Saturday, December 15, 2007

House Burning Down

Well someone stepped from the crowd he was nineteen miles high
He shouts we're tired and disgusted so we paint red through the sky
I said the truth is straight ahead so don't burn yourself instead
Try to learn instead of burn, hear what I say, yeah, yeah.
-- Jimi Hendix, House Burning Down
How could any educated person not approve of tearing down the city's four largest public housing complexes, a fellow blogger on the New Orleans blogger mailing list asks? In that question lives every ugly and sharp edge that glitters about this question like a field of broken glass.

My education was tutoring fourth graders at St. Alphonsos, a Catholic school at the edge of the now demolished St. Thomas, to escape high school catechism class. It was continued in college one semester mentoring the middle school newspaper at the Carver Complex in Desire. Complex was an apt name: it was a place that looked more like the prisons my father once built, surrounded by a tall, razor-wire topped fence and patrolled by armed guards.

These were not bad kids. Given the circumstances I knew they all lived in, I think they were in fact superb. Based on the kids I met, I knew their parents were not bad people. Perhaps I was just lucky to encounter children whose parents gave enough of a damn to insist they go to St. Alphonsos, children who grew up in homes in or around Desire where reading was not an alien concept, who could conceive of being on a school newspaper.

Perhaps they were the exception. I have a good friend who spent the last year coaching the most hopeless kids in the St. Tammany Parish Schools for the state's LEAP exam. These little golums were the future headlines and the future shooters and victims, and they scared the shit out of him. The kids I know were not those zombies, the walking dead. They were just like ourselves at that age, full of life and curiosity. These kids were an eduction for someone who who grew up on the privileged lake front, my exposure to people of color limited to Sylvia the maid or my father's handyman. They taught me that the people in these neighborhoods were not some Dark Other, but people just like everyone else.

Why tear down the projects? Why not tear down the projects? The arguments fly back and forth, but I have to ask this: We don't have projects now, not really. There's just Iberville and a few score units off Earhart. Has that reduced the crime and murder rate? Has that turned around the schools? Has it brought an economic miracle? How will tearing down these buildings do what the flood could not to clear out generations worth of mistakes?

Perhaps I am foolish to think, to hope that the largely working population (I include among the working the retirees and disabled who provided the free child care that freed up mom to work making beds downtown); to believe that these people might have some opportunity to return. Without them, the city will not grow back into something recognizably New Orleans. If we let the working class be replaced by hordes of undocumented Latin Americans, people who's fear of La Migra makes them more like the docile black working class of two or more generations some people seem to yearn for, it will profoundly transform the city. I welcome the new comers, without whom we would not be as far along as we are. But I want to add them to the mix, not replace the people who were here before.

Let me be clear, as I have been in the past. I have no use for stoop sitters and corner idlers. If you're not coming home to work and be a part of the massive task that still lies ahead, then don't come. I don't want you to come. We don't want you to come. You don't deserve to be here. To generalize and tell everyone who ever lived in public housing that they are all stoop-sitting, soap-watching losers is wrong. It's a lie, and that fact so many don't know that is perhaps the biggest problems of all: we really don't know each other.

Perhaps the people I care about, the ones who really helped make New Orleans with city we love, the ones who lived in what were arguably hell holes at times and yet got up and somehow got the kids to school and themselves to work, perhaps they have already begun have come home. I work at 1111 Tulane on the back end of the CBD, where people who ride the bus to-and-from work wait, the people who work the downtown hotels and clean the streets. I eat at the McDonalds on Canal every now and then and the Real Pie Man stops at my corner. The people of color who made up the core of the New Orleans working class are home in ever increasing numbers. Perhaps all the truly hard working folks, whether they lived in HANO housing or in the rundown rows of doubles that fill stretches of the city, perhaps they have already made it back. At the very at least as many of them are back as a percentage as anyone else in the city. The downtown where I work looks a lot like the downtown of the past, just with fewer people.

But that's not what this is about. The battle over the projects is just another skirmish in the centuries long struggle of race in the South, and in New Orleans. To the white community the projects represent every stereotype and social dysfunction and fear--fears real and ignorant--that result from every mistake we have made since Reconstruction, perhaps since the first slave ship landed on the river.

The projects became a hellhole because we all chose to let that happen. Building Bantustan on the Bayou did not solve the problems of slavery, or reconstruction or desegregation. It just attempted to push "the problem" into manageable blocks that were easy to avoid. Now we hope to push the problem even further away, onto another city, by tearing down the largest block of affordable housing with no plan for its replacement. That's not a solution. That's another attempt to escape the responsibility for the last several hundred years.

We're not going to escape that much karma that easily. People have told me that the association of the projects with all of the ills that might be found there is called a "spatial fetish" in social science. The brick buildings under discussion are truly a fetish, something meant to represent the unseen and powerful. Burning the fetish will not kill the spirit it represents, or the responsibilities that spirit places on us. That spirit has been fed on tears and blood for too long, has become too powerful. The projects are just a thing, not The Thing.

By insisting that the projects be demolished without confronting all of the real problems that animate the boogieman the folks I grew up with call "The Projects", we almost guarantee another generation of the same old racial shit. We will simply have found another way to dodge the real problems and leave in place all of the anger, dependency and despair, the suspicion and dishonesty and fear. It will breed more bulgy-eyed "civil rights" activists who will necklace anyone white or black who doesn't follow their line. It will push to the front people in the white community to answer them, people who are the other side of the same cheap brass coin, people whose white robes are plush like those of the best hotels, people who share Jimmy Reiss' vision of an ethnically cleansed city.

Is that where we want to live, in Rhodesia-turned-Zimbabwe? In the Balkans?

I don't want to save the projects. I want to save New Orleans. Tear down the projects in the current atmosphere, without confronting what those buildings truly represent to both sides and we might as well tear down the levees because I'm not sure what there will be left to save.

Edited at 12:45 to fix the "bad" words the child protection software stripped out. If it happens again, find the missing instances of shit, death, dead, murder and fetish and win a prize TBD.

Spatial fetish? Never heard that one before. Well put post about a very important issue.
Yes, I should explain. A spatial fetish is apparently the assignment of certain conditions to a place when the place is only incidental.
Since when did the World become Black and White with no grey?

As far as the stoop sitters, sometimes I have to remind myself that there are people who work the late shift.

Or maybe I am just a Pollyanna
No, there's lots of people sitting at all hours of the day (or buying a 40 at the corner store) as I go to work because they just got off work. But its naive to think there aren't a fair number of chronically unemployed.

I think ultimately that some of the projects will (and probably should) come down, but not under the same terms of openness about the process and putting citizen needs first we saw in the garbage contracts.
Expecting the elimination of this "social experiment gone bad", the projects, to have an immediate impact on crime and poverty is very naive. It's like assuming providing decent education will cause an overnight change in the skill level of our working class. The black culture in this city is diseased from generations of exposure to these inhumane living conditions and pathetic educational system. Want to see a change, expect it in 10 or 15 years when the children who benefit from a decent education and decent living conditions finally enter the workplace. Until then I'm afraid we just need to hang on and wait for the thugs who grew up in this diseased system to get shot or arrested.
Boudreaux that's my point exactly. Demolishing the projects will have zero short term impact, except to stymie the provision of working class housing.

The real solution would be to unionize the hotels and casinos and put in place a living wage, then people could take care of their own needs. We're a desirable destination, and people will pay the rates they do in other unionized destination sites. That would drive up wages across the board.

This is the basic economic model of 1950s America. Unionized manufacturing and other basic trades provided a foundational income that allowed people to have a decent standard of living and concentrate on the education of their children, etc.
"This is the basic economic model of 1950s America."

Yes, the 1950s Americans who might be interested in traveling to various destinations weren't competing with labor in China...or the Phillipines...or Bangladesh, and their wages didn't reflect the pressures of that competition.

"Boudreaux that's my point exactly. Demolishing the projects will have zero short term impact, except to stymie the provision of working class housing."

Now, Mark, I know your point here isn't that we should sacrifice the long term well being of the community because the steps that will lead to that long term success "will have zero short term impact"...but in the context of this conversation, it sure sounds that way. To refer back to the point that (I think) Boudreaux was actually making, do we not make attempts to reform our atrotious (with a few well-know exceptions; my two sons did K-6 in NOPS and got a wonderful foundation, but I know many others at other schools weren't so lucky) public school system because the overall benefit to the community of a well-educated populace wouldn't show itself for years?
First time you've held forth on current events in quite a while. Not that I don't enjoy the lyrical, nostalgic stuff, but still, I found that rather invigorating.

The phrase "hordes of undocumented Latin Americans", taken out of context, would be worth at least a 200-post flame war at the place where we "met"! Didn't Clarence once say something to the effect of "overrun by Mexicans" (thereby putting his foot in his mouth, so an angel got his wings)? Besides, a glance at the tile street markers in the Vieux Carre (not entirely the "French" Quarter) will attest that Spanish has been heard in the city's hallowed streets almost since the beginning.

Hopefully the wise and erudite Wet Bank readership will take the piece as a whole for what it is, a call for unity (all it needs is the Ben Franklin quote "We must hang together, or surely we shall all hang separately"!) and not tear it apart like they would at You-Know-Where.

In case you're wondering, I support opening the projects as a temporary solution only. People need housing now, in New Orleans, not "in public housing across the South" (HUD actually said that!). As soon as possible, Housing Czar KamaAina would convert the tenants to Section 8 tenants in newly rehabbed buildings on blocks that are vulnerable to the dreaded "jack-o'-lantern effect". I'm thinking that people who might once have looked askance on "those people" moving in next door might now prefer it to a darkened, boarded-up nuisance.
It doesn't have to be an either/or issue - tear them down or move people back in right away. There has to be some middle ground.

I also feel there has been plenty of bad faith on both sides, HUD/HANO and the activists. It's a bad situation all around, that's for sure.
Good Job! :)
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