Archive for June, 2006
A few of you have been getting in touch re: the recent press on rising crime in New Orleans. A friend sent me a CNN link that disturbingly confirmed my fear that this weekend’s shooting of 5 teens in Central City was not just in the vicinity of a neighborhood I frequently, wander through in my car, but actually on the street I drive regularly. Following here is a mix of my response to her email with an email exchange b/w the M.A.S. about this.
Which part concerns you, the crime itself, or the need for the National Guard? It’s a weird conundrum w/the police there. Most of them are back, I think, and the city’s population is half what it used to be, so in theory, there should be enough of them for patrols. However, this is the force that was notoriously corrupt, barely earned a living wage, and thus most relied on private duty to make ends meet. So it’s not like they’re now more free to get back to exemplar operations given the shrunken population.
Further, the city has NO $$$$$, so offering them overtime to step up – as one of the city council persons says in this article – seems like an unlikely option. So I can see why they’d consider bringing in the national guard if the state has the resources for it. That said, I think it’s odd the reference they made to the heavily flooded areas as the spot to send the troops. I wasn’t aware there was much policing going on in those ‘hoods – what’s to protect? There’s not so many people in those areas…my MBA brain wonders if the police force might take a look at their operations (which from first hand experience I know seems pretty inept and wasteful) and re-assess whether they might have pre-existing manpower to reallocate to these “hot spots” before they call in the troops.
Either way, there’s no doubt crime is on the rise. I read it – like you – and hear/see it anecdotally. The creepy thing about this shooting – it’s on the crosstown street I drive most regularly. Sure, it’s a street through a predominantly black, comparatively run down neighborhood, so it’s not typical that you’d find many of our peers on it. And maybe it’s time I get off it. The storm damage is more modest compared to other neighborhoods, but the infrastructure still seems pretty spotty or absent (e.g., stores, lights, etc.) despite the returning population. I’ve seen it get increasingly crowded with street traffic in the last 5 months that I’ve been tooling around NOLA. And folks are just sitting, hanging out – I reference feeling nervous on it for the first time in a blog posting several weeks ago. It’s hot and edgy in NOLA, I can’t emphasize this enough, and people are bored and unemployed and pissed off that the city can’t or won’t save itself and that outsiders are crawling around and appear to be the only ticket to redevelopment and that family and friends are still displaced and that there are no services and it smells as weekly-picked-up trash rots on the sidewalk, etc. etc. It’s a pressure cooker down there. There’s no youth services (e.g., summer pools, summer camps, etc.), and the only work is at places like McDonalds, etc., while a huge, newly arrived Hispanic population (many undocumented) appears to do the bulk of the construction work available. It’s an angry situation.
The M.A.S. interjects: “[And] I guess, as we speculated before, here we have evidence of un- organized crime- turf battles over who’s going to control what in a drug market completely transformed.”
According to the press – the drug trade is returning – wouldn’t you, given you were on dangerous, foreign turf in Houston and Baton Rouge, and NOLA is a place with a weak, corrupt police force to begin with?
M.A.S.: “On a policy-politics note, how the hell is the national guard going to police the drug trade? they will have guns, yes. but more than likely no skills, no savvy, and no sense of what the hell to do except make their presence and their guns known. and, likely, more bullets will fly. damn. not that I would know the most effective strategy, but, you know, maybe you want some cops FBI/ATF-types, anti-gang, with some hard core street battle experience in there, not the Guard?”
Nagin is no leader, that’s for sure. And even if he was, the city’s got no resources to set its own course.
Finally, Central City, esp. those parts I drive through, where the shooting occurred, is a really odd mix of post-Kat NOLA. It’s pretty intact while still having relatively noticeable damage, and it has this sense of not officially functioning despite how bustling it clearly is. Somewhat like Treme (a black, low-income, famous and historic community adjacent to the French Quarter and Central Biz Dist.), except without a sense of being contested or having its future up for grabs (unless I’m missing these conversations), so more just blatant evidence of the unequal nature of recovery and rebuilding down there. Feels like it’s ignored despite the fact that it’s populated, versus all the empty places that are all the rage. Sigh.
Culture is a catch-all phrase in sociology to describe differences b/w people that aren’t structural (aka: “tangible”) – like differences in income, residential location, etc.Â I use it here to describe some of the differences I’ve found b/w living in New Orleans and….Boston/the Northeast/rest of the world???
1) There’s no ginger ale in New Orleans.Â This study is not exhaustive, but while sick last week I went to three different stores – a convenient store, Walgreens, and the gas station – and couldn’t find ginger ale at any of them.Â The next day at the airport, the three beverage displays I saw didn’t carry it either.Â I always knew ginger ale was sort of the redheaded stepchild of soft drinks, but to not carry it at all?Â Don’t get a stomach bug in NOLA, is all I can recommend.
2) This one is courtesy of Robin from Seedco, long-time New Yorker and recent transplant to NOLA.Â To effectively capture what it’s like living down there to a group at a Brooklyn bbq a few weekends ago, she described to them that her dry cleaning in NOLA would not be ready for 10 days.Â 10 days?!?!, they spluttered.Â Wow, she really is living in a developing country, they quietly concluded.
3) Again, thanks Robin.Â The way she is getting a parking permit in the French Quarter is by befriending her meter maid who will now hook her up with one.Â Seems there’s no other formal process for doing this, or if there is one, she doesn’t meet the criteria and this is the neighborhood level of graft that will enable her to be able to park as a new resident of the Quarter.
4) There are still plenty of non-functioning street lights that have been replaced with stop signs throughout the city.Â This includes on multiple-laned roads, where drivers are required to roll through these signs in unison.Â It’s a really odd collective action moment.Â In addition, I live in a grid of suburban-esque mostly one-way streets by Tulane in the Uptown section of the city.Â Plenty of street signs here, and the streets are narrow and crowded w/on street parking and I’m still getting used to figuring out in which direction to look at the different intersections, not to mention just learning to actually stop at all these stop signs.Â As I cruise around in big American rental cars, trying to slow my Masshole driving pace to a more Southern/grandfather/Sunday drive cruising speed, and try to reach an equilibrium of rolling through/stopping/looking both ways at all these neighborhood stop signs, I’m feeling too often like the father in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off languidly driving home after work, complete with the occasional stopping short and giving vague, inoffensive hand signs to the different drivers who impede my progress.Â
5) The packaging – particularly in coffee shops – is mostly styrofoam.Â Hot coffee, iced coffee, it all goes into styrofoam cups.Â I’m not sure what year it is in New Orleans, or why it’s kosher in one of the most environmentally vulnerable places in America to keep at it with the styrofoam.Â Though, maybe this is more of the norm in the U.S. than I know.Â
I’ll add to the list as I think of more.
If I translated this into Swahili correctly, this means “I live on Willow Street.”Â In Swahili the verb “-kaa” means to live, to dwell, to stay.Â When speaking with Tanzanians, I learned the customary way of asking this question in English was, “where do you stay?”Â I always found this odd, “stay” sounding like a relatively impermanent arrangement when talking about where people lived.Â Arguably not for interlopers like myself, but certainly when I was posing the question rather than answering it.Â
Yet, I’ve found this phrasing to be depressingly appropriate in post-Katrina NOLA.Â “Where do you stay?” reflects the impermanence of so many dislocated residents, living usually with or near relatives, still after all this time.Â And like in Dar, where I live in NOLAÂ – still as an interloper – sounds like a much comfier and swankier arrangement than those described to me.Â
Two nights ago I had dinner w/a former colleague – a terrific single woman who I never really got to know before as she was always several degrees above me in our rigid office hierarchy.Â Over dinner, I promised her I wouldn’t evacuate the city w/o her should it come to that; she feared having to get out of the city on her own, sitting in traffic for hours w/no one to talk to and scheme with.Â Interestingly, despite often feeling so alone here or in the world in general, I never worried about having to get out of NOLA on my own.Â I always assumed I’d evacuate with my roommate in the direction of his relatives in Texas (assuming a flight north wasn’t an option).Â In exchange for promising Robin I’d take her with us, she agreed to bail me out of Orleans Parish Prison should my unpaid moving violation from February ever catch up with me.
It’s weird feeling reliant on or expectant of my roommate in this way.Â We have an awkward intimacy – not quite friends but more than colleagues – stemming from a past friendshipÂ turned affairÂ that endedÂ predictably explosively and painfully.Â While I take a perverse pleasure in being the antagonistic roommate that eats his food and blocks his car in the driveway, i also find myself eating ice cream with him at midnight, and playing co-host to a dinner party we’ve disjointedly thrown together.Â Because when you are on your own in foreign environments – be it Dar esÂ Salaam or, sadly, post-Katrina NOLA ’06 – companionship takes on a different form.
This guy Ronald once summed it up for K in Dar.Â He was this shady mechanic who drove her absolutely batty by charging her too much for shoddy work that took too long, while at the same time making sure she had spare cars and doing other favors for her to make her life easier in Dar.Â Â Once, as she thanked him, he said simply, “you don’t get by on your own here.”Â And it was true.Â People stayed with you when you got sick, picked you up when your car broke down, gave you a place to stay when you needed one, lent you their clothes, invited you on trips at a moment’s notice, and generally made sure you were never alone unless you deliberately went out of your way to be.Â When I came home from dinner with Robin I said to my roommate, “do you have an evacuation plan?” He replied he’d head to TX to his family, and added, after a moment, “you’d be welcome to join me.”Â “Of course!”Â I thought to myself.Â Doesn’t he know how the ex-pat system works??
I am sitting in one of my favorite sundresses, a $5 purchase in Dar that fit me and the steamy weather perfectly.Â Two years later in New Orleans, the dress is equally suitable.Â I have spent the morning in my pj’s going thru my TZ photos, to get them ready for a much belated album.Â Probably not a coincidence to finally go thru this process as I get reaquainted with NOLA and its people and all of the thoughts it stirs up each time.Â
Last night some MIT and Harvard-KSG folks sat around in my living room drinkingÂ Abita and eating pork ribs and red fish.Â Good times.Â Talking to one of them for awhile, we compared notes on his stint in UgandaÂ and mine in Dar (Uganda, with Kenya and TZ, is one of the main countries comprising E. Africa).Â His work in Uganda was disaster-related, so we shared that in common as well.Â We talked about how much our experiences here reminds us of our experience overseas.Â One of his more astute comments was how while the contents of the trash heaps differed in E. Africa from here, there were nonetheless trash heapsÂ in both places unlike we’ve seen elsewhere.Â Â I laughed and described to him how Kristina and I used to say, “turn left at the trash heap” to guide visitors to our apartment in the Upanga section of Dar.Â Â Â
One friday afternoon in Dar Kristina and I gave our co-worker Limbe a ride to a “bar,” where he joined other menÂ for “happy hour.”Â Â It was essentially a wall-less thatched hutÂ on the side of the road with a bartender and some stools to which men pulled up and drank beer.Â Yesterday afternoon – Friday around 5pm – I rode my bike through Central City and passed a group of black men seated around a plastic table with cups and bottles of beer in front of them.Â Though the house structure behind them was sturdier than Dar’s roadside bar, it nonetheless served as some sort of commercial establishment where these men probably gathered regularly.Â There are many many informal small businesses here that operate out of people’s homes – living rooms converted to restaurants such that you almost don’t notice it’s also a residence until you pass through a non-commercial kitchen to use the bathroom in a back hall stacked with buckets, brooms, shoes, etc.Â Like Dar, and low-income, often minority communities in the U.S., informal entrepreneurship abounds as people disconnected from or lagging in the mainstream economy figure out ways to support themselves and their families.Â Touching this is one of my favorite aspects of my work.
There are other means of connecting and bridging the many worlds I’ve moved through down here.Â Ironically, it was a 2 hour conversation with a white, male community leader last night that brought me back around to my a) Lower Manhattan mostly immigrant SB owner stint and b) low-income, minority business development work around the Southeastern U.S.Â Last night I heard from the co-chair of the Broadmoor Improvement Association about the community’s plan to rebuild.Â Though I have worked with other CDCs here, I rarely experience the vitality and intimacy of working closely with community representatives who work to change what they live through on a daily basis – be it a sudden disaster like 9/11 or Katrina, or the chronic trauma of disinvested inner-city neighborhoods – like I used to in these other communities and as I did last night.Â Either because they are recent transplants to NOLA, disconnected executives from national intermediaries, or New Orleanians who lack leadership and energy, most of the folks I’ve interacted with in other neighborhoods have lacked this all-consuming, personal fighting spirit that is so inspiring.Â
On Friday, the other member of the M.A.S arrives for his third visit to one of our favorite stops on our emerging world tour (NYC and Boston being the 2 other destinations so far).Â With this white man on Monday night I sat in a parked car in Mattapan (one of Boston’s black and reputedly roughest neighborhoods, along with Roxbury and parts of Dorchester), while we consulted a map to figure out how to get to a new restaurant in Dorchester.Â Through my open window I looked around while he figured out where we were, and since I’ve been thinking about his practiced ease at moving through not only black communities but new and unfamiliar environments.Â Like me, he appears to put down roots in each city that becomes his host for however long a period of time.Â This, along with his ability to consume large quantities of alcohol, his appreciation for my Masshole roots, and his need to analyze everything, is one of the many shared aspects that led to our establishment of the Mutual Admiration Society over lunch at NOLA’s Marigny Brasserie back in January.Â (The M.A.S. currently is headquartered in Boston, MA.)
Now friends from this winter and spring in NOLA are leaving as the summer sets in, and a new group is arriving.Â Just as in Dar, with the constant welcome and good bye parties, there is a never ending stream of people to get to know and drink with here.Â And with each visit, New Orleans becomes a new node in a network of friends – old and new – and memories that stretches from Boston/NY/DC to the Gulf Coast and abroad.Â