Sunday, March 04, 2007

Troubled in Paradise

Is New Orleans the most backward city in the United States, or the most advanced city in the Caribbean? Its a provocative question without an easy answer, as Matri pointed out in her indirect response to Da Po' Blog's enthusiastic gloss on the Andrés Duany's piece in Business Week and my own brief reaction to it below.

I have taken some grief in these columns for my earlier suggestion that an economy which did not, for example, provide every city resident a car made a profound contribution to the City's ability preserve a level of neighborhood economic activity and culture increasingly disappearing from our Neighbor to the North. I was accused of celebrating poverty.

One of the earliest posts in this space was on the very subject, titled A People Apart. I wrote:

In spite of the crushing poverty, New Orleans is not some Disney production. The joy of life is real. It is how everyone copes: the poor with their poverty, the middle class with the heat and humidity and mosquitoes, the rich with the rest of us. We love life, whatever it deals us. You can hear it in the music, taste it in the food, imbibe it as we do with a European gusto in your daily drinks. The spirit of this place is as strong as the coffee, as thick as the humidity, as hot as the spiciest food.

In that piece and one as recent as last week I found a parallel between poverty and the preservation of culture in New Orleans and on the native American reservations of the upper Midwest, not far from the city I spent a cold decade living in. Marginalized by a culture (if we can call America that) and an economy that had no use for a people or its ways, the reservations had one positive side: far from the cares of those who run the U.S., remnants of the old culture survived as it would not elsewhere.

That is not an excuse for what is allowed to transpire, either on The Rez or in The Bricks. Still, what was preserved by isolation and poverty should still be preserved. The question before us is how do we do that here in New Orleans, how do we recover from the greatest disaster in American history and preserve who and what we are?

Duany is dead on when he suggests that the conventional answers to that question are as dangerous as the failed attempt at social infrastructure that produced the housing projects.

"[The New Orleans way of life] which has been so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, it is the envy of some of us who work all our lives to attain the condition of leisure only after retirement. It is this way of living that will disappear. Even with the federal funds for housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now. The higher standards of the new International Building Code are superb but also very expensive. There must be an alternative or there will be very few “paid-off” houses. Everyone will have a mortgage that will need to be sustained by hard work—and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.

This is a radical and dangerous assertion by North American standards, but entirely true. It is not, however, our greatest problem. As I pointed out as far back as September of 2005, we are both a Caribbean city and a Latin one. It is the latter that troubles us, our unflattering association with the Americas to the south.

This thought returned to me Mardi Gras morning, when some very thoughtful and intelligent people whose tongues were loosened by cocktails at breakfast, suggested that what we increasingly needed as a Strong Man to lead us out of our current predicament. Where, I added , is our Huey Long when we need him? In the cold light of Ash Wednesday I found myself revisiting this conversation and thinking if the plague of crime had finally lead us to the ultimate Latin American response?

That people might propose such a solution should shock no one when we are plagued by so many of the same problems as our cousins to the south. Our city is plagued by a government of oligarchs, from the White House down to Perdido Street. The money America thinks they sent to help us was mostly diverted into the pockets of the oligarchy that currently controls the White House in vast no-bid contracts that merely trickled a bit of the money down to us.

What did reach us was filtered in the same way through Baton Rouge, which contracted out our aid to incompetent and dishonest contractors from elsewhere who are spending money hand over fist on themselves without directing any to us. What does reach the city goes into the hands of Perdido Street, where new and expensive contracts for city services are let in secret.

This is not the way government is run in much of the Caribbean, where the English and French with their vast experience of colonial empire left behind a functioning if not always efficient government by bureaucracy. Ours is the system of corruption founded instead by the Spanish throughout the other Americas, one our current President seems to have discovered and become enamored of as the Bush family moved from New England to colonize Texas and Florida, one which we in southern Louisiana have been perfecting for centuries.

The idea that anyone might endorse this is what I think rankled Maitri in her own response to what da po blog and I wrote about Duany's piece. I don't think anyone who has read Wet Bank Guide for the last year-and-a-half would think that I celebrate or endorse that sort of corrupt ineptitude. More than half of what is written here in driven directly by scorn for it. We deserve better.

The two issues are really separate. Duany is right that the best of intentions among the legion of planners who have descended to help could destroy us as easily as the corruption at every level of government over us. We are being saved from the first so far only by the ineptitude of our own government and that of our neighbors to the north.

In the end it is best that the city regrow organically, without the heavy hand that made such a mess of concrete blocks out of the reconstruction of post-World War II Europe. To succeed at that level we will have find a way to put in place an administration that can succeed against the crime problem and fix the streets, that can somehow manage to dole out what little remains unlooted of the mythical $110 billion to attract and keep the critical mass of citizens that will make us viable.

The challenge is enormous. Here in New Orleans we are divided by racial and sectional tensions as profound as those that tear at Iraq, and building a working civic infrastructure for the city will be almost as large a challenge as the think-tank utopians in Washington found in the in Bagdhad. The current crime wave is both a symptom of our dysfunction, and exacerbates it, inflaming those same racial and sectional divisions because virtually all of the violence is rooted in one community.

I do not believe that it is beyond us. The 200,000 who have come home have shown a willingness to throw over the past, as evidenced by the overturning of the old assessor system or the tossing out by neighborhoods most fully returned of their old city officials. The real trick of it will be both to put in place some sort of local administration that would in fact by the envy of the Caribbean and the rest of our kindred Americas--even if it falls short of the expectations of the America to the north--without succumbing to the demands that we model our economy and society on the utopian fantasies of Republican think tanks and the dystopian model portrayed in American advertising.

A way must be found to end the crime wave and fix the streets, to fully restore basic first world services such as water and electricity at rates that won't bankrupt us all. The city is only worth saving if we can remain a people apart, poorer perhaps than the industrious thralls to our north but infinitely happier. If we can only save ourselves on the model of Atlanta or Dallas, I have to hope that it succeeds only so I can sell my own fabulously mortgaged house for enough to afford something to my taste further South.






Comments:
I re-read Duany's piece again earlier today, in the course of referencing it in a discussion on a message board and one thing stood out. It seems sad to me that we've reached a point in America, all of America, in which a person can't build their own house, with help from friends and family, but has to hire professionals, has to have a mortgage and mortgage insurance and how that's so far from what we're supposed to be at our heart. As always, a very thoughtful post, Mark. Thank you.
 
"A way must be found to end the crime wave and fix the streets, to fully restore basic first world services such as water and electricity at rates that won't bankrupt us all."

Amen, brother. There NEEDS to be a congressional investigation into the practices of the new Enron, since our "1984"-ish deceptively named Public Service Commission hasn't done a damned thing about Entergy New Orleans so far, and things are far worse on the horizon:

http://www.nola.com/news/t-p/frontpage/index.ssf?/base/news-7/1173000048143020.xml&coll=1

Salient points:

"Under a rule that will be debated later this month by the PSC, Entergy Louisiana and Entergy Gulf States would start collecting millions of dollars from customers years before the reactor ever powers its first lightbulb.

Entergy is also pushing the PSC to limit how much power the commission would have to review the plant's costs after it is built, thus limiting the ability of regulators to spot inappropriate costs that the utility might be trying to pass off on its customers."

"Under the rule being considered by the PSC, Entergy would be able to collect interest on the money it is spending on the project while the reactor is being built."

"Prepayment of interest would benefit customers, Entergy says, because the revenue stream would be a signal to financial markets that the company is financially stable. That raises the utility's bond rating and keeps the cost of borrowing money in check."

Because it's important not to place "too much risk on a utility"... like, say, letting it declare bankruptcy WHILE ITS PARENT COMPANY BOASTS RECORD PROFITS, allowing it to STEAL CBDG monies out of the pockets of residents who need them, sitting back while it files suit against the ACoE (once again, making it less likely the residents are taken seriously) and charging tripled rates from two years ago, all again WHILE ITS PARENT COMPANY CLAIMS NO RESPONSIBILITY TOWARDS THE COST OF DAMAGE IN NEW ORLEANS. They claim the profits, right?

I am so FED UP with the IMMORALITY of this utility which, in effect, is forcing HUNDREDS of people to live in homes without electricity or gas SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY CANNOT BEAR THE EXPENSE. Will they ask for our food and medicine next to line their pockets with?
 
The answer is a true community, which recognizes its diversity is a strength and that all New Orleanians have more in common with each other than with those people.

We have however developed a self interested heavy handed political class which seem intent on dividing us up into interest groups for personal gain. This class has existed for so long it hardly recognizes its own existence.
 
Then it's far past time to break that "self interested heavy handed political class" apart during the rebuilding of the city.

As my mom said, "If you're gonna take out the trash, get it all.".
 
I think our political system is formed by the French as mucha s the Spanish. Jacques Chirac is a fancier version of Edwin Edwards, after all. He's widely thought to be as crooked as a snake.

I think we're also partially a Meditteranean culture. It's one of the things that I found attractive here. It feels like the South of France, Italy or Greece here.
 
"This is not the way government is run in much of the Caribbean, where the English and French with their vast experience of colonial empire left behind a functioning if not always efficient government by bureaucracy. Ours is the system of corruption founded instead by the Spanish throughout the other Americas..."

This is an inaccurate, unfair and simplistic view of the colonization system and political consequences to the colonized countries. All the four empires, Portuguese, Spanish, French and English, behaved in similar ways and pursued parallel objectives in the process of expanding their empires to the Americas. Also,they all were masters of corruption. It is inexcusable for us to blame them for our present behavior and calamities, both social and political. And finally, observing their past and present, you see mixed socio-economical results and political systems in different countries of the Americas at different times in history. In the end...it is time to behave like responsible adults; we have had more than two hundred years to learn from our past mistakes and those of our ancestors.
 
An over simplification? Yes, I'll grant that. But I still believe it is apt. Actually, the French did only marginally better than the Spanish, but the British seem to have generally left behind the best functioning government structures in the colonial world.
 
Are we sure we're even the most advanced city in the Caribbean at this point? I have, for instance, heard good things about San Juan, which boasts frequent air service to "Nueva York", a tax-subsidized pharmaceutical industry on its outskirts, an as-yet-uncommercialized old city, actual beaches, and apparently also lacks an open-container law!

But seriously, folks, the man does make a good point. Why would starched-collar American business locate in "The Northern Capital of the Caribbean", unless it needed something we had, like the port, or oil and gas resources to extract? We're going to have to figure out, as some smaller European cities have, how to make a living from what we create: not just tourism, but music, art, and soon, one hopes, multimedia.
 
Given the corruption seen at the highest levels in DC in the past few years, the factionalism of the sort Madison wanted so hard to avoid, and the fact that Brazil and other Latin American nations have national health care systems, etc., I'm not so sure all the former British colonies are the model anymore, Douglass North's economic history to the contrary notwithstanding.
 
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