Entries for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Grimm Decisions

January 6th, 2007

The eldest went first into the room where the slipper was, and wanted to try it on, and the mother stood by. But her great toe could not go into it, and the shoe was altogether much too small for her. Then the mother gave her a knife, and said, ‘Never mind, cut it off; when you are queen you will not care about toes; you will not want to walk.’ So the silly girl cut off her great toe, and thus squeezed on the shoe, and went to the king’s son. – Ashputtel (Cinderella), Grimm’s Fairy Tales

The F-word is in the air again. Or rather, it’s conspicuously not in the air, since the BNOB taught everyone what a dirty word footprint could be. Now, the buzz is about unrestrained rebuilding in “risky” areas, thanks in particular to the Washington Post’s New Orleans Repeats Mistakes as it Rebuilds article yesterday. The blogosphere is once again awash in “why are we letting those idiots spend our to rebuild below sea level?” rants (note, though, mominem’s lonely voice of dissent ranked on the first page of Google’s blogsearch). Oddly enough, the Post’s previous day’s story on Sacramento’s potentially catastrophic flood risk, observing that (surprise) it’s levees are substandard, didn’t warrant much blogland comment that I’ve been able to find.

I wouldn’t give the footprint topic the time of day if it were confined to knee-jerk New Orleans haters who think that our massive losses are costing them somehow, as if some enormous Save New Orleans tax were being levied on them personally. But I’ve heard the variations on the “you have to shrink the footprint” line from too many friends and relatives out of town – people who sincerely love New Orleans, visit here, visit more than just the French Quarter and Jazz Fest Fairgrounds, and want the city to survive almost as desperately as we residents do – to brush it off.

After all, it does seem eminently logical both to consolidate the population for the sake of providing services, and to run like hell from the worst-flooded areas. It’s true that we can’t expect to come back to pre-Katrina population density any time soon, if ever (and no one here wants their neighborhood to suffer the jack-o-lantern fate, or be surrounded by blight and vacant lots), and it’s completely fair to ask why one should rebuild in the deepest flood-risk zones. The trouble is, I’ve never seen the inevitable, costly consequences of a smaller footprint adequately addressed, even if race and class inequities could be somehow swept aside. And it does cost. It’s not an abstracted matter of so many puzzle pieces to be shuffled around, or cars in a valet parking lot. It’s a question of where real people can live, and how we can afford to make decent housing available in a timely manner.

Even the UNOP’s Community Congress II acknowledged that one of the “cons” of the scenario of requiring people to resettle in ill-defined “clusters” was the greater cost than letting people rebuild where they lived before. If you think the Road Home program is falling short now, just imagine when homeowners are forced to take the buyout offer rather than renovate/rebuild, and the real costs of relocation come to the fore. I’m a little surprised that the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act hasn’t been invoked yet, given that it’s a federal project that deprived the majority of New Orleans of their homes, but you can be sure that if or when people are denied the option to rebuild, the meaning and value of “comparable replacement dwelling” in the post-Katrina real estate market will be a magma-hot flashpoint.

Plenty of pundits (including Recovery Chief Ed Blakely, cited in the Post article) have proposed some vague sort of “lot swap” between badly flooded homeowners who want to return and scarcely flooded homeowners who have left, but would someone please show me these high-ground lots ready and waiting to be swapped? I know there are lots of people with high-ground properties who have relocated to other cities due to work or disgust, but which are the ones who aren’t seeking their newly boosted market value? What do we honestly have to offer people who are willing to sacrifice their immediate sense of home: their house or apartment, for their general sense of home: New Orleans? (Incidentally, the Post article notes that “Officials in St. Bernard Parish … rejected closing off a particularly hard-hit 36-block section of Chalmette because they could not afford to buy out property owners.” That doesn’t influence their conclusion that we’re Repeating Mistakes as We Rebuild, though.)

Another glaring omission from the footprint argument is the acknowledgement that ours was an unnatural disaster, and that that fact figures significantly into both what risk property owners and dwellers thought they were assuming before Katrina, and what risk we’re facing after. The Post does acknowledges that “the levees … proved catastrophically fallible,” but doesn’t factor in what every local now knows – that our degree of risk has far less to do with elevation than with the x-factor of where the next breaches might occur. Given that so far, the levees have been repaired mainly where they breached, and that miles of levees are still as substandard as before, everywhere but the repaired breaches will be under the same strain as before should a Katrina-like event happen again, with no telling which spots might give way first. And heaven forbid that the next threat should come via the river rather than canals to the lake, because then the highest, “safest” ground will be obliterated. We just can’t evaluate true flood risk while it’s more contingent on man-made negligence than natural vulnerability.

And encompassing both the population-consolidation issue and the flood-risk issue is the self-fulfilling prophecy dilemma. Repopulation is a matter of both just compensation to those who lost their homes and everything in them, and prevention of becoming a theme-park rather than a city. People weren’t stupid or foolhardy to choose to live and work in New Orleans, any more than people are stupid or foolhardy to live in Sacramento, San Francisco, or any coast, riverside, lakeside, barrier island, earthquake zone, tornado-swept prairie, blizzard, or avalanche territory. Offering and encouraging the option of return to the people who were flooded out is a moral imperative as well as an imperative to preserve the viability – not just of neighborhoods – but of the city. We need our population to back our deserved political clout at the state and federal level, and to remain a diverse city – racially, industrially, and economically. To retreat to the Sliver by the River is to cement our past history of inequality into an even more go-nowhere status as a low-wage, low-opportunity tourism town; a barely-get-by-ism that we will deserve to lose to another hurricane if we’re the ones who let it happen.

There’s no Fairy Godmother to tell us how to deal with flood risk and population shrinkage, but more importantly, there’s no Prince Charming who will take care of everything if we only make ourselves fit someone’s idea of what size slipper we should wear. We have excruciating decisions to make, but no one is in a position to tell us which toes can do without, any more than the knee-jerk New Orleans haters can say that the nation can do without us – our neighborhoods are no more socio-economic islands than we are as a city or a region. Nor can anyone tell us that sacrificing the 9th Ward, Lakeview, Hollygrove, Gert Town, or any of the flooded neighborhoods will make us a Queen who won’t need or want to walk. We’ll be crying “let them eat bread pudding” all the way to the guillotine if it ever comes to that.


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?

More Anniversaries

October 3rd, 2006

The anniversary of Rita’s landfall passed back on September 24, not completely without fanfare, but with rather less than Katrina’s. The fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, and still no respect.

That means that it must have been just about a year ago today that I was heading back to Houston from Austin, leaving a day later than I’d planned while I waited for my cat to come out of the hole in the wall he found in my brother’s closet. Some friends and I had just made plans to head back into New Orleans for the first time, just to see how things stood with our apartments – I thought at that time that it would be a quick trip and that I’d still need to stay in Houston for some time to come. So I left the recalcitrant cats with my aunt and uncle, and a couple days later (I can’t remember quite how long), I was back on I-10 eastbound, wondering belatedly how far it would be before I reached a parish with an open gas station, and eyeing roadside shrubbery in case nature called before I found a town that wasn’t still wiped out.

It feels like almost the anniversary that August 29 was.


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.

    Google Spreadsheets

    August 28th, 2006

    I’ve been fooling around a bit with Google Spreadsheets recently, and I expect that I’ll be using them more in the future. While they’re still in the lab, however, there are a few things I’d like to see on the burner.

  • It would be nice to be able to track changes, a la writeboard, especially those made by other users.

  • It’s not quite obvious that you can go beyond the default 100 rows. You can insert more than one row at a time if you have more than one row selected, but if you have an ongoing project to keep adding to, it can be a bit annoying to keep stopping to insert rows. Not a really big deal I guess, but it breaks up “the flow.”

  • I haven’t had occasion yet to use more formulas than “sum,” but it appears that there’s a generous helping of them available. That’s a good thing, but I can’t find any assistance on syntax in the support pages. In my experience, syntax is similar but not identical in different spreadsheet software (e.g. where MS Excel uses commas, OpenOffice Calc uses semi-colons). I’m pretty sure I could figure out formulas I’m already fairly familiar with, but I find it easier to use my existing software to look up formulas I use less often than to look them up online in the absence of an easily googleable comprehensive list.

  • Spreadsheets are printable if you use “Get HTML” and print them as a webpage, but if you need a hard copy that’s more presentable, you still need to download it into your own software to format it any further.

  • I find myself mainly using Calc to create and edit spreadsheets, and then uploading and downloading them to and from google as necessary. As the main asset of web-based spreadsheets is, as googleblog pointed out, the ability to share and collaborate on a single document without the annoyance or risk of passing around multiple, out of sync copies, it’s a bit unfair to expect this or other Web 2.0-type office applications to be out-and-out replacements of their desk-top bound kin. In that case, all but the first of my points (tracking changes) don’t really matter. But then again, if I do all my work in other software and download and upload it, replacing the previous version entirely each time, I’m guessing that the potential to track changes becomes a very different matter.

    Anyway, it still seems more useful than not for collaborative projects.

    After escaping the clutches of the Illinois tollways and arriving in Madison, I got to my dad’s house, and while we were catching up I glanced over at the muted TV and saw the 10:00 local news flash “The Storm: One Year Later.” Strange to cover Katrina recovery on the local news, I thought, and then the scene cut to Stoughton, WI, where a major tornado strike (F-3 level) occurred last year on August 18. I happened to be visiting at the time; one of the touchdown points was about a half a mile from my mother’s house, and the tornado went on to tear up several homes not much farther down the road. For a week and a half, it reigned as the biggest natural disaster I had any truly personal connection to. I hadn’t forgotten it really, but it didn’t occur to me until the news came on that this is its anniversary.

    It’s interesting to see now what short- and long-term responses the tornado has prompted around here. Even though it seems so small next to a hurricane, around 80 homes destroyed altogether and dozens more severely damaged makes a big impression in the few small towns hit. FEMA turned them down for disaster assistance, but there’s a Stoughton Area Long-Term Recovery Board helping coordinate SBA and other sorts of assistance, and a Stoughton Area Tornado Relief Fund, as well as at least one resident’s more personal resource site. Even though there’s a world of difference between the storms and their impact, there do seem to be a few points of comparison between “macro” and “micro” disasters and their aftermath. Hopefully Stoughton’s recovery-related intrigue and entanglements are correspondingly smaller too.

    Parallel Universes

    August 8th, 2006

    Let the anniversary media blitz begin: front and center of today’s NY Times home page: When masters of rebuilding are residents. I don’t have time to fully digest this now, but my first impression is one of looking in a funhouse mirror — there’s a reflection there, but you could get city dysmorphic disorder from taking it face value (a little more dry fact checking seems in order as well: e.g. the public meetings did not begin on August 1). I expect we’ll be seeing plenty of alternate New Orleanses over the next month. Maybe at the end we’ll get to vote on which one we’d like to live in.

    Categorizing Wikis

    August 5th, 2006

    Since I’ve joined the editing of the New Orleans Wiki, I’ve waffled about just how to use categories. I have an initial tendency to use categories almost like tags — listing significant topics contained in the article. Maybe not quite as extensively as I’d use tags, but perhaps still a bit over-enthusiastically, in light of what I’ve recently read in the Wikipedia guidelines.

    To my understanding, it comes down to an issue of browsing vs. searching. Since categories work best for browsing for information, they should be used more narrowly and strictly than tags would be. Wikipedia recommends against creating a category with only one article in it, but since the New Orleans Wiki still has so many potential directions to grow, I’m of two minds on this. I have to agree that clicking on a category link and finding only one thing is pretty disappointing and makes a wiki (or any website) look bare, so I guess whenever possible it’s best to look for the most fitting broad category when new territory is forged until there are enough related articles to merit their own. But now and then I think it’s worth bending the rules (and maybe creating a new category is incentive to think about more articles).

    I’m still interested in the uses of tagging — such as the folksonomies they create. It might be interesting to see how relationships between articles and topics develop that way, but I haven’t been able to find anything about tagging in wikis. Then again, maybe it’s not really necessary, since articles that cite each other “tag” each other in a sense.