World Events

She Turned My World Upside Down

News from around the world certainly has been interesting of late. Unfortunately it shows no sign of letting up. I call that unfortunate because “interesting” usually means “bad” so far as news is concerned. Even when bad news doesn’t affect me directly, it’s troubling and problematic for me in two different ways.

Of course it makes me sad to read of people suffering anywhere, but it’s more than that. Like many people, I often don’t know what to do or how to react. For example, I started following the story about the conflict in Ivory Coast months ago. This was before the revolutions and unrest started sweeping through other parts of Africa and the Middle East. I guess it caught my attention because I’m a fan of the reggae singer Alpha Blondy, who’s from that country. The conflict, revolving around a contested election, dragged on and turned bloody and eventually a lot of people were killed. I think the final death toll was tallied in the thousands. I’m not sure of the factual details. I could look them up, but why bother? In fact, I wonder more and more what is the point of being an informed citizen of the world?

Americans are notoriously uninformed about world events, and I find that aspect of our national character rather depressing; but on the other hand I personally am surrounded by plenty of intelligent people who are quite well informed, and I still have to wonder: Where does it get us? So we know about stuff going on all over the globe. Do we use that information in any kind of meaningful way? For many of us, our participation in civic life begins and ends in the voting booth, with a choice between two highly unsatisfactory candidates. Being aware of a bloody crisis in Ivory Coast doesn’t really factor into that decision at all. I often say voting is the least of our civic duties. Being an informed voter takes time and energy, as does keeping abreast of world events. I’d much rather see people actively engaged in their local community. It’s great if people can do all these things, but in my experience a lot of people are running around busy, busy, busy, overwhelmed by the stresses and demands of modern life. I’m certainly no fan of ignorance, but I’m just saying if you need to tamp down your vociferous news consumption to make time for active engagement, you certainly have my approval.

I was talking about this to MaPó a couple days ago and she turned me on to Kiva Microfunds. I’ve heard about microfinance, and Kiva’s been around for years, but I’ve never investigated this before. So I invested $25 in a loan to a shopkeeper in Uganda. It would have been more “poetic,” or something, to invest in Ivory Coast, but Kiva doesn’t currently have any partners in Ivory Coast. Faith needed that last $25 to complete her loan of $650, so it seemed like a good first-time investment for me. It’s not much but at least it’s some sort of way to be involved globally.

(I hope it’s self-evident that I’m not offering the above as an example of “active engagement” in the “local community.” It’s not. In fact, it’s the opposite. My friend Heather Duke shared a quote from Mother Teresa via Facebook: “Start by helping the person closest to you.” I’m down with Mama T on that one. My local involvements are well-known to anyone who knows me, and those efforts represent an investment of far more than $25, though I primarily give of my time and energy, rather than my money. Localism has to come first, in my view. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m advocating we all invest in Kiva while ignoring our neighbors because I that would be a terrible idea.)

The other reason I find world events problematic is more personal and trivial: I constantly feel I should be writing about them here, even though I don’t have anything interesting to say. This is a journal of what’s going on in my life. When I read about a conflict elsewhere in the world, it’s not a part of my direct experience. But it can become an emotional force that impinges upon my consciousness such that I feel I have to account for it. If I leave it out I’m missing a major chunk of my day-to-day thoughts and feelings. Yet I really have nothing of substance to add beyond what’s reported in the media. For me to pontificate on the ramifications of the conflict in Ivory Coast would be the height of foolishness. So I’m left in a quandary, damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

Medical Madness

Medical Madness

Even though I’ve been feeling much better after my initial bout with bronchitis, I’ve continued to have minor relapses. I exert myself and then feel funny in the lungs and fatigued.

So I made an appointment to see my doctor Tuesday morning.

And it was such a strange doctor visit.

  1. I was informed that my doctor would now be charging $10 for phone calls. In fact, I was given a letter about it, and I had to sign to confirm receipt. The nurse-receptionist blamed “Obamacare” but the letter blamed Congress. So if I get some lab work done, I can either make a standard appointment to discuss the results, or I can pay ten bucks for a phone consult. My insurance will pay nothing for phone calls, but my co-pay for an office visit is $30.
  2. Once I got into the examination room, I was told the doctor now wants patients who can type to enter their own symptoms directly into the system. In the past a nurse or intern would talk to me and take notes. I can indeed type (in fact I’m typing right now) so soon I found myself typing my symptoms into a computer. I actually don’t mind this because I’m fairly articulate and I can know exactly what’s being entered. Still, it seemed weird.
  3. The doctor’s first impulse was to test me for HIV. Since I’m having trouble shaking an infection, perhaps there’s a problem with my immune system. I guess that makes sense. I’ve never been tested for HIV, so I guess it’s a good idea on general principle. I just thought it was odd that this would be at the top of the list. He also tested me for asthma but that came back negative. I’ll get the HIV results next week.

For what it’s worth, I’m on an antibiotic now and feeling better than ever.

As long as I’m talking about medical issues, I should mention the other symptom that prompted me to see the doctor. I seem to have quantity of fluid in my maxillary sinus cavity. I can feel it draining from side to side when I lie down. Yet my nasal passages are mostly clear — I’m not blowing snot. I finally blew some last week, and it was an alarming color I’ve never seen before, a very dark brown. Might be some old blood in there, as I was having bloody noses a month ago. I’ve been doing sinus rinses daily but they don’t seem to wash anything out. I don’t think the antibiotic will get the mucus out of my sinuses. What to do? What’s going on here anyway?

Medical Madness / Juan Calos Herrera / BY-NC-SA 2.0

Profiles in Bloggage, Part 4.5

Yesterday evening, I made my presentation, “The Role of Blogs in the Rebuilding of New Orleans,” to a special interest group of the AERA. I related five prominent stories that have emerged in, around, through or about the local blogosphere since the flooding of the city in 2005. Even though the presentation is over, I’m still playing catch-up here on the blog.

Jena, Louisiana: Rev. Jesse Jackson

I wanted to cheat a little bit and sneak in an extra story, so I’m calling this one 4.5.

The story of the Jena Six is complex and has been recounted extensively so I won’t attempt to revisit the details here. Rather, I just wanted to make mention, briefly, of the protests in Jena, Louisiana, which took place approximately six months after the March for Survival in New Orleans.

Granted, it’s a stretch to call this a story of the post-Katrina New Orleans blogosphere. Jena is over 200 miles from New Orleans. Northern Louisiana did not feel the impact of the hurricanes in the same way as the communities nearer the coast. Nevertheless, this was the largest civil rights protest in decades, much larger than the March for Survival, and there is a blog connection.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the demonstrations in Jena were “a civil rights protest literally conjured out of the ether of cyberspace, of a type that has never happened before in America — a collective national mass action grown from a grassroots word-of-mouth movement spread via Internet blogs, e-mails, message boards and talk radio.”

Therefore I think the protest in Jena deserves at least passing mention in any history of New Orleans’ post-Katrina blogosphere. For more discussion on this topic, please check out the audio archives at BeyondJena.com.

Jena, Louisiana: Rev. Jesse Jackson / everett taasevigen / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Profiles in Bloggage, Part 4

In a few days, 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 relate certain prominent 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 fourth of the five stories. I welcome any feedback.

SOS

My first three installments in this series might have given the impression that I was doing personality profiles. That’s not my intention. I mean to look at the top stories emerging from the post-Katrina NOLA blogosphere, not personalities per se (though in Ashley’s case, the personality is the story). Hopefully this installment will make that clear.

On third-to-last day of 2006, Dinerral Shavers was murdered in a senseless act of street violence. On the fourth day of 2007, Helen Hill was murdered in a bizarre home invasion. Dinerral and Helen weren’t the only people killed during that week. I believe there were at least ten others. But Dinneral and Helen were prominent exponents of New Orleans culture. Dinerral was a musician, a drummer in the Hot 8 Brass Band, a music teacher at Rabouin High School, the founder of that school’s first marching band. Helen was an artist, an award-winning filmmaker, and a friend of mine. Both were well known and much-loved in the local community. Also, it should be noted that Dinerral was black and Helen was white. Dinerral was a native New Orleanian, a product of the public schools, while Helen was an out-of-towner and a Harvard graduate — a fact I never knew until I read her obituary, but all of this factors in to what came next.

The loss of either of these individuals would have raised a public outcry. Their back-to-back murders sparked an inferno of discontent. Violence in the city had virtually disappeared after the flood waters receded, but as people returned, so did the bloodshed. The body count began to rise, and so did public concern. Five young men were murdered in a single incident in the summer of 2006. But it was Dinneral and Helen’s murders that galvanized the city as a whole. Their sociability and their divergent backgrounds meant a huge segment of the local population was in mourning. Within days a public march and rally was organized. Thousands of people from disparate neighborhoods converged on City Hall as the world watched. This may have been the largest public demonstration in the history of New Orleans, or so I’ve speculated. I do know that I’ve attended many protests over the last decade in New Orleans and this was far and away the biggest one I’ve ever seen.

So what does this have to do with blogs? The March for Survival, as it was called, would have happened without blogs, but blogs did play a role. Bloggers were writing about the issue of violent crime before, during and after the march. I wrote about Dinerral’s murder and of course Helen’s. Through connections made in the blogosphere, Karen Gadbois and I were among the dozen speakers at the rally. I posted the text of my speech on my blog minutes before joining our march from Mid-City. My boss read it and sent me a brief critique; I got his message on my Blackberry as we marched down Canal Street with Anderson Cooper and incorporated his revision at the very last minute.

My speech at the rally was a defining moment in my life. Four years later, I have to say there are one or two more revisions I wish I’d made, but for the most part I stand by my words. The repercussions continue to unfold. As a result of that speech, I got to attend a week-long leadership seminar at Harvard — and these days I’m the president of a grassroots organization which aims to build a transformative project in the heart of New Orleans. It is impossible to show direct cause and effect but I believe all these things are linked.

But this isn’t about me, or any one person. What makes this story salient is that it was a come-together moment for the city. A necessary moment. It was the time when we looked at each other, we who had lost so much, and said we can’t allow this. We can’t allow New Orleans to continue with this astronomical murder rate. As Rev. Raphael said, in a speech so much more eloquent than mine, we came together “to declare that a city that could not be drowned in the waters of a storm, will not be drowned in the blood of its citizens.”

Of course, no matter how well-attended and well-intentioned, a march and rally don’t bring an end to violence. It would be naïve to expect that. We are still struggling with the highest murder rate in the land. Nevertheless, the march was something that had to be done, and it was an important statement of civic priority. On that day, with the world watching, we showed that the City That Care Forgot is not the city that forgot to care. The hard work of actually improving the situation on the ground continues to be pursued by organizations like Silence Is Violence and others. And bloggers continue to write about this issue.

Once again, HBO’s Treme provides further validation of this story’s status. The March for Survival will be portrayed in the second season.

No Surprise

It really comes as no surprise to read the following in today’s paper:

The Rev. Grant Storms, the Christian fundamentalist known for his bullhorn protests of the Southern Decadence festival in the French Quarter, was arrested on a charge of masturbating at a Metairie park Friday afternoon.

Storms, 53, of 2304 Green Acres Road in Metairie, was taken into custody at Lafreniere Park after two women reported seeing him masturbating in the driver’s seat of his van, which was parked near the carousel and playground, a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office report said.

The first woman told deputies she was taking her children to the playground and parked next to the van at about noon. As she was walking around her own vehicle, she noticed the van windows were down and the occupant was “looking at the playground area that contained children playing, with his zipper down…,” the report said. The woman noted that he was masturbating and quickly ushered her children out of her car.

She told a second woman, who walked to the van and also spotted the man masturbating, the report said. The second witness told deputies that the driver saw her and tried to conceal the zipper area of his pants with his hand.

Further details from On Top Magazine:

In 2003, [Storms] organized a march in opposition of the [Southern Decadence] event, which he called “nasty” and “depraved.” Storms and his followers picket the festival with signs that read “Adam & Eve NOT Adam & Steve” and loud protests amplified with bullhorns.

Sergeant Larry Dyess, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s office, told WWL Radio that Storms originally told deputies that he was simply urinating in a bottle but later confessed to investigators that he was masturbating inside his van.

Dyess added that Storms, who was arrested on a obscenity charge, was released from jail on Sunday.

NOLA Defender notes:

It would be way more ironic if this didn’t always seem to happen.

But at least he has the balls to apologize:

The conservative pastor known for his condemnation of the Southern Decadence Festival was tearful and apologetic Tuesday in discussing his recent arrest.

The Rev. Grant Storms called himself a “hypocrite” because of his Friday arrest on accusations of masturbating in a public park. Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s deputies charged him with obscenity after two women claimed they saw him touching himself while watching children on the playground at Lafreniere Park.

Storms said in a news conference Tuesday that he was not watching the children, but he did have his hand in his pants. He apologized to those he has hurt, and he said he was sorry for targeting Decadence, an annual gay festival in the French Quarter.

Storms said he is seeking help for a problem with pornography, which he called a recent issue. He also said he is not living at home — he held the news conference from a motel — and he asked for the media to respect his privacy.

I say all this comes as no surprise. Whenever a (ahem) moral crusader like Storms goes so far over the top and out of his way to put other people down, one suspects maybe he’s hiding from something inside himself. One suspects he’s projecting his demons on others.

As a rule, I don’t post up news stories unless I have something personal to add: I recall one year, perhaps 2004, Xy and I read about the Storms’ protests in advance of Southern Decadence. We were so ticked that we planned to create our own organization, “Our Friends Are Gay.” We were going to make signs and counter-demonstrate. Xy thought the (allegedly) humorous acronym would be embraced by the Decadence crowd, but I was worried the haters would miss the point, that we’d only add fuel to the fire. So we didn’t do it.

I still think the idea of making common cause is generally a good idea; but then I also thought gay marriage was a great issue for civil rights organizing, and we all saw how that played out at the polls in recent election cycles. Nevertheless, just like Muslims in Egypt stood up to terrorism against the Christian minority, just like white folks were a part of the Freedom Rides, I think straight people have a responsibility to stand up to the bullying tactics of people like Storms.

But I guess he won’t be crusading against Southern Decadence again.

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.

The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

I was just coming home from the first real parade of the carnival season, fired up and aglow with the love, and I get online and I check my e-mail and I find myself on Facebook, looking at a kindly invitation to enjoy the next night’s diversions, looking at the profile of a friend, and I can’t help but notice his significant other is not listed — and the reason is fairly obvious. Even in our present day and age, homosexual relationships are not acknowledged and accepted in many circles. So I go to the kitchen for a late snack, and skim the paper’s entertainment supplement, and read of a documentary about how gay carnival krewes pioneered gay rights in this country well before Stonewall. And ultimately I can’t help feeling a deep sense of outrage: What is wrong with people? I remain forever committed to the idea that all is permitted, so long as we’re not hurting anyone.

Fixed Vote = No Vote

Fixed Vote = No Vote

This sign is on a house on Canal Street. I’m not sure but I strongly suspect this may have been placed by a guy calling himself shaman_nation who popped up on the Mid-City discussion group and started posting the most inane conspiracy drivel I’ve ever read.

He’d post some links and then add:

But, I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of stuff we need to worry about before the FIXED VOTE…

IF IT WEREN’T FOR THE FACT THAT WE HAVE NO REAL VOTE AND NO WAY TO CONTROL A GOVERNMENT THAT HAS GONE MAD WITH POWER AND GRAFT.

One neighbor very politely tried to make the point that such assertions were off-topic.

Imagine you’re at a meeting in which everyone is dicussing agenda items relavant to How to Fry Bananas. And you are stand on your chair shouting about DOOR WAYS !!! DOOR WAYS !!!!

Does that make any sense, to shout about door ways in a meeting about frying bananas?

This email group or listserv is about the quality of life in MidCity. Crime stats, zoning, water main leaks, what number to call when VooDoo parkers block your driveway, etc. Not about affecting changes in how this country’s Government operates.

Also, please stop shouting. ALLCAPS is generally considered the equivolant of shouting and in a forum such as this listserv is considered rude.

Of course he had one answer for all such criticism. He accused them of being part of the conspiracy.

Thanks for the lying scam BS about all caps…

Oh, that’s right MID CITY IS THE ONLY PLACE IN THE US WHERE THE VOTE ISN’T FIXED.

SURELY, THE FIXED BLACK BOX VOTE THAT HAS BEEN PROVEN DOESN’T EFFECT MID CITY.

There’s a mix IT’S NOT ALL CAPS. JUST LIKE THE BS YOU POSTED TO SCAM PAST A FIXED VOTE.

LOL, bananas… we are voting on bananas… SURELY A FIXED VOTE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH BANANAS OR ANYTHING THAT SUPPOSEDLY COMES TO A VOTE.

AMAZING, There always seems to BE SOME REASON THE FIXED BLACK BOX VOTE NEEDS TO BE IGNORED.

Fascists, that need to be on trial for Crimes Against Humanity, and since WE ARE AT UNOFFICIAL WAR – based on lies/torture/rendition/etc – TREASON via subversion of the vote. THE ONLY POWER THE PEOPLE HAVE.

These exchanges led Michael to post the following which still cracks me up:

Since MCNO is now the forum for voting conspiracy theory, I would like to add that I have some serious questions about the Kennedy assassination. Single bullet? YOU ARE FOOLING YOURSELVES PEOPLE OF MID-CITY!!!. I also have good evidence that the annual Mid-City bonfire that used to be so much fun was squashed not because of permits, but because of secret documents Lee harvey Oswald buried in the walls of Thurgood Marshall (Beauregard) UNEARTHED DURING THE RESTORATION POST FLOOD which proved that Jacqueline Kennedy choked Marilyn Monroe with a banana purchased from Mr Okra. I SAID IT—MR OKRA!!!!!

Need I add that the URLs on the sign don’t work?

Pull Quote

This caught my eye on the the front page of today’s Times-Picayune:

Pull Quote

“It always amazed me that you had these two universities that were right next to each other but they didn’t talk to each other,” Bruno said. “Why do we have two libraries? Why do we have two cafeterias?”

For a brief moment I thought he was talking about Tulane and Loyola. Yeah, I thought to myself, they could really get some efficiency going if only they’d merge operations.

How silly of me.

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.

Constitutional Issues

I just got an e-mail from Steve Scalise with the subject line “Carrying out the will of the American people.” In this message he says:

On Thursday, we started what should become a new tradition by reading the Constitution aloud on the Floor of the House of Representatives. This marks the first time in the history of the United States that the complete Constitution has been read on the House Floor. I was honored to participate and hope this will be the first step towards getting our country refocused on the principles spelled out in this historic document.

(Emphasis added.)

Yet, as I learned via Cousin Pat yesterday, they didn’t read the “complete Constitution.” They left out some parts, basically the parts that are no longer functional. This includes such trivial matters as the original date for the first annual meeting of Congress, as well as some not-so-trivial stuff like the Three-Fifths Compromise.

One can argue about whether that amounts to revisionism. (I’m inclined to think our historic custom of slavery is not something to gloss over, ever.) That’s not my point. What seems inarguable, however, is that the “complete Constitution” was not read on Thursday. Am I wrong to think this matters? Am I quibbling over a trivial detail?

I’m a little gunshy these days over criticizing local politicos. Mr. Scalise, please don’t take my comment the wrong way. I just couldn’t resist pointing out this factual error. I think I understand why you did it. After all, what you sent reads much better than the alternative.

This marks the first time in the history of the United States that this much of the Constitution has been read on the House Floor, but we still didn’t read the whole thing.

The truth is so much less glamorous.

Footnotes: They also skipped a part of the Constitution because — no lie — two pages stuck together, but they came back later in the day and fixed that omission. When they got to the requirement that the President must be a natural born citizen, a woman named Teresa Cao was hauled off and arrested for shouting “Except Obama! Help us Jesus!” And to top it all off, I’m also seeing reports that a couple new Representatives violated the Constitution by voting without being sworn in. Just another trivial detail, I guess.

Cross Reference

Two headlines from today’s news caught my eye. Each is bad enough on its own, but taken together they are exponentially more infuriating.

So we learn a couple things.

Now it’s clear why BP was blocking access and obfuscating all attempts to estimate the flow of oil from their well. They’re on the hook for $4,300 per barrel spilled. Futhermore, we now know where all that spilled oil mysteriously disappeared. It’s at the bottom of the Gulf, and everything is dead there.

Of course, I’m not supposed to complain about any of this for fear a moratorium will further damage the local economy which is so dependent on offshore drilling operations.

For Veterans Day

Since it’s Veterans Day, I thought I’d point to something written by a veteran. Here’s an article by Bradford J. Kelley, which appeared in the morning paper.

Election glossed over wars — and warriors

He begins by noting the lack of attention paid to our current military engagements in the recent election cycle, but notes that politicians can’t really be blamed for failing to focus on a topic people don’t really seem to care about.

The apathy in American society regarding these wars is appalling.

Can anyone seriously disagree with that sentiment?

Kelley argues to an inexorable conclusion.

The current situation is unsustainable and something has to give. Perhaps the cost of these wars needs to be levied upon all Americans in a more direct way, whether this involves increasing taxes on all Americans or reinstating the draft.

Although Kelley goes on to say he favors an all-volunteer force, I disagree. I think we need to go one step further in the other direction. The draft is not enough. We need compulsory service. Two years, with alternative service (Peace Corps, for example) for conscientious objectors.

As a father, this is not an easy thing to say. But I think it would ultimately make us a more responsible nation, and thus create a better future for our children.

So, this Veterans Day, ask a vet what he or she thinks of the idea.

Consume Less

Back in June (if not earlier) Sarah Palin wrote:

Unless government appropriately regulates oil developments and holds oil executives accountable, the public will not trust them to drill, baby, drill. And we must! Or we will be even more beholden to, and controlled by, dangerous foreign regimes that supply much of our energy.

Yet there is another alternative to rapacious consumption. There is an alternative even to “alternative” sources of energy.

I am talking about consuming less. Americans in particular consume a lot of resources, and that takes a lot of energy. It’s my understanding that transporting goods (and people) is the biggest energy hog. xAmericans also have a high rate of obesity. Translation: We eat too much and don’t get enough exercise.

So imagine, just for example, if we ate a little less. Imagine if more of the food we did buy was grown in the local area. Since local food doesn’t have to be transported as far, buying local is a form of consuming less. Imagine if we got around under our own power more often, riding bicycles or even (gasp) walking. We’d get a little more exercise and be healthier while consuming less fuel.

Consuming less saves you money. It has the added benefit of making us less “beholden” to “dangerous foreign regimes that supply much of our energy.”

It annoys me when politicians (of any party) talk about energy and don’t emphasize the benefits of consuming less. It seems to me that, as a nation, we should be on a collective quest to figure out how to consume radically less energy. Imagine if we set a goal of reducing our national energy consumption by half in the next decade. I’m sure we could do it.

The pundits and politicians don’t talk about this. Instead they tell us what we want to hear, or what they think we want to hear. It’s a sad comment that in our current political climate, the message of consuming less seems almost subversive or un-American. That shouldn’t be the case.

This rant was inspired by a quote from Sarah Palin, but I want to make it clear that the failure of leadership is much broader than any single person. There is plenty of blame to go around. It would be nice to hear the “consume less” message coming from the White House, but I haven’t seen that from Brack Obama’s administration. Maybe I missed it.

But leadership can be exercised by anyone. Clearly a movement to consume less will have to come up from the grass roots.

9/11+9

It might seem to the rest of the country that New Orleanians are insular and self-absorbed. There’s some truth to that; sometimes this place feels like a distant province of the United States rather than a part of the mainland. But events like the terrorist attacks of September 11th touch us all, and after suffering through a major (not entirely natural) disaster ourselves, I think most New Orleanians feel a special sympathy for New Yorkers. I have seen grown men cry here at the mere mention of September 11th, even after all these years.

Of all our national ideals, freedom of speech and religion, pluralism and tolerance are the ones that inspire me the most. Lately they seem to be crumbling as tensions increase between Christians and Muslims in this country. That, of course, was part of the terrorists’ aim. It’s not clear to me whether or not we have passed the point of no return. I hope not.

Be Revolutionary

There’s something I wanted to write at the first anniversary of Katrina, but I never did.

I thought about it again at the second anniversary, and the third and the fourth. I still wanted to write about it, but there was something in the way. Too much to do, and time slips away. Or maybe that’s just an excuse.

This year I’m going to write it. I missed the five year anniversary by one day, but I’m going to say it at last.

And it’s simply this:

Be revolutionary.

That’s it. That’s my wish for the people of New Orleans. Come to think of it, that’s also my wish for the people of this nation and this world. But somehow it seems especially apropos at this place, at this time. We’ve been having to rebuild and rethink everything, and five years on there is still much to do. So, as we continue to work at building it back better, we need to be bold. We need to be daring. We need courage and compassion and creativity.

For example, consider this new report from Waggonner & Ball Architects, commissioned by Friends of Lafitte Corridor with a grant from the Greater New Orleans Foundation’s Environmental Fund. It asks us to consider new approaches to managing storm water in the city.

To change the way we live with water here would be revolutionary. And it might even save lives. Of course, it’s not easy to turn around and do things differently. It’s difficult. It’s expensive. But it’s necessary. And in the long run, we will pay a much greater price if we keep doing things the same old way.

The proposals in this report are just an example. We need revolutionary thinking on all fronts.

Not all revolutions are good. Not all revolutions are just. I don’t endorse change for the sake of change. For a community that has lost so much, in fact, more change may be difficult to face. But that’s our challenge, to preserve the good while revolutionizing the bad.

And actually, I think a lot of New Orleanians are doing this already. But it seems that it’s never enough. We need to constantly be supporting one another to be stronger and go further.

Posting this here won’t do much to advance the cause. Words are not enough. We need to live the revolution through our actions. I try to do that every day.

Imagine New Orleans five years from now. If we have a city that is just and humane, if all our citizens are enjoying a good quality of life, if we are thriving and healthy and green — that would be a revolution. We know we’re not their yet. But isn’t that what most of us desire?

If we want it, we have to be revolutionaries.

Comiskey Shot

Comiskey Park Brandsource Community Center

Now that school’s back in session and my daughter’s back in daycare, I’m back to riding on the Jeff Davis bike path each morning on my way to work. That takes me past Comiskey Park and a sad tableau of signage for a community center that never materialized. I thought to myself a couple times over the past couple weeks that I should stop and take a photo. It would be one of those shots that tells much of the story all by itself.

Then, yesterday morning, I opened the paper to discover Eliot Kamenitz beat me to it. Imagine — scooped by a professional photographer.

So on the way home yesterday I snapped my own version. Better late than never.

I remember in late 2006 that a company named DNA Creative Media approached Mid-City Neighborhood Organization with a somewhat unusual proposition. They wanted to make a “reality show” about building something in New Orleans. One idea being floated was a community center at Comiskey Park in Mid-City, but they were also looking at other sites. MCNO rallied a bunch of neighbors to turn out and greet the producers when they visited Comiskey on November 29th of that year. I stopped by on my way home from work to support the cause. Many neighbors had made signs with slogans like “DNA + Mid-City = A Perfect Match.” In short, as a community we pulled out all stops to land this deal.

Apparently the producers were impressed by the warm reception. In some other neighborhoods they’d visited, people were more skeptical.

Perhaps we should have been more skeptical too. The whole thing struck me as bizarre. But remember, we were still in full-on recovery mode. Our future was far from clear. We were still living in a surreal landscape of destruction. We were desperate.

For a while things looked like they were proceeding according to plan. It was announced that Louis Gossett Jr. would host the show. Neighbors developed a wishlist for features they wanted to see. Soon, plans for a beautiful community center were unveiled. Here’s a description from the neighborhood discussion group:

The center will be a 2-story building which will include an indoor NBA-sized basketball court; a 4-station kitchen with commercial grade appliances (to be used for cooking classes and demos); and a general purpose room for meetings, theater, dance & exercise. A state-of-the-art computer lab with Internet access will encourage research by students of all ages as well as allowing families and friends still divided by the Katrina evacuation to keep in touch by email. The contract between DNA and the City was signed on February 6th. Demolition of derelict buildings on the site and construction of the new center is planned for later this year.

You can even listen to Damon Harman of DNA describe the project.

Some preliminary work began. In May of 2007 I took this photo.

Cranes on the Skyline

Some time after the piles were driven, work stopped. In October we read in the paper that the project was bogged down in governmental red tape. In March 2008 we learned that DNA was filing for bankruptcy. They were also facing a lawsuit from Paul Davis National, the contractor (based in Wisconsin) they’d hired. Paul Davis claimed DNA still owed them money for work completed.

And that’s brings us back to yesterday’s article by Masako Hirsch and Gordon Russell. It seems the City of New Orleans will have to pay the $700,000 owed to Paul Davis National.

Doesn’t seem quite right, does it? What I have to wonder — was the whole thing a scam from the beginning, or was it an “honest” bit of incompetent business, or did this run afoul of the global economic downturn, or did government bureaucracy slow things down so much it wrecked the project?

Sunshine & Sausage

Selection Committee

Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.
— Otto von Bismarck

I had the chance to observe a bit of sausage-making yesterday. I attended the meeting of a committee charged with selecting a team to design a greenway for the Lafitte Corridor.

A little context may be in order. Some sixteen months ago, the previous mayoral administration selected Design Workshop, from a field of fourteen applicants, to begin design of a greenway in the Lafitte Corridor. We (meaning the board of Friends of Lafitte Corridor) were happy with the selection, but the process was a bit mysterious and vague, taking place behind closed doors. That June, a couple hundred people turned out to hike the Lafitte Corridor and meet the designers. Our spirits were high, and it seemed that real progress was imminent.

By contrast, our spirits were quite low when the administration terminated the contract with Design Workshop in January. It represented a major setback for the project. I hasten to add that the termination didn’t reflect in any way on Design Workshop but had to do with obscure technical matters relating to a conflict between the city’s policies and procedures versus the requirements of the federal government. The policies and procedures were tweaked accordingly. The administration re-issued the request for proposals, but before they could be evaluated, their term in office was up.

Then a new guy comes into office. First order of business: gotta revamp those policies and procedures again. Gotta make it more open and transparent. Well, OK, that sounds good, but could we please get on with it?

So here we are again, right back where we were sixteen months ago. And yet what a difference a new mayoral administration makes. Last time, this process was hidden from view behind closed doors. Citizen groups like Friends of Lafitte Corridor had to rely on rumor and gossip just to divine what was going on in our own government. This time, everything was different. This meeting represented the very first selection for procurement of services made under the new policies and procedures. I was able to attend the meeting and observe as the committee discussed their criteria, proposals were evaluated on a matrix, scores tallied up, and a selection made.

All I gotta say is, despite the immortal wisdom of Otto von Bismarck, that’s some pretty sweet sausage. Sunshine would appear to be the best spice.

Oh, the selected team? Design Workshop. Yes, again. They have been chosen as the best applicants twice now. Last time there were fourteen proposals. This time there were thirteen, but they were not all the same as before. So the process may be different, but the result was the same. I think it’s safe to say that Design Workshop is well-qualified for this work. The citizens of New Orleans can have confidence in this choice — and also in a process for spending public money that is open to public scrutiny. It’s a far cry from participatory budgeting, but it is a step in the right direction.

I’m certainly happy with the selection. It’s great news for this project. But it’s important to keep this in perspective. We’re finally back to where we were in April of 2009. The contract still has to be negotiated. Last time that process took half a year. Hopefully it will go more quickly this time, since it was already negotiated once before. After that, of course, the contract has to be signed by all relevant parties. That took a month last time. Then a notice to proceed has to be issued. Then and only then can the work begin — the design work, mind you. Not construction, not yet. It will still be a good while before we break ground. A good design phase is absolutely essential for a quality product, and the active participation of all relevant stakeholders is essential. And I think that is the message we need to keep front and center in the months ahead.

Eyes Wide Open

Mitch Landrieu

The mayor came to our campus yesterday to deliver a speech with the theme “Eyes Wide Open.” Strangely enough, few of my co-workers seemed to be aware of this, but I got an invite from the mayor’s office via e-mail. By another strange coincidence, I’d forgotten all about it until my memory was jogged during a meeting with Councilmember Kristin Palmer at City Hall about the Lafitte Corridor greenway project. I rode back to campus and got there in time to catch the speech.

The University Center ballroom was packed. Music was playing, which I thought was prerecorded until I noticed a number of men in suits on microphones at the front of the room — the Zion Harmonizers. Father Tony gave the invocation and Dr. Francis introduced the mayor.

For me, it was pretty cool to see all these guys on the same stage in such a familiar setting. It was cool to see the City’s seal on front of the podium and the University’s seal in back. Also, I’d never heard Mitch Landrieu speak before, and I’ve got to say he’s pretty good at it.

I’ve made it a point not to offer my own analysis of local politics here recently, and I think I’ll stick to that policy. However, I’d be curious to know what others might think. Here’s the text of the speech.
Continue reading “Eyes Wide Open”

Lessons Learned

A few weeks back I had a bit of an educational experience. I can’t get into specifics, but I’m wondering if I might be able to abstract the essence.

A party approached a group that I work with asking for our support on a particular initiative. This party has considerable power and influence, and our little group does not — or so I thought. I was under the impression that the party in question would ultimately get what they wanted, whether we supported them or not. I thought it would behoove us to support their initiative so that we could develop a friendly relationship and perhaps steer them in a mutually beneficial direction.

When we sat down to talk about it, they revealed that they had already approached some governmental authorities about the matter at hand. The governmental authorities had deferred to our little group. I was a bit surprised by this. Our group has been working for some while to advance our cause. Apparently along the way we have gained a smidgen of influence. In some small way, we have successfully inserted ourselves into the political process. I felt pretty good about that.

Back to the initiative in question, which we were being asked to support. Suddenly my realpolitik rationale for supporting the initiative had evaporated. I was still inclined to say yes. By virtue of my profession I’m oriented to helping people. I’m in the habit of saying yes. Of course, that was a qualified yes. It would have to be cleared with the rest of the group.

Over the next few days, I and others in the group heard from our friends in various branches of government. Many of them were not pleased with the idea that we would support this initiative. Some were quite passionate on this point. They felt it would be a big mistake. The authority who had initially deferred to us was still deferential: “If your group doesn’t have a problem with this, then we don’t have a problem either.” But there was clearly some concern, and these concerns were spelled out to me in detail.

Finally, when our group met and discussed the issue, our consensus was clear. We decided not to support the initiative. The reasons were various but above all there was a matter of long-standing principle which I’d neglected to consider. I had to backpedal a bit, since I had initially indicated that we could support the initiative, but it was not too difficult to explain our position to all interested parties.

So what did I learn after all of that? Clearly, it’s easier to stand by your principles if you’ve got solid footing. But it seems there’s something more. I guess I could put it like this: You can insert yourself into the political process, but the political process will also be inserted into you.