While my mind churns from the events of the week, and I pace around my house and neighborhood making sense of it all, an uneventful hurricane season slips quietly out the back door.Â Â The city’s collective shoulders drop imperceptibly, but its voluminous sigh of relief is as quiet as a hurricane’s winds.Â
Archive for November, 2006
Is the title of my latest post on poverty and population shifts at TPM Cafe, and reflective of the Housing Authority of New Orleans’s (HANO) public meeting that I witnessed tonight. By now, all Redstar Perspective readers are familiar with the struggle over public housing in this city, and obvious champions of redevelopment alternatives to the outright, rapid demolition of 5,000+ proposed by HUD. Former public housing residents and their advocates are with you.
Picture a mainly black crowd with a smattering of white faces, journalists crawling everywhere, and two police forces filling an old school high school auditorium. A screen opened over the wooden stage to capture a power point presentation, with the heavy green drapes pushed to the sides and displaying “JMcD” in gold letters overhead (for John McDonogh High School).
Essentially, the meeting was a farce – for a public agency to proceed with such a demolition project requires public input, and HANO accordingly explained their presence there tonight as mandatory. (This process “requires residential consultation which is tonight’s meeting.” Please sum up your life’s experience with public housing, poverty, Katrina, displacement and economic and social insecurity in the three minute comment period provided to you, given you signed up to comment when you arrived. No response will be provided tonight, but your comments will be “duly noted.” Thank you, and God bless.)
While activists and residents crowded the central aisle of the high school auditorium where the meeting took place, relentlessly chanting and acting generally obstructionist, HANO employees pleaded with them to sit down so the meeting could begin. The young black woman beside me in a back row decided all the meeting handouts/redevelopment propaganda she was leafing through were lies, and she got up and slid past me to “go with the people.” (By now marching around the auditorium to accompany the chanting – “No Demolition!” and “Bring People Home!” / “Now!” This last one had a cool call and response rhythm.)
HANO eventually gave up and started the meeting anyway, about 15 minutes late, and one small woman gave a rather meek and quick powerpoint presentation of converting 5,000+ units into ~1,600 while the noise and civil disobedience continued. Another employee spoke after her, again barely audible over the din, and these two portions of the meeting were concluded in about 20 minutes. At 6:35pm, the agenda turned to the resident comment period. The second to last and most important agenda item, with still 2 hours and 25 minutes to go.
There’s a reason I was overwhelmed with despair when I touched down on Monday afternoon. Tonight was a free for all of desolation, confusion, outrage, righteous indignation, and role play. An entourage of black women, young and old, one after another – the mostly single mothers who have raised their families in these developments over generations – came up to the microphone to comment on HUD’s plans. The occasional male resident, politician and activist joined them. Here’s a highlight of the comments through 7:30, by which point the lack of constructive action and general helplessness of both residents and HANO – despite the former’s energy and passion – became too much for me.
“Where [are] people going to stay if you [are] tearing down everything?”
“The development I lived in is better than the house I rent.” (HANO has increased the value of their vouchers 120% due to the increased rents for housing in the city.)
“Why can’t you do [development] in phases…to get the people home?”
“….all the units of Lafitte are livable…why can’t y’all open Lafitte and let those people come home?” (Parts of Lafitte flooded but the water did not reach the first floor units.)
“…the housing developments are the strongest ones in the city…you in power are not being told [what’s really going on]….you are being used…who’s getting the money for the iron and steel coming out of those buildings…”
“why would [you] take those projects and not allow [residents] to come back?Â They did not leave of their own volition…they have a right to return…”
From a contractor raised in public housing who was offered a piece of the pie: “why should I tear down what raised me?”
From a housing activist and former resident (I believe): “HUD is in violation of resident participation…[we are] not opposed to redevelopment, we are opposed to this process…we have a right to be involved…our residents are being abused in Dallas, TX, in Houston, TX…crime is a social issue in this city, it is not about those buildings…women live in the buildings…men are on the streets killing each other…”
It was brutal, and completely juxtaposed by the 2 year old toddling around beside me in the aisle, trying to take my notebook and occasionally suggestively laying her hand on my arm while she smiled up at me. Even though some activists spoke about residents rising up and taking back the housing (leading residents in “I Shall Not be Moved” or telling them not to “wait for permission to return…” I.e., the lone Iberville project is open because residents “didn’t allow their G-d-given right of having a home be taken away from them.”), generally the sentiment in the room was one of disbelief, bewilderment, and total victimization. How can HUD/HANO/the government/politicians/people in power do this to us? How can we not be allowed to come home? How can they take my home? We deserve to come home. Bring us home! The buildings HUD plans to tear down are merely symbolic of a struggle much much deeper than the publicized rhetoric of de-concentrating poverty.
The comments indicate residents are not opposed to redevelopment, if it is in phases, reflects their and their families’ needs, and thus offers an affordable place to live in the city now and in the future. From 5,200 to 1,600 with zero guarantee of one-to-one replacement, there’s nothing in this plan that promises residents any reasonable public assistance in the future. Using Katrina as the opportunity to terminate without warning the public benefit of affordable housing that over 5,000 households relied on and need particularly during a post-hurricane period of hardship is a fundamental crime here.Â (Qualifying for and covering fair market rents with post-Katrina Section 8 vouchers has been notoriously difficult.) Approximately 5% of the units under question were marked for demolition and renovation before the storm; HUD has used Katrina to take another 4,500 to the chopping block.Â In FY2006 alone, HUD will eliminate 50% of the public housing in New Orleans.
Debating the merits of public housing is not the core issue in this fight. It is about an assault on the poor, what one researcher calls our country’s “politics of disposability.” It is about who has a reasonable expectation of and right to basic economic security and freedom in this country, including an expectation of government assistance to facilitate economic mobility (such as for the middle class in the tax breaks for homeownership we receive). It is about who deserves this assistance and opportunity, and who does not. None of us are immune to casting judgment in this sense, and looking to our own accumulated assets as demonstrative of our success and self-worth. We are not a country of zen Buddhists by any means.
Nonetheless, this calculated move by HUD to topple the housing-of-last-resort in one of our country’s poorest cities, one now with a demonstrative housing crisis (universally felt by all New Orleanians, as the city and reconstruction industry are both abysmally short on workers), is not only mean-spirited but a complete abdication of government responsibility. I challenge even those who believe in smaller government and self-reliance to sanction this as a sensible response to the storm. The city needs temporary housing, host communities don’t want to permanently inherit another’s urban poor, people want to be reunited with their homes and neighbors, and the FEMA trailer solution is costing us $70k – $140k a pop (with 99,000 families currently calling these places home). Surely this is not the leaner, meaner government we’re looking for?
We don’t have poor people’s movements in this country anymore, and nothing short of such an occurrence is going to reclaim these housing units. Such energy is found in immigrants’ rights and labor movements these days, and as I’ve written elsewhere, there is a sharp disconnect between the predominantly Latin@ make-up of this activism and the disenfranchisement of New Orleans and the rest of America’s black, urban poor.
I know that most of my readers are not leaping from their chairs inspired by these posts to run out and unite with the workers of the world. But if notions of equity and government responsibility run through your head just often enough for you to wonder for one moment longer about the lives of your grocery deliverymen or hotel cleaning women, and connect those fleeting thoughts to the policies and politicians you support, then I’ve done my job here tonight.
“They call me bad. They call you bad. We’re not. Keep [your] values…and the love…and spread it…”
– public housing resident, New Orleans, November 29, 2006
Just a few hours ago I wrote about my ambivalence about being back in New Orleans, though I left out the important subtext of having to deal with developer personalities all day that fueled a lot of my alienation.
But now I’m home on Willow St, after some great tapas (including fabulous little whisk brooms of grilled artichokes!), wine and music at Mimi’s in the Marigny.Â This place is one of my favorite bars ever.Â It’s so chill – cheap, tasty food; a lofty if run-down loungey upstairs decorated with a few old collegy couches and small tables, and balconies that open on to the street below; live music every night; and a tattooed, laidback female staff just make this place one of my all-time favorite spots.Â I cruised slowly through the city on my way home, checking out the scenery and the radio dial – it’s amazing how much of the housing is still shuttered and dark (it’s noticeably block-by-block or house-by-house now), but all the abandoned cars underneath the highway are gone.Â I couldn’t help but feel a warm and fuzzy Rioja-fueled sensation overcome me as some R&B singer crooned that “tonight was the night you make me a woman.”Â True dat.Â And now an email that another post-Katrina colleague is relocating here.Â The NOLA seduction is immensely difficult to resist.
A long walk around Audobon Park on the phone with the M.A.S. helped.Â I don’t want to be here without him – this is more his city to claim between the two of us.Â But I’m not immune to the culture, the music and the endlessly fascinating world of how this city and its residents can and will recover.Â It’s amazing to ride around still after all this time and pass in and out of dark patches, only to then drive past bustling, brightly lit corners and storefronts and thoroughfares.Â It’s totally, still jarring.Â I’m looking forward to an unstructured tomorrow, with only an eveningÂ public housing meeting on the schedule.Â Rancor should ensue.Â As my roommate pointed out today, public housing is the dividing line – or one of the brightest lines – in development debates about this city.Â Â Do you keep it up or tear it down?Â Oh, so you hate/love poor people.Â You are a bigot/capitalist/communist/hippie.Â And so on.Â
I reclaimed some of my familiarity and knowledge tonight, and I fear by Friday I will once again feel the pull to stay behind as my plane takes off.Â It has been such a welcome reprieve being so “rational” about NOLA re-development and politics in the last 3 months!*
*At the end of the 2 modules I co-taught on Katrina to the Masters students this fall, my professor said to me, “You make [rebuilding] sound so rational.Â I enjoyed that!”Â Me too, teach, me too.
Just flicked on the overhead light above my old spot at the dining room table on Willow Street.Â Long morning with colleagues and now full and sleepy and trying to decide how to get some exercise – biking around Audobon Park is probably the likely winner.Â I always feel compelled in winter months to be outside as much as possible, never knowing when I’ll wake up and it will be 5 deg, or, inÂ the Gulf’s equivalent, a torrential hurricane.
Feeling like I’m sort of checked out on being here.Â I had a sense of this already, that to be engaged down here is a full-time commitment.Â It’s not merely for my own emotional sanity; the politics are such that one should be present to follow up, follow through, and stand down the conversations and perceptions that follow them around this place.Â I’m not fully present here, physically or emotionally, and my professional workÂ suffers for it.Â Sure, it’s cool to be singled out by activists, but I haven’t been back since all that went down, and who knows through what my name has been dragged this fall.Â (Everybody’s name, no matter how big or small they maybe, is in play at one point or another in all this rebuilding activity.Â The larger-than-life “MIT” moniker also trails after me.)Â I feel like I need to make a commitment to this place, or not.Â For the moment, it looks like not.Â
Emotionally, I’m not sure I want to take on post-Katrina New Orleans.Â It’s incredibly draining, this post-disaster work, it infuses your everyday.Â Any role that I take on would not be one that ended at 5 orÂ 6 or 9pm each day.Â In this sense, there’s something to be said for hiding out in cerebral isolation in the academy.Â Â (Though as you can tell, I’m energetically trying to bust out of that shell with my posting all over the blogosphere!)Â
Ultimately, I feel like I’m trying to throw my hat in the ring of another city’s private pain and struggle.Â They’re not dismissing individuals or groups who wish to take up the fight to rebuild, but they’re rightly demanding a certain level of commitment, and I’m not in a position to donate or give up that kind of time yet.Â I like my life in Boston, it’s vibrant and overdue and going somewhere.Â I’m happy there.Â If I move here in the coming year, it will be because I want to take on a role that I am comfortable in (research and analysis, most likely), one that the city and I accept on mutual terms, and one that includes an agreed-upon place for the M.A.S. (we are jointly figuring out not only our own futures, but New Orleans’s role in both).Â
So we’ll see where 2007 takes us all.Â I’ll keep you posted on the adventures of the rest of the week.Â My father will be pleased to know I’m not moving out of Boston in a month.Â PerhapsÂ I should let him know this rather than him having to find out via MIT’s Press office, which is how he learned of my original intentions to relocate here.Â
In related news, I got a call today from ABC about one of my TPM Cafe posts.Â I passed them on to others, but it’s official, I’m pulling down all the romance and cocktails stuff from this site and will be posting it elsewhere.Â I’ll keep you posted, pun intended.
I like this place, and I like to start here when I come back to New Orleans. Tonight was no different, and I’m one blog post from falling asleep on my Willow St bed after 2 glasses of wine and a great meal at the bar. Olive-oil seared gnocci, braised short ribs, some green beans, and an impromptu chat with the Exec Chef Donald Link and his wife. I first met Donald when the M.A.S. was here in July at Cochon, which can only be described as upscale Cajun (and as a result has alienated my more downhome NOLA roommate but brings me back again and again. I’m nothin’ if not upscale local. Eek – I sound like one of those upscale New Urbanist suburban malls that make people think they’re downtown, if amidst a sea of parking.).
I’ve been all over the emotional map in the 6 hours since I landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport (first: despair, second: hopelessness, third: familiarity, fourth: warmth, fifth: pleasure, six: ambivalence, current: curiosity) but tonight’s chat at least reminded me of one of my favorite bits about New Orleans – that everyone knows everyone, me included. Talking at the bar to the woman on my right, turns out she was the chef’s wife – whom I already mentioned I’ve met previously – and that she was a former consultant to one of my non-profit clients/colleagues here. These are the personal-professional circles that engulf you down here, I type as I lounge in an appropriated Saints sweatshirt from a Mardi Gras bbq of another former non-profit client.
Tomorrow and Thursday are my busy days, with Wed and Fri given over to exploring, catching up, and ruminating (and blogging). Army men and women in fatigues joined me on the shuttle bus from the airport to the rental car place. Smoking is banned in restaurants, effective 1/1/07. My roommate has 3 bumper stickers celebrating beer and shrimp on his car, and a bid in on a house in Bayou St. John. Life goes on, for better or worse. Coming into my room this afternoon was like entering the Gulf Coast wing of the Museum of Redstar. I clearly thought I’d be back before this – a half drunk bottle of water stood watch over the room from my nightstand, and discarded bottles of liquids exhumed from my carry-on were littered across my bureau. The water pressure in my bathroom is still abysmal, and my roommate’s still a slob. I’m hoping the M.A.S. and I can take a road trip in late January to clean out this room before this lease ends.
So until tomorrow, to see the changes.
While Wesley owns the film review portion of my little slice ‘o blogosphere, I must carve out my own post to recommend Akeelah and the Bee.Â This is the cutest, most uplifting little film I’ve seen in awhile. It’s overt – a heartwarming, family-oriented film about an eleven-year old smarty pants from South Los Angeles who competes to get to the National Spelling Bee and in the process, emancipates a father from the pain of losing his child and his wife, resurrects her mother’s love and unites a community in pride.Â A heavy lift for a little girl and a film, but it’s totally worthwhile, especially for those of you who love crescending musical medleys to accompany the hopeful, inspiring moments in your movies, and fear that W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass are not invoked nearly enough in popular culture.Â This film is rad, and especially entertaining if you were ever heckled on the playground for being a “bomar,” geek or nerd.Â Spelling is cool.
I’m also amused by the fact that this movie is a production of Starbucks Entertainment, as it brings up an on-going thread of M.A.S. conversation as we engage in our own not-quite-war, but culture-skirmish.Â I’m re-introducing my man into mainstream, celluloid society from some sort of murky hippie wilderness, while he teaches me how to eat with utensils and actually pause in my inhalations long enough to taste my food.Â We’re classy, and fascinated by the notion of the lifestyle brand, that convinces us it makes sense to package coffee and movies or pop music and perfume.Â (Look for the release of Redstar in better department stores near you this holiday season.)