Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I like Jane Jacobs

A few years ago, I started to learn more about urban planning and neighborhood level activism-well, I had already a bit of experience in that area, but much more in the Alinsky style of campaigns, aligned with confrontational and crisis politics . Successful in its own manner, but exhausting as an organizer. After leaving organizing behind for a few years, I returned to retail management and while researching retail anthropology, happened on the book "City" by William H. Whyte and was transformed.
Really. I read it over and over. Read it while sitting in my beautiful apartment over the 5 and 10 store on Walnut Street in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I loved it. Quoted it to the quiet annoyance of my friends. And then, through that book and Whyte, found "The Death and Life of Great American Cities".
I (like many other young women I am sure) studied the picture on the Modern Library edition of TDALOGAS and thought it was cool that an "older lady" (as I thought then) would have a picture of herself on a bar stool. I liked the voice of this writer-sort of crabby and impatient while she observed just about everything and then described it in matter-of-fact, human terms.
After finishing it, I understood more about the feelings of unease that I had when I went home to Cleveland and saw wider streets with higher buildings and less people. And why I walked on Madison in my suburb of Lakewood and not on Franklin. And then why I felt completely at home in my mother's city of New Orleans and why I mystified others and myself by asking to be transferred to a vocational high school that I could walk to from my French Quarter home, even if it meant kicking aside cups and and sidestepping dancers and vomit on Bourbon Street (it was the most direct route). Now I got it.
I added more books to the pile to read, finding most of Jane's works, Whyte's and many more. I walked everywhere studying the cities I lived in and seeing where so many had gone wrong. I stayed in the old sections of those cities and met generations who had worn down the sidewalks and went to that elementary school and helped out at this library..
In 2000, I moved home again (New Orleans) for good, determined to spend the rest of my life in community work, knowing that the laid back yet sophisticated citizenry would be the best partners to have.
I started with a campaign to stop the privatization of the water system. I volunteered with some very adept organizers brought in to run the campaign. I did that while I worked as a buyer in my neighborhood grocery store and volunteered at the farmers market.
Often the Water Girls (they put up with this nickname, but barely) would run in to ask me a question as I did inventory on books at the store or when we would walk to the Hare Krishna house to get dinner while we strategized. They certainly were using Alinsky's methods, but my prism was how to keep this issue interwoven with the numerous other problems at stake here and also how to use the assets that our area had. NO question in my mind how the lack of priorities (or lack of attention to SCALE) had allowed us to come to this pass, but also how people's knowledge of their reality in this colonial city had stayed some hands too. Honestly, I felt that this was our Lower Manhattan Expressway. (And then thought that again about a dozen times since.)
We won. And in record time, confusing the young organizers. In essence, we won because even though locals weren't organized regularly, the public space and shared culture to meet and see each other, know each other had worked in our favor. It allowed those organizers to find real people and have real conversations. I hope wherever they are and whatever they are doing, they all remember that lesson.

And, well even better, I soon got a paying job at the farmers market. I remember when I had my first conversation with the guy who started the market; he asked me if I knew "who Jane Jacobs was." Turns out he had used Jane Jacob's words to craft his manifesto back in the mid 1990s and her ideas remained central to his theory. "The Economy of Cities" is required reading around here- well, actually there is no required reading, but it would be cool if you knew what we were referring to.
So, I found the link between campaigns (market days) and smart, human-sized entrepreneurial town squares. I share Jane's ideas with new markets that I work with, and find that they resonate with rural, small town or big city folks. I like that she was no authority or expert; instead she was a humanist and a systemic thinker who believed in people and messy democratic entrepreneurial activity. My new favorite current writer, Rebecca Solnit reminds me of her; in the belief in people and the firmness of language and fluidity of subject. How nice to think a genre may be developing.

I hope you can find Jane too, or have already found her. If you want to find others who feel the same way in your area, look for them on Jane's Walk on May 1, 2010.

Click to see the walks in your town, or just like Jane would expect, just start one yourself.
Jane's Walk

Celebrate Helen Hill on May 8th

Saturday, May 8 @ 3:00 & 9:30 p.m.
HELEN HILL BIRTHDAY FUNDRAISER: Zeitgeist is pleased to present this Helen Hill Birthday Fundraiser, featuring a special short preview from the newly completed The Florestine Collection, Helen’s last film. This one-day only event will be Saturday, May 8th, at Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center. There will be two screenings, at 3:00 pm and 9:30 pm. The event is by donation. Funds raised go towards finishing The Florestine Collection, to create sound and master prints in 16mm film, Helen’s preferred screening format. Animator Helen Hill received a prestigious Media Arts Grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for The Florestine Collection in 2004. The film was inspired by a huge collection of handmade dresses that Helen found in a garbage pile. Helen was murdered during a home invasion in New Orleans in early January 2007, and her widower Paul Gailunias has been working to finish the film in accordance with Helen’s intentions. Sunday, May 9th (Mother’s Day) would have been Helen’s 40th Birthday.
Currently Helen’s films are archived in the Harvard Film Archive, and her film Scratch and Crow, made in 1995 and which will be screened at the Helen Hill Birthday Fundraiser, was named to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2009. Also featured at the Helen Hill Birthday Fundraiser will be other shorts by filmmakers inspired by Helen, the band The New Dopey Singers (3:00 pm), a Fresh Fashion Flash by HowlPop (3:00 pm) and author Cheryl Wagner will read a short excerpt about Helen and her animations from her book Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around (9:30 pm). For more information, call Courtney Egan at (205) 393-5588 or Rene Broussard at (504) 352-1150. By donation. All proceeds benefit completion of the film.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Nagin soon to be Na-Gone

Yes JazzFest is upon us and you would think that would be the most exciting time but no.
The best news is that the sitting mayor is leaving office.
Yes, we are excited.

Mayor Nagin came into office running against a full slate of Democrats (in a weak field that included a police chief that had just moved to the city a few years back, a state senator with much promise but who had passed little legislation while in office and a councilman who seemed to spend more time at ribbon cuttings than in his chair).

Maybe because of the many candidates the fact that Nagin had switched his party just a few months before to Democrat largely escaped notice. He ran on a "businessman" campaign, most likely winning because of his support for the New Orleans Hornets and his work to get a hockey franchise (whatever happened to that Ray?) which brought out the young professional vote.
He vowed to cut corruption upon winning office. He promptly focused on the taxicab bureau, "perp" marching dozens of people past cameras to show his commitment to a new City Hall. Hard to ignore the fact that the District Attorney threw most of those cases out by October of that year. And let's not that the Taxicab bureau is ALSO the Utilities Department (interesting choice from someone who just served as vice president of COX CABLE right before his mayoral stint) and therefore might have just pulled a fast one by putting his own sympathetic people in that office. Especially since we never heard another peep from him on corruption in any other part of City Hall which would be laughable if it wasn't so goddamn tragic.
Add the Danzinger tragedy to that, as he said this week "it's seven guys. Seven. We have 1,600 police officers."
Even though the decision making in planting the gun and certainly the orders to shoot unarmed civilians during our darkest day seemed to come from supervisory level and that we have just started to unravel this.
So tragic is a word now forever associated with Nagin as mayor. The world watched his meltdown during our worst moment. We, however, had to watch the other 200 worst moments that he gave us after August of 2005. It seemed his modus operandi was to hide away and to deliver laconic "hey man, I was doing my best" type of answers to serious questions of inactivity. And to fight with everyone. And to offer bizarre ideas like selling City Hall and making it a "jazz park".
Actually, let me focus on that for a minute as a perfect example of his mayoral era.
The idea to sell City Hall itself is not a bad one I think. The building (although beloved by internationalist style architecture buffs) is oddly situated (away from our commercial areas) and in the least walkable area of downtown. I wrote C.Ray a letter back in 2003 asking him to look into the idea of the Krauss building as a possible city hall, moving the seat of government steps from Iberville and on Canal Street. Of course instead, developers made Krauss into the white flight answer to staying in the city--condos.
So years later, we heard about a move to another skyscraper near the current CH that seemed most inappropriate for a number of reasons, although who could tell as facts rarely emanate from government. Maybe the Chevron building was perfect and City Council just made a dumb move but in this case, I think their prudence in saying no was sound.
Even so, the idea to sell it off for a jazz amphitheater in its place struck savvy New Orleans as completely out of touch with reality.
As if jazz clubs were overflowing with customers now.
As if people prefer to come to a city known for its neighborhoods to sit in a concrete jungle with 10,000 other tourists.
As if the area by the Superdome needs to be focused on for economic development first, when the Saenger was still closed and Canal is of little use to 99 % of locals and every other business corridor in the city lacks street repair, oversight of zoning and support for entrepreneurs.
In any case, it showed once again Nagin's dismissal of reality and the embracing of any new idea that he could sell as his own, no matter how stupid.

Remember the idea to legislate gambling for every hotel? That was what he came up with in October of 2005 as a suggestion to jump start the economy. Jeeezus. We should have driven him to his home in Dallas then and told him to help them and leave us alone.

When he ran for the second time in 2006, there were a few factors that allowed him to remain in office in my estimation:
1. People were concerned about a new mayor taking time to get up to speed on rebuilding issues.
2. There were few African-American candidates that were electable running.
3. People were busy with rebuilding and did not have time to investigate the new candidates.
4. Mitch Landrieu seemed to not want the job.

So, we ended up with 4 more years of him. And fortunately for him, the resilience and intelligence of New Orleanians has allowed the city to rebound in many areas, and the Saints and HBO are doing the rest. So, even after 8 confused years of low leadership, we will still escape these Nagin years with our heads held high. No thanks to him.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Festival view

For those of you who know where my new apartment is, you can probably guess what the picture is. For those of you further (farther? I prefer the Pranksters so further), I will explain.
It is the JazzFest blues tent and by today has been joined by both the jazz and gospel tents. I live directly behind the jazz tent, probably not 200 feet from it although I am a bad judge of distance so maybe its 100 or 500...
Whatever it is, except for a fence separating us, I am part of the festival now. Living with the sounds of trucks, people working to build those massive tents and music playing. quiet yet, but I know that will change come next week, when all of the staff come on site and the serious work starts.
I moved here with the full knowledge that this would be so. And that during the 7 festival days, I would be just about engulfed.
I did it because I have been a JF goer since 1981 and still mostly enjoy it. The food is the best our region has to offer in grass-sittin' food choices and although more locals should be playing the big stages (louder complaint every year, sadly), it is still a deal.
The attitude of a day long festival that closes at 7 pm is "go ahead and enjoy the city after you leave us". And the folks that come do just that. They walk (yes walk) or catch a bus or pile 6 in a taxi and head to Tip's, or dba or Carrollton Station and go hear MORE music, get MORE food. And they rent my friend's houses around here and have nice bbqs and porch sittin' before and after. And they love our city. They love it as close to how locals do as they can.
I look forward to being the front porch of Jazz Fest and if you come down Mystery and turn on Fortin, look for the red scooter and knock on the open door for a drink and a visit before you head in.
I'll be happy to see you....