Maybe

Some days I feel pretty gloomy about the way things are going in my little area of Mid-City.

But on other days I feel much more optimistic. Today is one of those better days.

For one thing, Charles is coming back. ACORN gutted his house today, and he’s doing right by Road Home. He’s going to be able to rebuild his 110 year old house which is just down the street from ours.

Charles

Charles is one of the few homeowners in the immediate area. When he’s back in the ‘hood with Gwen and Xy and me, I predict the stability factor will increase 50%.

Charles was a sight for sore eyes. But I’m also feeling good because across the street some guys are sitting at a folding table playing dominoes. There’s even a white dude at the table.

It’s almost starting to feel like Mid-City again.

On our side of the street, two teenage boys are lounging atop a car. They’re acting all thuggish and hard, as teenage boys are wont to do, but they’re playing Connect Four. That cracks me up.

Nagin’s Speech

If only he’d stopped with his prepared remarks — “and justice for all!” But no… He had to go off script at the end. All I could think about was how this speech would play to the nation, if indeed this gets any national media attention. Up until the end I thought it probably played pretty well — positive, determined, critical but not whiny. Then at the very end he went off script with a repeated refrain: “It’s not our fault!” That soundbite won’t play well in the heartland, or anywhere else for that matter.

Next Door

They’ve finally started work on the house next door to ours, which has been an eyesore for years. They’ve decided to renovate rather than demolish. If they demolished, they probably wouldn’t be able to rebuild according to modern codes and zoning, because of the extremely small lot.

The Leaning Tower of New Orleans

First step: Remove the contents from the upstairs rooms and pile them on the street, including a large quantity of newspapers which scatter everywhere when the wind blows. I called the property owner twice to complain. I hate complaining like that, but I think maybe he got the point.

Now they’re taking steps to straighten the building, which has been leaning for years. I expressed my hope that it would not fall on our house. The owner said he couldn’t guarantee it.

I suspect this work is being done without the proper permits. I also suspect that the workers are not licensed contractors. Yesterday morning they somehow ruptured a gas line. There was loud hissing, the smell of gas permeated the air, and Entergy had to come out and seal it back up.

I’m keeping my eye on this one. I’ve seen some of the other flooded properties “fixed up” by this family, and frankly I have not been impressed. To their credit, I must say they have done more with their properties than a lot of owners in the surrounding blocks. But at the same time, I find the quality of the work disappointing. To come back strong, our neighborhood needs housing that meets a certain basic level of quality.

New Home Movies from the Lower 9th Ward

I got a call a couple weeks ago from Tavis Smiley’s people. They wanted me to promote a television show on my blog. I’ve heard about this as the latest marketing trend, and I’m not sure what to think of it. On the one hand, I like to preserve this space as a place to write whatever’s on my mind, and I don’t want to serve as a tool for someone else’s marketing strategy. On the other hand, this television series is something I’d like to promote. So, at least this once, I’m playing along.

Here’s the e-mail follow-up they sent me. This sounds like good television, and I’d encourage my friends around the country to check it out tonight, and each night this week.

My name is Brian Steffen. I am currently working for KCET in Los Angeles and the television show “Tavis Smiley” that airs nationally every week night on Public Television. Currently in production is a five part series in which Tavis Smiley is joining forces with director Jonathan Demme to present series of short films on post-Katrina New Orleans called “Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower 9th Ward.” The five films examine the efforts of a group of New Orleanians who braved unimaginable adversity after the floods and in an attempt to reclaim their lives-primarily in the Lower 9th Ward. The residents presented in the documentary include teachers, ministers, a retired chef, volunteer workers, the owner of the legendary “Mother-In-Law Lounge,” librarians and other workers from all walks of life. “Right to Return” will air nightly for a week, beginning Monday, May 28th on the “Tavis Smiley” late-night program on over 200 PBS affiliates nationwide.

“This American story of lives lost, souls shattered and uncommon courage must be told, even though the waters have subsided,” stated Tavis Smiley. “I’m pleased and honored to have the opportunity alongside an iconic director like Jonathan Demme to tell that story.”

“This is an extremely personal project for me,” stated Jonathan Demme. “We started filming four months after the floods. I felt drawn, as an American film maker, to contribute somehow to the audio-visual record of what these people were going through in their heroic efforts to jump start their lives in the face of this epic, tragic event. I wanted to be a part of getting these stories out, and I am so thrilled and proud to be doing so with Tavis Smiley.” Jonathan Demme added, “It’s really wonderful that Tavis Smiley is providing a window into the lives of these amazing people — the spirituality, courage, imagination, tenacity, and humor that fuels their commitment to restore their homes is truly inspiring and moving to me.”

Each night, Jonathan Demme will join Tavis Smiley on location to introduce the people featured in each episode. The main individuals profiled will have the opportunity to talk about their current situation at the end of each program.

Everyone here at KCET and “Tavis Smiley” would appreciate your help in letting people know that the program is going to be aired. We would like to have a post on your blog about the program. We believe with your help more people will be able to see and hear these amazing individuals.

Read the full copy of the press release.

Back on the Bayou

Yesterday’s Boogaloo was a screaming success, with something like 10,000 attendees. (Charlie London has posted a video.) Today the bayou saw more action. After weeks of rumors and postponements, the Indians came back to the bayou. We were too busy staining doors to actually check it out, but it did my heart good to see the plumage from afar when we went to get a po-boy from the Parkway. The newspaper referred to it as “Downtown Super Sunday.” I thought that was odd, since what made Super Sunday “Super” was that the Indians came out both uptown and downtown on the same day. So is this the new pattern, with Uptown Super Sunday taking place near St. Joseph’s Day and Downtown Super Sunday just before hurricane season? Either way, I’m just glad this tradition isn’t lost.

Rat Smasher

I saw something this morning, after I’d opened my eyes but before I put on my glasses. In my blurry vision, it looked like a mouse had just crept into our bedroom and taken up refuge behind the vacuum cleaner.

I put on my glasses, and discovered it was not a mouse but a small rat. I noticed a second dead rat (also small) in the hallway, apparently already a victim to feline depredations.

We put our best mousers, Milo and Crybaby, on the case. They had this little rat cornered, but they couldn’t seem to seal the deal. Maybe they were tuckered out from killing the one in the hall. And I’ll be damned if that rat didn’t look genuinely cute as it climbed through a vacuum cleaner attachment.

Finally I got impatient. With gloves on, I grabbed the rat, put it in a plastic bag, took it outside, found a brick, and smashed the poor creature into a fine paste.

It was a quick death.

We haven’t had rats in the house since last spring, when we had a couple unpleasant incidents. A recent comment on this blog suggests the new and improved trash cans could be increasing rodent desperation. Xy’s theory is these guys were fleeing the renovation next door (more on that soon).

Whatever the case, we are both pretty revolted.

Boogaloo II

I remember last year at this time, I was skeptical. What kind of screwed-up, misplaced priorities do my neighbors have, planning a festival when we have so many serious issues to deal with?

But since then I’ve come to my senses. Festivals are a great way to build community. Now more than ever, we need to foster that sense of community. Festivals bring people together across all those social divides that keep people apart. Festivals are an opportunity for civic organizations to reach people they normally don’t reach.

I understand they can also be fun in their own right.

Dancing

So if you’re in New Orleans, especially if you’re in Mid-City, be sure to check out the second annual Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo this Saturday. It’s like a miniature Jazz Fest, but without the admission charge. I’ll be at the FOLC booth from noon to 2:00 PM. Stop by and say hi.

Indian Summer

I’m not certain, but it seems to me there is a dearth of summer camps and similar activities for youth in New Orleans as the school year draws to a close. The Urban League is providing a summer camp at Xy’s school, but that’s across the river in Algiers.

That’s why Xavier University’s “Mardi Gras Indian Arts Summer School” caught my eye. It sounds like a fascinating program. Kids ages 11-14 will make their own Mardi Gras Indian Costume and learn about the tradition. Applications are due on May 28.

Kid Indians

photo by dsb nola

Xy and I don’t have a child, but I’m sharing this information with our neighbors. At $50 the program seems affordable considering it lasts two months. But that still might be a stretch for some of my neighbors, so we may provide our own little North Salcedo Street scholarship fund.

More information and application forms are available on Xavier’s website.

Hike 3

I wish I’d had a day of rest upon returning to New Orleans, but of course I didn’t. Sunday morning started off with the third annual hike of the Lafitte Corridor.

We began with a dozen people and finished with seventeen.

After the Hike

Click the picture to view a set of 20 wild and wacky pictures from along the route.

(Michael Homan has also posted a set of gulp 273 photos, a neat trick considering he only joined us for ten minutes. His new camera made the trip, though; I think Therese took most of the pictures, but maybe she passed the camera to Alan also.)

Thanks to everyone who came along. We had almost as many hikers as last year, but very few repeat offenders. I was disappointed that no one from Ed Blakely’s office joined us.

I hope everyone will consider getting involved with Friends of Lafitte Corridor. We will have a booth at the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo this Saturday, so stop by to learn more about one of the most positive projects in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Update: Photo essay of the hike at New Orleans Nation.

Update: We’ve got Kalypso’s support.

Program

The leadership program, which was offered through Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, was intensive. But at the end of each twelve hour day, I was both exhausted and energized.

Marty, Tricia, Takashi

The pedagogy was like nothing I’ve seen before. The faculty worked to create and enact the very ideas we were discussing. It was somewhat mind-boggling. The theme was “Chaos, Conflict and Courage,” and we saw plenty of all three.

In practice this meant that we were engaging not just intellectually, but also emotionally. Head and gut. That’s necessary for learning on this topic.

Not everyone saw the value of this approach immediately. Some people (mostly the Type A personalities) were upset by the techniques, and their dissatisfaction grew as the week went on. They wanted their money back. Eventually they organized an uprising which tried to take over the class and get it back on track. Apparently, this is pretty standard stuff in the program. It’s all part of the plan. It was amazing to me to watch an attempted classroom coup taking place, and to realize that the instructor kept the discussion on topic throughout the whole thing, even when he temporarily surrendered the class to a student.

I believe at the end of the program most of the skeptics had come around. Some people had moments of revelation where everything clicked. For me it was more subtle.

Obviously I can’t convey the substance of so many hours of experience here in a succinct little nutshell. I certainly can’t recreate the emotional experience. Nevertheless I can put forward a few of the more provocative ideas:

  • Leadership and authority are not the same thing.
  • Organizations want to keep individuals well within their scope of authority.
  • Staying within that scope means confining work to technical matters.
  • Technical solutions only go so far. Truly complex problems require adaptive solutions.
  • Adaptation means change. Change entails loss. Leadership is about confronting people with loss. People resist change. No one wants to sustain a loss. Therefore leadership is a dangerous activity.
  • Leadership always entails casualties. So-called “win-win” solutions are rarely what they seem to be. (I’m still conflicted about this one.)
  • We are never authorized to exercise leadership. It is inherently subversive.
  • Opportunities to exercise leadership are available to just about everyone.

Honestly, I could have gotten these ideas from reading a book. In fact, I did. The advantage of attending the program in person was taking these concepts to a more visceral level.

One final observation: Here in New Orleans, most everyone who heard I was going to this seminar expressed intense interest. I think a recent poll by the University of New Orleans gives an indication of why. They’ve been conducting a quality of life survey every six months for the last 21 years. The number one issue on people’s minds has always been crime — until now. For the first time ever, something else has topped the list, namely government. If I may interpret, I believe what people are upset about is a lack of leadership. Our crisis has created an unusual situation. We are longing for those in authority to help us with difficult changes. That’s why neighborhood groups and citizen-led initiatives are intervening in places you’d normally expect to find government. We are exceeding our authority and intervening in our own destiny.

Trip Reflections

Rower

This was my first trip outside New Orleans since we returned from our evacuation some 17 months ago. I joked that I would have been happy sitting in a cardboard box, just knowing that I was out of the disaster zone. The stress of being in New Orleans was really starting to get to me, and it was refreshing to be in a place where disaster and recovery did not dominate every aspect of existence.

But I was not sitting in a cardboard box. I was at Harvard University, the ultimate American Ivory Tower. Wealth and prosperity were evident everywhere. I was staying in the Soldiers Field Apartments, which were pretty nice. I think they were worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle so much intact infrastructure, though. They started tearing up the walkway to the entrance of my building mid-week. They replaced it with a plywood plank, and I felt right at home.

Under Construction

Nor was I alone. I arrived with Patricia Jones and LaToya Cantrell, two New Orleanians knee-deep in recovery work. Prior to this trip, I knew them only by reputation. I was honored and inspired to be in their company.

There were 61 participants in the seminar, from all over the world. The list was incredible to me: a general in the Malaysian Air Force, a cultural attaché from Kuwait, a UN representative from New Zealand, cops from Ireland and Honolulu and Oklahoma City, a school superintendent from Canada, a customs official from Finland, a mayor from Ohio, a county comptroller from Florida, professors from South Korea and South Africa, a congressman from Mexico, the president of Earth Conservation Corps, a handful of business executives. There were several Americans from the “Federal Government.” They couldn’t say what agency exactly. Or rather, they could tell you, but then they’d have to kill you.

Program Participants

My roommate was a CEO of a real estate company from Nigeria, looking to get into government — not to make money, he hastened to tell me emphatically, but to help the poor. We compared notes over a glass of bourbon one night, and I concluded that Nigeria and New Orleans have a lot in common, including about $90,000 of cold cash in William Jefferson’s freezer.

Just to be immersed in such a large, diverse and interesting group was a pleasure. It was also humbling but at the same time confidence-building.

Application Group #6

There was a lot of interaction in small groups, formally and informally. I found myself talking about New Orleans constantly. People were interested, curious, and compassionate. It was good to be reminded that we are not universally hated or forgotten. Sometimes I get a little paranoid.

Most of all, I find that I’ve returned to New Orleans with a renewed sense of hope. We face immense challenges on all sides, but I feel like we’ve got a shot, and that’s something I haven’t felt for a while.

I see I haven’t even touched on the program curriculum. Tomorrow, perhaps.

I’m Back

Funny, I started this weblog with the notion of recording a true journal of my real life. But as I’ve gained a readership and some people (however few) are actually paying attention to what I write here, I find myself more constrained. Case in point: I’ve just gotten back to New Orleans after a week-long visit to Boston. I purposely didn’t post about the trip. I didn’t want to advertise that I was away from home. I didn’t want the world at large to know that Xy was here alone. I’m happy to report that she survived without me. There was a burglary, but it was across the street. As for my trip, I hope to write more soon. Now I should go to bed. I’ve got a hike coming up in a few hours.

Falwell

Jerry Falwell’s passing today gives me pause to reflect. Twenty-odd years ago I was fascinated by Falwell. I got on his mailing list and joined his organization by sending in a donation of one penny. I got a membership card which I shrink-wrapped and still have today. Believe it: I’m a card-carrying member of the Moral Majority.

Roofers

I passed by PJ & Andrea’s old house in Broadmoor to see if it had been demolished yet. I was surprised to see roofers at work.

Roofers

It’s sad that PJ & Andrea aren’t here, but I’ve had a year and half or so to get used to that fact. They recently bought a house in Indianapolis where they seem quite happy. So for the most part, I just feel good that their old house doesn’t have to be demolished after all.

I was also gladdened to see sign of progress in the surrounding neighborhood, however slow it may be. Some houses are being gutted only now. There seems to be a bit more activity there than in our little pocket of Mid-City.

Questions from Murray

I remarked to Xy a couple weeks ago that I didn’t know who our State Senator was, and then a few days later we got a glossy, full-color mailer that answered the question. Our State Senator, Edwin Murray, wants our feedback on what to do with the Louisiana budget surplus. The mailing includes a postage-paid postcard with the following five options (check all that apply):

  1. The state should pay for the increased cost of health insurance for retired teachers.
  2. The state should abolish the Louisiana Recovery Authority.
  3. The state should terminate the contract with ICF, who administers the Road Home Program.
  4. The state should bear the burden of fixing the educational system in New Orleans.
  5. The state should make New Orleans a priority.

There’s also piece that says Please note infrastructure includes police and fire stations, libraries, school, utilities, streets and sidewalks. I’m not sure what the point of this note is, since “infrastructure” is not mentioned in the five options. But there is a space to add my own ideas. Maybe I can write “infrastructure” there.

Andrea

It’s not even hurricane season yet, and already we’re looking at Andrea?

…EARLY-SEASON SUBTROPICAL STORM FORMS OFF THE SOUTHEAST U.S. COAST…

I’ve never even heard of a subtropical storm before.

With all apologies to my friends named Andrea — I don’t like the looks of this at all. It doesn’t bode well for the season to come. I think I’ll make a sacrifice to the gods of wind shear.

I forgot to mention the headline in this morning’s paper:

City still vulnerable

Just weeks before the start of a new hurricane season, New Orleans’ hurricane levees are incomplete leaving the city at risk from even small hurricanes.