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 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.

Profiles in Bloggage, Part 3

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 third of the five stories. I welcome any feedback.

No Silence

It’s with some trepidation that I now direct my keyboard to the subject of Ashley Morris. In the interconnected web of the local NOLA blogosphere, Ashley is a revered and iconic figure — I almost said “saint,” but that might be going too far. Or maybe not; Loki called him the “NSFW Patron Saint of New Orleans Bloggers.”

Suffice to say, he looms large.

I still remember when my boss first pointed me to Ashley’s blog. “Have you heard of this guy?” But I only met Ashley in the flesh a few times. Once at the Mother-in-Law Lounge he complimented me on my Saints baseball cap. And of course I was there at the first Rising Tide, when Ashley slogged through the rain with lunch for everyone — and somehow no one saved one back for Ashley. Trust me, you did not want to get between Ashley and his fried chicken. Especially chicken from Dunbar’s. Truly a moment to remember.

Unlike the bloggers in my previous two profiles, Ashley began blogging before Katrina. It’s instructive to examine his earliest posts.

His very first from January 3rd, 2005, is aptly entitled “The first rant.” It’s about his favorite football team, the Saints, “getting shafted” by the NFL. His second post is an elegy for the late Warren Zevon, one of his favorite musicians. His third post is an angry rant about HBO’s relationship with The Wire, another one of his favorites. It’s here that Ashley drops his first f-bomb. I’m sure many will be impressed by the fact that he made it through the first two posts without cussing.

In his fourth post he recounts how he hasn’t been blogging as much as he’d planned, because his daughter (six months old) was diagnosed with a possible tumor. He reveals an interesting twist of his family history: “I was raised by my grandparents, and the person I was told was my sister was actually my mother.” He tells how he called up his sister/mother and demanded medical records. “I threatened their lives if they did not send these histories. I truly meant it.”

And so a portrait of the man quickly emerges. Unlike Karen Gadbois or Ashe Dambala, Ashley Morris began (and ended) in the classic, personal, confessional mode which I believe to be the most popular style of blogging. (To clarify, it’s the most popular style in terms of what gets written, not in terms of what gets read.) He wrote with his heart on his keyboard and his name right at the top. I mean, the actual title of the blog? Ashley Morris. The web address is ashleymorris.typepad.com. It’s not difficult to figure out who this guy is, where he’s coming from, what he cares about, or the particulars of his life. He spells it all out for you, with gusto.

His fifth post is an ode to New Orleans, and to being a Southerner.

And there you have it. He expounded on other matters, but he basically defined the scope of his blogging activities and his online persona at the outset, well before the flooding of New Orleans.

His eighth post came after a six month hiatus, in November of 2005, and it remains his most famous and quintessential utterance to date. I’m speaking, of course, of the immortal “Fuck you, you fucking fucks.” I tried to grab an excerpt, but it’s really not possible. It’s unexcerptable. You really have to read the whole thing. This outpouring of rage and frustration struck a huge chord. It was probably not the first expression of a post-Katrina NOLA-centric patriot fighting spirit, but it was certainly one of the most strident and heartfelt.

In his ninth post he describes how he ended up buying his home in New Orleans after Katrina.

I drove down to eat at K-Paul’s. I told Chef Paul that I was supposed to close on September 6. He said, “I bet you’re glad you didn’t.” I said “Are you kidding, I’m closing tomorrow.”

He started laughing and said “New Orleans needs more people like you.”

He closed the deal November 4.

I could go on, but the point is that, unlike the previous two stories in this series, Ashley didn’t build his rep on investigative journalism. Sure, he did some; for example, he looked into the Musicians Village pretty thoroughly. But that’s not what made Ashley great. Rather it’s the fact that he wrote, and wrote, and wrote, about his real-life experiences on the ground in and around and about New Orleans. In other words, he was engaged in the same chore as many others (such as yours truly). But Ashley wrote with such overwhelming passion that he ultimately accomplished, with greater frequency, what many of us can manage only on occasion: Namely, he got his point across.

As Greg Peters said,

Ashley was fire. Ashley was the furnace where the rage was forged, where the steam pressure built, where raw anger began its conversion to power and motion.

(I’m sure this quote is lurking somewhere on Greg’s blog but I’ll be damned if I can find it.)

Unfortunately many of the accolades for Ashley came posthumously. There’s a whole raft of tributes collected at First Draft. It’s an unfortunate truism that we don’t generally recognize our “saints” as such until they are gone.

Because, of course, Ashley is no longer with us. About the circumstances of his death in 2008 I know little, except that he was way too young. He left three young children and a wife behind him.

Ashley has been memorialized and remembered in many different ways here in his adopted home, from t-shirts to websites. Most notable, perhaps, is the creation of the Ashley Morris Award, given annually at the Rising Tide conference. Ashley himself was the first (posthumous) recipient; the subjects of my previous two profiles have also been so honored.

Here’s a photo I took of the most recent recipient, Clifton Harris, accepting the award.

Cliff

But Ashley’s been recognized far beyond the local blogosphere, most notably in the first season of HBO’s Treme. The character of Creighton Bernette, played by John Goodman, was based in part on Ashley Morris. There is a fascinating interview with Ashley’s widow Hana on TV Squad that gets into some of the details of this.

I can’t imagine what he would do if he could see this (laughs), but one of the big reasons I’m happy this is happening, he died when my kids were really little. My son was just barely 2 years old. He really does not have much of a concept of what having a dad means, and he does not remember him at all. It will be really nice when they grow up one day and I can show them the show and tell them this is what it was like after the storm and this is what your dad was saying and this is kind of how he was.

In Treme, Bernette is not a blogger, exactly. Instead, he posts videos on YouTube. Videos are more conducive the televisual medium than blogging. After all, the act of blogging is nothing more than the act of writing, sitting at a keyboard and typing — not too interesting to watch. YouTube launched in early 2005, and was just hitting big at the time of Katrina, so it’s a plausible substitution.

Personally I found the portrayal a fitting homage to the man. Given the fact that Ashley was a hugely vocal fan of David Simon’s work, I could only think he would have been pleased.

Ultimately Hana seemed to agree:

So I am watching the interview with David Simon about Treme. And watching the bit with John Goodman. Listening to him saying Ashley’s words.

And all I can think of is How fucked up this is. Thinking how much insecure Ash was, how he thought nobody took him seriously. Always doubting himself. Always trying to be better, smarter, more informed. Always thinking that his work does not really mean much to anybody.

And now he is a character in a movie! Movie by David Simon whom he admired tremendously.
Now the whole US will finally hear him. They will hear what he was saying 4 years ago. His work will finally have a meaning. To hundreds, maybe thousands.

And how fucked up is it that this happened after his death. I don’t know what he would do if he saw this. Being portrait by John Goodman. Him, a poor boy from Pensacola. A son of a used-cars salesman. I wonder if he would finally believe that he meant a lot to a lot of people. That he changed this world without knowing it.

But regardless of the amplifications of Treme, Ashley’s work would still have meaning, would still be remembered and revered by those many whose lives he touched. The reason I list Ashley as one of the top stories to emerge from the post-K NOLA blogosphere is that he showed how a person can make an indelible impression in a community through sheer force of passion.

By pouring his heart out into this medium he did what many of us are still trying to do every day. I count myself in that number. Ashley remains an inspiration to us all.

I believe the Ashley Morris Fund is still accepting donations.

Photo credit: “No Silence” by Alexis Stahl, copyright 2007. Used by permission.

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.