Sunday, October 15, 2006

What is the narrative of New Orleans?

What is the narrative of New Orleans? That's what was on my mind as I left the Community Support Organization advisory board meeting in the City Council chamber last Thursday. I was thinking about how much the narrative of my life has changed since Katrina. As I drove past block after block, mile after mile, of darkened streets and abandoned homes, I thought about how incomprehensibly and dramatically the narrative of New Orleans has changed since Katrina. What were we before? What has changed? Where are we going from here?

We can answer the first two questions, but a significant part of the ongoing process of grieving, distress, and depression that plagues New Orleans residents, is that as much as we are all trying to do on a daily basis to bring our city back, nobody at any level of leadership or representation has a narrative to tell about the future of this city. Nobody is even offering the poetry we need to hear to fortify us for the daily battles we have to fight to carry us, our city -- and indeed, our nation -- forward. I say our nation, because, as I've said elsewhere, as New Orleans goes, so goes the rest of the nation.

This is why I continue to flag George W. Bush and C. Ray Nagin as boneless chickens. Would either one of them wish to bring this city back whole, in a rebuilding process that is fast, efficient, transparent, and equitable, it would be done. That they don't -- that they don't speak to these issues for longer than is necessary for a photo op -- speaks the truth about their intentions.

We see that hypocrisy on the ground here in New Orleans, but do other people around the country see it? Do other people recognize the fact that New Orleans is today the most fiery hotbed of civic activism and neighborhood organization anywhere in the country? There's nothing we couldn't accomplish as citizens and neighbors if we didn't have to go through the layers of "Bunglering" bureaucracy to get the money that's needed to finance the rebuilding of the city. Maybe every city should have to suffer a natural disaster the worst engineering disaster in history every once in a while! It forces us to discover strengths we didn't know we had.

Back to the planning process, the last time I saw Concordia in action, it was such a fiasco I don't know why Steven "Bungler" Bingler wasn't fired on the spot. My better nature tried to withhold judgment, but I found myself growing increasingly contemptuous of Bingler's frequent apologies and appeals for patience. Bingler likes to say that "chaos" is part of the democratic process (HT: Alan). Really? I wonder if Bingler would have gotten the contract to plan the citywide recovery, or would have been able to keep the contract, if democracy were part of the process. And democracy can't be orderly? In fact, democracy is an extremly orderly process for determining the will of people with widely differing views, following strict rules for how problems will be resolved, with open and public participation the essential ingredient for its success. When it became painfully apparent that Bingler couldn't even plan a meeting in an appropriate space, I grew extremely suspicious that he'd be able to combine dozens of neighborhood rebuilding plans into one citywide plan. More importantly, the planning process has to be an expression of what residents want to see happen in their neighborhoods. Instead, inclusion of people in the decision-making process seems to be an afterthought.

Inclusion of the hundreds of thousands of still-diplaced residents in the planning process is still a thorny issue which Bingler hasn't grasped, and I wonder if that isn't part of his planning strategy. In response to a question about what the future footprint of the city will be, Bingler said:

I think that the process is going to define itself. There's a lot of input that's gonna come from surveys. Troy mentioned earlier about the outreach to all the residents about who's coming back, where they're coming back to, and that data is gonna be collected, and what we're gonna be doing is actually developing a map -- a series of maps -- that are defining in real time how New Orleans is coming back, and we'll be planning to those criteria -- the real criteria.

The big question, then, is which snapshot in time will be used to plan the city's future? As time goes by, as Bingler and Nagin and Bush and Blanco continue to fail this city's residents, well sure, of course residents are inclined to become frustrated. If they're rational people, who aren't willing to risk their future well-being on a bad crop of "Bunglering" politicians, they'll accept their destinies elsewhere. And then -- because New Orleans will always exist in one form or another -- who will be left to take advantage of the development opportunities made available by the vast terrain of abandoned homes?

Is that what Nagin was thinking about when he became a partner in a real estate development company with his campaign finance director, David White?

One of the most egregious examples of failure in the administration of New Orleans' recovery, will be the loss of tens, or hundreds, of millions of dollars in Gulf Opportunity Zone tax credits. Jeff Thomas has been championing this issue, but no one seems to be hearing him. Private developers who wish to compete for GO Zone tax credits to build affordable housing face an October 20th deadline to submit their plans. Parishes other than Orleans which are farther along in their planning process offer a more competitive opportunity for those developers to win credits. New Orleans may not be able to utilize the $700 million in GO Zone funds if the October 20th deadline passes. Meanwhile, the city still has no citywide plan, or neighborhood consensus, for affordable housing, other than bulldozing the existing housing developments. That the City Council doesn't "get it", that Concordia doesn't "get it", that the Unified New Orleans Plan organization doesn't "get it", was most painfully apparent in a round of discussions at the CSO advisory board meeting. Nobody expressed clarity on the issue. Nobody put forward a reigning philosophy about affordable housing.

Meanwhile, affordable housing is becoming a major scarcity in New Orleans (TP map/chart). Think about what that could do to the universities and businesses (Tulane is the number one employer in the city), let alone what it is already doing to residents who weren't homeowners.

At yesterday's round of citywide planning district meetings, the very fact that all of the meetings were scheduled to take place in a single day, and each meeting was strictly limited to just two hours, continues to raise questions about the fundamental ability of Concordia to, at a most basic planning level, simply organize meetings. Everyone complained -- residents who have interests in more than one neighborhood, and the planners working with more than one neighborhood association -- about the fact that they couldn't be in two places at one time.

Then, there's the basic element of proofreading that ought to be visited. Did UNOP/Community Support Foundation/Concordia really intend to plan meetings at 1:00 in the morning?



Of course they didn't. For those who use the internet (a minority among the population of displaced New Orleanians I suspect), the meeting times were listed correctly in the first meeting announcement, but it was offered in a downloadable Microsoft Word document -- a nice way to pick up a virus. The PDF document posted later had the wrong times listed. And what about all the people who didn't go to the UNOP Web site before the Saturday meeting? How did they find out about those critical meetings? As resident Pamela Bingham said at the CSO advisory board meeting on Thursday, the communications part of the UNOP process is pitiful.

I'm looking again at that peculiar UNOP logo. It's occurred to me before -- are people holding up the planning process, or is it falling down on them?



That's just about all I can squeeze into this Sunday morning post -- except one last item. I often compose these posts over several days. This one started on Friday, while listening to WWL. A caller on his cell phone fire off rounds at squirrels which were broadcast over the air on Bob Delgiorno and Monica Pierre's show. How quaint! Remind me again: Is this really the "official" news station in the event of an emergency? The gold standard of information about the recovery of a city at its lowest point in history? What a pathetic excuse for an FCC license! I don't know why I torture myself for the few crumbs of useful information I get from the station. It's definitely a case of least objectionable programming sometimes.

I'm off to the New Orleans Film Festival to watch Katrina shorts.

Sunday morning music:
Homenatge al Misteri d'Elx
La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Montserrat Figueras, Jordi Savall

Tags: | | | | | Bush is a moron | Impeach Bush | George W Bush | Bush | Worst President Ever | Ray Nagin | Worst Mayor Ever | Recall Ray Nagin | | | Katrina Dissidents | Failure Is Not An Option | Katrina One Year Anniversary

13 Comments:

At 10/15/2006 01:12:00 PM, Blogger velvet_rut said...

"Nobody is even offering the poetry we need to hear to fortify us for the daily battles we have to fight to carry us, our city -- and indeed, our nation -- forward. I say our nation, because, as I've said elsewhere, as New Orleans goes, so goes the rest of the nation."


I worry that you go to too many "meetings."

If you have a chance, head out to A Studio in the Woods at 4 pm on one of the remaining Saturdays and Sundays in October to be part of the ArtSpot Production "Beneath the Strata/Disappearing."

I went yesterday and experienced a profound emotional release and healing + "fortification" that I didn't even know that I needed.

I'll also give a bump to _Yawp: A Journal of Poetry and Art_ No. 3 (Subtitle: Who's your Dada?) -- a.k.a. The Katrina Issue. It's availablefor $7 at the Gold Mine Saloon on Thursday nights or via mail from Dave Brinks, Trembling Pillow Press, 907 St. Peter, NOLA 70116.

Dave's collection _The Caveat Onus_ is quite remarkable, too, in its Katrina-fied properties.

This coming Wednesday at 7 pm at the Carroll Gallery at the Woldenberg Art Center @ Newcomb/Tulane, Newcomb Institute DirectorRebecca Mark will read some of her Katrina poems.

And what about the Dirty Dozen Brass Band? What's Going On?

And what about the Backporch Revolution folks?

All over NOLA and in the diaspora artists are turning their work to understanding and healing. Moreover, artists are flowing through the city and her diaspora to help facilitate and to stand in solidarity with us.

Sonia Sanchez was in town this weekend at the Aboken Poetry Fest, for example.

The Film Fest is screening lots of "Katrina" work by a great diversity of local filmmakers.



Maybe I'm taking your comment too literally.



TURN OFF WWL RADIO, MY FRIEND! It will just make you crazy anymore. IMO their talk jocks came completely off the rails sometime around Mardi Gras. I quit listening in psychic self-defense. The half-hour I spent last month listening to callers and talkies defend Vince Marinello is the last time I will ever tune in.

 
At 10/15/2006 03:51:00 PM, Anonymous Karen said...

Your blog is the anti WWL, Steve Bingler will not save us, nor will Ray or Kathleen. We will save us.

You have identified the lack of information as something that cause profound despair and frustration. Keep seeking information and you will find the answer to your own despair.

Shine the light,be the poetry. Art Saves Lives.

 
At 10/15/2006 05:23:00 PM, Anonymous Sophmom said...

"New Orleans is today the most fiery hotbed of civic activism and neighborhood organization anywhere in the country?"

This is apparent even from afar. You and Karen and Ray and all of your friends continue to show the rest of us what citizenship means. You go to meetings, clean up yards, gut the houses of stangers, because it needs doing, this rebuilding of a great city from the people up.

 
At 10/15/2006 05:46:00 PM, Blogger scout prime said...

I think your comments on the narrative are very important. I have no idea what it is at least on the national level. What do people think or know? Who knows....there is practically zero polling on New Orlean/Gulf Coast. I know what I know but have no idea what my fellow Americans know and think. The narrative I think evolves/shifts and right now seems to be a time period of a particular lack of definition or clarity in what has always been a muddied up "story." (pardon that word as I know it is your lives)

 
At 10/15/2006 07:04:00 PM, Blogger Mark said...

We are writting the narrative, and sometimes to poetry. As one poster pointed out, artists are among the returned (and the diaspora) and are telling the narrative of our flooded past. Narrative and poetry, visual and physical arts, all are being created out of the aftermath.

What I take you to mean by narrative is a communicated vision: a city so big, people get home in this way, they live here and there in certain kinds of houses by such and such a date.

It is what is meant, I think, when people say "what is the plan?" The plan is not a spiral bound, four color document. The plan is either the vision Nagin offered (however poorly) on MLK Day, or it is the vision offered by Reiss to the Wall Street Journal in September, 2006. Or it is something in between, something better than just a return to the Nagin's status quo antediluvian or Jimmy Riess Uptown polite and American efficient version of ethnic cleansing.

There are secret agendas, narratives that are not being shared outside of the initiated. It would be naive to believe otherwise. Either City Hall is staffed by a post-apocolyptic undead of a sort not yet imagined by the makers of B-moves, or they are people with a plan, one to dangerous and radical to share with us. We see the first hints of tha tthat in writings of Dambala and others are who investigating the noises and motion behind the still closed curtains, but we all lack the resources to uncover the real story, and are left to the incompetency that is becoming WWL, or the whims of the publisher of the Picayune, who is fulfilling his obligations to his class--by keeping from us the unpleasant parts of how money might be made in or from our citiy--in the same way every publisher before him for the last century.

Is Bingler an incompetent, or is the entire GNOP process simply a Potemkin planning process, masking the real intentions of our leadership. This is my opinion. I think it can still be stopped, or rather corrected, because too many people involved in the process. Something has been unleashed that cannot be easily put back in the bottle, and GNOP needs to be told that in no uncertain terms: there is no going back.

 
At 10/15/2006 07:49:00 PM, Blogger Schroeder said...

VR & Mark, I respect the poetry of artists who are contributing a valuable narrative from a citizen's perspective. I still want to hear that leadership from our public servants. I remember how, when Mitch Landrieu spoke, he reminded me of John F. Kennedy. Of course (while I'm not accusing Landrieu of this), such leadership could be used for the wrong things, but it's the responsibility of a balance of powers in government, and an active press and citizenry to check the power of politicians.

WWL? Well, unfortunately, if one wants to hear, minimally, the official PR about what's happening, it's the best place to go -- only by default, since, out of how many dozens of radio and television stations, WWL is the only one with a local talk show format around the clock.

Of course, despair is not the totality of our experience Karen. It is, however, the job of bloggers, I think, to artfully use hyperbole when necessary to bring focus to issues that aren't being treated by the mainstream press. I, for example, would like to see Steve Bingler and the Concordia contract disposed. It would at least be nice, as you suggested, for them to start doing the things we ask of them if we're going to accept the UNOP process as the last great hope for a citywide plan.

Thanks Sophmom. As you know, however, citizens can't do it all by themselves. We need the money and the institutional support. That's what's so aggravating.

Secret agendas Mark? Why, what ever are you talking about? Good point. There is *that* narrative. Incompetence does have its rewards.

 
At 10/15/2006 10:59:00 PM, Blogger bayoustjohndavid said...

I'm not really sure where the tie-in between comprehensive planning and CDBG and Go-zone came from. Some people I talked to at Rising Tide thought that the state came up with that requirement,I thought the federal government insisted on it. At any rate, it puts N.O. at an unavoidable disadvantage. If you read the City Business article, New Orleans would have been at a disadvantage under the best of circumstances. Nagin didn't say a word when the LHFA came up with the guidelines, but he warns us about the rest of the state trying to get money that should go to N.O. He'd rather run against Baton Rouge than govern New Orleans. He should shift out of campaign mode, but I think he's still campaigning--to keep control over reconstruction and reconstrucion spending.

The City Business article didn't mention the staff shortage at the City Planning commission, but I couldn't help but wonder. Of course, Nagin says there's no problem there.

 
At 10/16/2006 09:00:00 AM, Blogger velvet_rut said...

Like you, I am boggled by the complete lack of ... competence? presence? humanity? where to begin? on the part of our elected "leadership."

I've been thinking a lot about what it means that the very historiography of New Orleans is characterized by conspiracy theory and open secrets. We are so proud of our masquerades and the power/erotics of that which lurks "unknown," but when and how do we stop lying to one another? How do we even approach these centuries of lies, malevolence, bad faith, corruption, and oppressive practice?? Can we ever come clean and relax?

So what poetry do you want to hear?

As Eve Ensler reminds us,"We are who is coming." (MP3/12.3 MB)

I recommend her brand new book Insecure at Last: Losing It in Our Security Obsessed World. She's learned a lot in her decade travelling though war, disaster, and various zones of inhumanity.

The last chapter is about New Orleans.

What do we *want* the narrative of New Orleans to be? How about "New Orleans: The city that recognized bullets as frozen tears"?
How about "New Orleans: The city that asserted its humanity"? How about that one? How about "New Orleans: The city that inhumanity forgot"?

If any of y'all are going Film Festing tonight, I suggest catching Rebecca Snedeker's documentary "By Invitation Only." It's screening at 7 pm at the CAC. It's a brave film.


MONDAY, OCTOBER 16

7:00PM SPECIAL PRESENTATION

BY INVITATION ONLY
Join us for a New Orleans Film Festival presentation as New Orleans filmmaker Rebecca Snedeker explores a family tradition to discover the inner workings of the old-line Carnival societies and debutante balls of Mardi Gras. She takes an insider's look at the pageantry and asks: what does it really mean to be the queen of the masked men? Directed by Rebecca Snedeker. Documentary. 56 minutes. LOUISIANA FILMMAKER. Director Rebecca Snedeker will be in attendance.

 
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