Archive for August, 2006



When I lived in New York, my cousin would come into town frequently for business, and always complain that she never saw any celebrities. One time I pointed out to her Jerry Stiller entering a Duane Reade in the Village, and we watched him shop through the windows. She wasn’t really mollified though until she sat at a table adjacent to Martha Stewart at Nobu (I think; someplace fancy as her company was all about the Diner’s.)

I on the other hand, being hyper observant and a resident of New York for seven years, had no shortage of celebrity sightings. My favorite was Conan O’Brien, who was on the Delta Shuttle from Boston to New York one Easter Sunday evening back in the late 1990s. Originally sitting diagonally in front of me, I noticed that no one was taking the seat opposite the aisle from him. So I (subtly?) switched seats and interviewed him for the 45 minute flight back to New York. The part that my friend Yakka loves most about this story is how I initiated the conversation. “You’re from Brookline, right?� I began by asking him. When he answered yes, I told him how I won my junior varsity basketball team’s game against Brookline High by tying the game at the buzzer and scoring another basket in overtime. Conan O’Brien, nationally known late night talk show host meets Redstar, local high school junior varsity basketball ace. I was disappointed to find in the week of shows following our interaction, he failed to mention me on the air! He was, however, pleased at the end of our flight to accept a blow-pop from the Easter Basket I had in the overhead cabin. He made a crack about Rose Kennedy and his own Irish-Catholic family and was on his way. (At 31, I still receive Easter Baskets from my stepmother; each contains a pair of underwear, among candies and toiletries.)

I also met Ted Kennedy on the Delta shuttle, again by introducing myself to him. That was as we exited the plane, and was far less amusing than the Conan experience, or than watching Mayor Mike Bloomberg have lunch with Star Jones at City Hall restaurant in Lower Manhattan. It’s funny how it can take a minute to notice celebrities in our midst. I’ve passed David Duchovny, Gloria Steinem, and Alan Cumming on the street (not together), and their faces register in my brain when I’m well past them. One Sunday night on the Upper East Side Sigourney Weaver asked me for the time. Both of us out for walk and dressed in sweats, it took me a minute to realize who she was once I looked up from my watch. Not so for my friend Amy when she spotted Ben Affleck on the street one day, and trailed him for several blocks. Nor for me when I saw Matthew Broderick on the street when I was still just a tourist in New York, at age 12. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was a recent huge hit, and that sighting was the icing on the Hard Rock Café visit cake as my mom and I spent the day in the city from my uncle’s house on Long Island. But beyond the streets of New York (and Los Angeles and maybe even London), the plane is really us commoners’ best bet for celebrity sightings. I’ve now shared flights from DC to New Orleans with both Mayor Nagin and his run-off opponent, Mitch Landrieu. The impetus for this post is that I’m sitting behind Dr. John, the legendary musician (“Pianist singer. Fren of Prof Longhair. RnB blues rock. A legend,� the M.A.S. texts me instructively.) on a delayed flight from New Orleans to Philadelphia. He and numerous folks on this plane were in town tuesday night for the tribute anniversary concert at the New Orleans Arena. He was in front of me in the security line too, with a helpful tag on his bag stating “Dr. John� and “Musicien,� but it was more the warm greeting he got from one of the airport employees that made me pay attention. Our stuff got entangled at the end of the security belt, and he is elderly and slow on his feet, walking with a cane. It was all I could do not to squeeze by him as he struggled back into his shoes and gathered his belongings. I do my best to avoid knocking down the elderly in my zeal to keep moving, particularly famous geysers traveling with an entourage of producers, roadies, etc. Dr. John, August 30, 2006 Attached here is a photo of the back of his head over our seats. I am vicariously excited on behalf of the M.A.S., for whom this sighting would be truly thrilling. I am genuinely jazzed about being upgraded to first class; finally after all these trips in and out of New Orleans on U.S. Air, I have made the leap in frequent flyer mile status. Silver preferred. Check me out. Man, all this new prestige – flying first class, being attacked by local activists, celebrity hobnobbing – all I need now is some scandal to cement my own fame and the producers of The Surreal Life will be knocking on my door!


Welcome, Welcome

I am sitting at Oak Street Cafe in New Orleans – should really be in the car en route to the airport since my flight is in an hour 45.  But if I’m on time or too early to anything, I feel like I’m wasting time.  And the Louis Armstrong International Airport ain’t known for its post-Katrina crowds (anymore).

Given there’s no direct flights (yet?) b/w Boston and NOLA, today is mostly given over to travel, reunion with M.A.S. at Logan, and getting settled in at home.  School starts Tuesday, and Block Island awaits for Labor Day weekend.  🙂

But never fear, I took copious notes and had MANY thoughts, conversations and debates about the events of yesterday and New Orleans in general.  Cam phone photos too.

I will be back on line tomorrow to share much of this with you.

It was great to hear from some long lost friends via my “spamming” my hotmail address book with my blog address.  I am continually surprised how many of us are out here in the blogosphere (looking forward to linking up – sounds kinky!), and I am endlessly amused how many of my women friends zero in immediately on mentions of the M.A.S. mixed up in my tales of politics and disasters, etc.  He is worth paying attention to.  😉


August 29, 2006

My Daily Horoscope


“An important career concern could require considerable effort on your part today in order to enable you to advance whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish, dear Virgo. At some point during the day, you may be plagued by doubts as to your ability to do this. However, don’t let this cause you to panic. All you need is to muster a little energy and stay focused on the task at hand. Believe it: Today you’re capable of accomplishing wonders.”


Today is the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and I am off shortly to attend some memorial events.  Due to the announcement re: MIT and Lafitte, I am “enjoying” some new notoriety about my work in New Orleans so far.  Somehow in my commuting, outsider way, I’ve become the whipping girl for MIT’s work on the ground.  My colleagues, including the one who’s been living on the ground for the last 7 months, are totally amused.

I had a long talk last night with a planner from UNO about the tension and emotion that’s been simmering in the city in the weeks leading up to the anniversary.  She watched two 60 yr olds come to blows in a meeting last night over an idea, a suggestion.  The night before the first anniversary of September 11, I burst into tears in front of my boss, over something seemingly entirely unrelated, but in hindsight seems to have been a much needed release from the sadness and overwhelming significance of the coming day. 

So in personal and professional ways, today should be a highly charged event.  I hope the energy and emotion that is so prevalent here exists around the country, and among my readers, as you see the coverage and it triggers your own thoughts about New Orleans, disasters, race, cities.  Thanks for joining us down here. 




Public Response to My Interview

There has been some outcry in New Orleans about my interview with MIT’s Tech Talk, as well as about MIT’s role in redeveloping Lafitte.  I am responding personally to the folks I know, but here are some statements that I hope will be useful to everyone interested.  Please remember I don’t speak for MIT.  These are MY views.  They are personal and based on 31 years worth of emotional and intellectual experience, including the last year in and out of New Orleans.


I experience a collective sense of loss and grief in the city.  YES, there is incredible grassroots activism (Tim Coates, from the Kennedy School of Government and a consultant to the Broadmoor Improvement Association, covered it remarkably well from an non-New Orleanian in an op-ed – “Katrina’s Heroes” – for the Boston Globe on August 20).  Communities, local organizations and individual residents are no doubt doing a fantastic job of reclaiming, recovering, re-imagining – honestly, just select your preferred “re” verb here – their homes, neighborhoods, schools, futures, etc.  BUT, all this individualism to me is NOT acceptable, NOT enough.  There should be stronger, guiding government leadership, from the local all the way up to the federal – and especially here! – level.  This leadership should be bridging these individual efforts towards a collective vision.  This might be naive, idealistic, un-American, uninformed, but I think it’s bullshit that there has to be a Crazy Horse approach (i.e., self-funded) to development vs. organized, coherent, available funding, guidance and support from the government on rebuilding.  And maybe I truly am an outsider; maybe this Only In My Backyard approach to redevelopment is how New Orleanians prefer it.  But that’s not what I heard when I was working with organizing groups.   And just because groups demonstrate remarkable organizing activity doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for the government to just let them have at it.  Individual CDCs and community-based organizations can’t rebuild roads, take down I-10, turn on their electricity again, or repair a broken school system unless they privatize it.  I’m not content with this solution.


I find it incredibly sad that half the city is still gone, and that this half is probably not able to return any time soon, if at all. This is some form of institutional neglect, negligence, willful harm, I’m not sure what to call it, on behalf of the government to not enable people to return, and not to cushion their landing in other cities with anything else than an overpriced, undersized flimsy home in a segregated trailer park.  Public housing and multi-unit dwellings, schools and other large parcels could have been the first to have been cleaned out and repopulated with returning families and workers.  The details could have been worked out on this.  It wasn’t done.  I find this mass displacement abhorrent, and I find the “right to return” rhetoric supports my feeling.  But if we’re going to permanently shut families out, then offer them support and opportunity in their lives elsewhere. 


I do not support the demolition of public housing, ESPECIALLY given HUD’s flimsy, false rhetoric about the need to take it down. Mixed income in my narrowly informed experience seems to either continue to segregate people in poverty (i.e., the upper income families don’t arrive or remain) or, as is the well-known case in New Orleans, River Garden, the poor are permanently displaced and it’s nothing more than a mix of middle-income families.  At the end of the day, putting up and taking down buildings does VERY little to address the root causes of poverty in the U.S., and there’s no shortage of academics and practitioners debating what to do about public housing.  All that said, if it’s coming down, and maybe the lawsuits will prove otherwise, I am glad to know who the developers are.  I know their work in other cities, I’ve listened to them at length, I understand their convictions and commitment.  I would rather this development team on Lafitte than any other, and that isn’t because I’m jonesing for a role.  I don’t like, nor do I want to practice, development.  It’s too abstract for me, a disconnected way of dealing with people’s lives.


My impressions of New Orleans post-Katrina are inevitably informed by 2 1/2 years of working in Lower Manhattan after September 11.  I saw first hand how individually-based programs that did not align with macro-level changes in the neighborhood left some people downtown worse off, especially over time.  For example, small business owners encouraged and offered incentives to remain downtown were then trapped by debt loads as their consumer population downtown disappeared due to development programs that converted commercial properties to residential buildings.  With their clients gone, they had little income to repay their debts and some of them became, as one disaster researcher put it, “permanently failing organizations.”   I’m taking a long view here re: New Orleans.  And I come back to my original point: without a common direction, pool of resources, or vision around which to rally, independent efforts on behalf of community groups and individuals could come to naught. 


The people who have attacked me directly are those with whom I have personal relationships.  I appreciate their input.  As I wrote to one of them, I hope they’ll think about our personal interactions so far and weigh those against what they are now reading and hearing (unless of course it’s from this blog).  I wrote to the reporter about the incredible “emotion work” involved in working in New Orleans (forgive the academic jargon):

“I also find it hard to work down here at at least an arm’s length removed from the ground.  Meaning, I don’t work with many survivors, very few locals, etc…it’s also hard not to have their input, their emotion, etc. to refuel me on a day to day basis (or, alternatively, sap my exhaustion from the sheer size of their needs.) It’s easy to get a sense of “why am I doing this again?â€?  when it’s such demanding work to begin with.  I work mainly with other external groups, and with senior organizational types from large, local groups, so there isn’t that sense of connection that I had in NY working directly with business owners.  There’s a level of feeling really removed and not having an outlet for my own emotional response to the plight of the city, as a result.  To extend this, I do feel very alone in my work down here…there’s very few people in the rest of my world that are in a position to understand what I’m going through, working on, experiencing, etc. down here.  It’s really really intense work, and I find I’m VERY consumed by it.” 

One of the reasons I’m looking forward to coming to New Orleans full-time is to try to reduce this disconnectedness from the energy and spirit on the ground.  New Orleans is an amazing city.  Whether people love it or hate it, it doesn’t seem like anyone leaves untouched by it.  It’s seductive and unique and I can’t fathom our country without it, or tolerating a sanitized version of its former self.  Perhaps over time, my critics will come to understand how much I love cities, how strong is my own urban pride, and how I’m fueled by a sense of pragmatic righteousness (yes, it confounds me too) in my work.  In the meantime, I also hope they’ll go about their business of protecting, loving, and fighting for their people and places. 



Ok, someone has to explain these search strings for me…I thought the temper tantrum was cool.  Check this out:


homoerotic male youth turkish”

What the f***?????


Unanswerable Questions: The Anniversary (Part I)

I am back in New Orleans, arrived this afternoon.  This Tuesday, August 29, is the one-year annversary of Katrina, and my head is already spinning with all I want to share with you.  About the leadership vacuum at the federal and local level, about the spirit of local citizens, about the audacity that folks have not been able to come home, about the seeming efforts underway to prevent their return, etc. etc. etc.  I want to share my impressions, my colleagues’ impressions, I am already tired. 

As you know, I’ve been mourning the irreversible changes underway in this city since the storm hit, and I am surprised that it feels good to be back.  I am glad to be here over the next couple days, and the last 2 weeks at home and weeks to come will not doubt be immensely helpful in sorting through all I’ve seen in the last 8 months to a year.  This phase of my work in NOLA is coming to a close, for a variety of reasons that I may or may not get into here (given how easily Big Brother watches the blogosphere, it seems.  How does he keep up????).  But there will be new chapters.  As we see most recently from 9/11, there is no quick remedy to the physical, economic and social horrors that befall communities when disaster strikes. 

I hope that over time, this blog helps you sort thru the murky, incomplete reporting that is saturating us now and will continue to trickle in in the future.  I by no means tell it exactly like it is – everyone has their own reality – but being here provides a startling, very discomfiting perspective that is easily missed when the story is packaged up for distant mass consumption.  Tonight the NAACP hosted a forum on housing policy and advocacy,** and the moderator, Michael Dyson, responded to a question from the audience about why New Orleanians have not been able to return home, especially as it relates to why ~ half of the structurally sound public housing not only will not be re-opened, but is slated for demolition, when there is such a critical housing shortage in the city?  Dyson responds, “the brother raises a question that is unanswerable.”  He goes on to say that there is no “rational” reason for the situation of virtually permanent displacement and related plans to demolish some of the public housing in the city.  (You may already feel disagreement welling up inside; I will try to post some photos and devote more time to this issue in a separate post, but give me the benefit of the doubt for now.  “Environmental conditions” – see link – is blatantly false.) 

There is so much to take in down here that inspires questions that have no answers, or no satisfactory answers.  There is no shortage of rhetoric, but there is a dire lack of leadership.  The $$ you assume has arrived is not here; tonight I heard the no-bid contracting for clean-up by FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers referred to simultaneously as both “disaster capitalism” and “the disaster hustle.”  (Guess which one is an academic’s term vs. the fourth-generation Lower 9th Ward resident turned City Council President’s phrase!)  And local residents are, as my fabulous Bahamian colleague Nakeischea put it tonight, “planned out!”  A woman in the NAACP’s audience lamented, “I feel like I work for Ringling Brothers” with all the hoops she’s jumping through. 

When my interview at MIT ran last week, my NOLA colleague emailed me worried that I was too “negative,” that I had given up on New Orleans.  I worry that you will feel the same with my lamenting here.  That is not my point.  I have not given up on the city, and I will post separateyl my “vision” for it’s future (as the MIT reporter requested) so you might get a sense of how I feel.  But I think it’s important to be honest, about my frustrations, anger and fears about the government’s failure to lead us out of this darkness (for contrasting purposes, lean back and reminisce of the glory days of Guiliani post-9/11), about the permanent displacement of half the city, mostly its black and poorest, and the implicit expectation that local residents will have to save themselves.  Thank goodness for peoples’ “pioneer spirit,” Sen. Diane Bajoie thanked the audience tonight.  Unfortunately, the $70k price tag for a FEMA trailer doesn’t include the shot gun for protection down here in the Wild West. 



**Grain of salt: The NAACP has been notoriously absent down here; rolling in one year later with a panel of lawyers, politicians and academics to talk about what housing *should* look like is not particularly inspiriing.  But events like this are useful for capturing the latest research, government (in)activity, and fabulous quotes for future use in blogs, dissertations, etc.  Having time to think while panelists verbally joust is also very helpful for sorting through the issues.



But my dear friend Sala acknowledges an important oversight.  She writes, “but where is the sexy portrait shot of you to accompany the interview!????”