Sunday, November 26, 2006
Shut up and be thankful
The demolition of an archtecturally significant building is not our concern. A decision has been made by Our Betters about the future of the city. To oppose it is to oppose progress in reconstruction. If the arguments ring familiar, perhaps it is because we are recapitulating on a smaller stage the contest we all knew would come after the Federal Flood: a restaging of the Third Battle of New Orleans over the Riverfront Expressway.
The choices presented are cartoonishly stark: progress in reconstruction versus obstructionist preservationists who threaten the city's future. Our political elites in the person of council members Cynthia Hedge-Morell (an alumnae), Arnie Fielkow and Oliver Thomas, the influential board and alumni of Holy Cross School, and the Archdiocese take the parts of the city and downtown business interests. The Times-Picayune perfectly recounts the role of mindless booster it played decades ago, although WWL's hosting of a ten minute news segment featuring only proponents of demolition must give pause to former editorialist Phil Johnson who ultimately championed the opposition to the Riverfront Expressway.
Arrayed against them are a handful of preservationists and parishoners of Cabrini, led by a Tulane University architect (and parisoner) who demands we stop and ask: Is this building important? If so, can we have a dialogue about how Holy Cross and the building can coexists? I do not mean to assert that the preservation of a single, modern church is equivalent in importance to preserving the French Quarter and public riverfront access. However, the battle is important because it may define who future battles over more significant buildings or neighborhoods are fought.
The problem is that the pro-demolition faction are set to do battle, not to have a dialogue. Much of the neigborhood is swept up in this approach, having been told that it is an all or nothing decision, one that might triple the value of the storm ravaged properties. There is no need for dialogue with the opponents. Instead, they are to be harrased and crushed. An example of this approach is the neighborhood association and Archdiocese's attempts to drag Tulane University President Scott Cowen into the fray, in an attempt to silence Tulane architecture professor (and parishoner) Steve Verdeber.
Interestingly, the reason that there is an accessible riverfront in the French Quarter and CBD today is because of a quixotic battle against Progress led by a few architects and perservationists, including members of the Tulane University School of Architecture facility. The opponents won that battle and we had a vibrant rebirth of the Poydras and riverfront corridors in spite of the lack of expressway.
The approach of the pro-demolition faction may be driven in part by the key role of the Archiocese and it's hatchet man Fr. William Maestri, a cleric of such profound political sensitivity that the parishoners of St. Pius the X started a petition drive to have him removed when he was assigned as their pastor. He has been in the forefront of decisions by the church to close or merge parishes and schools with no concern about the parishoners or parents and students. Maestri and the church have no concern about neighborhood sensativities, having been appointed by God to make such decisions for us.
An ugly battle over redevelopment was going to come someday, one that turns us one against the other instead of uniting against our real foes: a disinterested Washington political leadership unwilling to pay the deferred cost of a generation of raping the coast for oil, and an insurance industry that will cheerfully close the coast to business. Our entire nation's political culture is increasingly wired to deal only in absolutes, and to refuse dialogue with the other side because, well, they are the "other side". New Orleans in particular has always been split by divisions not just of race but of class and section that make battles of thsi sort almost inevitable.
The battle of Cabrini may seem a small one but it represents the way in which reconstruction may proceed. The Unified New Orleans Plan process is unfolding under the leadership of the Greater New Orleans Foundation. The GNOF's board represents all the expected parties: the old-line law firms and banks, Tulane and Entergy, all of the people I mean when I spoke above of Our Betters. It is a creature of the sort of people who fill out the ranks of the better Carnival krewes.
My own uneasy feeling is that the UNOP process is intended to rein in the freewheelingly democratic alternative unleashed first by Broadmoor and then by the City Council's own planning process. UNOP will take the direction of the recovery out of the hands of the neighborhoods and put it back into the hands of the people who have always run this city. I have seen nothing to disturb this bleak picture, from the secretive appointment without neighborhood input of a Community Support Organization to represent neighborhood interests, through the inability (or unwillingness) of the planners to tell us which parts of recovery citizens will be allowed input into.
The combination of apparent secretiveness and incompetence that characterizes UNOP is a mirror of the way Mayor C. Ray Nagin has run the city since his re-election. Large and critical decisions are made in secret and presented as fait accompli to us, to prevent us from questioning the wisdom of those decisions. Either accept the new waste management contracts, or the garbage will pile up in the streets come New Years.
Our Betters hope to put back into the bottle the democratic genii unleashed by Broadmoore and the neighborhood planning process, and by the upset election of all new faces to the city council from the repopulated neighborhoods . They have Big Plans and are not about the let neighborhood activists or preservationists upset the opportunity for Big Money that will follow the release of federal recovery funds. If necessary, they will turn out angry mobs like that at the recent city council meeting over a city inspector general, or that which formed on the steps of Cabrini Church to support demolition.
The Cabrini battle is important whether or not one finds the church architecturally significant. It is important because Our Betters are playing us so that our energies are spent in bickering with each other instead of having a real dialogue about the future of the city. That's why we need to force the Archdiocese and Holy Cross to the table. Everyone wants the Holy Cross School to remain in New Orleans. All we ask is that decisions like this be made transparently and through dialogue, that everyone have a seat at the table that decides what sort of New Orleans Holy Cross will be a part of, what is to be preserved and what can be let go.
If we can't force the powerful forces of the pro-demolition side to the table on this issue, we are all liable to wake up one morning and realize New Orleans is a city greatly transformed in ways we never saw coming.
Katrina NOLA New Orleans Hurricane Katrina Think New Orleans Louisiana FEMA levees flooding Corps of Engineers We Are Not OK wetlands news rebirth Debrisville Federal Flood 8-29 Rising Tide Remember Cabrini Church historic preservation
The "Sins of the Fathers" are being visited here. New Orleans is not alone in losing Parishes. It is just in other communities they do not have the excuse of Katrina.
Verderber was on the radio today talking about how it wouldn't cost HC a penny to renovate and then maintain the SFC building because "someone" could put together a "funding organization" that would then endow the building as a Hurricane Katrina Museum "on the scale of the National WWII Museum". Then, presumably, tour buses could pull up onto the campus in front of the middle school building throughout the school day to unload the hundreds of daily visitors it would certainly take to keep such a museum finacially viable and keep the building from sucking up as much in maintainance costs as it did pre-K. I know that's the conditions we'd ALL love to send our ten or eleven year old sons off in which to learn. And building a private school enrollment is a lot like college athletic recruiting...don't think if a parent answers the "Which other schools are you considering?" question at the competing schools' open houses with "Holy Cross" that the host won't casually ask if Mommy feels comfortable sending her little baby boy off to a campus where he might be outside at lunch when a busload of fifty strangers gets dropped off next to him.
And I always talked about how the freepers lived in their own alternate universe....LOL.
Mark, far be it from me to lecture you about what you SHOULD feel (as is much in style now in the blogosphere), but your understandable distrust of all things governmental has you drawing a line in the wrong patch of sand this time. This isn't that gradiose or significant of a building, there's no "brother-in-law" contract funded with our tax dollars waiting for some politician at the culmination of the deal, the predominant opinion of those living in the neighborhoods surrounding the building (not counting those who've apparently gone underground to avoid expressing their feelings) have been pro-project (including demolition), and as Clancy DuBos related this morning, even if another 25 SFC parishioners dead-set to vote "No" on the project had been bussed in from wherever they are (like Nagin voters) for the St. Pius meeting, they would have only changed the vote from 4-to-1 in favor to maybe 3-to-1 in favor. In short, this isn't the project to attmept to make the "battlefield" on which the Preservationist/Development war will be contested. You'd be better suited throwing in with Lolis Eric Elie in preserving the city's housing projects...probably more people (in numbers, not in influence) would say they'd be more deserving to be saved for what they represent than would the SFC building. Not saying I'd agree...but I'm pretty sure as it stands right now a higher percentage of the community of New Orleans, especially the "disenfranchised" which some blogs purport to represent, would prefer this energy be spent on saving the St. Bernard Development, for instance.
Many people in New Orleans have an extraordinary love for buildings and institutions, and no one should seek to demonize them for feeling that way. It was this public display of affection that saved another icon of recent vintage, The Louisiana Superdome, when powerful voices sought its destruction. It is the reason that Holy Cross was apparently so pained and labored in its decision to relocate from the Ninth Ward. Given that, it is perhaps inevitable that this contentious debate over the fate of Cabrini has arisen.
HC is on the clock and their haste with their development plans is understandable. However, they cannot plan in a vacuum, as there are other considerations at play, and a reasoned public dialogue of these issues appears to be warranted.
In my many years of active experience in such debates, the broader public interest is always best served by having an open and honest process wherein complete and correct information is made available to all interested parties and members of the public. Such a process here might advance the interests of all parties and set a valid precedent for any future such post-K struggles.
The behavior of the Holy Cross advocates is one I don't tolerate in my children, only in managers, and then only as long as I can figure out how to modify their behavoir. The position that either you do as I say or I quit is childish, and is bound to create conflict, so the only people to blame here are those who have adopted the position that there can be no discussion or negotiation.
If they had asked me (based on a prior career in public relations) I would have advised the anti-demolition forces to say the hell away from your rally. Going there was bound to be disruptive, and just make the situation worse. Clearly there is fault on both sides.
But in an objective sense, Holy Cross and their partisans are the ones who are being childish and unreasonable. Once they bring the debate to that level, its hard to keep the other side from responding in kind.
I don't blame the neighborhood. They're being manipulated. Somebody has spread the idea that everyone's properties are tripped in value by this transaction. Given the state of most properties in the neighborhood, I understand their irrational adoption of the Holy Cross position. But there is nothing in the opponents proposition that threatens their future prosperity. Preservation of the church need in no way block the deal if Holy Cross is being run by reasonable people. Part of the problem is that they have adopted Maestri's Roman world view that what ever the archdiocese decides is a fait acompli, and the sheep should shut up and behave. His view (increasingly common in the hierarchy) is why I'm no longer an active Catholic.
All we're asking is a dialogue. If the Holy Cross partisans won't have one, then they have no grounds to complain if the anti-demolition side chooses to involve FEMA or take other action to advance their cause. Holy Cross and the Archdiocese has essentially forced them down that path, and I personally root for anything that takes the Catholic hierarchy down a notch and reminds them of the humility of the Christ they purport to follow.
But you're remarks and my answer dance around the real issue: every thing we do going forward should be done in the open, through dialogue and negotiation. That genii is out of the bottle, and I suspect the motives of anyone who would try to put it back.
"Childish and unreasonable"...OK. You're a business, and you determine that you will be moving your location and will require at least 18 acres to suit your needs. You locate such a site, and it's indicated to you that the site is available to your business for you to use as you've indicated your business plan requires. You even find that the surrounding neighborhood is overwhelmingly in favor of your relocation to this site, and accept your public plans for the site. You're about to begin actual work...when someone who used to live in the neighborhood announces that you can buy the land, but you can't use it all as you want. He further tells you that not only can't you use all of the land you purchase as you want, but that you really don't know how to best use your building site...but he'll offer to tell you how to build on your site, because he knows better than you what you really need to do. He'll also offer up that his idea for a part of the site in non-negotiable; perhaps that part can ultimately be used for more than one purpose, but the physical structure on that part of your site must be as he says, not as you wish. He says he only wants to open a dialogue with you about the site...but the dialogue begins and ends with his demand for control over what remains on that particular portion. The "give-and-take" will involve whether or not you're going to have the right to use the building he's going to decree exist on that portion or whether it will be used for other purposes by some other still-unnamed group. You (the business) point out that your own pre-search research indicated that you would need a full 18 acres with control over the entire site, and if this were no longer possible at this location, then perhaps another site that meets your pre-set requirements would have to be found. This position, of course, is "childish and unreasonable". To use a phrase I've read somewhere, "shut up and give thanks" for being allowed to use the part of the site we say you can use.
Incidentally, one of the options that the FEMA historical review may very well endorse is one of "mitigation"; they do decide in cases that a building has "some" historical value, but not enough to derail another use for the site that may be determined to be of more intrinsic value to the community than the building's historical value represents. In these cases the "developer" is required to place some sort of acknowledgement or memorial such that the public can see what existed there beforehand and appreciate that it was a building designed by a particular architect or that used structural materials in a novel way. The Holy Cross Board has offered to begin talking about the possibility of such an outcome with the newly-formed "Friends of St. Frances Cabrini" group while the review is still going on. The offer has been refused. To talk about anything other than the total preservation of the existing building is apparently "childish and unreasonable". So much for opening a dialogue.
The real point of opposition we seem to be having on this issue is one of competence--are the neighbors and parishioners competent to process information and make decisions as they see fit to benefit themselves, or do they need someone from outside their community (someone less "uneducated", as Mr. Verderber took pains to point out) to guide them and protect them from being "manipulated". You've made your position clear, as have I. As a Gentilly resident myself, I've spoken a neighborhood meetings and on Gentilly message boards with folks who live adjacent to the site. They seem fairly self-aware. They seem to come to the conclusion without any outside manipulation that their property will be more valuable, but more importantly, that their neighborhood will be more immediately livable, if a $23-25 million project is quickly begun on the site rather than if the site and buildings sit as they currently are for how ever many years it takes for someone else to decide to invest in the property while also accepting that the building is a sacred cow not to be touched. If you and Mr. Verderber don't want to be seen or portrayed as "meddling elites", then perhaps it would be wise to refrain from refering to those who actually live in the site neighborhood but disagree with you as uneducated and easily manipulated.
As a former Gentilly resident, I'm with Puddinhead on this one. The fact is we are all going to have to take some bullets for the city if we want recovery to progress, and one funky-looking church is a pretty minor one to me.
My concern is as much that we draw a line that says everything is open to negotiation. There are not zero-sum, my-way-or-the-highway planning decisions at any level.
I don't want to drive Holy Cross away. I do want them to have a civil discussion with church propronents about why they can't incorporate the building and win their arguments on the merits. When people refuse to argue on merits, I have a tendency to assume they have none to argue with, although it's just as likely driven by the temprement of Rev. Maestri who doesn't like to dirty his skirts with mere plebians. (And I think I was fairly candid about my feelings about Rev. Maestri and the hierarchy in general).
My bottom line is: come to the table and convince us that it can't work without demolition, and tell us what would be done to mitigate after demolition.
Hell, those roof segments are unit pieces I believe. It might even be possible to do something similar to a facade preservation. But we can't figure it out until we have a discussion.
If we just let this go, and let the garbage contracts go, etc., then we will have ceded whatever opportunity for reasonable democratic control of the rebuilding process.
Hell, I figured I couldn't save the church six months ago, given the fact that buildings less than 50 years and church properties are both protected from historic designation without the voluntary participation of the church involved. It's the principle of how we are going to conduct recovery I'm as much or more concerned about at this point.
But those instances involve elected officials who are fairly demonstrably violating the trust placed in their offices by the public. Here we speak not of public malfeasance, but of a disagreement over what level of historical or architectural significance is reached by a particular building.
I understand you see it much as the "Hawks" saw Vietnam; it's the domino theory. If we can't stop "them" here ("them" being the evil profit-driven developers who are out to rape everyone and everything in the City if we don't stop them), then we won't be able to stop "them" anywhere. I guess I see it from a different viewpoint--from the point of view of someone who's been (as you can probably understand) almost totally immersed in this process since the announcement that HC would be leaving it's Ninth Ward campus. As someone who held his breath as the first rumors floating about were that the school would move to the North Shore, River Parishes, or Lower Coast Algiers. As someone who's followed as the first questions were asked as to the possible availability for purchase of the JFK campus after it was decided that the school would not be reopened any time soon, only to have the Headmaster appear at a School Board meeting to be called the head of the rich white racists trying to steal the school away from the poor black children. As someone who sweated out a decision between my own neighborhood of Gentilly and a site in just about the most inaccessible spot in East Jefferson for anyone other than Kenner residents. You wouldn't believe the joy when the announcement had come that the board had chosen to heed the precepts of the order's founder, Father Basil Moreau, and stay centrally located and more accessible to the student body that most needs the school, rather than following the money out to the suburbs.
The announcement of the selection of the Cabrini/Redeemer-Seton site was even more joyful for me because as a Gentilly resident who's been trying to become more involved in his neighborhood associations, I knew all of the "prep work" that had been going on beforehand. The amount of canvassing of neighborhood residents by civic associations to determine if the move would be welcomed by the site's neighbors. The outreach (now being almost completely denied by some) to the SFC parishioners to determine their feelings on the proposal. Anytime you speak of demolishing a church, even one so young by New Orleans standards, you're talking about demolishing a building where the most spiritual moments and memories of a person's life may have taken place. I was amazed at the number of SFC parishioners who, while saddened that the site of their First Communion, or their parent's funeral, or their wedding was slated for demolition, still spoke in favor of the project. The most surprising thing to me (although it really shouldn't have been a surprise at all) was that so many of these parishioners expressed a love for the community of their parish, but considerably less love for the actual building that all of these events took place in. SFC parishioners were the first who I heard describe the building as a money pit. Other parishioners spoke of it as the "funny looking building" they grew up going to Mass in. Still others spoke of the perennial leaks and faulty AC/heating, and of the perpetually slippery terrazzo floors. I had no previous knowledge of the building's drawbacks, although I must admit I never thought much of it's design beyond it being "interesting" what could be done with structural concrete, much like I would have thought a 200 foot tower constructed of sun-fired mud brick to be "interesting". Forgive me if I don't worship at the alter of Curtis and Davis.
I guess one of the reasons I see this issue from a different viewpoint is because I've spent the past 15 months in Demoland. I live in a FEMA trailer in the front yard of my gutted Gentilly home, surrounded by at least every other house lying dark and silent. I get up before light to drive to work in St. Bernard, and see the same bleak tableau there that I see at home. I send my two boys to school on a flood-ravaged campus in the Lower Ninth Ward, a campus where I spent six of the most enjoyable years of my life, and where my oldest son was lucky enough to spend the bulk of his high school career. He'll graduate next year...now probably from trailers still on the ruined property. My youngest son was lucky enough to spend the first two weeks of his HC stay on the pre-K campus; after that it's been trailers amid rusting, leaning fences and roofless gymnasiums.
Maybe one or two days a week I find a reason to leave Demoland and visit the outside world; maybe a trip out to Metairie, maybe Uptown where the hardship is not having an operating streetcar. If I'm lucky it's a Saints home game weekend, and I know I'll have a good three hours where my family and I can forget. Then we'll drive home again afterwards, and pass the houses where our neighbors were rescued from their roofs...and those where other neighbors didn't make it out of their attics. And I'm back in Demoland again. Because this is my home...or what has become of my home.
It's October, and I'm really optimistic; I know the school I attended, the school my children attend, has decided to seek a new home in my own neighborhood, and in doing so invest $23-25 million into a site I'm assured will otherwise likely lie fallow and deteriorating for at least a number of years. It was hard for everyone to pull together to convince the HC board that Gentilly has enough of a future that the school should choose it rather than the relatively unspoiled Kenner, but somehow we did it. The actual neighbors to the site, along with many of the SFC parishioners themselves were instrumental in the effort.
Now it's late November. Now we find that those of us who are the most involved parties are either too "uneducated" to understand why we've made incorrect decisions, or we're so jelly-brained that we've been "manipulated" into thinking wrongly. Shades of Mesmer. But not to worry; the noble folk from other parts of town will ride in on their white horses and save us from our own folly. They'll help us to "compromise" our way to accepting things the way they see fit, rather than how we've been manipulated into seeing them. We can sit down and "discuss the merits" of the situation before capitulating to them and being patted on the collective head and told "See...now aren't things much better now that you've left this public-museum-on-a-private-school-campus/three-time-a-year-meeting-hall dominate a fifth of the site of your new campus, rather than using up all that land, like you thought you wanted to do before? Best of all, now we can drive through your neighborhood once a year and look at the building if we want to...or at least if we don't want to venture into Demoland, at least we'll know in our minds that the building lives. Because isn't that the most important thing of all? That a building remain?"
I'm sorry. It's really wearing me down, being in it every moment of my frigging life, seeing my wife in it every minute, and my children spending their childhoods surrounded by utter desolation. I really don't mean to argue that a forty year old building that I've never thought particularly attractive and that surprisingly few of the most affected people are trying to save isn't worth my kids staying a few more years in Demoland. Of course it is.
I'm on a internal mailing list of these groups and I'm going to ask if that's true.
Things took a truly ugly turn after Verdeber showed up at the proponents press conference, which was a bad move, but I can't imagine why he'd turn down a meeting that specifically meets the near term goal of the Friend of Cabrini.
Sorry to seem so misguided and manipulated but I am a resident who is for demolition. I know, I'm such a sheep to the Catholic Church that surely this is not my own decision but a decision manipulated by the horrible tyrants that run my church.
I love it when people think "oh you just disagree b/c you don't understand". I'm not stupid and I'm not uneducated I simply disagree with you.
You have your reasons for wanting to save this church and it has nothing to do with the people that live there and are trying to rebuild!
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