Entries for September, 2006


September 24th, 2006

I’m sort of touchy when it comes to “fine art” photography. Every medium has its own special challenges, but besides having its own set of technical requirements, photography seems to have an inherent journalistic plateau: after achieving a certain level of mastery of subject selection and composition, it’s pretty hard to differentiate oneself artistically from untold numbers of other talented photographers and what they’d capture given similar circumstances. No matter what really goes into taking a photograph, it almost always comes off to a viewer as just that – taking it, being there to chronicle it; a photographer rarely comes off as quite the creator of an image as say, a painter, a sculptor, or even a sketch artist.

Which isn’t to knock photojournalism, of course. There’s absolutely great talent and artistry there, and I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that “capturing” reality is less difficult or less lofty than “creating” art. But it’s a different claim than fine art. So when photography asks to be taken as fine art rather than fine journalism, I have to look at it differently. And living in a city that’s so eminently photographable jades the palate: thousands of Mardi Gras Indians, thousands of grainy black-and-white tombs looming at odd angles, thousands of wisps of Spanish moss – they’re all lovely, and for the most part the good photos call up the aesthetic of the underlying subject; the not-so-good ones are just clichéd. And now there are thousands of flooded homes, overturned cars, and spraypainted X’s too.

As journalism, Katrina photography is crucial – if pictures so much as call up a two-dimensional shorthand of the losses they depict, they’re are successful. When it’s claimed as art, however, I’m extra leery. Imagery that comes prepackaged with such vicerally emotional content is just too easy. That said, there’s something about Robert Polidori’s New Orleans After the Flood at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the selected images I’ve seen of it anyway, that steps up from the journalistic plateau. As is so often the case with art, it’s hard for me to articulate exactly why I think so. The most I can say is that my impression of them lies somewhere in the intersection of a couple factors: the compositions and palettes are impressive, and the scenes don’t seem reduced to the point of abstraction on the one hand, or sentimentalized to the point of beating me over the head with any message I don’t already know too well on the other. And they almost make the NY Times’ Pompeii analogy apt.

Pompeii’s a strange choice, but preferable, I think, to Atlantis (which I think I’ll add as another qualifier for a Gumbo Award). At first glance, New Orleans seems like the anti-Pompeii — Pompeii is most famous for having been preserved, whereas in New Orleans the mold, rot and rust have been hard at work from the start. Where the comparison works, though, is in how utterly domestic the scenes are that they’ve both left.

Entergy Antidote?

September 14th, 2006

It’s nice to see that someone professional is taking legal issue with Entergy Corp’s stance that they’re not responsible for any of Entergy New Orleans’ (and its ratepayers’) troubles right now. According to Jim Chen at the Jurisdynamics blog,

Much of the problem arises from Entergy’s understanding of public utility law, one evidently shared by regulators with the authority to carry out this travesty.

Chen holds that Federal Power Commission v. Hope Natural Gas Co, the 1944 Supreme Court case frequently cited as Entergy’s excuse for leaving its subsidiary in the lurch,

emphatically did not dictate that regulators must always permit a utility to earn a rate of return on all of the investments it has historically sunk…Hope and the broader law of economic regulation do entitle Entergy to stay solvent under regulatory ovesight, but no single methodology is binding on ratemakers, let alone one that so odiously transfers wealth in a way as to make Entergy an effective profiteer from the misery wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.

Odious indeed. Ultimately, I’ll have to agree with almost any compromise that prevents a 140% rate increase for us all, including a Community Development Block Grant bailout if that’s all we can do, but I hate to see Entergy’s attitude rewarded without any objection (besides of course the business of human decency, which sadly doesn’t hold much policy weight).

On another note, one of Jurisdynamics’ areas of focus is legal response to natural disasters, so there are some other interesting posts there regarding Katrina-related issues, and it’s worth watching for more.

A Gumbo of Gumbos

September 6th, 2006

While checking for news on the Hungarian Bridge Naming Contest, I discovered that New Orleans and Budapest have even more in common than being subjected to ridiculous online polls.

It seems we’re both afflicted with tourists who butcher our cities’ names worst when they try to pronounce them most “accurately” (Boo-da-pesht is apparently the equivalent of N’Awlins), and journalists seem to find it exceptionally hard to write about either city without falling back on an arsenal of cliches, most of which revolve around foods beginning with the letter G.

Vandorlo of the Central Budapest Blog has dubbed such “semantic and cultural fudges” regarding Hungary goulash, so it only seems appropriate to call New Orleans and Louisiana chestnuts gumbo.

  • The number one gumbo is gumbo, of course. I don’t know whether Hungarian arts/music/culture etc. are ever referred to as “a goulash of xyz”, but I’ve grown a bit tired of hearing every mixture, aggregation, collection, or any other sort of group referred to as “a gumbo.” I realize there are plenty of local offenders, and it probably wouldn’t bother me as much if its use could be limited to people who know how to make a roux, or at the very least know what one is. And above all, no self-respecting Louisianan makes their gumbo toxic. Whatever foul soup it was that the Corps cooked up last year, gumbo it was not.
  • The hand-wringing “Should New Orleans be rebuilt?”: Forget about should. It was’t all gone to begin with, and it is being rebuilt. It isn’t going very quickly, but the reason for that is not that we’re waiting for the editorial staff at The Smallmindville Times to weigh in.
  • The Haves and the Have-Nots: The huge social and economic disparities in New Orleans are a very important topic, and I sincerely appreciate anyone who gives this topic a thoughtful, researched treatment. It’s not OK, however, to toss off a line or an allusion as if the whole story were The Looters versus Uptown Carnival Royalty — that does a disservice to the real issues of poverty and loss here.
  • New Orleans Music tributes that don’t include Hip Hop and/or Bounce: Full disclosure, I’m not a hip hop listener, and yes, plenty of the lyrics give me the creeps. But not liking it doesn’t make it OK to ignore the fact that it’s currently New Orleans’ most vital contribution to pop music. And besides, jazz was the vanguard of depravity once too. (Just picture: in a generation or two, pedantic aficionados hiding out in their basements with the entire ouevre of Cash Money Records on authentic period mp3 players, only pausing in their debates about the rise and fall of Master P to moan about the dangerous crap kids are listening to today.) Kelefa Sanneh at New York Times gets kudos for calling attention to the neglect of New Orleans hip hop, despite using the term “Gangsta Gumbo” in the title.
  • Stock photos/footage of Bourbon Street: I get all Uptown and pretend that it isn’t or shouldn’t be a part of the city, but it’s really not very representative unless it’s a tourism-specific topic. And do you really want your editor to know that’s all you did while you were here?
  • So there’s a few that have tended to particularly irk me. I’m still trying to catch up on my Katrina Anniversary media, but so far most of what I’ve seen hasn’t been too outrageous with cliches, although sometimes I’m bemused by the perspectives.

    Shaking Foundations

    September 6th, 2006

    Katrina made New Orleans one enormous laboratory, which didn’t end with dumping the science projects growing in the fridge. We’re about to be one of the biggest things to ever happen to Urban Planning (and all the social theory that goes with it), we are, as far as I know, the first city in the U.S. to switch to a primarily charter public school system, the flood gates and levee repairs are the biggest nail-biter to date in the 21st century, and then there’s the over-arching test of whether and how we’ll survive at all (which plenty of latter-day Know Nothings are anxiously waiting for us to fail).

    And then there’s the nonprofits. Last November, Pablo Eisenberg wrote about the future of the nonprofit world in International Center for Nonprofit Law‘s journal, which Karen at NorthwestCarrollton.com brought to my attention. There seems no better place or time to examine the ramifications of his questions “in the field,” than here in New Orleans, where every org worth its charter is involved one way or another, and when private money with a public mission is so critical at every level.

    Eisenberg’s first matter of cocern for the future of nonprofits is hardly a new one. It seems there can’t be too much policing against fraud — something we do well to remember in these parts, where some people can’t seem to keep their hands off of donated Durangos. He goes on to detail other threats to the integrity of the sector, like conflicts of interest and increasing commercialization, but less obvious and more interesting to me is his call for all nonprofits in general, but foundations in particular, to promote democratic institutions and practices. By this he doesn’t seem to mean that cancer foundations or Save the Chinchilla drives, say, should quit funding medical research or chinchilla rescue and launch voter registration drives instead, but he claims that:

    from its earliest days, a primary mission of the nonprofit sector has been the preservation and strengthening of American democracy. This role has taken many forms: protecting civil liberties and individual rights; leveling the playing field for all citizens; building strong democratic institutions; providing a social safety net for the neediest members of society; and assuring a competitive free-enterprise system.

    An interesting assertion because, while I guess I’ve always assumed that nonprofithood should entail some self-sacrificial greater good, I’ve never seen it taken to that level of abstraction and articulated that way. I don’t know if I would have concluded myself that there’s a democratic obligation on the part of foundations and charities, but now I have a hard time saying why that shouldn’t be the case. Between tax-exemption and a stated mission to pursue, a fund or funder yields a certain control to the issue itself, whatever it may be — even if it’s Save the Chinchillas, just what constitutes the Good of Chinchillas is not entirely up to you to decide once you get 501(c)(3) status for it.

    Eisenberg goes on to point out that the combination of our eroding social safety nets and the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor have simultaneously made philanthropy more necessary and more concentrated in fewer hands:

    The enormous expansion of foundation assets in recent years has added to the inequities in American life. As public support for social programs, job training, affordable housing, and projects to feed the poor and temporarily house the homeless have been reduced, the burden for such responsibilities has increasingly fallen on private individual and institutional philanthropy. Public responsibilities are becoming a matter of private charity. An elite, growing, and unrepresentative group of private foundations are now making decisions about the allocation of funds for social welfare. In a sense, “noblesse oblige” is slowly taking over what should be public decision-making.

    Far from leveling the playing field, civil society appears to have acquiesced or, at worst, abetted a national policy that has slowly made it more difficult for many citizens to enjoy equal opportunities and, at the same time, made it easier for wealthy citizens to assert greater control over society.

    Noblesse oblige is not what I want to rebuild New Orleans on. As luck would have it, shortly before reading this article, I was talking to my brother, Ben, whose reading list is always worth checking out. It turns out Ben is in the middle of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, about Robert Moses an “idealistic advocate for Progressive reform” who went on to become more powerful than mayors and governors of New York, largely via sitting (unelected) on boards and committees. I haven’t received the copy I ordered yet, but from what I understand, Moses’ noblesse oblige was not much appreciated by the end (even around here: as an advocate for cars and freeways over public transportation, he happens to be the guy who proposed the Vieux Carre Riverfront Expressway, giving us the Second Battle of New Orleans).

    One of the most interesting responses to Eisenberg is H. Peter Karoff’s. He ethusiastically takes up the call for greater transparency and public accountibility in nonprofit workings, lambasting paternalistic attitudes among some foundation trustees:

    Major foundations more often than not have viewed themselves as the source of innovation, “the manufacturer,” with little if any input from recipient organizations and communities, “the users.” Strategic and Venture Philanthropists likewise often view themselves as crucial to innovation. It is assumed that the nonprofit organization recipients and programs will not, cannot, perform without them. Nonprofit organizations, which are often intermediaries between funders and communities being served, are sometimes guilty of the same patronizing assumptions about constituencies and clients.

    Karoff points to the Internet and Open Source software development as the torchbearers of the new Democracy, and the exemplars for future nonprofit management. It’s an admirable and popular sentiment, praising the organization of the Internet and proposing it as a model, but I’m not sure it always means very much without a closer examination of what sorts of collaboration take off and why, and whether the problem being proposed for solution Internet-style lends itself to such a strategy and how. What does it get the chinchillas? And what does it mean for the GNOF, the NOCSF, the LRA Fund, etc.?

    I don’t really know, but I think a large part of the answer comes from the zealous nut phenomenon (thanks to Karen again). To add a little to what Karen has already excerpted on her site from the Project for Public Spaces article on the passionate amateurs who are deeply engaged in the upkeep and development of their own communities:

    More and more developers, designers and leaders are now realizing that the success of a public project depends on the participation of the public itself. That seems obvious, but it took a long time for many decision makers to figure that out.

    The article goes on to note that foundations in some places (like the Ruth Mott Foundation in Flint, Michigan) are starting to shift their focus toward the crazy neighborhood ladies (and gentlemen) when it comes to civic improvement.

    Whatever happens, it should be interesting to watch the numerous funds and organizations at work here, local, national and international, and their degrees of responsiveness to the public they aim to serve. This debate takes on so much more urgency when actual public policy is being determined by foundations (no offence to the chinchillas). I see some interest in “public input” on the part of the UNOP and its funders, but it’s not quite the same as the kind of democratic responsiveness and public involvement I see in the Eisenberg PPS articles, not yet anyway. How the planning teams themselves relate to their assigned districts will be the test, I suppose.