.

Harsh words?  Perhaps, but in an editorial note Tribune publisher, Beverly McKenna, is also crystal clear that Treme residents have to say “No” to the real estate interests and developers who are trying to “blockbust” Treme in reverse by waving money now so they can flip the property to incoming white settlers sooner than later.   The headline on Beaulieu’s story was Gentrification:  The new segregation?  White Flight in Reverse and included the outrage of a picture of white panhandlers in what was for years the African-American community’s Main Street on Claiborne Avenue.   McKenna relates stories of cold calls to property and business owners with offers to pack and move to prepare for the newcomers.

In HBO’s Treme we watch the petty dispute of self-styled hipster and WWOZ DJ with his gay neighborhoods in Treme over noise and are lured into the current political and cultural divide over sex and gender, and it is easy to forget that both are already interloping gentrifiers in Treme at the sharp and painful points of the longer and still bridgeless chasm of race and class.  Who knows what “heritage” tourism might be, and I can hardly wait to hear a report from my Memphis colleagues on what the City’s description might have entailed.  Nonetheless, the claims now cropping up everywhere in Treme that HUD, Choice Neighborhoods, HRI and others are really just trying to extend the French Quarter past its historic boundaries at Rampart, a mile from the Mississippi River, another mile or so into and through Treme through gentrification and displacement of this classically, hundreds of years old, African-American community seem real and present dangers.

Iberville Housing Projects ~ on the list to be torn down