The Recovery Discriminated

“The storm didn’t discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort.”

As soon as George W. Bush said those words, we knew it was a lie.

No, not a lie. Call it wishful thinking. Call it evidence of white privilege.

Even the president’s speechwriters seemed to realize this, and a few days later, when he gave his famous Jackson Square speech, he was singing a different tune.

As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.

Now it’s ten years later, and just in case you were wondering, that didn’t happen.

The recovery discriminated. Of course it did.

The evidence is easy to find if you care to look. Ask a New Orleanian how we’re doing, and their answers will vary according to race. Chances are a white person will say, “Better.” Chances are a black person will say, “Worse.”

Other numbers bear this out. Income inequality has gotten much worse in New Orleans. We have a huge gulf between rich and poor, akin to places like Zimbabwe. Over half of black men are unemployed here.

If these facts make you queasy, that might be a good thing. It shows you have a sense of decency. The facts are offensive to common decency.

How did this happen? How is it the recovery discriminated so harshly?

If you are thinking of active, personal discrimination, where one person treats another unfairly because of their race, then you’re thinking too old-school. That still happens, but the factors at work over the past decade in New Orleans are more subtle and insidious than that.

In order to understand how the recovery has discriminated, you have to think in terms of social structures and systems. Our society is riven by deep divisions. Of course the recovery process reflected those divisions, reproduced those divisions, deepened them. How could it be otherwise?

The only way we could have avoided this was by doing what Bush said. We needed “bold action” indeed — truly innovative and courageous action — but that didn’t happen. Some good ideas percolated up. There was, for example, the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, which would have put local people to work rebuilding the area. It died in committee.

But this story isn’t over yet.

Ten Things You Need to Know About Rising Tide X

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  1. The X stands for ten. Yes, it’s been ten years.
  2. Rising Tide X takes place on the 29th of August, 2015, the ten-year anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. Rising Tide started on the first anniversary and the conference has convened every year since.
  3. Many Katrina anniversary events are commemorative or memorial in nature. They look back. Rising Tide looks forward. It’s a conference on the future of New Orleans.
  4. Rising Tide is a grassroots organization. If it was any grassrootsier, we’d have to mow it. An all-volunteer group of people who have somehow managed to work together without any formal structure for a decade now.
  5. Rising Tide X will be the final Rising Tide. I don’t think that’s official, but then nothing is ever official with this group. (See previous item.)
  6. Rising Tide X will be the biggest and best ever. Going out with a bang, y’all. There will be four or five tracks of programming. Check the schedule.
  7. DeRay McKesson is the keynote speaker. He is one of the people at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement, and I can’t think of anyone more timely or relevant.
  8. For the first time ever, admission is free. We don’t wanna make any money, folks, we just love to get people thinking, and talking, and taking action.
  9. But you should still register. That helps us get a a handle on how many people are coming.
  10. And you can still support the event financially. Your donation will help defray the expense of mounting this whole deal.

Re-Upping Katrina

Frame from ROX 93

Moving video around the web has gotten a lot easier over the past decade. Studious types may remember that YouTube launched the same year Katrina hit: 2005. In remembrance of the ten year anniversary of these twin catastrophes, I’ve re-upped the three episodes of the ROX “Katrina trilogy” in full quality. There’s really no reason to squint at postage-stamp vids in this day and age.

The three episodes are ROX #93, ROX #94, and ROX #95. Watch ’em all in full resolution thanks to the hosting services of Vimeo. (Sorry, YouTube.) For your viewing convenience, here are direct links to the respective media pages: After the Levees FailedHangover Cures, and Fifteen Months of Katrina.

Personally I haven’t watched any of the documentaries that deal with the flooding of New Orleans. I know there’s some good stuff out there. Recently I got to wondering if there were any videos I could show my daughter, to convey a sense of this major event that took place before she was born. Then it dawned on me: I’ll show her these episodes, at least episode 93, and probably 95 too. They may not be the best documentaries on the subject, but they have the advantage of featuring people she actually knows. That should bring the subject matter to life.

She’s never seen an episode of ROX, so this will be a rite of passage.

Please Forward

Please ForwardI know I shouldn’t be excited about something so grim but nevertheless I am happy to announce that Please Forward will soon be available in bookstores (officially on August 15) and is now available for pre-order at all the usual places, including my favorite bookstore.

This anthology collects online writings that erupted in the aftermath of the flooding of New Orleans in 2005. As such, it’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, upon which I have expounded at some length.

Continue reading Please Forward

Six Month Warning

Flood Line

People of New Orleans!

In six months we’ll mark the ten year anniversary of the flooding of our city. Already the media machinery is gearing up for all kinds of coverage, and ordinary citizens elsewhere in the country and around the world will be provoked to remember us for a brief moment. They may wonder how we’re doing.

So get ready for that. It seems to me there are two ways to play this. You may wish to:

1) Avoid it as much as possible. Tune it out. Weather the media storm. There was a lot of trauma around that time, and you may prefer not to have those memories stirred. There’s been a ton of books and movies about the subject, and as a rule I’ve avoided them all — except for those I’ve produced myself.

2) Be prepared to talk about it. Have your soundbite ready. I imagine a lot of people will be asking for an assessment of where things stand here in New Orleans. Have we made a full and complete recovery? Be ready to answer that question. Be ready to volunteer your own perspective. I’m certainly not going to tell you what to say, but I hope your answer reflects some of the complications and nuances of reality.

These may seem like mutually exclusive strategies but they’re not, really. You can tune out the media blitz while still answering questions from friends, relatives, visitors, casual acquaintances, and even the odd reporter. In the age of social media, such interactions are easier than ever.

Any other ideas? Forewarned is forearmed.

Rising Tide 9

Rising Tide 9

It’s time once again for Rising Tide. This will be the ninth iteration of this “conference on the future of New Orleans” which was launched by a bunch of local bloggers and concerned citizens on the first anniversary of Katrina.

I think what I like most about this event is its grassroots nature. Even though it is hosted at Xavier University of Louisiana (thanks to the sponsorship of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching) the event itself is entirely organized by volunteers. All the work that goes into it is done for sheer passion. The consistent quality of the event itself is a testimony to the power of that approach.

Of course, that means there is no big advertising budget. The only way most people learn of the conference is through that modern equivalent to word-of-mouth: social media.

So please take a moment and register for the conference, and then use Facebook or Twitter or email to help spread the word.

What’s that? You remain unconvinced? It’s gonna take more persuasion to get you to part with ten bucks? Fine, check the conference schedule. Look at that keynote on school reform by Andre Perry. Surely you’re curious as to why the former CEO of the Capital One-UNO Charter Network is saying that charter schools “aren’t the proper tools to deal with the root problems of New Orleans education.”

If that’s not enough to get you in the door, check out any of the other panels. I’d like especially to draw your attention to the final one, “Religion in Post-Katrina New Orleans,” which I am helping to organize in cooperation with Jimmy Huck.

Religion in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Last but not least, there’s the added enticement of a delicious lunch. Please register now.

Further Divergence

I’m still thinking about Isaac. My writing hasn’t been able to keep pace.

They say every storm is unique, and certainly Isaac was very different from Katrina. Yet comparisons are inevitable, despite being problematic. One headline put it this way:

Drenched New Orleans passes big post-Katrina test

The US Army Corp of Engineers has done a lot of work since the floods of 2005. In monetary terms, it’s something in the neighborhood of $14 billion. I have no idea how many hours of human labor that represents. I still believe we should aim for a higher level of protection. We should build not for a so-called hundred year storm, but for 10,000 year storm, as the Dutch do. But that’s a separate gripe. One story coming out of Isaac is that the work the Corps has actually been tasked with appears to be effective. New Orleans was not flooded by Isaac’s surge.

But immediately outside of these federal flood protection structures, communities did flood. Braithwaite. LaPlace. Slidell. Lots of homes under water. (If you want to help the people who were flooded, please consider making a donation to Beacon of Hope.) A key question is, did our flood protection cause or exacerbate flooding elsewhere? It will take a while for that analysis. But if the answer comes back yes — if the system that keeps my home dry floods someone else’s home — what then, I wonder?

New Beginnings Require Old Endings

Chrysalis

I have a desire to make a new beginning. (Pardon the vagueness. I’ll expand on that later.) Paradoxically that has me thinking about endings as well. New beginnings require old endings.

Plant a sunflower seed and, with some water and sunlight, you start a new life. But there is no new life without death. Life implies death, requires it. Old dead plants make fertile soil for new fresh shoots. There’s no new beginning without an old ending.

Another example might be the Lafitte Corridor project I’ve been involved with for so long, which just completed the first phase of planning. The greenway will be a new public space amenity. It will be beautiful and a great asset to the community. But in order for this new use to blossom, the old uses had to die. If the railroad line hadn’t been pulled up, we wouldn’t be talking about a greenway now.

Looking at it from the other side, so to speak, divorce is yet another example, much on my mind lately. It seems a lot of couples I know have gotten divorced in the past year, or are in the process right now, or wrestling with the possibility. Divorce is an ending, the end of a story, the end of a particular chapter in at least two lives. It can be painful and messy. It’s certainly awkward in cases where I’m friends with both parties, but I know my discomfort is a fraction of the mental anguish for those directly involved.

(And why this seeming rash of divorces over the past year? Perhaps it’s an illusion. Perhaps I’ve simply reached a certain age. And yet, ridiculous as it may sound, I can’t help but wonder if Al and Tipper Gore have something to do with it. They announced their divorce just over a year ago, and since then I’ve seen so many marriages on the rocks that I have lost count.)

But divorce is also a beginning, the beginning of a new story, a new chapter. Hopefully there’s some improvement. If the marriage was happy and healthy it would not have ended, or so I presume. New beginnings require old endings.

And yet truly new things are very rare indeed. According to one writer a couple millennia ago, there’s “nothing new under the sun.” The sunflower isn’t truly new, because the seed came from a previous generation of plants. The greenway will merely be the latest re-imagining of a transportation corridor that’s been in place for centuries. After divorce, the same people still exist; only their circumstances and relations have changed.

It might be better, then, to speak of transformations, rather than beginnings and endings. If one thinks of divorce as a transformation, rather than an ending, does that make it any less scary, less difficult? I honestly don’t know.

A friend of mine shared a story of transformation recently. He lives far from here; we communicate mostly via an electronic forum. We have wrangled often about the future of New Orleans, and it’s gotten downright ugly sometimes. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when he sent the following, which I’ve edited to remove identifying information. This may seem digressive at first, but I promise to tie it all together.

I’d like to jump on this thread again and talk about how my attitude towards New Orleans has changed given the time I’ve spent there over the past year.

After Katrina hit, it was hard for me to understand why so many people were so passionate about rebuilding a city that may very well suffer the same calamity and results in the future. After all, over the years, the city had sunk below sea level, and we would have to invest in fixing infrastructure that didn’t work when Katrina hit. Was the cost of not only replacing failed infrastructure, but engineering better infrastructure, worth it? Why would we take the risk? Would, or even “could,” it be done right?

If all you know of New Orleans is Bourbon Street, then you’d think as I did. Bourbon Street is a circus that, really, could happen anywhere. You could reproduce it ala Hollywood movie set, and as long as there were three-for-one drinks, cover bands, and girls showing their tits, you’d find ample people to visit.

But I’ve spent time wandering around, walking around, and finding places I didn’t think could exist. My last trip, I was alone, and I spent a few evenings walking an estimated four miles a night finding places that aren’t geared towards the tourists. I’ve watched Travel Channel, Food Channel, etc, and have even done online research on places of interested. The more I look, the more I want to see (and the more I want to eat).

I’ve watched the locals interact. And, I can honestly say that New Orleans is original. The locals move differently. I travel all over the country, and there aren’t locals like those in New Orleans anywhere else.

So, I’m glad New Orleans is recovering. I can’t wait to return.

When I read this, it brought a tear to my eye, not merely because I feel the same way, though of course I do, but because of the transformative aspect. It’s really so rare for adult people to “come around,” to change our minds on anything. But my friend has done it. He sees the power of actually coming to this place and being here awhile. (Incidentally, that’s why some very prominent activists made a concerted effort to get every member of Congress down here for a visit, though I doubt they get to ramble around like my friend.) Yet again, I have to stress, however cool or magical or real or soulful or unexpected or whatever this place is, how much cooler (et cetera) is the space where my friend is now. He seems to be in a transformational phase. He is opening up, coming alive to possibilities that were closed before.

Furthermore, I suspected this change of heart might have something to do with his recent divorce. Sure enough, he subsequently described the stresses and strains which led to a difficult but necessary revelation:

I had to let go. I had to throttle my ego. I had to accept the smallness of my existence and my influence. And, as a result, I’ve had to become an old dog willing to learn new tricks.

New beginning require old endings. We’re never the same person twice. We just resemble the person we were the day before, more or less. Usually more. But in periods of transformation we may seem to change radically, to become a new person. The old person, the person we were, has to die.

As a society, it seems to me, we desperately need a new beginning. We can’t get one because we’re chock-full. We’re too busy. Something’s gotta give. Something’s got to end, to die, to allow the transformation we require to live.

As for me, I want to make a new beginning too. No, Xy and I are not getting a divorce. But I’m feeling the need to make some changes. In fact I’m already making them.

Again, I apologize for the vagueness, but this has gotten far too lengthy already. I hope that next time I can write about my intentions, and so many other things. It may take a while. Be patient with me.

Tangents: There’s a soundtrack for this post. You may also want to take a look at my review of Last and First Men.

Unprepared

I’ve often thought there was some deep connection between what happened in NYC (and elsewhere) on Sept. 11th, 2001, and what happened in NOLA on August 29th, 2005. I’m sure the following idea is not original. But I still think it’s important.

After 9/11, Americans made a collective promise to ourselves: to take the safety and security of our citizens seriously. We would be prepared for the worst. The flooding of New Orleans four years later revealed that we had not kept that promise.

I wonder what the next big catastrophe will be, and will we do any better?

My sympathies to all those who lost friends, family, or peace of mind on 9/11.

If you’re looking for another connection, Alan Gerson will be signing the 9-11 Comic Book at Octavia Books this afternoon.

Update: Another connection, straight from New York City: We’re Not Forgetting.

Six Years Post-Katrina

Six years ago today I woke up in a hotel room in northern Mississippi with Xy and three cats. We turned on the television and saw Katrina ripping the roof off the Superdome. We decided to keep on trucking, and we headed up to Indiana to bunk with my in-laws for a few days. When I went to bed that night we all thought New Orleans had come through more or less intact. The Lower Ninth Ward was in trouble, but Katrina had jogged east and the core of the city was only lightly bruised. We thought we’d return later that week.

It wasn’t until the next morning that we learned the awful truth. The storm had passed, but the city was slowly filling up with water. How could this happen?

Contrary to the popular vernacular expression, the levees had not failed. The floodwalls along certain drainage canals had collapsed. These canals take water out of the city to the lake; now they were functioning in reverse, allowing high water in Lake Pontchartrain to come into the city. Street by street, block by block, the water came higher.

Orleans Parish Floodwall

That’s how our house and pretty near our whole damn neighborhood was flooded. As later came to light, the design flaw in the canals was known but not addressed. Now gates have been built on those canals that are supposed to prevent water from flowing the wrong way. Whether those gates will actually work is open to question.

And so came many days and years of rage and heartache. The experience has been harrowing, but it’s not unfathomable. Have you ever lost a loved one to senseless violence? I think it’s like that, except multiplied across a whole community.

We got through it. I personally have survived, and even thrived, and you might say that we were made whole in an economic sense. But I don’t exist in a vacuum. Xy’s career was upended, as all public school teachers were fired after Katrina. There’s a class action lawsuit on that issue that still awaits a ruling. And how can we ever be whole if our community is fractured and suffering?

And then there is this headline from today’s paper:
New Orleans levees get a near-failing grade in new corps rating system

I read that and sigh. We’ve got to do better.


As much as we like to style ourselves as different and unique, I think the challenges New Orleans faces are emblematic of the nation as whole — indeed, of the human race at this moment in history. Crumbling infrastructure, dysfunctional government, environmental degradation, social inequities, you name it. It’s all here in extreme form, but we’ve hardly cornered the market. These things are ubiquitous. We’re only reflecting and encapsulating the future we all share.

Friday Night in Smalltown City

So Friday morning as I was walking to the barbershop, I was thinking about Hurricane Irene. It may sound callous, but my thoughts were something like this: If Irene strikes an urban area, it won’t take long before some jackfool starts sounding off about how his community “handled it” better than New Orleans. But the comparison probably won’t be apt — unless your flood-control infrastructure fails so that 80% of your city is flooded for weeks on end. That’s what happened in New Orleans, after all. Try that on for size and see if your social fabric doesn’t unravel. Yet after every major urban disaster in America these last six years, some swaggering dork makes the comparison, usually with a dose of racial contempt thrown in for good measure.

Such were my thoughts, petty and self-centered as they were. I was aggravated, and I felt like sounding off about it. So I was in a particularly responsive mood when I got contacted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation a few hours later. Would I like to talk on live TV about Irene and Katrina? I sure as hell would.

That evening, I was slightly preoccupied with preparations for Rising Tide 6. (More on that later.) But I cut out of there around 6:30. The CBC had dispatched a driver to chauffeur me to a studio down in the Quarter. The driver’s name was Gregory. I got to talking with him about how it was that I would be called upon by the CBC. I explained how, in the months and years after Katrina, I’d talked to news media from all over the world because of this blog. Canadian radio had taken a special interest because Helen‘s husband was Canadian.

Just to be clear, Gregory isn’t Canadian. He’s a limo driver from St. John the Baptist parish. I just about fell out the car when he said. “I think I know that guy.” Sure enough, his girlfriend used to live next door to Paul and Helen’s Mid-City home. He used to call him “Dr. Pig” — because of Rosie.

And I thought to myself, not for the first time, and not for the last, what a small town New Orleans is.

We arrived at our destination, Talking Head Video. Just a couple doors down from the WWL studio (where I’d been talking up Rising Tide early Monday morning) I guess it’s the only for-hire facility in town with a satellite uplink. A guy with a headset and an accent (German?) greeted me and invited me to sit on a couch. “We’ve got someone before you, you can watch us on the TV.” I was sitting just feet from the open door of the tiny studio space, but I didn’t think to peer inside. The TV was tuned to MSNBC, showing coverage of Hurricane Irene. After about 15 minutes, they said, “We’re going live,” and closed the door to the studio. That’s when the anchor on MSNBC said, “And now we’re going live to New Orleans to talk to former mayor Ray Nagin.”

I just about crapped in my pants.

A few minutes later, he was done in the studio, and next thing I’m shaking hands with the man and we’re having a cordial little conversation. I don’t think he recognized me; I’m clean-shaven now, I have different glasses, my name was not mentioned.

You might think he wouldn’t know me anyhow, but this is smalltown city. People do pay attention to what you say here, and they do remember.

Nagin Listens to Editor B

But who’d’ve thought Irene would bring us back together?

I was still in something of a daze when I appeared on Connect with Mark Kelley. My appearance was incredibly brief, and I didn’t get a chance to mention my aggravations. Which is probably all for the best.

Gregory chauffeured me to the Rising Tide pre-party at Tracey’s. I started all my conversations the same way for the rest of the evening: “You’ll never guess who I just shook hands with.”

Photo credit: Nagin Listens to Editor B by Derek Bridges

Loose Endz

Recently, after a couple beers, Xy let it slip that she’s not really into the funky weird ponytail I’d been growing out for the last year or so.

Ponytail

I can’t say I blame her. It started as the ultimate anti-mullet, long on top, shaved everywhere else. But when it finally got long enough, it started looking like a mullet after all. In fact, this hair had become something of a liability. I worry how my personal image reflects on my other activities. For example, as the president of a small grassroots organization I often speaking to the public. I have to wonder what the Rotary Club thought when I show up sporting that ridiculous ‘do. I don’t mind making a fool of myself, but I don’t want to make our project look bad.

So, yes, I’ve been looking forward to chopping it off. The question has been when. Xy’s offhand comment was the only excuse I needed.

The other key question has been how. I could have just shaved my head bald on the porch. I can do that myself, and the price is right.

But I like going to a barber when I can. Since Katrina I have been struggling to find a regular barber. I’ve got a guy I can go to for a cut who’s pretty good, but he’s kind of unfriendly and he’s not close to home. Proximity is key. I want to be able to walk to my barbershop. i want to be able to pop in without a great deal of fuss. I also want a barber with whom I can develop a rapport, someone who will understand what I want, eventually. And finally, there’s a little feeling of community that can emerge in a barbershop. I like talking to, or just listening to, or just being the same space with people I wouldn’t otherwise have met, neighbors I wouldn’t otherwise know.

That’s why I was happy to see Loose Endz open up just a couple doors from our house back in early March.

Corner Shop

Incidentally, I wrote Vincent Marcello a letter about this property last October. He wrote back and assured me that any lead paint issues would be handled responsibly. I would have gone ballistic if I’d seen any sanding, but I never did. Somehow they got it done. From what I can tell, Mr. Marcello was good to his word.

Since they opened, I’ve stuck my head in the door a couple times, but Saturday morning I went as a customer.

I’ve patronized African American barbers for years. My pre-K barber, Louis E. Claverie, had a sign above his door that advertised “Serving All Nationalities.” (His shop was put out of commission by the floods of ’05. I don’t know what happened to him personally. I often wonder, and I hope he made out OK.) The barbers I’ve visited post-K have not been so versatile. I went to Unifiers only once, but I got the impression I was the only white customer Mr. Percy had ever had. I worked with a couple guys at Hair Ideas, but just as soon as they got up to speed, they vanished — and then Hair Ideas was foreclosed, sadly enough.

If you’re wondering why I’m making such a big deal about race, well, hair really is pretty different between the races. What’s more, it’s different in tricky ways that are significant when it comes to cutting and styling. The art of cutting Afro-textured hair is distinct from the art of cutting straight hair.

Saturday morning, I decided to get the question out of the way. I asked Tim straight-up if he much experience cutting Caucasian hair. I don’t normally call myself Caucasian, but talking about “white hair” is even more confusing. Tim confessed he wasn’t too comfortable with the scissors, but that’s OK. Clipper cuts are what I prefer anyway.

I often aim for a flattop, a somewhat technical cut which is hard to pull of without a lot of practice. In this case, given how much of my head was shaved almost bald, I’m not sure a flattop was possible. What I ended up with was more like a rooster’s comb, almost like a mohawk with a very accomplished fade. Even so, I don’t look half as wacky as I did before. I’m happy with this for now, but I’ll probably take it down a little shorter next time. I like having an ultra-conservative, military-style haircut. It’s like a spiritual mullet: business on the outside, party within.

Twenty bucks got me a haircut and a shave. Tim proved to be both personable and a skilled barber. I think I’ll be back.

Here’s a photo.

New Haircut

It’s not a very good shot, because I’m backlit, but I like it anyway because it was taken by Persephone. I helped her steady the camera, but she pushed the button herself. You can’t really see here how the hair comes to crest, but there are more pix in my photostream if you’re really curious. Self-portraits are a challenge.

Post Scriptum: Tim told me Banks Street Bar will soon be closing, temporarily, so that the building can be straightened, because it’s leaning like a gangsta.

Profiles in Bloggage, Part 5

Sunday night, I made my presentation, “The Role of Blogs in the Rebuilding of New Orleans,” to a special interest group of the AERA. Even though the presentation is over, I’m still playing catch-up here on the blog.

Rising Tide 5

And so I come to my fifth and final installment of stories that have emerged in, around, through or about the local blogosphere since the flooding of New Orleans in 2005.

Rising Tide is an annual conference organized by bloggers. It convenes on the last Saturday in August, the anniversary of Katrina. I was there at the first one, and I was so impressed by the event that I’ve been back every year since.

As I tried to reconstruct what I know of this event’s history, I briefly fantasized that Rising Tide had grown out of the first Geek Dinner, hosted by Alan Gutierrez in July of 2006. This was probably the largest gathering of local bloggers to date, which prompted Schroeder to remark:

The New Orleans blog movement has become an incredible network of information dissemination, storytelling, and mutual support, and I would argue that the New Orleans movement has emerged as a stronger expression of community than in almost any other forum of “extra-personal” (i.e., non-interpersonal) communication anywhere else in the world.

True, that’s a bold statement to make, but I still think the New Orleans blog community is a nascent, fragile community — for a lot of reasons. Nevertheless, what one finds here is remarkably enriching, providing a profound sense of shared values and commitment to a common cause.

Moreover, the dinner also elicited a post on Your Right Hand Thief with the title, “There is a Rising Tide forming.” It does not mention the conference explicitly but that title is evocative. This post also sees a comment from Gentilly Girl which could serve as a mission statement:

I also believe that get-togethers like this will serve what we are doing as “reporters” of reality here in New Orleans.

Remember… we have a job to do, and that is to tell the story of New Orleans and our lives post-Deluge. We also need to party sometimes.

But in reality, Oyster was kicking around the idea of the conference — he called it a “convention” at the time — well before the Geek Dinner. He put out a call to action (“Katrina bloggers, activate!”) on July 5, 2006.

Think of it: bloggers from all over could get together, and talk about the Katrina aftermath, and blog, and argue, and party, and share information, and podcast, and effect political change, and meet each other in person, and have a “work day” in a flooded neighborhood, and actually do something, and have panels and guest speakers and t-shirts and stickers, and we could get some press and everyone would leave feeling really good about their experience in New Orleans, and would blog about it, and want to do it again…

Oyster credits Scout Prime of First Draft for floating the idea some weeks earlier, but I can’t find that, and don’t even know if it was online. Clearly Oyster didn’t act alone, as he soon reports a planning meeting with other local bloggers. But I think everyone acknowledges Oyster as the main instigator who got the wheels in motion. For that reason alone, I have long thought of Oyster as the dean of NOLA bloggers.

The conference may be organized by bloggers, but it’s billed as an event for anyone who cares about New Orleans. In my experience, that’s accurate. Who are bloggers, anyway? For the most part, they are people with a passion for a topic who use writing to express themselves. In this case, the topic is New Orleans. The “bloggy” aspect of Rising Tide is not hugely relevant to the content of the conference as such. It’s quite simply a venue for learning about the past and future of this city, and to discuss and debate all the complex issues that entails.

However, there is one tradition that’s emerged that’s very much blogocentric. (Did I just coin a new word?) That’s the Ashley Morris award, which is given each year to someone who exemplifies Ashley’s passion. So far, I believe all the recipients have been bloggers: Ashley himself, Karen Gadbois, and Ashe Dambala, all of whom I have already profiled, and also Matt McBride and Clifton Harris, both of whom both deserving of a profile in this series if I hadn’t already hit my self-imposed limit.

Each year, around Katrina anniversary time, there are a slew of events along the Gulf Coast designed to commemorate those who lost their lives, and all the other things that happened here. Most of these events are symbolic and ritualistic, which is good and necessary. But as far as I know Rising Tide is the only attempt to look at the complex issues at stake in a critical fashion.

That’s why I had hoped to host Rising Tide here at the University where I work last year, on the fifth anniversary of Katrina. It didn’t work out, and that was just as well, because a certain highly-placed political figure (some guy named Barack Obama) decided to make an appearance here on that day, which would have certainly thrown a monkey wrench into the best-laid plans. But I made the case again this year, and the stars seem to have aligned properly. I just got confirmation from the organizers even as I was working on this post. Funny how that works — but I will let them make the announcement.

Rising Tide 5 / Maitri / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Profiles in Bloggage, Part 2

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. So this is the second of the five stories. I welcome any feedback.

zombieWEB1.0

The American Zombie blog began on July 5, 2006, with a strident assertion.

I believe that as a patriot and one who loves this country, the best way I can honor it is to exercise the 1st [amendment] as much as possible. And perhaps to recognize that what we really have to fear, is those who would spread fear and manipulate it to their own end. The truth will set us free…I would like to find it.

To that end…I start this blog to help myself wake-up.

From that day on, the blogger known as Ashe Dambala has been waking up a whole bunch of people in the Greater New Orleans area. He didn’t waste any time getting down to business either. In his third post, just three weeks after the blog was launched, he dropped his first big bombshell, accusing Greg Meffert, former Chief Technology Officer for the City of New Orleans of influence peddling and other shenanigans.

I missed out on this first round of intrigue, because my wife and I were caught up in our own personal trauma. And, to tell you the truth, I’ve always found the American Zombie tough to follow. It’s a dark blog, scary and worrisome, full of dark allusions, full of esoteric knowledge and insider information, attributed to anonymous sources. I think a certain level of familiarity with the subject matter (which I don’t have) is a prerequisite to actually understanding the intimations and accusations on offer. Most of it is simply over my head. But it’s clear that plenty of savvy people understand exactly what’s being posted, and they are often alarmed by it. Sometimes they even want to sue.

For three years Dambala was a figure shrouded in mystery, known only by his net moniker. In case you don’t know, let me quote Wikipedia: “In Vodou… Damballah is the Sky God and considered the creator of all life…. In New Orleans and Haiti he is often depicted as a serpent and is closely associated with snakes.” See how it all fits together? New Orleans, Vodou, Zombies — one might expect the subject matter of this blog to be magic or religious experience. Au contraire. The Zombie’s stock-in-trade has been and remains dirty politics, or more specifically, public corruption.

In some ways Dambala provides a stark contrast to my previous subject, Karen Gadbois. He is (or was) anonymous and obscure; Karen was always transparent. Yet at their heart I believe Ashe Dambala and Karen Gadbois share certain core values. They both exemplify the idea of the citizen journalist. Both have drawn attention to corruption. Both have both invigorated the local journalistic milieu. And that’s why they’ve both been recognized with the highest award of the NOLA blogosphere, the Ashley Morris Award.

I hope to write more about Ashley, and Rising Tide, later. At this juncture, it’s just worth recounting the circumstances surrounding Dambala’s recognition at Rising Tide IV. Many were curious to see his true identity revealed, but they were disappointed, or perhaps amused, when Jacques Morial accepted the award on Dambala’s behalf. There were some who were more irritated than amused, in particular a couple of attorneys who’d attended the event specifically to confront Dambala. They said they wanted to bring suit for libel regarding some information he posted on the American Zombie. They had several “large and beefy individuals” in tow, a move which was generally perceived as an intimidation tactic by those in attendance.

And so it came to pass that Dambala gave it up in the pages of the Times-Picayune, to short-circuit the accusation that he was hiding behind his anonymity. His real name? Jason Berry. I did a double take, as did many readers, I’m sure. I knew that name. Berry co-directed the important and ambitious documentary film, Left Behind, which Xy and I saw in 2006.

But back to that TP article from August, 2009. Molly Reid sums up Dambala’s importance nicely:

In New Orleans, perhaps fittingly, the battle between blogger and subject comes in the arena of alleged City Hall corruption, which Berry says he hopes to help expose. His blog American Zombie has focused on City Hall contracts, especially the technology contracts, such as those for the city’s crime camera program, along with the Mayor Ray Nagin free trips to such exotic locales as Hawaii. He has repeatedly scrutinized former city technology chief Greg Meffert — now under investigation by the feds — and the array of companies he is connected with.

A couple months later, Greg Meffert (and Linda Meffert and Mark St Pierre) were indicted on 63 counts by the U.S. Attorney’s office. A year after that, Meffert pleaded guilty to a fraud and bribery conspiracy charge. The Times-Picayune credited itself for breaking the Meffert story in an article from September of 2006 about a certain yacht. But that came out a couple months after the Zombie’s first Meffert story — which also mentioned the yacht. Not to split hairs, but It seems to me that’s where Meffert “first came under scrutiny.”

Update #1: According to Dambala himself, “the TP was actually reporting on the yacht before me, I was the one who broke the credit card, trips, interoperability system and I was writing about the crime cameras a month before it reached da paper.”

As for the attorneys who were threatening to sue Dambala? I don’t know what happened to them.

Update #2: According to Dambala, “On the lawsuit, I met with the city attorney and his wife who were threatening the suit at my lawyer’s office. They decided to drop the suit and I agreed to publish whatever letter they wanted on my site….” For more details see the comments section.

I have to thank local blogger Liprap, aka Leigh Checkman, for pointing me to some key resources to help me construct this account, such as it is. For example there’s this panel, sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Jason Berry shares the dais with Kevin Allman (Gambit) and Campbell Robertson (New York Times); ironically enough the blogger is the only guy who went to journalism school. The video is worth watching if you’re interested in journalism generally and in New Orleans in particular. In it we learn that the American Zombie functions as a sort of “reporter’s notebook,” a way of sharing both original documents and (sometimes) unverified gossip for comment and scrutiny.

We also get this choice quote from Berry/Dambala:

There are writers that write for the paper and then there are journalists which I think are investigative journalists. And I think that those guys are a little off, and I’m one of them. Because they become completely obsessed with getting to the truth, and you have to be that way.

As well as this gem:

I’m pretty much a professional a-hole, in my blog.

See? He’s a professional.

Liprap thinks “he’s definitely become more sophisticated with his writing and storytelling as time has gone on, especially with regards to the recent City Hall real estate records series he’s been publishing in serialized form on Humid Beings.” I have to agree. If you haven’t read this, it starts here.

Profiles in Bloggage, Part 1

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.

Karen is a Terrorist

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.

Minutes

I took these minutes on my 39th birthday, which was the day the University re-opened after the flooding of the city. What a strange day. We’d seen our city on the brink of annihilation, and the future was very uncertain. We came into our conference room, sat around the table, looked at each other and wondered, “What now?” That was five year ago today. I’ve edited this a bit to obscure individual identities and remove any information that might be considered sensitive.
Continue reading Minutes

Deaf Government Area

Deaf Government Area

This photo recently became my most “favorited” on Flickr. With 26 favorites it has surpassed Big Cloud, which is gratifying because I think this is a much more interesting shot.

I took this one on October 13, 2006 in Gentilly, on Mirabeau Avenue near the London Avenue Canal breach. In the background you can see vacant flooded homes becoming overgrown with vegetation. You can even see some waterlines on the sign itself.

Need I say more? I think the power of this photo is that it tells a story all on its own. You don’t really need any of my explanations.
Continue reading Deaf Government Area

We’re Number 15

My friend Anne, with whom I’ve been in a book club for nearly ten years now, alerted me to the fact that Central Connecticut State University has released their annual rankings of America’s Most Literate Cities. What especially intrigued Anne, and me, is that New Orleans is ranked #15 (out of 75). We were #17 last year. There’s no ranking for New Orleans in 2008, 2007, or 2006 because of you-know-what. But in 2005, New Orleans was ranked (drum roll) #42.

That’s quite a come-up, and I’m trying to figure what to make of it. There seems to be a clear “Katrina effect.”

The overall rankings were determined by the rankings of each city in each of the six subcategories: bookstores, educational attainment, internet resources, library resources, newspaper circulation, and periodical publication.

Poking around in the subcategories, I see that New Orleans doesn’t rank higher in most of them. Educational attainment, not so much. Libraries? No, that’s our worst showing: We’re #40. For internet resources we’re #13. But when it comes to booksellers, we are #12. This would seem to be our main strength.

These three variables were used to determine a total score and consequent ranking:
1. Number of retail bookstores per 10,000 population
2. Number of rare and used bookstores per 10,000 population
3. Number of members of the American Booksellers Association per 10,000 population

Where did the data come from?

Booksellers and Stores Data

For this database, information was gathered from Yellow Pages, Inc. (http://www.yellowpagesinc.com) for information on retail, rare, and used booksellers as of November, 2010. Also, the American Booksellers Association site (http://www.bookweb.org) was used for independent bookseller information. Please note that for figures reported for “retail”, these did not include any “specialty”, “adult”, or “religious” bookstores, and the stores were those listed at these database sites in November of 2010.

Could it be that our bookstores all came back even though our population shrank?

Well, all I can say is I patronize my favorite bookstore, Octavia Books, whenever I can. I no longer purchase books through Amazon. Octavia special orders anything I want. They’ve nurtured my intellectual life substantially over the years, most notably by playing host to the aforementioned book club. (We’re reading Mysterium right now; grab a copy and join us Feb. 12th.) So my loyalty is unflagging.

Maybe other New Orleanians feel the same way about their bookstores?

In any event, I’ve derived so much pleasure through the reading of books over the years that I would classify myself as an unabashed fan of literacy. Therefore I welcome any positive news on this front, and I hope this ranking serves to generate a little excitement in the culture of our city about the joys of reading.

A Few Photos of Habans Post-K

Yesterday the verdicts came down in the Henry Glover case. According to the morning paper:

Federal prosecutors won the first convictions in their sprawling probe of police misconduct in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as a jury Thursday found three New Orleans police officers guilty in a high-stakes case accusing them of killing Henry Glover, burning his body and fashioning an elaborate cover-up that kept the truth hidden for four years.

The jury of five men and seven women, however, acquitted two officers completely. The jury also cleared two defendants of charges that they beat two men who tried to help Glover after he was shot by former officer David Warren behind an Algiers strip mall.

I don’t have much to add to that. Certainly I don’t have any deep insights. I have to admit I have not been following the case as closely as I probably should have been. But I know this is a historic case and an important moment for the city, and I want to remember it.

There is one aspect of the case that stirs personal memories. Some of the action went down at Habans Elementary, the school where Xy was teaching right until Katrina hit.

I visited the school on October 12, 2005, a rough day for me, and I saw for myself that the building was still being used as a SWAT headquarters.

Later, I found myself visiting Habans again and again, hauling supplies to Xy’s new school, Eisenhower Elementary. What a bizarre time that was. Habans was still functioning as a police camp. Here are some photos I took there in December.

School Boats

Class(bed)room

Police Occupation

Old Chalk

The final big haul took place in January, 2006, and we got an assist from some of the cops.

Unloading

SWAT, USMC, SWAT

That’s Capt. Jeff Winn in the tan cap. I’ve run into him a few times over the years. Some of the SWAT types hanging out at Habans frankly scared me, but Capt. Winn always struck me as a good guy. That’s a comment on his interpersonal skills; obviously I’m in no way qualified to comment on his conduct as an officer.

He testified in the Glover case but wasn’t charged with anything. According to an earlier report in the TP:

At the end of his closing argument, DeSalvo switched his attention to McRae’s commander during the storm, Capt. Jeff Winn, who led the NOPD’s Special Operations Division. Winn testified that he told McRae to move the car, but knew nothing about the fact that the officer had set fire to the vehicle.

Winn also testified that after the storm, he didn’t see the top chiefs of the Police Department, at one point saying he essentially ran the department in that first week, coordinating rescues and anti-looting patrols.

“Capt. Winn, here, is the true hero of the storm,” DeSalvo said. “Ask yourself what would have happened to this city but for Jeff Winn. Ask what would have happened to this city but for Greg McRae.”

Yesterday, McRae was convicted of burning Henry Glover’s body. Winn was never charged with anything.

I wonder what might have become of the Keenon McCann case? McCann filed a lawsuit against NOPD for shooting him on September 1, 2005. Specifically it was Winn and Dwayne Scheuermann who shot him.

Scheuermann was one of the cops indicted in the Glover case. He was charged with beating Glover’s brother, as well as destroying evidence and obstructing the investigation. He was found not guilty on all counts.

As for McCann, he was lured outside his home and murdered in August 2008, a case that remains unsolved.

I wonder if the feds are investigating that too.