Re-Cranking the Manifesto

I was quoted in this recent article by Robert McLendon:

As residents started to trickle back into Mid-City after Hurricane Katrina, people looked at the mess around them and came to a realization: The storm may have been responsible for the wreckage, but the city was broken in many ways long before it made landfall.

Inequality. Exclusion. Low expectations. “It was a wake-up call that there were a lot of longstanding problems that people had just gotten used to,” said Bart Everson, who, along with his wife, was one of the first to return to the neighborhood.

Everson and his neighbors started to meet to talk about how they could change things, how they could make their neighborhood and the city more inclusive. Out of those meetings, and a blog manifesto that Everson cranked out in the early post-storm days, came the neighborhood’s master plan.

The article goes on to detail the disappointing implementation (or lack thereof) of the city’s neighborhood participation program.

Mid-City Planning Meeting

But speaking of that grassroots planning process I helped jumpstart, it recently came to my attention that the Mid-City Recovery Plan, drafted by residents in 2006-2007 independently of any government sanction, is in danger of disappearing from the public web.

In the interest of posterity, I’ve uploaded this important historical document to Scribd:

Mid-City Recovery Plan

This was true grassroots democracy in action. Did we get everything we wanted? Not by a long shot. Did it make any difference? I’ll let others judge.

Some details of this process were covered in Karl Seidman’s 2013 book, Coming Home to New Orleans: Neighborhood Rebuilding after KatrinaSee page 177 ff. The passages about the Mid-City library branch make for especially poignant reading, in light of the recent announcement of its imminent (and thankfully postponed) closure.

Greenway Planning Meetings: Your Participation Is Critical

Chip Game

These meetings are coming up week after next. This is what FOLC has been working for these last five years. These meetings will begin to shape what the greenway will be. If you’ve got specific ideas, this is how to let them be known. Or just come to learn about the Lafitte Corridor and give your gut reactions.

Lafitte Corridor Connection Kick-Offs
Monday, August 15th – 6PM to 8PM
TWO LOCATIONS: Sojourner Truth Community Center located at 501 N. Galvez Street and Grace Episcopal Church located at 3700 Canal Street.

Lafitte Corridor Connection Open Studio and Community Focus Groups
Daily August 15th-19th – 10AM to 5:30PM
Sojourner Truth Community Center located at 501 N. Galvez Street.
(Studio hours are extended August 16th-18th to 7PM to play the Greenway Design and Land Use Chip Game)

Lafitte Corridor Connection General Community Meeting
Saturday, August 20th – 8:30AM to 12:00PM
Delgado Community College, City Park Campus – Student Life Center

Help spread the word by sharing this info with your friends and neighbors. Broad participation is key. The greenway must reflect the desires of the community if it is to succeed.

Cross-posted from FOLC website.

Dear Goody Clancy

Here’s a letter which I hope to present directly to representatives of Goody Clancy at tonight’s District 4 meeting (6PM @ Jesuit).

Dear Goody Clancy,

Friends of Lafitte Corridor has been reviewing the Master Plan draft. It is quite impressive. However, there are several points that concern us. We believe that the revitalization of the Lafitte Corridor, with a central greenway, offers a model for nurturing the values of sustainability and community that the Master Plan draft espouses. Therefore I am sending this follow-up to my recent e-mail.

  1. Chapter 13 mentions the Mississippi River Greenway Initiative, but we could find no mention of the greenway project planned for the Lafitte Corridor.
  2. The greenway shows up on the proposed bike route map, but it is not the correct length. (It should extend from Basin Street all the way to Canal Blvd. instead of terminating at City Park Ave.)
  3. Note the two-part structure of the project as the Office of Recovery Development has conceived it and City Planning Commission staff has endorsed: development of a Lafitte Corridor Revitalization Plan and design of the greenway/trail itself. These two prongs are distinct and substantial.
  4. In recognition of the unique opportunities the greenway represents, we recommend a special land use designation for trail-oriented development along the entire length of the Lafitte Corridor.
  5. The integrative nature of the project as “green infrastructure” should be emphasized — integrating active transportation, public health and recreation, economic revitalization, cultural preservation and environmental sustainability initiatives.
  6. For an excellent example of trail-oriented land use planning, please see the Midtown Greenway’s Land Use Development Plan

  7. Attached please find a copy of the City Planning Commission’s recent review of the Lafitte Greenway Master Plan. Note their recommendation to integrate this plan into the Citywide Master Plan and Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance effort.

Feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss these matters in greater detail. Also please feel free to contact my fellow board members: Dr. Lake Douglas who is a professor at the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture at LSU, and architect Daniel Samuels.

Yours sincerely,

Bart Everson
President
Friends of Lafitte Corridor

At the Meeting

Here we go again, I thought, as I sat down at the MCNO meeting last night. Once again New Orleanians are being asked to engage the planning process.

But, in fairness, this time is different. This is for the New Orleans Master Plan, which will have the force of law. And another thing that’s different: Many of us have been through the wringer already. We’re tired, but we’re also wiser and savvier to how these things work. We have a clearer idea of what we want.

So it’s not really 2006 all over again. Back then we were all so shell-shocked. We were scared and bewildered. How did find the strength to carry on through all the devastation? For some of us the planning process was like a lifeline, a dream to believe, a dream of a better future. We threw ourselves into that process heart and soul and spent thousands of hours on it.

It kept us going. And now we know what we want out of the planning process. And this time, it’s for keeps.

Last night’s meeting was to focus on the new Master Plan first draft which has been released by Goody Clancy for public review and comment. Even though this was not the official District 4 meeting, a representative from Goody Clancy was there, and also someone from the City Planning Commission.

We had a quick review of Mid-City’s previous planning efforts, and it did my heart good to hear language from that first draft we formulated three years ago, language which made its way into the final draft of the Lambert Plan. “The recovery of Mid-City should be just, humane and democratically controlled by the people of Mid-City.” When that line was cited, a guy in a priest collar sitting next to me snorted, “What does that mean?” I wasn’t sure if he was simply being rhetorical or not, so I asked him: “Would you like me to explain it to you?” He said he would, so I simply said, “It means the process should be controlled by us and not some distant politician.” He said that sounded reasonable.

Things got off to a rocky start, when not one but two folks from Liuzza’s attacked MCNO president Jennifer Weisshaupt about the Victory development. I was frankly disgusted by their blatantly hostile approach. They seemed to be ignorant of the facts, but out for blood nonetheless, and of course they weren’t even speaking to the topic at hand. I have enjoyed frequenting Liuzza’s in the past, but it will probably be a long time before I can muster up any enthusiasm for eating there again.

After that the meeting proceeded in a slightly more sane fashion. The primary focus of attention was the proposed land use map, which shows the bulk of Mid-City as “low-density multi-family,” designated by a brown color. Many people in the audience seemed to feel “one and two family residential,” shown on the map in orange, was a more appropriate designation. There was plenty of confusion. Planners seem to speak their own special language that most of us don’t quite understand. Some people seemed to think the plan called for rebuilding the housing projects in Mid-City. Other folks spoke in defense of increased density. There was plenty of talk about brown and orange. Sparks flew occasionally. But for the most part I got the sense that the planners were listening to the people and will revise accordingly. Of course we’ll just have to see what they come back with in the next draft. It’s clear to me that people in Mid-City, at least, are engaged in the process, paying attention and trying to understand, and that’s key.

Naturally, one of my main concerns is the Lafitte Corridor. The draft maps do not indicate the correct full length of the planned greenway. Happily, the planners were already aware of this deficiency, and said so. Maybe they read my e-mail.

I left after an hour and a half. Apparently the meeting went on for another 90 minutes after that.

The official District 4 review meeting is April 22nd, 6:00PM, at Jesuit.

NOLA vs. NYC: Rodent’s Eye View

Thanks to my friend Jason Neville for bringing this choice piece of research to my attention:

“We put rats in relatively large areas with objects and routes resembling those in Manhattan,” explains Prof. Eilam. The rats, he found, do the same things humans do: They establish a grid system to orient themselves. Using the grid, the rats covered a vast amount of territory, “seeing the sights” quickly. In contrast, rats in an irregular plan resembling New Orleans’ failed to move far from where they started and didn’t cover much territory, despite traveling the same distances as the “Manhattan rats.”

Source: Perfect City Weblog

VA Lindy?

Yesterday I spoke with Jennifer Weishaupt, president of Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, about the possibility of the VA hospital at the site of the old Lindy Boggs Medical Center (Mercy Hospital).

As you may be aware, Victory Real Estate Investments has assembled some parcels of land, including the old hospital. They were hoping to build a big retail complex, but because of the downturn in the national economy, that’s looking less likely.

So Victory recently offered the land to the Veteran’s Administration. According to Jennifer, the VA has been made aware of the plans for the greenway along the Lafitte Corridor. Indeed, they seem to have an appreciation for the value of it — and it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it, that a public health entity would see the value of a public health infrastructure.

Alternative Site for VA Hospital

The illustration above shows the proposed alternative VA site (yellow border) and the path of the greenway on the Lafitte Corridor (green line).

But moreover, I think the Lindy Boggs site offers some advantages over the current “front runner” location in lower Mid-City.
Continue reading “VA Lindy?”

So Dark the Con of Man

I cajoled Xy into attending our local meeting of the School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish on Tuesday night.

It reminded me of the infamous “Summer of Planning.” Specifically it reminded me of the America Speaks sessions which I never attended (having already been burned out by the Lambert process) but which I read about on many local blogs.

I got the general sense of being a square peg in a round hole. We got a form on which we could indicate if we were parents or advocates, but “concerned citizen” was not an option. They had each table designated for a specific school, and you were supposed to sit at the table for the school you were interested in. There was no table for “all of them.”

We did some kind of silly exercise that involved talking to other people at our table about what we hoped the schools would be like in ten years. Then we were instructed to imagine a visitor coming to the future New Orleans and checking out the schools and being very impressed. As they leave the city, what’s their overall impression of the schools? We discussed this with the people at our table.

Then Steve Bingler got up and made a presentation. In 2006 Bingler was the target of many a blogger’s wrath — or at least skepticism. He derided the old “factory school” model and hyped a new model which combines public amenities with schools.

Then we all answered multiple-choice questions on a form, while discussing them with our group. The questions were phrased in such a way as to be extremely leading.

For example (paraphrase):

How far should the school be from green space?
__ The school should be adjacent to green space.
__ The school should be no more than __ blocks from green space.
__ Proximity to green space is not important.

And so forth, with questions about the proximity of other public amenities. After the presentation we’d seen, I imagine most people would check the first option for all these questions.

One of the people at my table was a friend I know vaguely — we served together on the board of a certain local nonprofit for a while. He was extremely skeptical and suspicious of all these questions, and tried to get those of us at his table to think carefully before just checking the first box. Is green space near a school really an advantage? After all there’s a lot of really good schools in Europe with no green space nearby. True enough, I countered, but proximity to green space would be nice, all other things being equal. But if we check that, will they skimp on something else?

This conversation got even more ridiculous when we discussed the possibility of a public library near the school. Have you seen what goes on at the main branch downtown? It’s just a place for homeless people to wash up. Do you really want adults like that coming in with the children? This led me to suggest a bathing facility for the homeless be co-located in the school.

After the meeting, we talked some more. He saw a nefarious plot here to funnel work to a contractor who specializes in building schools of this model, with the presentation and the questionnaire all rigged to produce the illusion of support for this model. He started to sound so paranoid that Xy finally exclaimed, “So dark the con of man!” which I thought was pretty funny.

But the thing is, my friend is usually pretty well-informed about such matters.

“I’ve lost all sense of what’s normal.”

I’m famous at last, quoted in an article on the Village Voice website by Anya Kamenetz, a former New Orleanian.

“I’ve lost all sense of what’s normal,” says New Orleans resident Bart Everson. His house, which took on five feet of water, stands at a crossroads in the city’s recovery — one of the points where people staring at destruction must decide whether to stay or go. At the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, he and his wife are back in their Mid-City home, in a neighborhood where fewer than 30 percent of the families own the place they live in and which most visitors might see only on their way to Jazzfest.

Absentee landlords have abandoned more than half the nearby buildings in his district. His neighbors across the street, an elderly African American woman with her three grandchildren, are gone, replaced by someone who seems to be a squatter. Newly arrived Hispanic laborers are paying twice the pre-Katrina rents, yet some have no electricity or gas. Some pile their unbagged garbage in the street. The block around the corner is full of FEMA trailers, and across the street is a grocery store untouched since the storm. Inside, rats scurry over a floor slick with rot.

And yet Everson, who works at Xavier University, and his wife, who teaches school, have no plans to leave. They are renovating their flooded first story. They complained to their City Council member about the garbage and the rats, and used Spanish-language flyers to persuade new neighbors to clean up. And most of all, the Eversons are active in their neighborhood organization, which like dozens around the city is working independently to devise a plan for rebuilding. Their group is proposing to form a community redevelopment corporation to buy blighted houses and provide a path to homeownership for those willing to renovate them.

“We want to give people a reason to move to Mid-City,” Everson says, especially people from more wrecked neighborhoods who can’t afford to buy in the areas that stayed dry. “I really think we are the best of the worst, as far as a flooded neighborhood that’s coming back.”

Also quoted: fellow NOLA bloggers Maitri and Karen Gadbois of Northwest Carrollton.

They also put up a slideshow of my photos. They even paid me ($150) for the photos, a totally unexpected windfall and ego-boost. The photo editor said I should shoot for money. How flattering is that?

Overwhelmed

This past weekend felt like a watershed for my neighborhood, but it also left me feeling overwhelmed.

Our Mid-City recovery planning meeting with Clifton James took place Saturday morning, and it was both uplifting and inspiring and surprising. We’d expected Clifton to make some sort of presentation. Instead, he pretty much turned it over to us, the community of neighbors. I was a little taken aback at first, but one by one people stepped up and reported on the planning work they’d done in various areas like education, housing, healthcare and many others. We only formed these committees a couple weeks ago, and I was amazed and heartened by the amount of thought my neighbors had put into their plans. It was particularly gratifying to me because I’d written the tentative first draft of this plan back at the end of May. Here it is less than a month later and that skeleton has gained flesh and might even come to life.

Planning Meeting

I’m telling you, it almost moved me to tears. I was proud and happy and deeply moved.

I was very skeptical of this process when it first began, and I’m still cautious about the final outcome. But I also think that if we can keep up this level of interest and involvement in the community — and increase it by reaching out to more people — that we can not only dream big, but make our dreams come true. Not by trusting anyone else to do it for us. By doing it ourselves.

The planning meeting was followed by the Festival of Neighborhoods, which was a screaming success. Simply mind-blowing. (It was also very hot and our Midwestern guests pretty much melted.) Then there was the public kickoff meeting for FOLC Sunday afternoon, and the Mid-City recovery planning committees meeting Monday night… It just doesn’t stop.

We had some old friends from out-of-town visiting this weekend: Scott and Justine Evans of Bloomington, Indiana.

Scott & Justine

It was their first trip alone together since their first child was born five years ago. We ate at Coop’s, Jacques-Imo’s, the Parkway Bakery, and Café Atchafalaya, plus had a home-cooked meal (grilled salmon and curried tomato bisque). I took them on the Mandatory Misery Tour. Scott played at the Neutral Ground Open Mic Sunday night (I’ll post media soon). They are very dear friends, but it was difficult to juggle spending time with them and all these meetings. That led to some tension, and I’m afraid Xy got the worst of it. We fought, and it was ugly, and even though she doesn’t read these postings, I want to say it: I’m sorry, baby. Of course I told her in person too.

What an emotional roller coaster.

So yesterday was Monday and I was feeling really taxed. Stressed. Strung out. Overwhelmed. A little hungover too. First thing when I got up, I had to make a bunch of decisions on the renovation of our house. I’d wanted to take the day off but it seemed there were work responsibilities I really had to attend to. I got to work to find a virtual mountain of e-mails. The phone was ringing a lot and there were also lots of people to talk to face-to-face. Even when I ran home for lunch the cell phone kept ringing. So much to do, so much information to process, and everything’s urgent. By the time my afternoon committee meeting rolled around I was having a hard time staying focused. I thought I might even have a Katrina moment right there in the conference room. That would have been embarrassing.

But we had a wonderful dinner last night at Café Atchafalaya. I even skipped the meeting that night. Scott and Justine headed home this morning. Today I’m getting my second wind. It’s not a sprint, I know, I know. It’s a marathon. I’m trying to pace myself.

Mid-City Needs a Plan

I’m going to try to articulate a few ideas knocking around in my head about the recovery of Mid-City.

Remember, the City Council’s planning process is now underway, and the common wisdom seems to be that if we don’t participate, we’ll be flattened.

Also, please realize that I don’t consider myself any kind of expert in urban planning or the like. I’m quite naïve in these matters. I’m just a concerned resident of Mid-City worried that if we don’t articulate a vision and a plan, someone else will, and it may not represent out best interests.
Continue reading “Mid-City Needs a Plan”

Fattening Frogs for Snakes

So I went to the neighborhood planning meeting for Mid-City and Gert Town Saturday morning, and was deeply disturbed by what I saw there. Something doesn’t smell right. It’s not just the lack of publicity for this particular meeting. The whole process seems suspect.

The aim is to come up with a recovery plan for each neighborhood by July, and then a comprehensive plan for the whole city in August. The plan would go to the City Planning Commission and then to the City Council (which body is sponsoring this whole process) and finally to the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

There’s a lot of money at stake here. Billions, I suppose. That federal money I keep hearing about, designated for rebuilding, is coming down to the LRA and they have to decide how to spend it. Established precedent from other disasters dictates that the devastated community should decide how to allocate these funds.

The planning process now under way seems to be designed to give the illusion of community participation — a veneer of legitimacy.

But it’s not the real thing. At least I don’t think it is. How could it be? The timeframe seems unrealistic. They want to cook up a plan for our whole neighborhood in two more meetings, from what I gather. That’s just not possible.

As one guy in the audience said, we’re “fattening frogs for snakes.” I never heard that expression before but it seems to fit. This looks like a scheme to get dollars into pockets, but whose pockets I don’t know.

Of course, I could be wrong. I hope I am. But it’s complicated. I have heard that the LRA will only accept plans for New Orleans that have the City Council’s stamp of approval. And with Saturday’s election, we effectively have a new city council.

I need to figure this out and fast. The pressing question for neighborhood organizations: repudiate or participate?

How I’m Voting in the Runoff

I got my sample ballot. Here’s how I plan to vote in the runoff Saturday:

Clerk, Criminal District Court
Nick Varrecchio, Democrat, Ballot # 21

Mayor, City of New Orleans
“Mitch” Landrieu, Democrat, Ballot # 61

Councilmember(s) at Large
Arnie Fielkow, Democrat, Ballot # 73

Councilmember, District B
Stacy Head, Democrat, Ballot # 92

I don’t have much reason to vote for anyone, but I’ve got plenty reason to vote against the incumbents. I never voted for Nagin before. I’m certainly not going to start now. I’m voting against Nagin because he’s failed to do his job post-Katrina. Garbage doesn’t get picked up. Thousands of flooded cars remain here, there and everywhere. His neighborhood planning process has ground to a complete halt. And I’m voting against Pratt because the City Council’s neighborhood planning process is shaping up to be a big farce.

I can’t say with confidence that the people I’m voting for will do better if they win. But hope springs eternal.

Advice

An architect/planner from Baltimore gave me the following advice at the AIA dinner I attended last nite: “Don’t let a bunch of architects and planners tell you how to rebuild your neighborhood.”

Four Months

According to a story in the morning paper, our neighborhood has four months to prove its viability.

Plan for the Future?

This is according to the new plan from the mayor’s Bring New Orleans Back commission. (Actually it’s supposed to be unveiled this afternoon. I guess someone leaked it to the paper.) It appears to be a compromise between two extremes. Months ago, the Urban Land Institute proposed a “phased redevelopment” plan, which would have held off redevelopment of badly flooded areas, at least for the time being. A lot of people didn’t like that, particularly if they lived in one of those areas. So other folks began to advocate for more of a “market driven” approach: Let people rebuild everywhere, and let the market decide what’s viable. Conservatives seemed to favor the strong government approach, and liberals seemed to favor letting the market decide. Kind of the opposite of what you’d expect. At least that’s my half-baked analysis.

But the new plan is a compromise. It kicks the question out to the various neighborhoods. If they were badly flooded, they will have to prove their viability. They’re using the City Planning Districts; we’re in District #4, most of which was flooded.

So now we’ve got something to prove. I’m not sure exactly how we do that, but I’m thinking the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization will play a role. And I’m pretty confident that our neighborhood will come back, given our central location.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the plan about mass transit and bike paths and so forth, but that will tend to be overlooked right now because all attention will be focused on who can rebuild where.

Of course, this plan is just a proposal. It’s not binding. All sorts of people have to sign off on it. But at first glance, at least, it seems like a “good enough” plan to me. Right now New Orleans desperately needs some clarity of focus for all the efforts that are underway.

I’m sure it has flaws, though. For one thing, what about all the displaced New Orleanians who want to return but who lost their homes and jobs and therefore have no place to live in the city now? How are their voices going to be heard?