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:
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