Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Monday, July 10, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 26

Dear Folks,

I know, I 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 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, 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?




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