Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bowling on the bayou

Today I was a guest on the radio show Community Gumbo, hosted on Tulane' radio station WTUL-FM by Brian Denzer, aka Schroeder of the blog People Get Ready. My purpose was to tout the Rising Tide 2 blogger-organized conference on the recovery of New Orleans. I think I did a tolerable job, with Brian making sure the correct plugs for the event were made up front and repeated

His show is one of the gems of the New Orleans media scene, a heart-felt and intelligent examination of the issues that shames the rest of the local broadcast scene and much that is produced nationally. Often political and opinionated without being didactic,his guests tell the story themselves in a personal way exemplified by his recent rebroadcast of A Gentilly Fourth of July, or the broadcast that stick smost firmly in my mind: a visit to post-Flood Lakeview on the event of a Sunday game by the playoff-bound Saints.

We spoke for a while of the place of blogging, and specifically of blogging as done by the people most involved in the Rising Tide 2 conference as it differs from much of what the public perceives as blogging: the often ridiculous comments beneath online newspaper stories and the facile wasteland of Facebook. Yes that is blogging in its most catholic sense, but it is not the work of the organizers listed in the sidebar of the Rising Tide 2 blog. Some of the core of the NOLA bloggers community offer a deeply personal journal of life in this city. Novelist Poppy Z. Brite's Dispatches from Tanginyika and local artist, almost attorney and grandmother Kim's Danger come to mind.

At the same time citizen journalists such as American Zombie, Matt McBride's late and lamented Fix The Pumps, and Bayou St. John David's Moldy City offer critical stories of the recovery missed or hidden by the major media. The commentary and analysis of the situation published by Oyster's Your Right Hand Thief, Ashley Morris: the blog and Matri's Valtul Blog routinely match and exceed that offered in the editorial sections of our newspaper. I know I've left out someone, so apologies in advance.

Blogging of the sort we perform (and radio as Brian presents it) is better suited to the story of New Orleans after the Federal Flood than any outlet in the major national or established local media. The scope and timeline of our story is novelistic, not episodic in the fashion most suited to the corporatized media of the twenty first century. The big media could no more cover the story we collectively write than they could serve up the serialized works of Dickens without being fileted and serve to their stockholders.

I said we write collectivly. That has evolved from the earliest days of what I consider the NOLA blogger's community, the group of on-line writers who emerged right after Katrina and the Federal Flood to write about those events. Most of us started blogging or redirected our prior efforts into communication about The Event. As we searched for information on-line to republish to our own small communities of readers, we found each other. We began to link to each other and leave comments. Sometime in late 2005 I started a Yahoo mailing list, and began to invite the bloggers I had found. At that point, we began to become a community.

From a first meet-up Ash Wednesday, 2006 at Fahey's through a series of potluck "Geek Dinners" we continued to connect as a community, a path that lead to someone (I can't remember who, so I won't give credit wrongly) suggesting that we put together a conference on recovery in August, 2006. I did not have high hopes for the idea, as organizing began little more than a month before that event. Somehow, we succeeded beyond our highest expectations. We discovered that some of us had readers in the mainstream media, and were able to lure two high-profile Wall Street Journal reports anxious to promote their new book as keynote speakers and panelists.

The first conference succeeded, and the second is on track to do the same, because we had moved beyond the solitary, saloniste approach to blogging into something loosely but clearly organized, like the first ragged assemblage of clouds in the Atlantic that becomes a storm. And we were not alone in organizing ourselves around the salvation of New Orleans.

Our experience is that of much of the rest of the city. The neighborhoods that were both most damaged and furthest along the long and winding road of recovery are those that self-organized themselves, places like Broadmoor and Mid-City. Out of the disruption of the city's social networks resulting from the largest displacement of Americans since the Civil War, new social networks emerged around neighborhoods and causes tied to the issues we struggled with.

In his now famous book Bowling Alone, author Robert D. Putnam posits that the social fabric of America is disintegrating. I can't find anything to disagree with in his premise. I am unchurched, and struggled as a minor political party functionary to find candidates and volunteers. I do not belong to a social or service club. Before I returned to New Orleans, were I to go bowling, I likely would have gone "alone" with just my immediate family.

Because the larger social contracts--especially those that underpin our system of government-- were torn apart like the floodwalls by the forces of Katrina and the Federal Flood, New Orleans has been forced to examine this issue by necessity, to build new networks that enable us all to survive in a leaderless city and nation, to organize ourselves as we finance ourselves in the credit-card recovery.

There was a quote I clipped and lost in a story quoting one of the actors in K-Ville, the new Fox Entertainment crime series set in After the End of the World New Orleans. He compared New Orleans' position to that portrayed in the fictional post-apocopytic television world of Jerico. Left on our own, we did what the human species has done through all history and memory: we organized ourselves and got on with the business of survival.

New Orleans did not lose all of its integral social networks. We all feared a year or more ago that the social clubs and Indians would be disbursed to the four winds, that the famlies that built the St. Joseph altars and people the truck parades on Mardi Gras Day might never return. We were concerned that the unique aspects of our culture they represent would be lost forever. Every passing day that seems less true. Indians and second liner's march. Churches our inept hierarchies had written off and tried to close meet. While the New Orleans Recreation Department sits in disarrary, the Carrollton Boosters are organizing sports for kids. St. Joseph Altars are built, and the truck parades rolled until my children could take no more. We are building the New Jeruselum right under Ceaser's nose and the mayor is forced, for lack of any accomplishment of his own, to adopt the neighborhood plans and claim them as his. Let him. We know who will really have built the community center in Mid-City.

Americans may not be joining the Elks or Rotarians as they did a half-century ago, but in organizations like the NOLA bloggers we are building the new Rotarians: self-organized groups that are born and grow both for the fellowship and the necessity of organized public service. Here is New Orleans we are increasingly proving out the second part of the "bowling alone" thesis: that this dissolution of the social contract is not an inrreversible trend. Here in Debriseville, we are joining together to do what ever it takes to make sure that in the future we will all be bowling together to a Cajun dance band at the Rock-and-Bowl.

At the local level, and in the abstract, blogging must not be viewed as a satisfactory, techno substitute for the traditional social network. Rather, blogging should be a valuable informational resource that serves to help awaken, intellectually challenge, and then inspire a more engaged, educated and organized citizenry.
Agreed. And perhaps I was not clear. Our subset of the NOLA bloggers community has evolved into a real space community not just a virtual one.
Hey, Mark, you gonna cross-post this one at the RT II blog? I think it oughta be there. JMHO.

Makin Civic Sexy..
Did you mean Fahy's?
I completely agree with your post - so often I have found out so much more from all the wonderful NOLA bloggers than the media. I smile when the TP does a story that they got from a NOLA blogger!!!

I am really sad that I can't come to rising tide - I have to work - not a happy camper!!! But I will do a post telling others to go! I'm hoping there is a geek dinner soon too - so I can meet all you amazing peeps - when I think of New Orleans rebuilding I think of the NOLA blogging commmunity - keepin it real and tellin it like it really IS!
best Wishes
re: "[.....we are building the new Rotarians: self-organized groups that are born and grow both for the fellowship and the necessity of organized public service.]"......I beleive this site, with it's subs, has developed into a prototye for energizing social change with some of the best poetry/expository/personal journalism/prose
I have ever enjoyed. I read a huge communal base which is organized by default on Foses's meta-thoughts. It is both political and spiritual, intimate and public. Perhaps a Literary Vanguard which has the secondary effect of demonstrating globaly, a New Orleans unknown to tourism. Perhaps the risen New Orleans will be more ample, now that we can know it by those who are writing here.
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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