Dirty South Bureau

April 21, 2008

Ya Heard Me?

Filed under: Class,Media,New Orleans Politics,Other,public housing,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 4:51 pm

It’s sad to think that while I was busy working and sleeping during the vast majority of films at the New Orleans Human Rights Film Festival, I easily could have missed Saturday night’s premier of Ya Heard Me?, a groundbreaking documentary on Bounce.

This movie blew my mind. It starts pretty much as one would expect— gratuitous booty dancing shots, interviews with various artists and producers. But during the course of the film, it slowly peels away the layers not only to reveal Bounce as a highly original and powerful artistic expression of a people, but also to delve into the sexual politics of Bounce— from artist Mia X’s straight-up feminist lyrics to the entire “Sissy” scene, with artists like Katey Red making Bounce that is an expression of homosexual, trans culture.

The exploration of dance in the movie also moves beyond simple booty shaking to show a highly sophisticated form of dance that looks remarkably similar to traditional African dances, expressed in a contemporary, urban context. One has to wonder if the filmmakers intentionally led the viewers from stereotyped scenes deeper in slowly, to emphasize the contradictions between mainstream (often white) perceptions of Bounce and the real thing.

But perhaps the most powerful thread to run through the movie is Bounce as music that came out of New Orleans’ public housing developments. Many of the scenes are shot in and around projects such the Magnolia (CJ Peete), Calliope (BW Cooper) and Melpomene developments (large sections of Calliope and all of Magnolia are now piles of rubble). The term “project music” is repeatedly used by musicians and producers to describe Bounce, and it is a powerful irony to see the celebration of this culture at the moment it is most threatened, which the film also explores, tracking the displacement of artists such as Cheeky Blakk.

Big shout out to Jordan Flaherty, an organizer of the New Orleans Human Rights Film Festival, for making this possible. Jordan struck a powerful chord in his introduction to the film, hinting at the importance of recognizing the range of cultural achievements of this city, particularly when they are left out by the self-appointed arbiters of New Orleans music culture such as (he did not mention them by name) WWOZ.

Incidentally, I’ve heard rumors that OZ has finally grudgingly acknowledged the cultural importance of New Orleans Hip-Hop and begun letting certain DJ’s play Hip-Hop and Bounce. I have yet to hear any of that on the station. Last thing I knew OZ had a strict no Hip-Hop policy. To quote DJ Davis “When they said community music, I didn’t realize they meant the community of white Yankees who listen to black music from forty years ago instead of the community of thirty-year old black people who actually live here and make music.”

So for the time being, Bounce, instead of having non-profit and foundation backing like Jazz and other “acceptable” forms of music, is sold out of trunks at gas stations.

Little changes. It’s important to remember that Jazz was originally as unacceptable to mainstream white culture as Hip-hop is, that white musicians were drawn to it (like Hip-hop), that in many ways it was co-opted, and that now that it is no longer considered a threat to mainstream white culture it is acceptable. I have to wonder if Hip-hop (and Bounce) will follow a similar trajectory.

Yaheardmefilm.com

Nolahumanrights.org

April 15, 2008

Mixed Income

Looking back recently, I’ve realized that in all the rush to fight the impending demolition of public housing as we know it in New Orleans, that I and others have never really taken the time to explain the specifics of why we oppose the demolitions. Maybe it just seemed to obvious that the demolition of hundreds of units of livable housing was simply too absurd and too wrong to even bother to explain given the institutionalized displacement of over one hundred thousand residents of New Orleans and the severity of the housing crisis that we are experiencing.

But it is worth explaining, and the details are important.

First, let me be clear that I speak only on behalf of myself and that others in the movement to stop the demolitions may disagree with me on some or all of these points.

Some may be surprised to hear that both I and some other allies of public housing residents agree that mixed income developments are a better strategy for public housing than the old, Fordist warehousing of poor people. Yes, you heard me right— concentrating large numbers of poor people in massive developments may have seemed OK in the 1930’s- 1950’s, but I don’t believe it is a good idea today.

As a caveat, I don’t think concentration of poverty is at the root of the social ills that policymakers describe in their rush to destroy public housing. Policymakers are frequently confusing the problems of concentration of poverty with the problems of poverty itself. For instance, there is violence around the drug trade in low-income communities in many American cities. This is true if the poor are concentrated or spread out; in fact since the mixing up of returning New Orleanians post-storm there is generally more violence, reflected in our higher per-capita murder rate. No amount of moving people around in the shell game that we call our housing policy has changed that.

Why then, are we opposed to the demolition of public housing if it results in mixed-income redevelopments? First, because it doesn’t.

There is simply no reason to believe that any of the entities involved in the redevelopment of public housing— developers, the assorted opportunistic non-profits or HANO/HUD— have any intention of allowing the vast majority of the poor who lived in these developments pre-storm to return to the new developments. Developers like Columbia Residential, who has the contract for the St. Bernard Redevelopment, are corporations like any other and exist to turn a profit. It is simply more profitable to skew the numbers to create more “market-rate” units, and it is easier to sell, lease and rent these units for larger profits if there are fewer poor people living near by.

These sort of mixed-income developments could potentially work if there was stringent government oversight of the process to assure compliance with an income mix that allowed the majority of low-income residents to return. This approach appears to have worked in such cities as San Francisco, where the Valencia Gardens Development appears to be a successful HOPE VI redevelopment.

However, can anyone argue that known crooks like Alphonso Jackson- who resigned amid an FBI investigation, or the HANO bureaucrats— who had their office taken over in 2002 for massive mismanagement— are effective stewards of the public good?

More importantly, we watched this process go down in River Gardens, the St. Thomas Redevelopment. An excellent master’s thesis by Brod Bagert Jr., now an organizer with the Jeremiah Group, lays out much of what happened when the foxes guarded the hen house. In a nutshell, Pres Kabacoff of HRI, the developer, fudged the numbers and the New Orleans City Council, as now, looked the other way.

There is no reason to believe that homes in these mixed-income redevelopments will ever materialize for the vast majority of public housing residents.

(Side note- Kabacoff is now trying to redevelop his own image with the assistance of a white voodoo-priestess girlfriend and a new development on St. Claude in the 8th ward that includes a police substation and a food co-op housed in a “healing center”. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.)

Second, even given the laughable contention that any significant numbers of public housing residents might be allowed to return to the new developments, there is still the issue of time. It will be years before any of these redevelopments are rebuilt; some units may be opened as soon as 2009. So for every public housing resident who returns to a “mixed-income” redevelopment, there is first 4-6 years of unnecessary displacement.

Scott Keller, assistant to Alphonso Jackson, called the post-Katrina situation an “opportunity” in 2006. I again feel the need to tactfully explain to all the big wigs and suits out there that this was not an “opportunity” for the tens of thousands of men, women and children evacuated from public housing, this was a disaster. Losing your home and having to find a new one for 4-6 years in a city where rent has more than doubled is not an “opportunity”.

If there was even a shred of consideration for the residents of public housing, redevelopment would have occurred in stages, with residents moved back in to a majority of easily cleaned-out units while the redevelopment occurred one development at a time. But there wasn’t.

The situation of Charity Hospital is very similar. If LSU Health Sciences Center had any concern for the low-income residents of the city who depended on Charity, they would have allowed the crew of military and hospital personnel to re-open Charity while they work on their “dream” hospital. But they don’t. In the case of both Charity and public housing, the people of New Orleans are pawns to be swept aside in the grandiose dreams of the powerful.

Lord knows pubic housing in New Orleans needed an overhaul; most significantly some maintenance of otherwise excellent buildings. How about keeping the developments but reintroducing the street grid, as was recommended in District 4 of the Unified New Orleans Plan?. Frankly, I would support an overhaul of public housing if it was done with real involvement of the residents and a plan to bring back those who wanted to return while redevelopment occurred in stages.

What is happening right now is not an overhaul, it is wanton destruction of not only buildings but lives. It is a totally unnecessary human rights catastrophe, and makes a mockery of the concept of mixed income.

April 1, 2008

Alphonso Jackson’s Resignation: Too Little, Too Late

Filed under: Class,Race,The Feds,We Are Not OK — christian @ 3:48 pm

HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson stepped down yesterday. If I am saddened by this news, it is only because he resigned after doing so much damage to the lives of so many men, women and children in the city of New Orleans, and that he was not stopped earlier.

It is ironic that Jackson’s resignation comes less than a week after the final accomplishment of his wantonly destructive tenure at HUD- the granting by the city of New Orleans of a demolition permit for the Lafitte Housing Development.

But not to fear; Jackson losing his job will likely not be a time of instability, like it would be if you or I lost our employment. I am sure Jackson’s friends at Columbia Residential, Jackson’s former employer and the company he awarded with a contract to oversee the redevelopment (read: destruction) of the St. Bernard Development, will not allow Jackson to see tough times. Like most former cabinet-level officials, Jackson will be free to return to the world of private industry which did him so well on his way to the top.

There are more than a few similarities between Jackson and another prominent Bush appointee who resigned amid scandal, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Both have lives that read like sinister versions of the Horatio Alger myth. Both are men of color who were born into poverty in large families, to fathers who labored in humble jobs. They are amazing examples of the kind of class mobility that America has prided itself on, often exaggerated in our national mythology of who were are. But Jackson and Gonzales were the real deal; hard-working, ambitious men whose rise would be unthinkable in the pre-civil rights era.

What happened to make these men forget where they came from, and to turn them into the monsters they became? They represent a curious trend in American society. Unlike the blue-bloods who run, say, the Times-Picayune, these men knew poverty and want, rose above it, and then proceeded to mercilessly sacrifice those still trapped below them to their own massive ambitions.

The administration of Bush Jr., himself a patrician and a faux-Texan, will be remembered for promoting a large number of minorities to cabinet-level positions. They appear to have made a study of finding the most ruthless, unscrupulous and spineless African-Americans and Latinos to fill these positions. It is truly a PR feat. Rove, or whoever else has been running the Bush machine, is very clever to have used these individuals to do their dirty work while still paying homage to equal opportunity employment. In this case, it reads more like equal opportunity oppression.

Ultimately, Jackson’s resignation is too late for the homeless under the interstate, and for those in semi-permanent exile in Houston. The Magnolia (C J Peete) Development has already been flattened, and demolition is underway on both parts of B W Cooper and St. Bernard. New Orleans now has a 4% homeless rate, four times that of most major US cities. Most of them, like the overwhelming majority of the poor in New Orleans, are of course black.

Maybe Horatio Alger wouldn’t be the best person to write Jackson’s story. It’s a pity Theodore Dreiser isn’t still around.