In April, I’ll be making a presentation to a special interest group of the AERA titled “The Role of Blogs in the Rebuilding of New Orleans.” My plan is to tell five separate stories that have emerged in, around, through or about the local blogosphere since the flooding of the city in 2005. I thought I would share my notes here as I complete them. This, then, is the first of five stories. I welcome any feedback.
I still remember the first time I met Karen Gadbois. It was at a recovery meeting in Gert Town back in May of 2006. I even wrote about it — the meeting, that is. I didn’t write about the crazy lady bending my ear. I didn’t know her name at the time but I’m pretty sure it was Karen who left this comment on that same post:
you have to go just to witness..it is like a farce played out as a drama with great lines tossed out by those who know..and the ones that wished they knew and the ones that hope you don’t know..i believe we should jam the process by over attending..go to every meeting for every district..pack the place..
Of course ultimately it turns out Karen wasn’t so crazy after all. She was pissed off and paranoid, as was I, as was everyone with half a brain.
Over the next year, I got to know Karen better. She started a blog called Squandered Heritage, with a first post on August 15, 2006. (Actually the original site was called Blighted New Orleans, but the Squandered Heritage title was suggested in the discussion on that very first post.) I have to admit I didn’t quite get the concept at first, but in retrospect Karen’s focus was clear. She was concerned with what she saw as a rush to demolish many buildings too quickly, destroying cultural assets without due consideration of alternatives. With great rapidity she began posting photographs of many homes that were slated for demolition. She was also an outspoken critic of plans for a drugstore at a prominent intersection, plans which would have required substantial waivers from the City’s regulations. She labored in relative obscurity, at first, though an editorial by Bryan Batt labeled such efforts as borderline terrorism.
By the summer of 2007 Karen’s work was getting some attention. Then the city published a list of over 1,700 properties that were designated as “imminent threats” to public safety, in need of immediate demolition, circumventing whatever legal process was in place. Some of these houses were truly unsalvageable wrecks, but some were in pretty good shape. Meanwhile, plenty of houses in danger of collapse were not on the list. My next-door neighbor was on the list, much to his shock and alarm. It was maddening. Karen and her compatriots were documenting the madness; local bloggers (such as Ashley Morris, about whom more later) helped by constructing interactive maps from the demolition lists or writing about the issue on their blogs.
The corporate media continued to ignore the story, locally. But then in August the Wall Street Journal ran an article on their front page, and so at last the issue got some local press, and (perhaps?) a measure of sanity was restored to the process.
Fast forward another year. In the summer of 2008, Karen began asking questions about New Orleans Affordable Housing (NOAH) on her blog. At first, it looked as if the City was allocating FEMA money to NOAH to gut and remediate houses, and later spending more FEMA money on demolishing the same houses. But it turned out to be much worse than that. Karen discovered that many NOAH houses hadn’t been worked on at all. But someone was certainly collecting the money.
Local television reporter Lee Zurik picked up the story from Karen. The mayor resisted fiercely, but soon the FBI was involved and NOAH was shut down. Here’s an excerpt from a story in the NY Times:
The F.B.I. on Monday raided the agency running the program, the local United States attorney announced last week he was investigating, and Mayor C. Ray Nagin, hauled grudgingly before the City Council, complained about what he called “amateur investigations,” a reluctant nod to Ms. Gadbois and her followers in the news media.
The investigative work of Karen and Lee garnered some awards, including a Peabody and an Investigative Reporters and Editors’ IRE Medal.
Here’s what Zurik had to say about Gadbois and bloggers in New Orleans (Where Yat):
They’re a valuable part of our community because first of all, they’re opinionated and they pay attention to everything. Where the media sometimes doesn’t get to watch over everything, they become another watchdog of what’s going on. It’s important. In the NOAH story, we got our initial tip from a blogger, Karen Gadbois (www.squanderedheritage.com), which shows the value and importance of that community. It’s different from what we do. We have to get both sides or we should. We should be objective. It’s different but they have still become an important piece of the city and how the city functions. I go to a handful every couple days just to see. For me, it’s good as a reporter. You want to get a sense of what people are thinking and what people are feeling in the community you cover . . . It’s obviously not the feeling of everyone here, but it gives you a sense of what some are thinking and feeling, and that helps on a daily basis when you do cover the news and try to decide what to cover and what not to cover.
Personally, I’m amazed at the tenacity Karen showed in pursuing her leads and sticking by her guns. When she started she didn’t have much support. Neighborhood activists are often dismissed as nutty, even by people who should know better (see above). It’s a real challenge to keep after something like this day after day, year after year, when the powers that be are arrayed against you. Karen’s courage and determination make her a hero for me and many others.
Karen has gone on to found The Lens with Ariella Cohen. It’s the first nonprofit journalism venture in the city of New Orleans.