Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 28

Dear Folks,

Jesus, we’re in trouble.

The Urban Land Institute has officially said we’d be better off with Huey Long.

The U.L.I., which was brought in as part of a panel of fifty experts recruited by Mayor Nagin eight months ago (a panel that’s since been told to go play in traffic) has announced that if New Orleans doesn’t get its act together soon, it could end up squandering billions and looking like the worst parts of North Philadelphia or Detroit or Baltimore.

They say we need someone in charge. They say we need a plan. They say we need more than the ad hoc efforts of individual homeowners, who are rebuilding here, there and everywhere without any overall design. We need, in short, a Mayor. And we ain’t got one.

And it’s hard to dispute their point.

As we close in on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, this is a city that isn’t bothering to whistle in the dark anymore. Instead, it’s sitting tight, poised for flight, watching the Gulf with sick fascination and living with a huge, if largely ignored, level of stress. Life goes on, of course. We’ve been incredibly busy, making our hurricane plans (food and supplies at home, in the Quarter if we decide to go there, and ready to be stashed in the car). We’ve called Hurricane Guy (www.hurricaneguy.com) who’ll come and install our plywood and dismantle the car-port when and if we need him. And we’re pricing home generators, and have had new locks installed, and I’m putting all my important manuscripts in plastic boxes and stashing them under the bed (some impulses are just plain irrational, so there you go).

And we’ve been working hard on other things. We’re getting ready to re-launch the website for Make New Orleans Home (www.makeneworleanshome.com) the organization we’ve been unofficially hired to rebrand (unofficial since they haven’t paid us any money yet, but we’re hoping). Bill’s getting the studio together, since the roof’s finally been repaired, and I’m working on a new book (about the 1927 flood...hope that piques your curiosity). And we’re helping the Mystic Krewe of Shangri-La organize a fundraiser to be held at our house in October (the theme is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil...gee, appropriate?) And there are expenses to be logged and capital gains to be computed and wills to be redrawn (no, we’re not anticipating drowning...it’s just practicality), and of course there are always great meals to be eaten and great music to be heard and great friends to spend wonderful times with.

This is still the most extraordinary city in the world, and we love it idiotically. But God ALMIGHTY, I’m getting fed up with the current administration!

When the Mayoral run-off was going on last May, you’ll remember, my attitude was wait and see. I was willing to give Mayor Nagin the benefit of the doubt. Well, two months later, that benefit is rapidly dwindling, in the face of what I perceive as a lamentable (if understandable) impulse on Hizzoner’s part to grand-stand on a wider stage. He’s been embraced by the current African-American political machine (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton et al) and while I think he’s got it all over them (Martin Luther King Jr. would vomit at what whores Jesse and Al have become), he (Nagin) seems to have lost interest in...oh, being Mayor of New Orleans. Time goes by. Occasional trial balloons go up (We’ll rebuild City Hall! We’ll build a new Jazz Park, even though we’ve already go one! We’ll make the whole city wireless!) and die with a fart of hot air. Meanwhile City Council President Oliver Thomas, another machine-man on a par with the Jefferson family, has said, and I quote, “We just hope at some point, all the stars will line up” and a rebuilding plan will magically materialize.

The Urban Land Institute has compared our current status to that of Dresden in 1946, and the City Council says it’s putting its faith in the stars.

I’m not sure having a “czar” in charge of redevelopment would solve all our problems (at what point did the term “ czar” come back in favor? Maybe William Safire could tell me) but it surely couldn’t HURT. Right now anyone trying to redevelop property in this city has to go through six different organizations, including the city’s finance authority and its economic development office. Does anyone believe these entities are staffed by cousins and brother’s-in-law of Messrs. Jefferson, Thomas et al? Does the Pope wear little white shoes? C’mon. While Mayor Nagin has said he wants the city to grow from the ground up, deciding its own fate rather than having a plan imposed from above, this sounds to me like a nice excuse for sloth.

I drove out to the lower section of the Lower Ninth Ward two weeks ago, and up by the worst-hit areas of Lakeview and New Orleans East, and those places are still looking as bad as you can possibly imagine. The grass is growing up high now, so it doesn’t look so gray, but the wooden houses have started to sink into themselves and the brick structures are getting choked with weeds. They’re starting to look PERMANENT. Every block or two there are signs of work, piles of gutted trash and sheetrock, but these individual efforts are scattered and unplanned. If we’re not careful, we’re going to end up with areas with just a sprinkling of residents, people who have no real infrastructure, no services, but are living as squatters in their own ruined neighborhoods. And the fact that that’s completely UNNECESSARY strikes me as nothing less than criminal.

Money is going to start rolling in soon, and money, as always, will find its own level. Graft isn’t even a question, and them that’s got will have and them that’s not will lose, and in a world where humanity seems increasingly hell-bent on destroying itself, maybe one SHOULD just shrug and say so what? Sit back, fix yourself a daiquiri, and enjoy the show. You know I can’t do that, you know I’ll keep sputtering (maybe not as badly as Chris Matthews) but it’s so terrible to see an opportunity like this wasted, it absolutely breaks my heart.

This is such a magical city, how did it end up in the hands of those who take such shabby care of it?

Later,

Ad’n

Monday, July 10, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 27

Dear Folks,

Ten and a half months ago, when New Orleans and the world were first starting to absorb the scope of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, there was a lot of talk about how the storm had changed this city forever.

Well, DUH. D’ya think? A major cataclysm, unimaginable destruction, and a government that was at best overwhelmed and at worst clueless (were those two mutually exclusive?)...yeah, do you think all those things could be construed as precipitating ONE BIG DAMN CHANGE?

Okay, so now we’ve absorbed it, or we’re in the process of absorbing it. New Orleans, now five weeks into the 2006 hurricane season, is starting to realize with a dull, constant ache that no, this isn’t going to go away. No, the rest of the world isn’t going to reform and suddenly become more enlightened or more compassionate or more far-sighted. (I apologize here to all the people in the world who ARE enlightened and compassionate and far-sighted). If there are stages of grief, then these may be numbness, panic, determination, anger, and sorrow. You start off in sheer disbelief. This simply CAN’T have happened. Then you’re scared, scared to death, of bogies and real threats alike. Then you set your shoulder to the wheel and become very practical: you do things, make lists, check things off. And you’re mad. Mad as hell. You figure out who’s to blame, and maybe it’s easier if you have a lot of real, viable targets to blame (the Army Corps of Engineers, federal, state and local bureaucracies, cronyism and graft). Maybe that’s better than blaming God or yourself or the thing you lost (whether it was a loved one or a home or a city). Maybe anger’s less corrosive if it can be focused out. And here in New Orleans right now, we can indulge ourselves to the hilt in righteous anger.

It doesn’t do any good, but we can sure do it.

And finally I guess you come to accept the fact that this cannonball of sadness in your gut isn’t going anywhere for a long, long time. I think that’s where a lot of people down here are right now. It’s heartbreaking to see it, but I guess it’s a necessary part of the process. We don’t do our worst weeping right after a tragedy, after all. It sneaks up on us six, nine, twelve months later, and punches us in the heart.

But there are a lot of people who were affected by this tragedy who are still stuck in the first, second, third, and fourth stages of grief while already absorbing the fifth. Those are the people who are still homeless.

I’m wresting with a lot of ideas here. First of all, there’s my knee-jerk liberalism (alluded to in a previous blog) that says everyone deserves some kind of a shelter in the world. Even if you’re broke, even if you’re a dead-beat, one of Shaw’s “undeserving poor”...even Alfred P. Doolittle doesn’t deserve to sleep on the street in a cardboard box. There were a lot of very poor people in New Orleans prior to Katrina who lived in public housing, and yes, those places were generally awful: grim brick barracks surrounded by dirt yards and cracked sidewalks, cut off from the surrounding neighborhoods by an iron-gray force field of contempt and fear. Those places were bad, and they bred badness: crime, drug abuse, gangs, and despair. The storm punched holes in these “poor houses” which only exacerbated the decay that was already present, and there are many, many people in this city now who are begging, pleading that these pest holes be torn down.

Except. Except what do you do with all the people who used to live there, who want to come home? They’re being thrown out of their FEMA lodgings in other cities, they certainly can’t afford to pay the exorbitant rents being charged in this city right now, and even if you give them expanded vouchers, all the money in the world won’t buy the thousands of apartments that simply aren’t there. The bald fact of the matter is there isn’t that much housing stock available in New Orleans AT ALL. We’re in the position of telling these people they’re better off having nowhere to live rather than living in these rat-holes...except these rat-holes were where they kept their clothes and their toys and their photographs and their families. These rat-holes were home. Alright, home was fairly lousy. But at least it enabled these people to have a roof over their heads and a base from which to go to their (probably minimum wage, and still necessary) jobs, and a place to hang out with their friends, and a place to live in the city they dearly loved.

Because that’s the point. The people who lived in the St. Bernard housing project and the Lafitte project and the C. J. Peete project and the B. W. Cooper project loved this city every bit as much as any rich person does. Maybe even more so, since if they didn’t love this city, they had far less incentive to stay here and live like animals.

Alright, a lot of the displaced residents who are barred from returning home may not be valuable members of society. But a lot of them are. And a lot of them are saying that ANY home here is better than no home at all.

And I can see their point.

So what should New Orleans do? As always, there are numerous opinions. There’s a guy who goes to every City Council meeting and decries ethnic cleansing... unfortunately he’s a professional tarot reader who doesn’t live anywhere near public housing. There’s Endesha Juakali, who was briefly the chairman of the Housing Authority of New Orleans under Mayor Barthelemy, until he was accused of mismanagement and forced off the board. He likes to attend and yell obscenities at the people currently trying to sort out this mess. There’s Bob Tannen, an urban planner, who says the Vieux Carre was once considered a slum and is now considered a treasure. He says the public housing complexes also have historical value...although what value those grim bunkers have is beyond me, besides testifying to historical misery. The idea of ghettoizing the poor is one which remains a large, vivid blot on the history of 20th century urban land use, and one which isn’t going away anytime soon.

And meanwhile the housing complexes in New Orleans sit. Empty. Moldy. Rotting. They remain concentrated areas of blight, which, by their very neglect, may be becoming or may already have become unsalvageable.

Which may be entirely in keeping with some people’s secret or not so secret desires. After all, sometimes to accomplish your goals all you have to do is do nothing until the problem goes away.

I think there are more than a few people here right now who wish the problem of poor people, or black people, or poor black people, would just go away. They wish there was some way to staff our restaurants and have our trash collected and have our houses cleaned by upwardly mobile other people with good hearts and a strong work-ethic, without having to deal with...well, THOSE other people. Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of how many of those other people who did those jobs pre-Katrina were also hard-working and good-hearted, and had the misfortune to be forced to live in those warrens. And let’s leave aside the issue of machine politicians (also alluded to in a previous posting) who may have had a stake in keeping their neighborhoods as run down as possible. Let's leave aside the whole imponderable of whether the Housing Authority of New Orleans, if it had been run better, would have been able to avoid ceding its power to the federal office of Housing and Urban Development. Or whether HUD really understands or really cares about what makes New Orleans special, and how we can or cannot do right by the people who are still gone.

The fact of the matter remains that THOSE people are eventually going somewhere. The drug addicts and criminals may very well come back here, because there will always be stuff to loot and people to shoot no matter how ruined the city is. Meanwhile the working poor, the barely-working poor, and the out-or-work but well-meaning poor, will be pushed elsewhere, to silt up in some other public housing enclave...in Houston, or Atlanta, or God knows where. New Orleans will survive, and remain New Orleans, but at a considerable loss.

I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that not everyone in public housing was jobless, or shiftless, or hopeless, and if we let them back they might find a way to contribute to this city, even living in sub-standard conditions. Right now we’re taking away their homes and their hope, and that makes me feel ashamed.

Later,

Ad’n

Notes from Atlantis 26

Dear Folks,

I know, I know...as I've said before after a long absence, my apologies for not writing sooner! Parks/Bowman Productions has been busily at work (and I'm also writing a new book...like you wouldn't know THAT!) so the first month of hurricane season (yikes!) flew by. Then we had our pal Eric Zwemer in for a couple of weeks visiting from L.A., and we took the opportunity to be tourists: checked out the Aquarium, visited the New Orleans Museum of Art, heard music, went to Galatoire’s, cooked steaks, went to Mardi Gras World, and spent a good deal of time just lounging around in the pool...what bliss.

However, I’ve not been completely idle, and I do feel like I’m coming to understand more about this fascinating, unique, maddening, beautiful, charming and deeply damaged city. It’s the most amazing place on earth, but my GOD and the little fishes is it screwed up!

To give you just one good example: The Case of the Missing Chryslers.

Okay, you need a little background here. Right after the hurricane, Daimler-Chrysler donated forty trucks and SUVs to southeastern Louisiana for use by policemen and fire fighters. Value: well over a million dollars (the fact that this works out to $25,000+ per vehicle is only appalling to me because I’m over fifty and can remember when cars cost less). Daimler-Chrysler enjoyed a nice tax write-off and some free publicity, but still, the gesture was kind.

But some of those vehicles looked pretty damn sweet to our local City Council, and at least one council member, the Garden District's own (former) representative Renee Gill-Pratt, decided to take one. Actually, she took four. All the other council members got two each to distribute to a “worthy” cause (meaning whoever they owed a plum), but Ms. Gill-Pratt got to double-dip because she’s the protegee of our esteemed local congressman, William (bucks-in-the-freezer) Jefferson. Jefferson, you see, was in charge of getting the donation to Louisiana in the first place, and he wanted to make sure his gal pal got her fair share.

Renee, being a generous woman, gave two SUVs to a non-profit organization run by Mose Jefferson, who happens to be Rep. William Jefferson’s brother. She donated one other to an outfit called Care Unlimited (founder: Bennie Jefferson), which, following her defeat in May, hired her as an associate. She kept the fourth for her own use. Now, of course, since she’s working for Care Unlimited, she’s claiming she donated that car to them too. But Care Unlimited can’t complain too much that she “borrowed” the vehicle for the previous eight months.

After all, over the past twelve years, Gill Pratt and other Jefferson allies have steered at least 5.5.million in public money to these two non-profits run by the Jefferson machine...er, family. Right now, the state budget STILL has $450,000 set aside for these two cash cows.

And need I say that neither one of them has ever done a goddamn thing for anyone but the Jeffersons?

This would all be the actions of charming rogues, if it weren’t for the fact that this city is still DYING for lack of money. Vast sums are in the pipe-line, but this isn’t giving anyone a warm feeling about how well they’ll end up being spent.

And it’s made me think about something our friend Bret Littlehales asked me last December, while we were driving around shooting photographs of the city: why, in New Orleans, is so much power held by politicians of fairly modest means, rather than by the truly rich?

After all, we’re not talking huge sums here. 5.5 million is a large aggregate, but that’s over twelve years: barely $450,000 a year! Ken Lay stole that much in a week! The machine politicians in this city, the Jeffersons, Oliver Thomas, Rev. Charles Southall and others, aren’t raking in big-time scores from any single source. They still command far less personal wealth than most major developers and shipping executives and CEOs and even a well-placed landowner like Bob Edmundson. But they control the process and they wield a hugely disproportionate hand over what happens, or doesn’t happen, down on the neighborhood level. And I think I’ve finally figured out why.

They control the Federal (and State) Pity Machine.

Because pity, ironically enough, can lead to largess, and largess, when codified by federal and state entitlement programs and government grants and low-income loans and every bromide from the Great Society to No Child Left Behind, can lead to a hell of a lot of free money being sent down to blighted neighborhoods--money which can be diverted, stolen, held up and passed around by those in the right precinct at the right time with the right relatives and (God help me) the right skin color.

This APPALLS me. I think you all know (and I think I alluded to it in my last blog) what a knee-jerk liberal I am. I DETEST the idea of pre-judging anyone by any means, and I spent a long time and lots of hard work and arguably the best years of my life writing a novel about how slavery and race-hatred poison everyone and everything they touch.

So I’m nauseated at the idea of even alluding to someone’s malfeasance now in terms of their race, since that kind of thinking can so easily shade over into a presumption of guilt, or worse an “oh, they’re all like that” attitude.

But I’m even more appalled by the idea that African-Americans could so batten and feed on their own. I suppose it makes sense that individual victimhood doesn’t automatically lead to sainthood, and self-righteousness may even enter into it--an attitude of “I suffered prejudice, so now I’m entitled to some reward”. I suppose in a twisted way that makes sense to some people. It just seems horribly true to me that there’s a layer of professional bureaucrats and hangers-on and politicians in this city who have no stake whatsoever in seeing that their districts improve, since that might turn off the Pity Tap. Far better to allow crime to flourish (by benign neglect if not outright patronage); far better to allow housing stock to deteriorate while you “stick it to the man”(who’s trying, true, to get rich by rebuilding); far better to cry “Racism!” at anyone who tries to stop you, than to attempt to grapple with the city’s problems and make a stab at ending them.

It’s ghastly.

And meanwhile those who used to live here in public housing still sit in Houston and elsewhere. Meanwhile teenagers get shot to death five at a time in Center City, and we still need the National Guard. Meanwhile the rest of the country smiles at our Third World corruption and shrugs us off, and some (I’ll admit) in this city DO say “they’re all like that” and “Well, Ray Nagin wanted a chocolate city...I guess he got his wish.”

It’s not just in New Orleans that this kind of thing happens, I know, and it’s not just now, but it seems to me especially virulent to have vultures pecking at this city after it’s already been brought so spectacularly to its knees.

Who knows? Maybe the hurricane will still change things. At least this whole matter’s being investigated.

Then again, Betty Jefferson (William’s sister) is still our tax assessor. Maybe I ought to stroll down to her office and give her a bribe?

Later,

Ad’n