A Fleeting Glimpse of My Electrician

Mike came by yesterday and did some electrical work on our house. We’ve been waiting for so long I’ve lost track. He finally hooked up the whole house fan that Mark installed in Mid-July. Unfortunately it’s blowing the wrong way.

Mike was supposed to return with a crew today to address the 101 small tasks that remain. But no show. Promises he’ll be back on Tuesday… We’ll see.

Meanwhile

While our public officials were ringing bells and laying wreaths yesterday, hundreds of people were marching in San Jose. They were commemorating Katrina just like we were doing here, but they were also calling for a Gulf Coast Civic Works Project. They want something like the WPA, putting Gulf Coast residents to work rebuilding the Gulf Coast. It seems to be gaining traction in California. I think the idea has merit, but it’s totally contrary to where our nation has gone politically. What do you think?

Two Years

So where are we in the recovery of New Orleans, two years after the great disaster?

It’s been slow going, that’s for sure. I expected that. It’s killing people in less fortunate circumstances, but personally I can survive the slow pace of recovery — as long as I can see some progress being made. But sometimes it feels like we aren’t even moving in the right direction.

This second year after the flood has been, in some ways, more difficult than the first year.

Something like 200,000 people are still displaced. It seems increasingly likely that a good percentage of these will never return home. What is there to return to, anyway? Housing remains a huge issue. Rents are sky-high, and the homeless squat in abandoned buildings which then catch fire. Many people are still living in government-issued trailers, which are full of chemicals that make you sick, a fact the government tried to suppress. Blight abounds, yet perfectly good homes are put on the demolition list. The Road Home program has been a massive boondoggle. The public schools are still in crisis. Health services are scarce. The criminal justice system is dysfunctional and abusive. The local economy is weak. Poverty is widespread. Insurance companies continue to screw people over. Government has proven itself thoroughly incompetent, not to mention corrupt, time and time again. Flood protection is still inadequate.

And, worst of all, there’s the violence. This was made painfully clear to me in January, when my friend Helen Hill was murdered in her home. I felt at the time that Helen was killed by the city itself. Apparently I’m not the only one. It’s only gotten worse since then.

From crime to government to infrastructure, everything seems to be broken, and it all needs fixing at once.

Broken Lamp

There’s a streetlight on Jefferson Davis Parkway which was knocked over by the high winds of Hurricane Katrina. Back in the dark winter following the storm, I was drawn to the light of this lamp which was the only illumination for blocks. In the months since, it’s been disconnected from the electrical system and rolled to the side. At some point its neck was broken, and its valuable bulb was stolen long before that. City workers mow the grass around it, but it’s still there.

As I’ve observed many times before, this lamp is not very important in the big scheme. There are many other problems that are much more pressing.

On the other hand, if we can’t address those big problems, shouldn’t we at least address the little ones?


In the process of writing about all these negatives, I was given pause to reflect on the positives as well.

There are some signs of progress. My neighbor Charles finally got his Road Home check, and he’s working on his house. With luck he’ll be living there this fall.

Around the corner, Gwen is almost out of her trailer and back in her house. Almost.

A new report estimates that over one million volunteers have come here to help us since Katrina, including my parents (twice).

And although we’ve lost a lot of population, we’ve also gained some new people, brave souls who’ve come here expressly to rebuild a once great American city.

There’s a higher level of civic engagement than before the flood. Ordinary people are getting more active in their community, working to build a better life together.

In all, the positives seem much fewer than the negatives. Yet just the process of writing about them has made me feel better. In fact, I feel much better than I have any right to feel. It seems almost irrational. Despite all the challenges, I cling to the hope that we can make things better here, and that New Orleans will be a great city once again.

Message

Just scouring back through old files, I found this e-mail sent from a friend in Florida on the Saturday evening before Katrina. To read it now sends a chill down my spine, and takes me back to that night two years ago.

From: leviolberton
Subject: Yo Hurricane Host
Date: August 27, 2005 10:21:01 PM CDT
To: editor_b

Dang, bubba, it’s bearin’ right down on ya.

Of course, there’s infinite possibilities between now and then, but the models are all pretty much in agreement on this one.

A lot of locals are pretty smug about it. I think it comes from all the attention we’ve had over the past couple of years from the Hurricane Gods, but seems to me that Nola stands to lose a lot at one time if a Cat 4 comes rollin’ in.

I’m not quite sure why, but Nola has had a certain “’bout time” feeling for me and a lot of others. I’ve seen a few documentaries about how humans have spent a lot of time/effort/money keeping Nola bove water…or is it slightly below water. Tons of effort went into keeping the river where humans wanted it so that Nola could be what it is.

And I like the town. I’m comin’ there for vacation. So, it’s not like I’m hoping for disaster.

My buddy John grew up in Mobile and has suffered a few outragous storms. His attitude is that if a Cat 4 comes into Nola, it’ll help wash the urine smell outta town. He’s not the least bit sympathetic.

In a way, I think it’s good and humbling that we’re seeing hurricanes at their normal pace. There’s a reason why the Native Americans didn’t populate the beaches of the Gulf…so I’m told. So many of us humans have poured a ton of money into Florida’s gulf coast to make a quick buck. A few more of these storms and it’ll pop this market in a hurry. What’s satisfying about it is that the folk investing, and pricing the locals out of their own housing market, aren’t from ’round here and they’re the ones who will lose big if the bubble pops.

I just glad I don’t have to nail plywood this time. It’s a drill now. There’s no thrill. You see the strom rollin’ in, you know what amount of your personal time will go into preparing for it, and you just get tired and pissed off.

Good luck tomorrow as you try and decide when to leave and what to take and how to nail down yer house. Three hours away from the storm seems the norm. Pack the car with whatever you really care about, watch the NOAA site and plan a route that doesn’t take you into the storm’s path. I know that sounds simple, but it’s amazing how may folk will retreat right into the storm’s path. I don’t mean to sound condescending. It took me a few storms to learn this. And, I still wait until my buddy John makes the decision to bug out before I make a move. I always defer to the experts.

If, for whatever reason, you end up going up I-65 towards Montgomery, take US 231 South to Troy Alabama and you’ll find motels with rooms. It’s about a half hour or so from Montgomery. When we bugged outta PCB last storm, we were amazed that Montogermy was sold out, yet the parking lots in the Troy motels were pretty much sparse.

Good luck. It sucks.

Of course, my friend didn’t know that Katrina would jog east at the last moment and miss New Orleans. He didn’t know that the floodwalls on our drainage canals would fail because of faulty design and flood the city. Hell, I think most of America still doesn’t know that’s what happened.

Back to School

School started last week, and the campus is once again swarming with students. I’m always glad to see them, but now more than ever.

Students

The re-opening of the universities in January of 2006 was the single most positive moment in the recovery of New Orleans. Unfortunately we haven’t had many other moments like that since.

The last four semesters were hard, because they were non-stop. There’s a cycle to the academic year, a rhythm that students and teachers get to know. But the last four semesters broke that rhythm.

I don’t teach, so it didn’t affect me directly. But it seemed people were focused on survival. Then, when the summer break came, they were focused on getting the hell away from campus for a while.

Now the faculty are back, and the students are back, and the campus is thrumming with life again, and this school year promises to be the closest approximation to normal we’ve had yet.


The recovery of the universities by no means guarantees the recovery of the city. The campus is surrounded by ruins. My home is amongst those ruins. Every day I go from the ruins to that little bubble of stability, and I wonder: What is the true role of the academy in such a scenario?

Tidal Reflections

Rising Tide 2 was a rousing success. I was invigorated and inspired. As Dangerblond says:

It got a little bit bigger and, according to the attendees, better this year, but the conference retained the feeling of a conversation among intelligent friends.

…and I wholeheartedly agree. There was a party Friday night at Buffa’s, where videos were shown including ROX #95. As I looked around the place, I was reminded of a night at Second Story in Bloomington, a decade ago. On that night, I counted the people I knew on a first-name basis and came up with 60. I didn’t count at Buffa’s but I got the same feeling of community. Ultimately, I think that’s what Rising Tide is about, at least for me: fostering a sense of community amongst people who’ve connected through the New Orleans blogosphere.

As for the conference itself, the best presentation was clearly Tim Ruppert speaking about our flood control systems from an engineer’s perspective. Thank you, Tim, for educating us so well.

Dave Zirin also made a big impact speaking about the intersection (or collision) of sports and politics. Dave really understands how the crisis in New Orleans is a precursor for America. I bought his book and encourage you to do the same.

A personal highlight for me was getting a chance to confer with Becky and Sarah and Karen about setting up a wiki for Squandered Heritage. Nope, not on the programme at all, but at the best conferences the interaction on the sidelines rivals the presentations on the stage.

Both at this year’s conference and last year’s, I was honored to be on the final panel. I thought I acquitted myself better this year. In any event, in both years the final panel was devoted to activism and seemed in my mind to promise more than it delivered. This is no slight to the moderators either year, who did an admirable job, but it does make me wonder how could it be better.

The last two questions fielded by our panel were provocative. One was the überblog idea, which I knew was coming because Maitri outlined it in advance. I have some thoughts on this but I didn’t say anything Saturday because I wanted to hear what others had to say. Fodder for a later discussion, perhaps.

The final question was when Maitri asked if we, as a group, are getting what we want out of government now. (Or something along those lines.) I was surprised — shocked even — when Karen answered “yes.” I guess she’s feeling good because she’s finally gotten some progress on the issue of erroneous demolitions. I wanted to pipe up and disagree, but we ran out of time. So here’s what I would have said:

No, we’re not getting what we want. We’re fighting for scraps. What we need is nothing short of a revolution. The important question we should be asking is, what do we want that revolution to look like.

Big, big kudos to the organizers of Rising Tide 2. Y’all did a great job.

Update: Dave Zirin has written a truly beautiful account of the conference for the Houston Chronicle.

In most cities, bloggers practice a peculiar virtual cannibalism, tearing each other apart for sport. But at Rising Tide, among people young and old, black and white, I saw my first glimpse of what can be termed blogger solidarity. It stemmed, as one told me, from “the necessity of coming together after Katrina.”

The bloggers represent the best of something beginning to bubble that you won’t see on the nightly news, as the two-year anniversary of Katrina arrives today. Amid the horror, amid the neighborhoods that the federal government seems content to see die, there are actual people sticking it out. And they do it with gusto.

Here’s to blogger solidarity!

Someone Crapped in Our Yard!

Yesterday morning, between the hours of 9:00 AM and noon, someone came into our backyard and took a crap.

Yup. The mysterious intruder moved a plank of wood and a cat dish into strategic position and took a big old dump. Then, apparently, he or she wiped his or her ass with some torn up sheet music.

Crap

click if you dare

I figure someone had to go really bad and didn’t have access to a toilet. There’s a whole crew of guys working on Gwen’s house (her property abuts ours) whom I now regard with extreme suspicion.

I’ve taken steps to secure the perimeter.

Brace yourself for the most bizarre detail of all: When I called NOPD to report this incident, the person on the other end of the line was actually polite and seemed competent. I was more shocked by that than the discovery of human feces in our back yard.

Departing Friends

I got news yesterday that Jeff Hamlin has passed on. Jeff was not too much older than me. He was an entrepreneur who helped start Pizza Express in Bloomington, Indiana. Throughout the calendar year of 1996 he helped us try to figure out a business plan for ROX. We did not succeed, but it sure felt like we came close. Jeff was a great guy.

The day before that, my friend David informed me that he’s going to be moving on up to Toronto, at least for a while. (His girlfriend’s Canadian.) I know that’s a difficult choice for him, as he loves New Orleans. But he had a bad house fire a couple months back, and his life is now pretty unsettled, so I’m sure this is the right choice at this moment. It so happens that David was the person who first got me interested in the Lafitte Greenway project which has been slowly inching forward.

Departing friends… I’ll miss them both.

Demolition Redux

Thanks to the City Council’s amendment last week, the City of New Orleans’ list of “Imminent Health Threat Demolition Properties” has been posted online.

Neighborhood groups should look at this closely — it appears to be slightly out of date, with some removed houses still on the list. Some mistakes are also still on the list. (But I note my next-door neighbor’s house has been removed.)

For questions or complaints, contact Winston Reid at 6658-4300.

See also this PDF with general tips for getting off the list. It’s slightly dated now, but still has good info.

Confer, Convene

I will be speaking at Rising Tide II conference this Saturday. I’m on a panel called “Making Civic Sexy,” which is a great title I wish I’d come up with myself. I’ve suggested that the panelists wear lingerie, but I don’t think that’s actually going to happen.

Of course there will be a cluster of events around the second anniversary of Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast. For example, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund is sponsoring an International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina & Rita. And there are many others.

Further on down the road, the Green Party of Louisiana is having its first convention since Katrina on September 8. And in November, the New Media Consortium is having its 2007 regional conference at Tulane in November. I might be speaking at one or both of these events — not sure yet — but I’ll definitely be in attendance.

Nia

I didn’t know Nia Robertson. And now I never will.

Nia

Nia was killed at Pal’s Lounge Wednesday night. I first heard about it through Think New Orleans and Metroblogging. Then the story was on the front page of today’s paper.

It’s a sad fact that violent crimes and murders happen on an almost daily basis here. Mostly we learn about these through the news, and shudder, and shake our heads, maybe even cry a little.

But, even though I didn’t know Nia, the story of her murder is more disturbing to me than most of these other stories.

For one thing, there’s the location, Pal’s. It’s a low-key neighborhood hangout that I’ve visited a few times and always enjoyed. It’s not that far from our house.

For another thing, there’s the whole way it went down, the sheer horrifying randomness of it. A psychotic drifter, only in town a couple weeks, freaks out and attacks people with a knife for no reason.

But most of all, what really gets to me are the accounts from people who knew Nia personally. She sounds like a wonderful person, a nice person, someone I would have liked and maybe befriended.

A neighbor named Kristy wrote the following to our Mid-City discussion group this morning, and her words encapsulate the horror, the outrage, the helplessness:

I am sitting here wondering why I am having to write this post. Nia was my friend. I saw her just yesterday. She gave me the same bright wonderful smile and asked how I was doing. She was the last person I talked to before I left that evening. She said she would call me tomorrow. I didn’t hear from her today. Instead I found out that my friend was murdered and I had been sitting next to her murderer for 3 hours. The man that would take the most wonderful beautiful person out of so many lives had been sitting there reading a newspaper and watching CNN without saying a word. How can this be happening in a place that I felt so safe before the storm? How can I be crying with loss that is so senseless? How come he didn’t turn on me? How could I be sitting next to a murderer and not even know it? HOW HOW HOW? I want to know! I watched people gather all night long to cry on each others shoulder and ask why! To most she is a story that happened close to home. I am sitting here wondering what I will do without ever seeing her smiling face again. What is this city coming to? When is someone or everyone going to step up and do
something about all this? My friend held her as she died. NO ONE SHOULD HAVE TO GO THROUGH THAT!

Some of my fellow citizens are feeling the rage now. I’m angry too, but for once I find myself thinking: This could have happened anywhere, and nothing could have stopped it.

And mainly today I am full of sorrow for a friend I never met. If any of Nia’s family or friends read this, you have my sympathy.

Another neighbor, Heather, gives eloquent voice to what so many of us are feeling.

I did not have the pleasure of knowing Nia Robertson in her life. But last night I lay awake wondering if my optimism about our city has been short-sighted. I wondered if the gems who make this city sparkle, with their radiant smiles and warm welcomes, are really so vulnerable. And how does one integrate senseless tragedy into an otherwise fervent will to create a nurturing and resilient community? Have I been naïve?

This morning, I awake to the image of a sincere smile, the manifestation of the way so many mourners are describing Nia, who I will never get to meet. People also describe me by my smile, and I feel a kinship with her. I hope she knew how loved she was. I hope she knew that she was a light in people’s lives. And I remember that the answer to my vexing questions has not changed. It resounds now more than ever.

Today, I recommit to being the change I want to see in my community. I will not make decisions based on fear. I will not hide in my house and I will not be more reserved than usual when I encounter strangers. Instead I will go boldly into the world and step up to shine a little brighter, because with Nia’s passing, we lost some of our light. It will take many of us, shining a little brighter, to forge goodness from this devastating loss. So let this intolerable bitterness shepherd us to be the better selves we wish we were.

Today, I create change the only way I can: by starting with myself.

Thank you, to those who mourn Nia today, for letting me share how she touched my life, without ever having met her. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

Update: Alan makes the case that Nia’s murder could have been prevented.

Dean

I wasn’t going to make any mention of Hurricane Dean until such a time as New Orleans is in the National Hurricane Center’s five-day forecast cone — which I hope won’t happen. But now Dean is bearing down on the Lesser Antilles, and is already affecting the lives of some people I’ve come to know from a distance through the miracle of the electronic communications.

At least one Dominica blogger is really, really scared.

According to another, people are seriously freaking out.

Hey, I know it doesn’t help much, but I’m pulling for y’all.