Dirty South Bureau

February 14, 2009

Homer Plessy finally gets some respect

Filed under: Bywater,New Orleans Politics,Race — christian @ 1:58 pm

New Orleans is a funny city. Visiting here, if you didn’t know better, you would be tempted to think that the significant events in the long history of the struggle for black equality happened elsewhere; maybe in Selma and Montgomery, maybe Harlem, maybe in Memphis, but certainly not sleepy old New Orleans. After all, where is the physical evidence?

I can recall when I moved here noting the large number of Confederate memorials. Which is also funny for a city that fell early and relatively uneventfully in the Civil War (or the War Between The States as I have heard it called in Mississippi). There is the statue of Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard at Esplanade and City Park Avenue, the Jefferson Davis statue on Jeff Davis Parkway (all life sized), the stone memorial outside the house on 1st and Camp Streets where Jefferson Davis died, and of course the statue of General Robert E. Lee that dominates Lee Circle in the Central Business District. We won’t even talk about the White League memorial at the foot of Canal Street which fondly commemorates the brutal end to Reconstruction.

So why, then, do our memorials not remember other events great historical significance?

Two days ago, on February 12, 2009, was a very important beginning to correcting this city’s selective historical memory. The descendants of Homer Plessy and John Howard Ferguson unveiled a plaque at the corner of Royal and Press Streets in the 9th Ward.

If you have been on the corner of Royal and Press streets, it may be surprising to hear that any event of national significance ever happened there. It is a sleepy thoroughfare where the Bywater meets the Marigny, with unused warehouses on one side and modest homes on the other. When I lived in the Bywater I knew these tracks as a place where you go from home to work and back again, and where you are frequently stopped with your neighbors for an indeterminate period of time by freight trains, which still have the right of way. For years I associated the location with the Morning 40 Federation’s song Walking through the 9th Ward, about being too drunk and broke to be scared while walking home through a dangerous neighborhood, not any Civil Rights history.

But it was at this seemingly inauspicious corridor that Homer Plessy, a man of 1/8 African-American descent, boarded a whites-only train car in 1892 as a legal challenge to a law mandating separate facilities for blacks and whites. This law was similar to those on the books in many Southern states, which had not been nationally recognized. Many of my readers are familiar with the end to the case Plessy v. Ferguson, a Supreme Court decision that upheld the Jim Crow system of legal segregation until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

As tragic as that ending was, the significance of Homer Plessy’s act can also be viewed as a testament to the long struggle for equality, and a triumph of human decency. Homer was a member of a citizen’s committee that fought for racial equality, with a willingness to use civil disobedience a full sixty years before such tactics were made famous in America by individuals such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

This is not a story that ends in 1892, or 1954. There was also a struggle to put this plaque in place that lasted several years. Rumor has it that the first plaque commemorating Homer Plessy’s act mysteriously disappeared after Katrina. Since the storm I have seen Reggie Lawson of Crescent City Peace Alliance and Jim Randels of Students at the Center (SAC) tirelessly struggle through bureaucracies and a moving map of land titles to get recognition for this location. Randels and his partner Kalamu Ya Salaam of SAC also deserve credit for involving their students with this work. Most notably, SAC students published a civil rights anthology of student writings, The Long Ride, which deals with three centuries of the history of struggle by African Americans for equality.

In giving these credits, I am sure that I am leaving out significant players, and I apologize in advance for this.

February 12, 2009 was an important day for our city. Maybe now we will begin to remember with eyes that are more clear, and to finally give some respect to those who, like Homer Plessy, have been willing to act, and to make personal sacrifices, to do what is right. It’s about time.

July 24, 2008

400,000 gallons of diesel

Filed under: Bywater,environment,Other,We Are Not OK — christian @ 11:45 pm

OK, so, did anyone else notice the noxious gas-station smell last night in the neighborhoods by the river? Here I was at Markey’s, paying $3 for Abita Amber (the rising cost of beer here is a whole other subject) and I go outside, and there’s this Mad Max smell everywhere. Turns out that, as of the Times-Picayune’s reporting this morning, we have a 400,000 gallon fuel oil spill in the Mississippi, just slightly down river from our water plant.

Holy fucking shit. There is something so apocalyptic about this that I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around it. What’s even more profound is that only a few people seem really excited about this.

Is this because the Mississippi is the nation’s urinary canal, carrying tons of nitrates and pesticides past us each day?

Is this because this shit (after treated in a local treatment plant) is what comes out of our tap?

I can still recall post-Katrina when you literally could not drink or even bathe in the water. I still recall my lover at the time spraying herself down with frebreeze as her daily shower.

Welcome to the future.

May 12, 2008


Filed under: Bywater,New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 12:45 am

My readers will pardon the delay with which I am passing on information about a fairly urgent situation. However, the sheer volume of work that the union has sent my way, plus the psychological exhaustion that comes from prolonged outrage have conspired to keep me from relaying this information clearly until now.

Ah, where to start?

Decision makers at the state level are planning on closing Frederick Douglass High School on St. Claude in the Upper 9th Ward. We know this for two reasons; one that no new freshmen were admitted last year, and that several weeks ago teachers at Douglass were pulled into a meeting and told that the school is being phased out.

The very way this is being done is sneaky and vague; likely because if these plans were publicly announced they could result in a huge PR problem for the RSD and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek.

But first, a bit about Douglass for those of you not familiar with the school.


Douglass High School

Frederick Douglass High School is in the 9th ward, on St. Claude between Pauline and Alvar. It’s in an old, poorly maintained but still beautiful pink art-deco building that straddles the block, across the street from Charles Drew Elementary. The names, Douglass and Drew, are more recent; those who grew up in the neighborhood in the 50’s and 60’s still remember them as Nicholls and Washington, respectively. Times change, demographics change, and with massive white flight, black power and a movement towards a recognition of black history, names change. I have only heard the process of renaming the school from that of a Confederate General to a radical trade unionist, former slave and abolitionist alluded to, and unfortunately have no concrete details for my readers.

The Ninth Ward (upper ninth, that is), with the exception of parts of the newly gentrified Bywater (between St. Claude and the river), is a low-income African American neighborhood with serious problems. The student body that goes to Douglass is almost exclusively black and almost exclusively free and reduced lunch. LEAP test scores are low, graduation rates are some of the lowest in the city.

It also has a lot of community support. Before the storm the Frederick Douglass Community Coalition was very active in school and the neighborhood surrounding it. The school is also one that participates in Kalamu Ya Salaam and Jim Randels’ nationally acclaimed writing program, Students at the Center (SAC). At Douglass, along with other public schools, Kalamu and Jim have been turning inner-city youth into writers and intellectuals for years now. It’s an incredibly hopeful and inspiring project.

Given the socio-economic status of the neighborhood, it would be extremely unlikely for Douglass not to have problems. But many people in the community support the school and see it as a place where there is a struggle to improve things for the children of the 9th.


The Plan to close Douglass

We are not sure who is behind this plan, but Pastorek would have to be massively out of touch to not know about it. As for RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas, he is likely not the originator of this plan but he is at least an accomplice, and has been making statements about the state’s designs for the school which range from dire to vague to downright contradictory.

Vallas claims that the decision not to bring in new freshmen in the ’07-’08 year was made before his tenure, which is probably true. However, I was at a BESE (state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) meeting a few months ago where he and his financial team brought forth the RSD capital improvements budgets, and there was a very clear distinction between the schools that were to receive large amounts of funding for building renovations and those that weren’t. Douglass was among the schools that had very few funds allotted to them. Maybe Vallas was counting on the assumption that no-one concerned about Douglass would be at that meeting, as it is held during the work day in Baton Rouge. However there is a plan in the RSD that specifically does not allocate funds for the repair of Douglass and a number of other schools, and to pretend otherwise is dishonest.

This all came to a head at a very disappointing meeting with Paul Vallas last Tuesday, a meeting that was shocking for the sheer level of disregard Vallas displayed towards a group of concerned community members and stakeholders. Now, given that I am used to official disregard for community concerns, but the powers that be usually do a better job of hiding this than Vallas did. And it was not just anyone that met at Douglass- this was a group that included Jim Randels and Kalamu Ya Salaam of SAC, Gwen Adams of ACORN, musician Charmaine Neville, Reggie Lawson of Crescent City Peace Alliance, teachers and students at Douglass, and neighbors who live within blocks of the school.

The meeting

First, Vallas showed up half an hour late. Now, here in New Orleans meetings rarely start on time. But thirty minutes was excessive by anyone’s standards. This was followed by a presentation by Vincent Nzinga of the RSD, who gave one of the more absurd speeches I’ve heard yet, where he tried to associate the spirit of Frederick Douglass with a criminal justice academy in the Lower 9th, planned to replace the art-deco building on St. Claude, because Frederick Douglass was a lawyer.

I feel the need to point out to Mr. Nzinga some facts that he is likely aware of: that the 13th amendment does not apply to those duly convicted of a crime, and that the incarcerated population in America, particularly in the south, is disproportionately black. Many of us have realized that in the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, prison is the new slavery. And I feel the need to remind Mr. Nzinga that Frederick Douglass is primarily remembered not because he won a few court cases, but because he was an outspoken abolitionist.

I digress. This was followed by Mr. Vallas taking questions. Now, before we get too far into this, let me explain what a public meeting with Paul Vallas is like.

All of us got lungs at birth. Paul, he got lungs for, say, two or three people. The man can talk. Lord, he can talk. I’ve been at more public meetings with Paul Vallas than I can count. He talks, and talks, and talks. When people talk this much, you may think they have something important and/or profound to impart. However at the end of a meeting with Paul Vallas, one is often left with the realization that he has not committed to anything substantial except what he had already planned.

He also talks over people. Which he did quite a lot of at this meeting. To my knowledge no one has ever accused Paul Vallas of being a particularly good active listener. But this meeting was truly rare form.

Because this group wanted answers. Answers Mr. Vallas did not want to give.

He started off by dodging a question from a woman who had been teaching at Douglass for eight years and is temporarily in Illinois with her sick mother, questioning whether or not she was coming back. Vallas’ questioning the woman’s status was not received well by the crowd. Then Charmaine Neville got up and said that she knew a large number of tradesman and contractors who would be interested in working on the building for free. Vallas interrupted her to suggest that she bring them tomorrow to the school. Whether or not it was intended as so by Mr. Vallas, this was widely seen as a disrespectful brush-off and elicited hisses and angry remarks. But it was easy to see how. The entire meeting Vallas was defensive, awkward, angry.

At some point in the meeting (you will forgive my lack of chronology) Vallas passed out a brief report from Parsons Engineering which suggested that repairs to the school would be in the 30 million dollar range. Vallas repeatedly stated that he had no say in what would happen to the school building, saying that he only dealt with academics. For all of these questions, he referred us to the Master Plan.

Which brings me back to the rally to re-open Morris X. Jeff that I attended on Sunday April 6, 2008, where Torin Sanders of the OPSB (Orleans Parish School Board) stated that as much as he believes we should rebuild schools with that level of community support, that he’d have to refer to the Master Plan.

Master Plan? Many people in the meeting at Douglass were asking questions as they had never heard of a Master Plan.


Master Plan

At this point in the meeting I was able to clarify that the Master Plan that he refers to is the one being managed by Concordia Architects and Steven Bingler.

This is problematic for several reasons. One, Steven Bingler was sued by DeSoto Parish Schools in a situation that does not make Bingler and Concordia sound like very competent managers of school facilities.

Two, Steven Bingler is the brother-in-law of Sarah Usdin of New Schools For New Orleans (NSNO). It concerns me when you have those managing facilities with strong family ties to the heads of ideologically driven organizations like NSNO.

And you’ll have to pardon me, but I just don’t feel that NSNO has children’s best interests at heart, and I fear that ideology is clouding their vision. This is the group that, on their website, describes Katrina as an opportunity, and is spearheading bringing in large numbers of poorly-equipped recent Ivy League graduates to replace the veteran teachers in New Orleans. Multiple studies have shown that particularly in inner-city school districts, veteran teachers make a huge positive difference in test scores. But those like NSNO who are trying to replace a population because their analysis is that veteran teachers were the problem have ignored this data.

However, Bingler and his family connections are not the only problem here. Parsons Engineering has done quite a bit of work in Iraq, and the track record isn’t positive. A Washington Post reporter has described their Baghdad Police Academy, which literally rained feces from the ceiling, but this apparently is only one in a string of bad projects for Parsons.

To quote from the article:

“This is the most essential civil security project in the country — and it’s a failure,” said Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, an independent office created by Congress. “The Baghdad police academy is a disaster.”

Bowen’s office plans to release a 21-page report Thursday detailing the most alarming problems with the facility.

Even in a $21 billion reconstruction effort that has been marred by cases of corruption and fraud, failures in training and housing Iraq’s security forces are particularly significant because of their effect on what the U.S. military has called its primary mission here: to prepare Iraqi police and soldiers so that Americans can depart.

Federal investigators said the inspector general’s findings raise serious questions about whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has failed to exercise effective oversight over the Baghdad Police College or reconstruction programs across Iraq, despite charging taxpayers management fees of at least 4.5 percent of total project costs. The Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that it has initiated a wide-ranging investigation of the police academy project.

The report serves as the latest indictment of Parsons Corp., the U.S. construction giant that was awarded about $1 billion for a variety of reconstruction projects across Iraq. After chronicling previous Parsons failures to properly build health clinics, prisons and hospitals, Bowen said he now plans to conduct an audit of every Parsons project.

“The truth needs to be told about what we didn’t get for our dollar from Parsons,” Bowen said.

There are already too many parallels in disaster profiteering between Baghdad and the Gulf Coast.

I left the meeting early, but from what I hear Althea Strong of American Friends Service Committee tried to pin Vallas down to a promise to stand behind the community, a promise he wouldn’t make.

The long and the short is this: Don’t count on Vallas or anyone at the state level for help, and frankly you should not be lulled into waiting for this dubious Master Plan. For the Douglass community, you are going to have to fight to keep your school.

To quote Frederick Douglass: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”

Blog entry by Jim Randels on this meeting

Save Frederick Douglass

March 15, 2007

Pete Smith, ????-2007

Filed under: Bywater,Other — christian @ 5:15 pm

I ran into my old friend and client Matt Ryan today and found out that Pete Smith has passed.

Pete Smith was someone most folks outside of the Irish channel and the 9th ward won’t know. Pete was a carpenter, a musician, and a vagabond- he had built houses and played music all over the country. He was a kind and gentle soul who never had a bad word to say about anyone.

I learned a lot from Pete. He was a master of the sort of reconstructive carpentry that is needed these days in New Orleans. He had large, heavy hands and worked very carefully. Probably the only reason that the building between First and Phillip on Magazine that we spent nine months fixing up didn’t collapse on our heads was because of Pete’s skill with hydraulic jacks and braces.

Pete was a fine musician as well, played the mandolin beautifully. He made a mean Spanakopita, too. You wouldn’t think that the skinny old man who looked like Willy Nelson could do things like that with those big hands. I had the feeling he could cook other things, but I never knew. He was always glad to see you, and he had a personal warmth and charm that affected everyone around him. I met only one person who didn’t get along with Pete, and the individual in question didn’t get along with anyone else, including himself.

We called him Old Pete, and he was beloved in the neighborhood. I am not exaggerating when I say that he was like a holy man, a holy man who was also an alcoholic. Pete drank too much and all the time. Not only did it keep him poor for the years that I knew him but it probably contributed to his untimely death.

I can still hear his rich voice in my skull, and see him shaking his big hands in that peculiar physical expression of his.

There are a half dozen houses around this city, maybe more, that are fine homes for people because of Pete Smith. I know of three myself, one of which is four two-bedroom apartments. There are businesses that operate in spaces that he constructed out of the shells of falling apart buildings. And the people who live there will never dream of the man who put them together, will enjoy the use of these spaces but never will know the old half-Irish half-Greek hippie carpenter from was born in Massachusetts, who could never afford to live in any of these places.

And never cared, either.

I remember one day when we were working on the big house on Magazine in 2002. It was a quiet day like most days we spent there, and hot. There was nothing but a hot, white silence as we put up stud after stud of Canadian spruce. And then, seeming from far away, someone started playing boogie-woogie piano across the street, and it got loud. Pete and I heard it, and he put down his tools, and walked over to the wall and beat out a rhythm with his big hands, and began to holler.

Pete Smith died but he never got old. He was alive.

Peter Smith, God rest your soul, we miss you.

July 24, 2006

Markey’s bar

Filed under: Bywater,Other,Race — christian @ 4:35 am

A window seat at Markey’s, the one that looks through the old wooden doors onto the corner of Louisa and Royal streets. It’s as good a place as any to start an anthology of the bars of New Orleans. Markey’s is a timeless Bywater bar, one of the oldest still in existence. There’s nothing flashy about the inside and never really gets decorated. It’s all old, darkly stained wood, comfortable wooden seats, too many televisions, two video poker machines, shuffleboard, pool and darts, all in a space not much bigger than a two-bedroom apartment.

There’s a framed black and white photo of Michael Markey above the bar. Old yats like Jimmy Jones who runs a ninth ward machine shop will tell you about how the handsome Irishman used to serve blacks liquor and food through the side window. Pete Smith, the old hippie carpenter I used to work with says that both Markey’s and Parasol’s in the Irish Channel started serving women and blacks in the mid 80’s (“what would I want to go to a bar for if it didn’t have women and black people in it?” He would ask me).

These days the only thing Irish about Markey’s is the Pogues on the jukebox. Generations change but it’s still the same working-class white demographic. Today it’s a mix of young hip service industry workers from the neighborhood and carpenters in sleeveless t-shirts, their girlfriends in feathered hair and sweat pants with their brastraps showing. It’s not as flashy as Mimi’s, not as underground cool as the Saturn, not as definitively ninth ward, or as depressing, as BJ’s or Vaughns.

There’s still no black people, but El Markey’s is the first newly Hispanic bar that I have encountered in post-Katrina New Orleans. I don’t know how it happened but one day I came in and three Hispanic construction workers were sitting there drinking beer and bartenders and waiters were chatting in simple Spanish. So I go in and order an Abitita, the half-pint, and the short girl with the dark brown hair asks me if I want a little boy drink or a man-sized drink.

The jukebox is much of the reason that many of us go to Markey’s, and when it was down I never spent more than twenty minutes there. The music reflects the clientele- defiantly not as hip as Pal’s or the Saint uptown. Dylan, the Stones, David Bowie, even a Jimmy Buffet CD (incidentally, locals who work in the service industry do not play Jimmy Buffet. Not only is it shitty music, but Buffet’s French Quarter restaurant, Margaritaville, is well known. Buffet pretends to be an old, simple sailor when in fact he is a abusive, neurotic capitalist pig.) There’s Flogging Mollys in there as well, and Old 97’s, as well as some New Orleans stuff- Professor Longhair, a mix CD with some Irma Thomas. Track 47-12 is Guitar Slim doing “Things that I used to Do” which was redone in the late 90’s by G-Love, and not nearly as well. And of course Louis Prima, our homegrown Sinatra, who said in an interview about a decade ago that David Lee Roth never paid him for his remake of “Just a Gigolo”. Typical New Orleans music story.

The bartenders at Markey’s have one unifying feature- they don’t talk much. They manage a pleasantness without being obtrusive. Every bar has its particular culture of bartenders, and Markey’s is marked by both a terseness but also a longevity. Many bartenders have been there since I first started coming in 2003, which for the turnover of service industry workers in this town is remarkable.

Linnzi Zaorski is still my favorite, though she has been gone for years. Now that I know her from outside the bar, I can’t say that I like her as well. She’s beautiful, young, and ambitious, and that can ruin just about anyone. But as a bartender she was magnificent. She had this quizzical smile, this way of taking nothing and nobody seriously, this gentle contempt for the world that was strangely endearing. She always had somewhere better to be and knew it, and handled that with grace. Linnzi is on the jukebox as well, though I’ve never heard anyone play her but me and that was out of nostalgia more than anything.

Nick Moon is still around, smiling with his model good looks. My friend Leenie says that isn’t his real name, that Nick Moon is the name of a famous Baltimore bartender. He’s the quietest one of all. I knew him for about a year before I ever exchanged more than two words with him. There’s something utterly opaque about him. He wipes down the glasses, turns and smiles, a clean polished surface that leaves no room for any inquiry. He looks like a TV star, and I used to wonder what his game was. I don’t anymore. There’s a beautiful kind on interaction that you can have with someone who you don’t have to talk to, but can just be present for.

Perhaps now he is the Nick Moon, perhaps Nick Moon is the immortal bartender, the Long John Silver of the bar world.

There are others- Lisa now works at Mimi’s, but the new girl with the dark hair and sweetly sarcastic comments will be here for a while. I can just tell.

The truth is that Markey’s is a fairly dry and boring place, but so many of our adult pleasures are. Let’s face it- for flavor most of us prefer something sweeter than beer, and cigarettes don’t really taste good at all. So how did we end up here?

I can’t answer that. I’m not sure that I know. What I do know is that night after night we come here. The other day I was talking telling a friend I was headed home and I realized that what I really meant was Markey’s. It’s an anchor- I’ve had three apartments now in the neighborhood, and I can’t really imagine being able to keep one permanently. I don’t think I’m the only one these days without a sense of much permanence in living arrangements. But good, bad, indifferent, and even boring and regressive, Markey’s will still be here.

May 14, 2006

gentrification gets personal for the DSB

Filed under: Bywater,New Orleans Economy — christian @ 1:03 am

I’m a big believer in the part of quantum theory where perception changes the observed reality. I just don’t believe in pure objectivity. You can’t take yourself and your biases out of reporting any more than you can take your own presence out of anything that you do, and this I see as one of the main faults of the mainstream media- the projected illusion of objectivity hides the fact that there are very real biases being played out in coverage- predominantly middle-class white biases. It’s very easy to see that here in New Orleans, but there are others- pro laissez-faire capitalism biases, and pro-big business biases to name a few.

So let’s take that ball and get fully subjective for a moment.

As those of you who read my blog know, I live in the Bywater, the gentrified part of the ninth ward. We are also the only part of the ninth ward that did not flood substantially after Katrina. We are on high ground.

I was born on the interstate, on the west coast, grew up in a place that I cannot in any real way return to, and have lived all over the country. The Bywater is the only place in the world that I’ve ever thought about settling down in. It’s a lot of things- it’s the architecture, it’s the history- most of the buildings in the Bywater were built by similar groups of people as my ancestors (and, incidentally, most of America’s), working-class European immigrants in the mid to late nineteenth centuries. It’s also the way of life- poor and slow, decadent and funky. Maybe it’s even a nostalgia for a time in America that I was born too late to see, and that perhaps looks better from that perspective.

It’s also a network of people, of friends, of bars, of a demographic, of memories that are burnt indelibly in my skull. It is home.

Recently, events in my life have caused me to look for a new apartment. Even though I report on the circumstances of the housing crisis from a semi-detached reporter perspective, it hadn’t fully dawned on me how much my neighborhood had changed until now.

I found one place that was still reasonably priced through an old friend, $450 for a one-bedroom, and was told today by the landlord that I wasn’t professional enough.

Excuse me?

The irony of this is that among my friends I’m probably the most ‘professional’. Being a paid reporter with a second job to even out the fluctuations in my freelancing meant nothing. He said he wanted a ‘professional’ person with a stable job, whatever the fuck that meant- for a small dingy apartment with sloping floors and no vent in the bathroom. Right. I can just see the lawyers lining up now.

The other places that I have found are all outrageously expensive- nine hundred dollars for a two-room shotgun and son on.

This attitude on behalf of the landlord is hardly unique to this circumstance. There are people who are not welcome in this neighborhood anymore (where fucking Tom Waits used to live for christssakes) , and apparently I am one of them. If I can’t get a place as a freelance reporter and waiter, what does this say for a black person with a New Orleans public school education who, say, works in a kitchen or a hotel? The other day my friend who is an Emergency Room doctor and is looking to buy a house told me that he’d decided that the Bywater was too expensive for his price range. ???

This neighborhood has never really been affluent in its hundred and fifty or so year history until now. It was the last Bohemia- after the Mission in San Francisco, after Wicker Park in Chicago, after the Lower East Side, Williamsburg and Greenpoint in New York, after countless other neighborhoods went the way of yoga studios, lofts and art galleries it seemed you could still live in the ninth ward on a service industry job, or as a carpenter, or a musician, and many people did in the last twenty years. Only four years ago Morning 40 Federation was writing “Walking Through the Ninth Ward”, and yet when I hear girls in Mimi’s (a neighborhood bar, in the tiny part of the ninth ward in the Marigny) describing the Bywater as the wrong side of the tracks, I have to laugh.

The real “other side” and the color line is now the other side of St. Claude, and if we young white people move there, to a black residential neighborhood, we will not be welcome and will be displacing those who live there. But we’ll end up doing it. As a group, we will have to, or leave New Orleans. You can’t go Uptown, and Mid-City is in the same boat. But what other city will we go to?

I can’t tell you how many people I know are being forced out of the Bywater. One is sleeping on the couch in the room next to me, whose house got sold in April. She says this is just the way that it is, but I asked her where she is going and she doesn’t know either. I know- we’re white, and thus privileged, but we had a sense of home. Maybe it’s a good thing, in that it will radicalize us, that it will make us realize how fucked the economic system we are in really is when we are put us in the same boat as black New Orleans (hmm… wrong metaphor). Maybe we need this. But I for one question the old Marxist maxim that more dire circumstances force real change. Besides, I’m still trying to figure out where some sort of safe ground is.

(To get really shameless- if any of you know of any reasonable apartments anywhere downriver of Canal Street, support independent journalism in New Orleans and email me at c.roselund@gmail.com. Help me find an apartment and I’ll start doing tenant’s rights organizing part-time.)

May 6, 2006

The Mayor’s ‘Race’ Part 2: Back to Business

Filed under: Bywater,New Orleans Politics,Race — christian @ 2:57 pm

The Dirty South Bureau has been a little slow lately, having taken a well-earned break during jazz fest (well, OK, I had to get a second job to support my freelancing). But I haven’t been out of it enough to not notice Rob Couhig endorsing Ray Nagin. This goes against my theory that in a post-Katrina racial frenzy both black and white people are voting against their economic self-interest this election (see the first part of The Mayor’s ‘Race’), thanks to Rob Couhig remembering where his bottom line and the bottom line of his supporters lie. So maybe now we can get back to big-business Ray Nagin v. democratic party machine Mitch Landrieu, which is a less hysterical way to look at things than black v. white, but also boring.

Of course, the Louisiana Weekly had led the way on this one with their editorial on why black people should vote for Landrieu, which was a less courageous stand to take than, say, endorsing Tom Watson, but was a sensible argument against Nagin.

This endorsement also narrows Landrieu’s lead over Nagin, and the race heats up. And I am reminded that all the descriptive terms that we use for political campaigns can also be used for horse races, which is how I tend to see not only this race but electoral politics in general, a day at the track, only with serious but mostly pre-ordained consequences.

Personally, I am much more concerned with the City Council seats which is our opportunity to defeat the Clarkson cabal- because as much as Gisselson-Palmer tries to distance herself, she is Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson’s hand-picked successor. More importantly, she is supported by the same people- Algiers Point, the French Quarter, and the gentrifricationists in the Bywater and Marigny. Palmer is trying to distance herself publicly from Jackie because Jackie’s support has fallen so much, particularly in the downtown part of District C, and I fear that many who are not as aware may fall for it.

However, her opponent Carter had a wide lead in the primary- 32%. Let’s just hope that everyone who voted for former council member Mike Early doesn’t go to Palmer- which unfortunately is likely. Incidentally, it would warm my heart to see a dark-skinned black man like Carter on New Orleans City Council. Maybe then you could think that we’ve made it to the twentieth century at last.

The HMS Clarkson herself is running for Council-At-Large against Arnie Fielkow, former VP of the Saints for the council-at-large seat. Recently several candidates who didn’t make the runoff against Clarkson endorsed Fielkow, but Clarkson has good name recognition, is already on the City Council. Tight race.

For those of you not familiar with New Orleans politics, why do I hold such personal enmity for Jackie? Let’s see… removal of the benches from Jackson Square (we got them put back)? An attempt to make street performers illegal?… no those all pale in comparison to what she and Jay Batt from district A in Uptown did in December. These two humanitarians held up Nagin’s plan for ninety-some public trailer sites for eighty-one hundred trailers, thus giving FEMA the excuse that they needed to do nothing. The reason- Jackie didn’t want trailers on a sites like golf courses.

Does this qualify as pure evil?

Incidentally, when Nagin is criticized for not working with City Council, I am reminded that there are things that I like about the man, because with the current composition of the council, it can be nothing but a virtuous stand.

April 26, 2006

black out in the ninth ward

Filed under: Bywater — christian @ 12:58 am

There was a small rainstorm this evening, and the power went out in the eighth and ninth wards again. This is hardly surprising- it has done this every time that it rains since last fall. So I went and drank beer by candlelight at Mimi’s, a fancy little bar on Franklin in the Marigny. We joked about how much better everyone looked, as a number of my neighbors had chosen to do the same.

I grew up in a sub-rural part of California where power outages are nothing special. We had them every winter- the big rains would cause mud slides on the steep hills, and power lines would inevitably go down. I am used to generators and candles.

But here, it is different. The greater New Orleans urban area held more than a million before Katrina hit. It has been eight months now since the storm, and you would think that Entergy, the local power company, would have its shit together enough to keep the power on in areas like my neighborhood, the Bywater, that had no significant flooding. But with no federal bailout forthcoming, Entergy is crying poor despite the large profits made by its other branches, who are protected by a clever corporate structure from having their profits used to offset losses in other divisions, including Entergy-New Orleans.

So the power goes out. And none of us complain because at least we can turn on the faucet and get water to cook, clean and bathe with, something that our neighbors a mile away in the lower 9th ward are still without eight months later.

Daily I am staggered by the failure of the US government on every level, federal state and local. But herein lies the lesson: Entergy doesn’t have to fix the power. Entergy is a corporation, and their interests are making money. If there is no competitor, they are not obliged to provide good service. And if it is too inconvenient or expensive to fix the power grid, they won’t. Entergy is a corporation and follows the rules of corporate power, which is to never spend money where you don’t have to.

The blackout of April 25th, the second or third this month, is another small reminder of not only the failure of the government but the failure of privatization. As I sit in a barstool by lighted candles, I am reminded that New Orleans is thought of as expendable. In the new global economy, we are not needed, and are only beginning to understand what that means.

Regardless, the Bywater is beautiful by moonlight. I know it is an unpopular sentiment, but there is nothing like the cold blue light that shines down in the absence of electric lights.

April 12, 2006

cop cars on Montegut street

Filed under: Bywater,Prison-Industrial Complex,Race — christian @ 2:19 am

Today was a break from reporting but not a break from reality. Night before last my next-door neighbor was robbed at gunpoint, and tonight the police arrived- five cop cars flashing blue and red in the night. They had a suspect in the back of one car and I didn’t want to get close enough to find out who it was. I much prefer to remain invisible. I was hoping it wasn’t my neighbor, Clarence, who just got back from Houston. Not that I think that he robbed my neighbor- this is New Orleans and it doesn’t matter if you are innocent or not. Clarence is a young black man living in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

I have mixed feelings about crime here. The truth of the matter is that I am much more afraid of older gay men with small dogs than young black men. Demographics like the aforementioned older gay men are much more likely to make it so that I cannot live in whatever neighborhood I am in and thus are much more a threat to me. But I have never been mugged, so I am in no position to talk.

But this is the crux that we are in- if the neighborhood did not have crime, it would be taken over by yuppies. And the fact that the yuppies feel safe in our neighborhood is an assault on our lifestyles and identities. However insane it may be there was and is a certain attachment to the toughness and seediness that the Bywater used to have. No-one wants to get robbed or shot, but on the other hand none of us want yoga studios and dog spas either. Why is it so hard to find some middle ground?

I am reminded of what Zinn says about staying neutral on a moving train. Capitalism needs new markets, and urban renewal needs ghettoes to gentrify. And young white people like me and my friends are caught in the middle, both perpetrators and victims of gentrification.

It wasn’t Clarence- I talked to his folks. They live in a little gray shotgun across the street, one of two black families on the block. Daniel (his father) is talking about getting a big dog. He says if they try to rob him he’ll shoot the motherfuckers. Anne, his mother, sees more how much Clarence is a potential victim of the police. She says she told him to work or to move out, so that he won’t be hanging around getting into trouble. So Clarence works at Doerr furniture making fifty bucks a day cash. Some future.

Instead, the cops pulled all the young black men out of the little brick double a block down on the other side of Burgundy street. I watched them pull all of them out onto the street and felt helpless. I’m not into copwatch- for all I know they really have a reason to go in there. But I doubt it. If they’re looking for the guy who robbed my neighbor, he doesn’t live a block away, I can tell you that.

Is the Bywater coming back?

When rich people uptown say they want to keep crime down, they are saying that they don’t want poor black people to move back into town. And as much as many white radicals and liberals are in denial of it, the truth is that when the poor black people move back they bring crime with them.

This just isn’t a simple world. I can’t help it- I feel a little relieved at the mugging. Somehow the rhythm of this sort of trauma is a return to normality.

The cop cars haul off the kids. Young black men who will be traumatized in OPP and come out hard. This is what Anne wants to keep Clarence from.

America has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, and Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state, nearly half again the number of prisoners per capita than its nearest competitor, Texas.

I do the only thing that makes sense- I go out and drink.