Dirty South Bureau

April 26, 2009

Jazz Fest and Ghetto Business Acumen

Filed under: Class,Mid-City,New Orleans Economy — christian @ 12:16 am

I’ll admit it: I love Jazz Fest. This may seem surprising, as every year about this time my neighborhood is invaded by large numbers of horrid frat boy types and their equally noxious female equivalent, who swarm across town like lemmings to hear overpriced music. They are awful, it is true. On Friday I was cursing all their known ancestors as I was blocked from my local coffee shop by a horde of them dancing badly (a consistent trait) to a “Mardi Gras Indian” performance.

Side note: I am totally uninterested in Mardi Gras Indians. Blasphemy, you say? Well, listen. With all the aspects of black culture in New Orleans that we white people have already approximated, the ones that are left are usually just not our business. Which is exactly how I (don’t) relate to the Mardi Gras Indians. Yes, the historical relationship between Native Americans and African Americans is interesting in an abstract way, but not one that relates to me. Furthermore, anytime the Indians go out in public there is such a swarm of photographers, videographers and assorted assholes following them down the street that it is just Not Fun Anymore.

Yes, on Friday I was disgusted by this whole thing, but 24 hours later I have changed my tune. Because I have been reminded of the beauty of Jazz Fest: the hustle.

This morning I was sitting, minding my own business on a friend’s steps in the 9th Ward. I was working out the details of some carpentry she has asked me to do on her house, and I was idly sketching away at details. Out of the blue a pickup truck stops, and the yat driving it asks if I am interested in any seafood or wild meat.

Wild meat?

I get up to look, and in the bed of his pickup he has several coolers. The yat (let’s call him Franky) tries repeatedly to sell me alligator meat. Not very interesting. I have my eye on the venison sausage, but it’s overpriced. So we open the next cooler, which has cowan turtle and frog legs (getting warmer). And there, buried underneath, are two large freezer bags containing strange creatures with long, flat teeth. He is selling gutted and skinned nutria, and at a decent price.

Franky is talking a mile a minute. He’ll sell me the turtle meat, has other coolers full of shrimp, catfish and trout. When I ask about the nutria, he quickly and slightly nervously explains that they are clean creatures, that they’re vegetarians and mostly eat grass.

So this is how I end up buying a frozen nutria out the back of a pickup in the 9th ward. That, and a pack of frozen turtle meat.

His prices were a little high (probably Jazz Fest prices), but you have to admire the sheer initiative of someone who obtains all these bizarre meats and then literally drives around the neighborhood, looking for people to sell them to. I have to wonder, does he hunt the nutria himself?

This sort of activity is not unique, and springs from an entrepreneurial spirit combined with a lack of enforcement of law, in this case FDA regulations. We have several home-made pie sellers in the city, including the famous pie lady, who is known for her beautiful voice as much as her pies. And the sweet potato pies I used to buy in Algiers Point before the storm were out of this world.

I decided I’d best get back to Mid-City to refrigerate my newfound treasures, however along the way I was waylaid by an excellent sidewalk sale. An older gay man sitting peacefully on his stoop, selling a set of gorgeous antiques including a porcelain cup with “cocaine” inlaid in gilt lettering, chinoiserie lamps and a hand-woven rug Iranian rug at a steal of a price.

So this is how I came into the quandry of how to get an antique Chinese lamp, a frozen nutria and a package of turtle meat home on a bicycle, an issue which was later fully resolved by my ladyfriend’s mechanically marginal Isuzu station wagon. But I digress…

Anyway, upon returning to Mid-City, I found that my neighbors were engaged in similar pursuits. The folks with the large white house down White Street were selling parking, as well as t-shirts that were arranged on their fence. An older couple on White towards Orleans had an umbrella and coolers full of seven kinds of beer. Even the daughter of the only white family on St. Phillip between White Street and Broad was selling kool-aid. The parents admitted to me that setting up during Jazz Fest was the daughter’s idea. Merely by growing up in New Orleans, she already has the instinct.

Of course, my ladyfriend and a housemate were at that time in restaurants, working the tourists for tips. Another housemate was selling them artwork in the Quarter. I can’t even count how many people I ran into in the last 24 hours in some way cashing in. In short, much of the city is hustling in one way or another, including in my neighborhood.

The prevailing suburban racist/classist “wisdom”, such as can be heard on right-wing talk radio, is that people in the ghetto just need to learn to be productive citizens, that welfare has sapped their ingenuity, and that they are plain lazy. I say bullshit. There is plenty of creativity on my street, and the moment a dollar comes anywhere near this neighborhood, there is an outright mobilization to seize it. Frankly, people in low-income neighborhoods like mine are the most resourceful people I’ve ever seen. Have you ever seen a white suburban kid set up shop in a gas station and sell CDs out of his trunk? Do you think GW Bush did this as a teenager? Sure, when they get money too many of my neighbors throw it away on showy garbage like fancy rims. But in terms of initiative, there in no lack.

Earlier in the week I overheard two young disgruntled men talking in restaurant, pondering the viability of kidnapping tourists for profit. The one with the wandering eye noted that as tourists are apparently not dissuaded by how dangerous this city is, that you could probably get one or two every few years without even upsetting the tourist industry.

At present, my friends and neighbors seem to feel there is enough surplus to be had, and they will get any piece of it they can. All the tourists from Texas, the Midwest, and everywhere else will help fatten wallets for the lean summer, and I can love them for it. Because this, to me, is beautiful.

April 7, 2009

My Fascist Neighbors

Filed under: Class,Mid-City,New Orleans Economy,New Orleans Politics,Race — christian @ 10:59 pm

I’ve been trying to stay away from planning.

Now that my day job involves energy policy, it’s been nice to be in a different fray, at least for a little while. It is a tremendous relief to not have to deal with the mind-numbing boredom of endless meetings and constant internecine conflicts that defined my experience of the official planning process of this city.

However, last night, to my chagrin, a Mid-City Neighborhood Organization (MCNO) meeting that I was attending for entirely different reasons was hijacked by a huge fracas over The Master Plan.

I didn’t stay for the whole thing, thank God. Technically I live in Bayou St. John, and am outside the purview of MCNO. However I stayed long enough to be again depressed by the viciousness and lack of charity that my neighbors (my fascist neighbors) displayed.

As a disclaimer, I have no official stance on The Master Plan. I haven’t read it. I’m terribly glad to hear that it would level the I-10 over Claiborne, reversing (decades late) one of the most obscene and destructive planning decisions ever imposed on an American city. But as for the rest of the plan, you’ve got me. I’m sorry. I sat through Bring New Orleans Back, Lambert, and the ungodly Unified New Orleans Plan process (the final form of which which turned out OK after all). By the time Blakely was mapping out his target recovery areas, I was already extremely fatigued. So I’ve had the luxury of not looking at this plan much.

But what I did see was the crazed response of My Fascist Neighbors to the suggestion that parts of Mid-City might be zoned to allow for multi-family dwellings. Several speakers articulated the real fear: that poor people would move in near them, just when their property values where skyrocketing. Those who spoke were besides themselves with self-righteousness and anger, in a way that would have been comical were it not so cruel.

Now I should also explain that Mid-City is a mixed neighborhood; poor, working class, middle class, black and white. It defines easy explanation. I can think of no part that it truly affluent or as poor as the 9th Ward; as the name suggests, it is kind of… in the middle.

Last night at the MCNO meeting you did not see the diversity of Mid-City. You say overwhelmingly white people. The people who spoke the loudest were the people who always see it as their God-given right to speak: property and business owners (side note: I will never, ever eat at Liuzza’s after watching the scene the owner of that establishment made). I will note that the president of MCNO did a very good job of handling the speakers, who often behaved like over-sized children.

And let’s be clear about something else. When my Fascist Neighbors were speaking about poor people and low-income housing, they were talking about black people. The vast majority of poor people in New Orleans are black. “Poor” and “low-income” have become code words for low-income African-Americans.

I could hardly contain my wonder. Really, folks, get over it. You live in an urban area. Density and racial diversity are parts of living in a city, and medium density is normal for the center of an urban area. And besides, as both the president of MCNO and the planners explained, zoning is not the decision to approve a specific development or building. It is merely a decision as to what kinds of buildings and businesses can be built in any given area.

It became very clear last night that the people who are making this a whiter, more affluent city are not just the Pres Kabacoffs and Joe Canizaros. It is not even big-time property owners like the Marcellos. These are in many cases the owners of apartments and small businesses. And if they get their way, they will make sure that many of those displaced by the Hurricane never come back, and that all of our rents will go up in their lust for property values. I will note that one reason that San Francisco is unlivable for ordinary people is that property owners have banded together in neighborhood groups to assure that no medium density housing is ever built, effectively exiling the poor from that city.

There were a number of progressives and radicals in the room: Brod Bagert, Jr. of the Jeremiah Group, Shana Griffin of INCITE and her partner Brice White, Brad Ott, champion of Charity hospital, educational activist Amelia LaFont, Bart Everson to name a few. All were silent when I was there. I wondered if they knew how many of their fellows were there to back them up.

Because we are here, and we live here, too. And it’s time we get together.

Review of “Hunger”

Filed under: Media,Other — christian @ 10:11 pm

So on the publishing front, the other day I wrote a quick review of the film Hunger by British filmmaker Steve McQueen (no relation to the American actor) and playwright Edna Walsh, which got published in the “webzine” of a socialist group that I’ve been known to hang out with (FBI take note!).

As I mention in the review, more Americans should see this film, for perspective if nothing else.

Review on the Solidarity website.