Please share with any and all.
While I came back recently to lagalou-like New Orleans after a business trip to St. Paul MN, I caught up with my amazing neighbors as I usually do when I first arrive. I get a cold Miller High Life (THE champagne of bottled beers, I deserve it) and sit in a collapsible chair in their old storefront and catch up, sharing my thoughts about the latest American city I have seen, and listening to the many, many things they have been up to since I left.
This time, I was chagrined to hear they had to once again drop their daily work at building our new infrastructure in our corner of the bayou and go to a meeting to stop another hare-brained idea.
This time, the idea was to take away long established green space in our city, and build new buildings in our City Park. This, in a city with over 30,000 blighted buildings BEFORE Katrina, and large swaths of Canal Street sitting quietly ignored, and parts of Gentilly patiently waiting for a visionary to show up and rebuild its small downtown.
The idea was to add tenants to the 6th largest (wikipedia notation) city park in the country, which would make it easier (I guess) to find money to rip out oak trees and plant uniform non-native crepe myrtles, or to rip out more WPA era benches and replace them with…nothing, or to get more holiday lights for the annual car parade called Celebration In the Oaks. (Hmmm, just realized, that will have to be renamed; maybe “Celebration of Cars’?)
This idea was so bad, that the room was filled with people explaining once again why the city (meaning the citizens who inhabit the space) does not want to see another cultural landmark destroyed in the name of saving a bureaucracy, much less sold off to the highest bidder as if the park was standing on Chartres Street 200 years ago, being auctioned off to a sleazy businessman.
So, the folks came out and told the management why they say no and felt as if their time might have actually stopped the lunacy. They hope.
The way they will know if they are successful is by scanning the Times-Picayune and (hopefully they read some) by reading blogs like squanderedheritage.com with activist Karen Gadbois telling us what she learns on her trips to websites and city hall about the latest destruction of the city.
They are still being held hostage by the old power structure and the focus elsewhere needed to manage the overwhelming work to add walls and floors to their old lives. So, they are still waking up, hitting the on button on their desktop or walking outside and then unfurling the paper version, spotting a headline, and spending the rest of the day, the week, the month, the year, (the rest of their lives sometimes) trying to calm their escalating blood pressure, but then to get the skills and information needed and then setting off to fix this wrong done to them.
Maybe they win. Is it any less draining? Does it feel like a victory when you just stopped a bad thing from ruining your world?
I think not. I think as empowered as we often feel since the levee breaks as the neighborhoods take power back, we also feel more frustrated then ever because there are so many more dragons to slay. It feels like a video game (well, how they must feel I guess) with enemies on every side and the hero armed with a lance turning this way, turning that way knocking heads off.
How can we really change this paradigm?
It seems to me we need to change our relationship to all power structures and to amass our collective knowledge for a positive long-term public face that can be proactive rather than reactive. Here’s how I would think to do it:
1. Diffuse the power bases. As great as it is that neighborhood organizations have taken power, I sit uneasily in an area between two very well organized neighborhoods and see them growing larger and more entrenched. I say firmly and clearly here; don’t confuse my meaning as a slam; one of them has been very proactive and far-reaching, the other a little less so but still good folks. It is not their work that is in question, but the amassing of power to a few. Sadly, at this point in our restructuring, there is still need for these large organizations to show the larger powerbase on Loyola Ave that we are here and connected. But some ideas:
Beacon of Hope in the Lakeview area has done an admirable job in connecting nearby citizens in small, decentralized groups with resources available to each and every neighbor, and information spreading quickly and in a democratic way. Check it out. One thing they do that can’t be underestimated- they knock on doors.
Another suggestion is copiers in neighborhood grocery stores or other public places for neighbors to copy flyers or information, and would be an admirable thing for the larger organizations to assist in getting in the areas. Let’s unleash our Tom Paines.
2. Flatten the information systems. I say some of that above, but it is so important it
deserves its own number. Buy a stapler and some paper and tell your world what you know. Go to the libraries and use the computers there to log on to blogs and comment and then print and pass along the news. I use stickerjunkie.com to make stickers for 20 bucks a pop and give them out to people as a way to inform, and as a way to stand up. Remember how when we returned we all picked up those ReNew Orleans stickers and Proud to Call (or Swim To) it Home and stuck them on our cars and coolers?
3. Utilize those hubs that allow you to link. Go to public events and places and meet people. I also suggest that you borrow a dog (mine is available in the downtown area for no fee) and walk your block and a bit more, stopping to let the dog sniff (say hello) to the others it meets and chatting with its leash partner while the dogs are busy. Go to the still (oddly) illegal dog parks and utilize this canine town square as your town square. Go to second lines, store openings, farmers markets and those fantastic walks that Silence is Violence (silenceisviolence.org) leads around town.
4. Use the alternative/local economy as often as you can. When economic power is spread among the many, other systems will follow.
And lastly, lets start to build that elusive non-partisan, open ended database of people and information that informs, cooperates and keeps power in the hands of the many rather than the few. Let’s ask all these wonderful organizations to:
1. Ask their members to share their databases, or to build new ones with those people who want to be on one citywide list.
2. Build an online and paper list of names and either phone numbers or emails
3. Publish it and maintain that list,
4. Assist small groups of people to build phone and email trees around specific issues they care about and represent the whole city.
5. Monitor the bureaucracies from the OUTSIDE. In other words, no small meetings in a cozy office where the participants become chummy and start to plan as the group. The meetings are held in a public place, always open to anyone who wants to come and stays on one topic- to inform. Every meeting has minutes kept and is shared with the group at large within 24 hours.
Talk and share and show up. As often as you can, as many places as you can. You are the city.