Entries for the 'New Orleans Laboratory' Category
June 23rd, 2007
For immediate release:
The Scrooge-Marley Foundation is pleased to announce a $2.2 million grant to advance a joint initiative by Scrooge-Marley and the New Orleans Office of Repast Management to buy New Orleans lunch. The grant will fund a series of conferences on Menu Development, Seating Arrangement, and Service Strategies, among other lunch-related concerns. “Mid-day hunger management in the Crescent City and elsewhere has always been a burning concern of ours – now more than ever,” said Scrooge-Marley Spokesperson, Waylon Smithers. “Almost two years later, the region is still reeling from the thousands of lunches lost both in spoiled refrigerators themselves, and in attempts to clean or inspect those spoiled refrigerators. The need is great and the task complex. Recruiting top-notch talent will guarantee that the lunch-preparation efforts are undertaken with the highest degree of professionalism and urgency.”
NOORP Director B.B. Bumstead added, “The Scrooge-Marley grant will be critically important in helping the city build the necessary caloric capital to assist in New Orleans’ recovery.”
The NO Free Lunch program will be administered by the Graham School of Orthopathy’s Center for Dinner Excellence. “Katrina was devastating to South Louisiana lunching, but it is incumbant upon all of this to take this as an opportunity to address the endemic dietary poverty of the region, where decades of high seasoned food, rich dishes, and the free use of flesh, not to mention coffee and wine, have trapped the populace in the cycle of luxury, indolence, voluptuousness, and sensuality that so gripped the nation’s and the world’s hearts in the days following August 29, 2005. What we have here, basically, is a blank plate,” said Graham President Palmer Onan, “We are especially pleased to be spearheading the first large-scale mixed-income lunch menu, and are in talks with Hormel regarding the production a fois-gras-and-mixed-baby-greens Spam for the occasion.”
In addition to Mixed-Income Menu Planning, Seating Arrangement Studies, and Strategizing Food Service, the series of conferences is expected to address the production of a NO Free Lunch documentary, development of a “Mouth of New Orleans” citizen-feedback web portal, and an ongoing series of “Breakfast with Boudreaux” talks to be streamed live on Mouth of New Orleans.
If you would like to receive NO Free Lunch, provide feedback, receive NO Free Lunch updates, or if you are a Lunch Professional interested in attending upcoming NO Free Lunch Conferences, please visit MouthOfNewOrleans.com.
May 13th, 2007
“Recovery also has to do with establishing legitimacy: understanding and responding to citizens’ priorities for the city. … With legitimacy, even if physical reconstruction is uneven and slow, citizens won’t necessarily feel their recovery was thwarted or denied.” – Diane E. Davis, Reverberations: Mexico City’s 1985 Earthquake and the Transformation of the Capital, March 18, 2002, at MIT’s Resilient Cities lecture series
Karen (of Squandered Heritage and Northwest Carrollton fame) asked the other day in conversation, why aren’t we looking at Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake more? Maybe because it wasn’t exactly a stellar recovery – but then, that makes it all the more relevant to our own faltering steps. Of course, the comparison hasn’t been completely neglected – nosing around a bit, I turned up this post, which in turn led to finding this video of Diane E. Davis’ lecture on Mexico City’s experience.
Do you have an hour or so to spare? WATCH THE VIDEO. The lecture portion is about 50 minutes long, with a 20 minute question and answer session following (although the sound isn’t great in that portion). Don’t have 50 minutes? Watch it in stages. I started jotting down a few notes about comments that seemed interesting or relevant to New Orleans’ situation, and ended up with 4 1/2 pages. I’ll try not to go into excruciating detail, but the Mexico City experience is so much food for thought I expect I’ll be chewing on this for a long time to come. So rather than attempt a blow-by-blow comparison of similar events here and there, here are a few points that especially stood out for me (in no particular order):
Responding to the title of the series, Davis argued that it’s not quite the case that cities are resilient. Rather, cities have multiple resiliencies, and some are less desirable than others. Corrupt intstitutions for instance, or violent crime. On the other hand, the resiliency of neighborhood and grassroots organizations was remarkable – even if they didn’t achieve everything they wanted or deserved, their political impact was definitely felt after the first faltering efforts that “followed the logic of money and power.” Citizens asked, “is it possible that we can believe in the efficacy of the government, when it was the people who did everything?” Their questions were the beginning of the end of one-party rule, and did eventually bring about somewhat more participatory democratic institutions and greater accountibility. Questions about urban recovery shouldn’t be limited to how cities recover; we should also ask what they recover. Since the center of the city, the concentration of the political, social, historical, cultural, and economic character of the city as a whole, was most severely affected, what exactly that character was and what it should become were hotly contested. Failure to come up with a coherent, easily implementable recovery plan wasn’t due merely to the very real shortcomings of the local and national government of the time, but also to the competing priorities of different populations and the political pressure they applied. Less damaged areas pushed for more “macroeconomic” concerns while the homeless were still fighting for shelter; debates raged on whether low-income housing should be rebuilt in place, in long-standing downtown neighborhoods, or whether that would discourage higher-end downtown redevelopment with a focus on tourism and offices – again, the character of more than just buildings was at issue. There’s conflict inherent in recovery – ignoring that fact won’t make it go away. Dignity, la dignidad, was the rallying cry for citizens’ groups. They lobbied for specific material needs as well, and for government accountibility, but the recovery of dignity was the vital underpinning of all those efforts. Although admirable concessions were achieved in housing policy, distribution of housing and assistance were still uneven in some respects, and that unevenness has had long-lasting effects, including exacerbating violent rivalries among street vendors, and the persistance of tent cities for years in some areas. Many downtown hotels and private office buildings were left unattended for years to come. There’s been a resurgence of activity and investment in the area more recently, but there are still spots here and there, two or three blocks in size, that have been untouched since 1985, just a stone’s throw from thriving, rebuilt districts.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop myself for now. I’m curious to know what anyone else thinks about the lecture, or about the Mexico City recovery experience in general.
March 31st, 2007
OK, I can’t come up with a New Orleans Recovery palindrome. I tried my hand at some anagrams though, and here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Mayor of New Orleans – A sworn loony re fame. Parish Recovery Council – A cyclone: ouch, rivers rip. Unified New Orleans Plan – A serene fill-in. Own up: nada. Army Corps of Engineers – If errors, spongy menace.
Best I could do. I’m no Nabokov.
But down to business now, The Man is Recovery Czar Ed Blakely, The Plans are the ones we’re all too familiar with already, plus the new addition of Blakely’s “It’s not my plan, it’s the people’s plan,” and The Canals, well – if the powers that be don’t start listening to vox clamantis Matt McBride, the unholy waters will flow again and the plans won’t be worth the paper they’re written on.
My initial reaction to Blakely’s announcement of his 17 target zones was, like that of some fellow bloggers who were (as usual) quicker on the uptake than me, optimistic, if guardedly so. It’s reassuring to see a commitment to the severely devastated 9th Ward and New Orleans East, and the distribution of the “Redevelop” and “Renew” areas seems reasonable. And it’s fair of Blakely to observe that New Orleans doesn’t have the best record when it comes to finishing projects, and as nice as it would be to address everything that needs attention immediately, chances are that would lead to nothing getting done at all, anywhere. (That said, it would be worthwhile if Blakely and his Parishwide Recovery Committee would let on which areas are under consideration for Phase 2 and beyond – lots more neighborhoods’ futures hang in the balance, and they deserve some idea of what to expect and when.)
Despite my hope that the announcement means that these 17 zones will see some real action in the near future, my optimism guard, as I mentioned, is up and fully armed. As Library Chronicles points out, the Blakely Plan isn’t much longer on specifics than anything else we’ve seen (and the financing is fishy: notably the “blight bonds” and the unlikely waiver of the requirement of the 10% match for FEMA projects). There’s a general opacity to it that doesn’t augur well if it continues.
A Recovery Czar who says in response to reporters’ inquiries about what development in the 17 zones might look like:
“I have a very clear idea” of how the zones will develop, he said. “Developers make a lot of money by getting those clear ideas early and getting the jump in the game. And that shouldn’t happen in the newspaper. You’re a newspaper reporter, not a developer.”
and a Mayor who follows (not surprisingly) with:
“I don’t want to get into specific dates and specific projects with you guys because I know what you do with that: You come back later and you talk about the things that we haven’t done.”
don’t sound like executors of a “people’s plan.”
And for that matter, I haven’t yet found a comprehensive list of who is serving on the Parishwide Recovery Committee, or when and where their future meetings will be held (I would think their proceedings would fall under the requirements of Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law). Also, Blakely has called the UNOP “a critical part of [the] process” (falling somewhat short of explicitly endorsing it – and while we’re on that topic, is the Parishwide Recovery Committee the same as the Parishwide Recovery Council, or is it a pointed snub? I’ve seen it referred to as both), and he seems to invoke it as the basis of calling it “the people’s plan,” but if the UNOP and/or other previous planning efforts are going to be the sum-total of public participation, I’m concerned. Not that I think we need to be put through any more magic-marker-and-red-dot exercises, but the UNOP has its share of woolly bits that could be stretched to fit plenty of interpretations of “the will of the people.” The public deserves comment periods and scrutiny of plan particulars in the media, mainstream- and citizen-varieties. Any developers worth their salt should be able to cope with that.
So, my fingers are crossed that we can get some positive action without more secrecy, otherwise, I’m afraid New Orleans Recovery = CRoWN EVERYONE A LOSER (OK, I cheated on that one – it was just too close to resist).
March 6th, 2007
photo by Fiona Cooper
A belated hat-tip to Maitri for pointing out that the glowing quotes from Andres Duany about New Orleans being “the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities,” and singing the praises of our music, food and culture are excerpted from a BusinessWeek.com article culminating in the recommendation of
“…an experimental ‘opt-out zone’: areas where one ‘contracts out’ of the current American system, which consists of the nanny state raising standards to the point where it is so costly and complicated to build that only the state can provide affordable housing – solving a problem that it created in the first place.”
There’s another name for the sort of “opt-out zone” he’s proposing, and that’s shantytown (he’s not the only one: economist Tyler Cowen explicitly suggests a shantytown reconstruction here). Duany, who is famously prickly about affordable housing (preferring, in true New Urbanist form, fantasies of past “good” poor neighborhoods bustling with Sesame Street-like cheerful activity), has finally announced what sort of decanter he’d like to pour the monoculture of poverty into, but he hasn’t yet proposed where to put it. Probably not in the vicinity of the Cuban-esque Marigny Creole Cottage that inspired his epiphany about New Orleans culture.
Another of Duany’s good-old-days fantasies is that:
“Until recently this [building by one's self, or by barter] was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option,”
forgetting that if one’s home burned down, flooded or collapsed, one was left with nothing, however individually responsible one was. Also forgetting that New Orleans’ building-code history actually pre-dates our Anglo-American period that Duany insists will kill our culture – when the Spanish acquired Louisiana and decided it was a bad idea to keep letting the Vieux Carre burn down every few years.
Could there be less red tape in permitting? Of course. Is building according to safety standards more expensive than not? Naturally. Will debt be hard to bear for those who must rebuild or restore homes that were previously paid off? Afraid so, although it seems like addressing that problem ought to entail putting insurance companies feet to the fire, eliminating the Road Home restriction to awards based on “pre-storm value” rather than real rebuilding costs, and holding the Army Corps of Engineers accountable for its negligence, before throwing up our hands in defeat and suggesting that standards and safety should be considered luxury commodities.
The materials for these new pioneer opt-out homes had better be damn cheap or free (maybe salvaged off of the moldering ruins of abandoned properties – blight and affordable housing, two birds with one stone!), since no lending institution is going to approve even a modest amount for a building with no insurance, which is another item this experimental zone will be opting out of. (And, should another disaster occur, the naysayers who question New Orleans’ “right” to exist in the first place will crow the world’s loudest told-you-so.) Will Entergy turn the gas and lights on with no assurance that the wiring etc. was professionally done? (No doubt it’s more romantically Caribbean to dine by candlelight.)
No insurance also means no legitimate business even if one has the means to start up without a loan. Liability, workers comp, and other forms of insurance required are hardly likely to be obtainable either, let alone business, as opposed to building, permits. But no matter – illegitimate business is full of the plucky New World entrepreneurial spirit, and organized crime already loves “lending” and “insuring.” Maitri wrote that one of her first thoughts on reading about what a well-run Caribbean city we have was “tell this to the families of murder victims whose killers walk the streets due to inefficient government.” A criminal justice system is one of our government “nannies,” and ours is so abysmal right now that faced with an Opt Out Zone, opting out is probably what it would do too.
Maitri explains better than I can how wrong it is to conflate laissez-faire culture with laissez-faire governance – under the latter, the bon temps doesn’t roule so well. But beneath the fawning over the Caribbean value of enjoying quality of life before retirement, sometimes by sacrificing a bigger salary (but not necessarily by not working much, as he implies – someone should remind him of how much laundry gets done on Mondays while those red beans are slowly simmering) laissez-faire economics are what “New Orleans: The Wealthiest City of the Caribbean” is all about. And plenty of lives were just as nasty, brutish and short in the Old Free-For-All Urbanism that the New kind selectively appeals to as they are now (what shall we opt out of next? child labor laws? wouldn’t little chimney sweeps be cute, crawling up the flues of all those gas- and electric-free houses? how retro).
Someone please tell me that The Onion bought BusinessWeek, and a super-star urban planner did not just go down that road, or I’m going to have to opt out of what little sanity I have left.
December 5th, 2006
I’ve been in a bit of a blogging funk lately. It feels like beating a dead horse sometimes, and my flogging arm is getting worn out. If only you could mechanize it some way… But wait, you can if you have 2.4 million dollars, and you can beat it from five different cities simultaneously! Yes, I let morbid curiosity overcome me again, and I attended UNOP/AmericaSpeaks’ Community Congress II last Saturday.
I have to give them some credit – this Congress came much closer to pre-Katrina demographics where race and income were concerned, although not on age or planning district residence. This Congress was rather more participatory than the last one as well. Rather than voting exclusively on pre-ordained options, the “Theme Team” synthesized alternative scenarios besides the ones presented by UNOP based on the submissions of each table. It’s a good thing, too, because “scenario” is a strong word for what the original options were on each of the six topics. For example:
Roads, Transit and Utilities
Spread available funds evenly throughout the city. Concentrate available recovery funds in areas of the city with the greatest need* Raise additional funds, possibly through higher taxes or user fees, so that all infrastructure can be repaired and improved.
- (note: “greatest need” wasn’t explicitly defined, but from the pros and cons section of the handout, it was clear that UNOP equates greatest need with greatest population, not level of damage)
More (but not all) of the scenarios and alternatives can be seen in the Preliminary Report.
Someone remind me again – how many months of planning has it taken to come up with these “scenarios”? I thought at first that this sort of narrowing the scope – from extremely vague to somewhat vague – via citizen input might have been a good thing to have done back in July or August. The sort of information produced strikes me as where to start planning, not refine it. But then I got sticker shock:
6 topics approximately 2,500 participants $2.4 million (for just this session)
At $400,000 per topic and roughly $960 per participant, what do New Orleanians really gain that’s of lasting value? Is that really all the public input we can buy for $2.4 million? I hope the funders are watching.
November 3rd, 2006
“Although the Roman empire expanded to a great territory, the Roman republicans were never concerned about the actuality of political participation by citizens living far away from Rome, where the assembly met regularly. In fact, most citizens of the Roman empire probably never attended an assembly, and the situation created a random and skewed system of representation – those living close to Rome became de facto “representatives” of other citizens of the Roman empire.” – Representative Government and Democracy, Bo Li
With all the invocation of Democracy and the Founding Fathers in this latest planning process, one thing that seems to have been forgotten is the role of representation. With all of our actual elected representatives snubbing the UNOP, it’s more and more doubtful how much backbone the UNOP will have as a “Unified New Orleans Plan,” but it’s far from certain yet whether or how much the Lambert plans or any others will bear much fruit with respect to funding and implementation either. Whatever the fate of the UNOP, it’s worth drawing some lessons from its latest venture, especially with regard to what passes for public participation, for posterity if nothing else. The first lesson, I think, is well illustrated by the quote about Roman government above: those living close to New Orleans are not adequate “representatives” of citizens in the uninhabitable or barely inhabitable portions of our city, however well-intentioned (or not). Public hearings, meetings, and comment periods are indispensable to democratic government, but they’re never a substitute for proportional representation. (For a thoughtful, multi-faceted review of public partipication, the lack of it, what’s passed for it, and responses to it in post-Katrina New Orleans – from the BNOB to UNOP’s Community Congress – it’s definitely worth reading People Get Ready’s We have more than that at the 4:00 mass on Saturday post.)
Sometimes, especially times like ours, the representation allowed for by our constitutions and charters – the mayors, city councils, governors, senators, representatives and presidents – aren’t enough; legislation doesn’t conveniently exist for the level of public involvement required for a whole region’s reconstruction. The first step is, of course, actively seeking population samples that reflect the real make-up of the city, not just waiting for who happens to show up. In an era when government models itself so much on business, is it too much to ask that we call the marketing department to see how they survey any and all demographics they want to target? It’s a challenge, to say the least, in the post-Katrina diaspora, but not one that can’t have its margin of error significantly reduced. There’s a name for the sort of “public participation” we’ve been treated to so far: Voodoo Poll. How apt.
“The most common examples of voodoo polls are those which ask for people to phone a number, or to click a voting option on a website, or send back a coupon cut from a newspaper. … The most glaring difference between a voodoo poll and a legitimate poll is that voodoo polls have self-selecting samples…”
But even if we had proportional representation of New Orleans’ citizenry, it’s still all for naught if the questions don’t represent the real issues. Plenty of poll-watchers caution that attention to the wording of poll questions is imperative in interpreting their results. You don’t have to be a bought-out push poller to ask questions that are meaningless, or worse, misleading. This is an area that’s not new ground either. Here’s one of the best articulations I’ve seen of how to approach developing meaningful survey questions, and why it matters:
“Good practice in survey research includes framing the questions in a way that people can recognize their own point of view in the alternatives that they are given by the interviewer. Polling is, after all, the art of putting words into peoples’ mouths. Objective practice demands that the words chosen for the questionnaire come close to the words that advocates of each point of view would use if they were given the chance to frame their opinion without prompting. In scientific or academic surveys, the phrasing of questions is usually drawn from published remarks by leaders of one point of view or another or from “focus groups” in which ordinary citizens are asked to discuss important issues in their own terms. At SRC [Survey Research Center] we supplement these practices by “pretesting” questions in practice interviews. If the respondents to practice interviews have a hard time recognizing their point of view in the questions, then we rewrite them. We try not to have more than one respondent in 20 say they “don’t know” how they feel on an issue unless we feel that the issue itself is so obscure that many people really have no opinion. With a widely discussed issue, a scientific poll should not have more than five percent of answers be “don’t know” (Converse and Presser 1989).
“Advocacy polls, on the other hand, frequently “slant” questions by raising questions in a way that are favorable to one point of view in a debate-
and unfavorable to another-or by posing questions that create a dilemma for proponents of one side (Asher 1990). This practice makes it difficult for persons from one persuasion to answer the questions as stated. They are typically in a quandary because they cannot fully agree with any of the statements offered them, or they cannot choose between the alternatives that are posed because they agree with both or disagree with both. Some poll respondents then refuse to answer the question or say they don’t know which alternative to choose. Others say “both?’ or “neither” as their reply.” – Wording, Polling, and Opinion, Michael Hout
Any group that has the capacity to convene Town Hall-style meetings of citizens and collect their input should perhaps be less concerned with determining citizens’ answers to policy questions than with determining the real questions for which various citizens’ groups have already proposed answers. We can stop asking what New Orleanians’ generalized Hopes and Concerns or Needs and Goals are about recovery, and start asking what are the controversies about how to address them, because the options are well-considered and have been articulated by plenty.
October 29th, 2006
I’m not sure why I keep attending UNOP events. I guess I just feel compelled to see what they’re going to pull next – it’s certainly not from a sense that I’m “participating;” there’s only so much use that can come of asking people to rank their nebulous Needs and Goals (or Hopes and Concerns as was the case yesterday), and only so many times it’s worth asking. For the record, UNOP, I think crime is bad, flood protection is good, and some affordable housing, schools and hospitals would be rather nice too, if I’m allowed to have that many preferences. So I attended yesterday morning’s Community Congress #1 at the Convention Center’s La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom, where I was treated to presentations on some of the citywide data that’s been collected and analysed to date, and to the first instance of AmericaSpeaks’ involvement in feedback collection.
Hearing some infrastructure, housing, health care, etc statistics was of some interest – not least because it’s the first substantive product made public from the citywide component of the plan. As someone mentioned at the last CSO meeting, it would have been nice if they’d posted all or some of it for citizens to view and digest before being asked to provide feedback on it, but they promise it will go on The Website (for posterity, apparently). Wait and see…
The debut of AmericaSpeaks, the organization “brought in to support the New Orleans planning effort because of concerns that many displaced New Orleanians, especially low-income African-Americans, have no voice in recovery decisions” and to collect data and citizen feedback, was of some interest as well. I hope they have some fancier tricks up their 21st century sleeves for putting the $3 million they expect their endeavor to cost ($2.3 million already committed by mysterious private foundations they decline to identify) to use in future meetings – one of the first things they demonstrated to the ballroom using their wireless, real-time polling gizmos was that we were decidedly not consistent with the pre-Katrina demographics in race, income, geography or age (curiously, they made a specialpoint of emphasizing that the 15-19 year old age group was dramatically underrepresented, and we should take care to consider their interests – under-14 year olds apparently need not worry). What they intend to do to address the imbalance isn’t quite clear to me. They did note that the Congress would be broadcast on cable access channels in the “diaspora cities” and that viewers there would be able to provide their feedback via the UNOP’s toll-free number, but the staffer who answered when I called hadn’t heard anything about that yet.
Maybe the real outreach component of AmericaSpeaks’ program hasn’t begun in earnest – most of the press surrounding AmericaSpeaks’ involvement revolves around the ultimate December 2 Community Congress, so it’s not impossible. I think it would be of enormous benefit to New Orleans to work with an organization that’s capable of locating enough respondents, both here in town and elsewhere, to make up something approaching a representative statistical sampling of pre-Katrina residents and to gather their feelings on how our recovery should go. Unfortunately, not only is it unclear how displaced residents will be reached, the UNOP is losing the audience it’s already had. Among the ways in which an AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meeting (registered trademark) is supposed to be superior to the old-fashioned public hearing is that the public hearing “primarily engages the ‘usual suspects’ – citizens already civically active on specific issues,” and yet there we were, the usual self-selected suspects, diligently reporting to be put through our paces. And that group is rapidly de-selecting – I see fewer and fewer of the faces I know to still be active in their own neighborhoods and in general recovery-related activities. I guess even morbid curiosity wears out after a while.
How to accurately sample a population of which more than half is displaced may be one of the many stretches of uncharted territory New Orleans is faced with right now, but how to compose survey questions to elicit worthwhile, unambiguous answers isn’t. Polling is a pretty well-developed industry. The Usual Suspects may provide an incomplete data set, but they’re by and large an earnest bunch, who give recovery matters a lot of thought, and their responses as individuals count as much as anyone else’s. So what was made of their sacrifice of three hours of a beautiful Saturday morning? Not much, as far as I could tell. I’m not sure how the questions were crafted – I’m sure UNOP told the AmericaSpeaks people what they wanted to ask, but my impression of how AmericaSpeaks conducted the polling suggested that they were more involved than mere readers and tabulators, and anyway, I’d expect an organization that purports to specialize in citizen-led contribution to decision-making to have some expertise how best to craft that opportunity to contribute. A lot of the questions were of the no-brainer variety: it won’t come as much surprise that I’m not the only New Orleanian who thinks hospitals are important. And when issues aren’t so trivial, it isn’t so trivial to design a statement so it can be rated on a 1 to 5 scale – but it isn’t rocket science either. Anyone who’s ever had to answer “on a scale of 1 to 5…” (which is just about everyone) has run across the dilemma conditional situations. It may not be possible to eliminate that entirely, but you can go a long way with a little common sense. I wish I’d saved the 5 page paper questionnaire we were asked to complete, or better yet, just not turned mine in for all the good it’ll do, so I could quote some of the howlers verbatim – one example off the top of my head:
On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 equalling “reason to return to New Orleans” and 5 equalling “reason not to return,” rate the following: adequate levee protection.
Does that mean I’ve returned because I think the levee protection is adequate, or does that mean I would return if it were? After presentations that included current and projected levee status, which is allegedly back up to its pre-Katrina level and undergoing further improvements, I really don’t know which to assume. It didn’t get any better on the rest of the pages.
Also eyebrow raising were a couple instances when AmericaSpeaks president Carolyn Lukensmeyer prefaced questions with admonitions of what to consider while voting. In one case involving funding for parks and recreation areas, she told us to remember the presentation we just heard, and how important it was For The Children (who were probably out enjoying parks and recreation areas rather than sitting in a dark ballroom pretending to be a market-research focus group). If you’d like to capture the true Voice of the People, AmericaSpeaks, you’ll do well to let us remember what to consider on our own. In another case, regarding whether it’s important or not for New Orleans to be the most populous city in the state, Ms. Lukensmeyer brought up Galveston and Houston, raising the specter of becoming a tiny, boutique tourist town while all the real industry moves upriver. Although that happens to be a concern of mine, I don’t think it was AmericaSpeaks’ position to frame the issue in a way that steered attention to an all-or-nothing sort of view while there’s still legitimate room for debate about a smaller, but still vital city. It really isn’t their position to remind us of anything.
So I’m left with the bitter feeling that this is just another UNOP photo-op – the citizenry raptly attentive to the big screen with their very own thoughts and feelings reflected back to them: how democratic (at one point the Founding Fathers were even invoked). And this time they’ve literally outsourced it.
The Ballroom has spoken.
October 20th, 2006
I first read the BGR’s report on Road Home’s rental housing a couple weeks ago, and it really got under my skin. And now it’s been cited in yesterday’s Times-Picayune front page article on the fate of public housing and the directions being taken toward affordable housing in New Orleans, it’s crawling out from where it’s been festering.
“Although ostensibly a recovery program, the Road Home rental program is at heart an affordable housing program.”
The Road Home Rental Housing Program: Consequences for New Orleans
Bureau of Governmental Research
First of all, it’s been my understanding that HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program is intended, in their own words “principally for low- and moderate-income persons,” so the LRA couldn’t not focus primarily on affordable housing even if it wanted to. Unaffordable housing ought to be able to take care of itself, as the BGR itself aptly pointed out back on August 24, 2005, in that other lifetime when Katrina was just a newly named tropical storm preparing to swat Florida.
Second, the spirit of alarm (gasp! an it’s an affordable housing program? in the
Orange County I mean, Orleans Parish, recovery effort?) is telling. The BGR recognizes that the many legacies of poverty have hurt our city and citizens, but their high-minded, “objective,” “pure facts,” “no spin” (is there ever a clearer warning to keep your seatbelt fastened and your arms inside the ride until the Tilt-A-Whirl comes to a complete stop?) conclusion is that the remedy is to remove the poor, or a sizable number of them anyway. And being the ever-thorough BGR, they detail at great length their endorsement of the best means to accomplish this feat – move over Voodoo, there’s a new sympathetic magic in town: Feng Shui.
The BGR is probably too “advanced” to believe in elemental natures like Air, Fire, and Water, but that doesn’t mean they’re above the Move Your Poor, Change Your Life strategy of urban self-improvement which is so popular these days (they have plenty of company in HUD, and even the LRA to some extent, however harshly the BGR takes them to task).
It begins with skimming the excess: Poverty doesn’t have to go away entirely – you still have to take the yin with the yang, the dishwashers with the doyennes – but
“The geographic allocation formula [ i.e. - dispensing funds based on the percentage of damage] would continue to concentrate the region’s low income subsidized housing in New Orleans.”
That’s right, the BGR is so confident that the New Feng Shui will have us manifesting effortlessly that they’d rather New Orleans get less funding. Granted, they’re not without paternalistic concern for the less well-off: “So much of the money and jobs have gone to suburbs,” BGR President Janet Howard told the Times-Pic. We should “help lower-income people relocate closer to jobs that would help them climb the economic ladder.” Go off to a better life in other parishes (of course, not St. Bernard – you’re not welcome there unless you’re a blood relative). Don’t worry about us market-raters – we’ll soldier on alone, here in this economically stagnant, jobless hell hole.
After skimming the excess comes deconcentration. Too much of the Element in one place is just no good, however benign it may be in small amounts. Sure, there’s research on correllations between high concentrations of poverty and problems like crime and teenage pregnacy (although the correllations vary more from place to place than you might guess from casual mentions), but causation is far from proven, and doesn’t appear to be getting any closer. Nevertheless, Mixed-Income is a rallying cry far and wide, despite results that at their rosy-lensed, optimistic best have been, well, mixed (and whose relative successes aren’t necessarily measured by the lives of the “deconcentrated,” but by the real estate).
The mixed income strategy (or strategies, since the implementations have been all over the map regarding what sort of mixes, what income levels, ratios, building styles, etc., which makes the BGR report’s repeated conjuring of a “classic mixed income development” especially baffling) is least effective where it’s most predicated on trickle-down socialization. Did I say move over Voodoo? Maybe I spoke too soon – the one thing that can be said for supply-side economics is that we can all agree what side the supply is on. The notion that the above-AMI crowd is in exclusive possession of morals, work ethic, and all around upright behavior is rather less certain. If only being evil really did make you poor… Curiously, one of the BGR report’s harshest criticisms of the LRA and LHFA is that it has “attempted to achieve predetermined social outcomes” with this program by backing off somewhat from their original plan to engineer mixed income developments with high market-rate to low-income ratios.
What’s especially disturbing about this report is that the BGR doesn’t even believe it’s own rhetoric. Would any “research” organization worth its salt concede this: “Limited evidence exists to support the theoretical benefits of mixed income developments,” and still proceed? Would the weasel-worded “Many policy makers and scholars have expressed their preference” pass professional muster anywhere else? (The answer is sadly, yes, all too often, but it shouldn’t anyway.) No matter – the point isn’t to lift individuals out of poverty, it’s to reduce the Element. Why? Lest we “Impede the Growth of the Tax Base.”
The BGR is hardly without company in the stance that cities are made of tax bases first and citizens second – perhaps one among the “many policy makers and scholars” consulted was New Urbanist Andres Duany (speaking of Feng Shui spatial fixes), who’s said in the past that “affordable housing is not what cities need. Because they don’t pay taxes. They bankrupt cities.” (In another discussion with New Urbanism critic Alex Marshall, Mr. Duany gives us the delicious phrase: “to decant the monocultures of poverty.” ?!? Add alchemy to the growing list of mojos in play.) Does New Orleans need a stronger tax base? Of course. Should we watch what public subsidies are doled out for development projects and how? Like hawks. But are there really legions of well-heeled taxpayers lined up out there to fill the market-rate portions of these projects and solve all our economic problems if only we filter out the Element adequately? (Need a quick financial fix? try
green candles Green Condos in your Wealth Corner.) A moment ago, New Orleans was such a wasteland that low-income workers were counseled to settle in other parishes post-haste – there’s no “economic ladder” to climb here, we kicked it away.
Poverty won’t be solved by any one magic bullet, spell, charm, or fetish, and if pretending we’ve neutralized it draws attention away from the needs of actual people in actual neighborhoods, we could leave city and citizens alike just as bad off as before (I’m really tired of the rationale that whatever we do couldn’t be worse than before just as long as we do it differently). Not to mention, lingering any longer on trying to attract developers and these mysterious market-rate renters to fill out the 60-80% units it’ll take to justify the 20-40% affordable units just limits repopulation (the tax base, the tax base!). The Rental Road Home plan may not be an absolute gem, but it’s time now to start getting people into homes again, not play mad social scientist. What color candle do we have to light to do that?
October 14th, 2006
Their slide presentation suggested that they’ve already compiled a lot of information about the district, its neighborhood groups (besides the “official” eight city-defined neighborhoods they’ve identified 28 actual functioning groups), and plans for particular areas that are already in existence, both pre- and post-Katrina. H3 principal John Hoal indicated several times that this information would be on “the website,” which, when I asked about it later, proved to be the UNOP site. No luck with that yet, unless it’s squirreled away somewhere pretty clever. The too predictable Deliverables & Support Documents page is still “coming soon” as of this post. Too bad, because it really does look like they’ve been doing they’re homework, including walking every foot of sidewalk and driving every street in the district. The maps they produced for their slideshow, of the varying conditions of streets, sidewalks, housing, etc would be great resources. H3′s own website was, sadly, one of those Flash affairs (I had to download an upgrade just to see it at all) that amounts to nothing more than a set of incredibly fancy lists. There are some teasers of maps and renderings that show up when you hover over the lists, but no links to close-ups, at least not in Firefox. It’s also completely unsearchable. It’s frustrating to see such an incredible potential information source so overdesigned and – I was going to say underutilized – but it’s really flat-out unutilized.
It was good to see key members of the planning team in attendence and leading the proceedings, including John Hoal, Derek Hoeferlin and Laura Lyon. Besides the slide presentation on the course of the UNOP meetings to come and on the research H3 et al have done to date, the rest of the session was devoted to small groups reviewing the Needs, Vision and Goals already collected by H3, and then selecting their top three concerns from those listed or their own devising. There was a lot of consensus when the small groups reported back – I guess we’re not a very contentious lot around here, fortunately. Crime, schools, decent affordable housing in historically appropriate styles (rehabilitated historic homes wherever possible), community health care, and closing the above/below St. Charles divide were big hits, but the applause-winning show-stopper was actual enforcement of existing zoning. All valid and interesting enough, but a bit on the woolly side – who’s pro-crime or anti-education? The devil is in the details, after all (hence, I think, the support for enforcing zoning), and we’re still a long way from knowing how and when those will be developed and implemented.
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.