Monday, January 26, 2015

An Open Letter to Mayor Landrieu: Veto the Smoking Ban as Written


Open Letter to Mayor Landrieu

Dear Sir:
I am writing to urge you to veto the smoking ban passed by the City Council last week. In its present form it can only hurt small businesses and the very employees the Council claims it wants to protect. Notably Councilpersons Ramsey and Gray wanted more information on the economic impact of this kind of legislation in a city such as ours. I am hopeful that they, along with the other Council members, consider carefully what ramifications the smoking ban as written could bring,.

I read the live blogs and the articles covering this in the Times Picayune. I read all 1000+ comments. One kept sticking out to me, and apparently others who commented on it. Richard Rainey, of the Times Picayune, posted: “Bar owners asked the council quietly for a citywide ban because that way bars that want to be smoke-free won't lose customers to smoking bars, Guidry said.” That statement belies the unicorns and rainbows mantra that if all bars go non-smoking the non-smokers will magically take the places of smoking regulars. Clearly the bar owners who “quietly” asked for that unilateral approach knew this to be untrue and cynically asked off the record for something they knew was not a “level playing field” tactic to be implemented. That was patently unfair and frankly a little sleazy.

This is not just about smoking v smoke free. This will be about the loss of a lot of small businesses and jobs.

The new CZO will be coming up for discussion this spring. Some bars, like Mimi's, Jimmy's, St. Roch Tavern, Buffa's and others, will again find themselves involved in the discussion of music (music having been last year defined as “noise”). Many of them have already invested in sound proofing, security guards, complied with closing times and no go cups in order to assuage the neighbors' complaints. (By the way, Buffa's has a non-smoking back room and Mimi's has anon-smoking upstairs, but not all of these places have that space/ability.) After having spent in some cases thousands of dollars in attorney fees and renovations to comply, they turned to staff and security to encourage people to return to the inside of the establishment. (This is particularly the case with both Mimi's and St. Roch.) Now they will be asked to send their customers outside to comply with the smoking ban, and the circle will go around again with noise complaints. The owner of Cosimo's is also concerned with the neighbor/noise issue. I fear this issue will only be exacerbated by now asking those bars to send their customers outside.

(It has also been pointed out to me by some owners that they will have to ask for retention of all drivers' licenses upon the customer ordering a drink as it would be entirely too easy for them to order a drink, say they're heading out for a smoke, and never return. It's the little things like this that some folks aren't thinking about.)

Cosimo's owner stated that the vast majority (85-90%) of his customers are in fact smokers. There are other service industry bars that are filled with workers from non-smoking restaurants that come in after their shifts to have a drink and a smoke before heading home. (These are the same folks, by the way, who are serving in restaurants, working in hotels, dealing in casinos to locals and the tourists that our city pays a great deal to draw every year.) Have you ever seen Johnny White's or other service industry bars after a shift changes? Can you imagine the neighbor complaints with groups of people standing outside at midnight-2AM? This is very much not a level playing field as not all bars are able to suddenly create a patio/courtyard. It's also not a level playing field in terms of creation of private clubs, as “in a nod to tradition” Carnival krewe balls will be exempt, but a private club would not be.

The inclusion of electronic cigarettes in the ban will also greatly affect some of the new businesses that cater to the users of these items. New small businesses known as vape shops are just starting to see their businesses grow. The inclusion of e-cigs in this ban will most likely stall those businesses as well.,

In a British Beer and Pub Association survey done in 2011, the number of pub closures was staggering. (There are similar numbers in Ireland, Scotland and Wales following bans there.)

In an opinion piece written for The Guardian in 2011, the author calls the opinions of people decrying the loss of pubs in England “nostalgia,” and posits that: “It's hard to compete when people's idea of a good Saturday night has now shifted to involve a couple of friends, a bottle of wine and The X Factor. It also removes most of the negative side-effects associated with pubs – drink-driving, antisocial behaviour and aggression are far less likely to manifest themselves when you've spent the evening in your own front room.” The author goes on to say that taxes on liquor have gone up in supermarkets and that there was an influx of “chain pubs” that entered the market on the heels of the old school pubs' closing. After saying that all of that wasn't so bad, the author concedes that: “The real tragedy of pub closures is the number of people losing their jobs. Fourteen pubs closing each week equals devastating effects for families around the country, already hit hard by the recession.” That was 2011 and the pubs continue to close.

Is the economy of our city so good that we can afford to lose tax money from the bars and their customers if they follow the trends seen elsewhere. (For the record, after having spoken with friends in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, all say that a. if you have enough money, your smoking will be ignored by the proprietor hoping you'll spend it in their establishment, and b. that some establishments have just ignored the ban completely and willingly pay the fine if caught.) By the way, if the fines are a new idea for raising revenues, then allow the fines to be paid by the bar's customers and leave the liquor license out of it.

Are we in such good shape that we can afford to put our local bartenders out of work, or put them in a position where their job and tips can't pay the ever increasing rents in New Orleans? While busily talking about worker protection, the Council seems to have overlooked the issue of the wages that are needed to keep body and soul together.

The Casino issue is one that should give us all pause with regard to this ban. The money Harrah's brings in to New Orleans in terms of taxation, ancillary spending and employment is enormous and to cavalierly say that people will show up in droves to take the smokers place and/or not choose to go to casinos in nearby locales is disingenuous.

A friend whose circumspect views and common sense I generally agree with said on social media earlier this week that he felt the default should be non-smoking with a permit issued for smoking. While I usually agree with him, in this instance I think the owners of bars already have enough permitting issues to wade through. That said, if that is the only way for some of them to stay in business, as long as the permit wasn't exorbitant and punitive, perhaps that would be a way to go. I still disagree with the idea, but at least the owner would be given a choice: the owner who has built and nurtured that business sometimes for decades; the owner who hires people to work there; the owner who knows his/her clientele.

I find the exclusion of cigarettes from cigar bars to be just plain idiotic. The exclusion of e-cigs entirely, I also find idiotic. I remain unclear on whether or not a pipe can be legally smoked in a bar as it appears that cigarettes, and only cigarettes (and the smokers who pay very high taxes for them by their own choice) are being targeted. I am also intrigued that the same people who often note the obvious failure of our government's wasteful and decades long War on Drugs are so willing to now criminalize the cigarette smoker or the business owner who knows his/her patrons' preferences.

If New Orleans is going to accept the 2011 UK Op Ed writers' view that an evening at home watching X Factor with friends is a superior choice to going out, or that small bars closing so that chain bars can take their places is better than a neighborhood bar, then we as a city are truly on the wrong path.

The pie in the sky “non-smokers will take their place” myth is just that. A myth. What is not a myth is that non-smoking clubs on Frenchmen are doing fine, allowing e-cigs, and they did that by choice not legislation.

Full disclosure: I am a smoker, do not light up in a non-smoking bar, have patronized all but one of the bars I mentioned above. I wrote about the ones I know will have problems. I am sure that there are others throughout the city that will have the same problems if this legislation is allowed to pass as is.

I hope you will veto this bill, and consider all the unintended consequences of leaving this decision as currently designed. We don't need to make these businesses suffer, put people out of work or criminalize anything else. We have enough of those issues already.

Sam Jasper

EDIT 1.27.15: "This terrible process started with the ban on smoking. Labour was warned that it would result in pub closures, but went ahead regardless. The people it was supposed to protect – the bar staff – have suffered catastrophic job losses as a result (though this is rarely noticed, as so many bar staff are non-unionised, cash-in-hand foreigners). Labour knew this would happen, as the state of British Columbia in Canada had introduced a similar ban a couple of years earlier and the immediate result had been bar closures and (I have been told) one third of bar jobs lost." That from This article in the Telegraph, written last week.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Letter to City Council re: Noise Ordinance Proposal

Since I can't make it to the Council Chambers, because of course, something else was scheduled for this morning and they only JUST announced all this yesterday, I wrote a letter to the Council and hope all of you did too. Most of mine is completely quoted from the Convention and Visitor's Bureau website. Here's what I said:

Dear Council Persons,
I got an email just today about the hearing in Council Chambers tomorrow at 10AM. I cannot be there as I have a previous commitment, but feel that the scheduling of this hearing so quickly during the holiday season was a purposeful decision. With little advance notice given, I believe the hope is that there will be fewer opponents of this ordinance able to attend.

Not only am I outraged by the perception of underhandedness in the pushing forward of this absurd ordinance, but I'm frankly baffled by it.

From the Convention and Visitor's Website:

"A place where centuries old architecture is the backdrop for a culture so invigorating, it'll rouse your spirit. Visit the most fun and authentic city in America, New Orleans."

Under the Nightlife section, same website:
". . . .nightclubs where you can dance the night away. So leave the stress of your everyday life behind, grab a go cup (in New Orleans you can take your drink with you), put on your dancing shoes and get ready to have the time of your life."

Under the Frenchmen Street section, same website:

"It offers an amazing variety of venues styles and music, ranging from traditional jazz to blues to reggae to rock all week long. Many venues along the strip don't even charge a cover! But in true New Orleans fashion, do give a cheer after a great trombone solo and throw a few bucks in the tip jar to show your appreciation.

Frenchmen offers a lively street culture that means the fun spills out from the bars and music venues. Sketch artists and poets line the sidewalks and bluegrass and gypsy jazz pickup bands nestle into the stoops along the strip. Brass bands are commonly found on the corner of Chartres and Frenchmen, and before you know it, you'll be dancing in the streets like a local."

This is the image of New Orleans we sell to the world. This is the actual New Orleans that we street dancing locals recognize as home.

Under this new proposed noise regulation (and forgive me but I have real problems with the word noise used to describe both a jackhammer and a trumpet, for while they both make sounds, one is a tool while the other is an instrument of self expression), if I have musicians in my house, or "nestled" on my stoop, practicing their craft, getting ready for a show, or even a child learning to play drums or tuba or trombone (Trombone Shorty had to learn to play somewhere), I could find myself in violation of this ordinance.

I am not going to go point by point through this ordinance, which by the way, appears to violate the First Amendment as I understand it. I will say, however, that if this proposal is passed, then everything we consider to be our culture, our "authentic" culture, will be in danger. We're busy marketing the very thing that this would wipe out. I don't understand that and never will.

I urge you to toss this ordinance in the trash bin where it belongs and listen to the musicians whose livelihoods could be at stake, listen to the people who are trying to work with you, like MACCNO. If the sound of our city is going to be silenced by a handful of disgruntled but vocal people in various neighborhood associations, then we might as well all trundle off to Dubuque or change the name of our city to Anytown, USA because it will no longer be "authentic" nor will it be New Orleans.

For the record, I live and vote in New Orleans and music is not a criminal enterprise. I'd rather see our police doing actual police work than running around ticketing a pickup band or harassing a bar owner. I am not alone. There are a lot of us watching, and your decisions will be on our minds when next we find ourselves in a voting booth.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

They


Last Sunday a Mother's Day Second Line was shot up here in New Orleans. The incident became national then international news. As a resident of New Orleans I was horrified and not only because I know one of the most critically injured, while another friend and her daughter missed being there simply by virtue of running late. It was a heinous, cowardly and brutally cold act pure and simple.

I watched comments sections, something I normally avoid like the plague. I looked at what my friends and others were saying in social media. One particularly astute friend said he figured in a few days the whole debate would become “gun control discussion” fodder. He wasn't wrong. Some of that has certainly come up from both sides of the argument and that's not unreasonable, but it still somehow misses an even bigger issue.

I watched news reports. I read news reports. I saw the surveillance footage and the suspect named. Something was off and I couldn't put my finger on it. Whatever it was kept me up nights trying to figure out what was bugging me. Was it the violence? Absolutely. Was it the senselessness of it? Yes. Was it concern over friends, second lines, culture and where the blame would land? Yes to all of that. But none of those things were the elusive thing, just out of reach, like something seen out of the corner of your eye that disappears when you turn your head to face it.

Some people argued that this was an act of terror, some changed that up to “urban terror” while the FBI explained their definition of terrorism and finally said no, this particular act didn't fit the definition. Still something bugged me and I stayed up another night.

Finally I figured it out. It was the news coverage but not in the way that some people had already pointed out. Some noticed right away that this mass shooting, while being called a mass shooting, wasn't covered in the same way others had been. Some felt it was due to the lack of fatalities, one thing for which we can be endlessly grateful. Others felt that it was because it was New Orleans, and many made good points on that score: folks across the land do seem to revel in bashing our city. For some it seems to be a sport. Still, that wasn't it.

The elusive thing finally sat in the doorway long enough for me to see it. It was ugly and I was surprised by it, although in hindsight I probably shouldn't have been.

When Cho Seung-Hui, 23, took his guns to Virginia Tech in April, 2007 his Facebook page was gawked at until it was removed. Photos of him in body armor with guns were all over the internet. In no time at all reporters had tracked down bits of information: Korean, came here when he was 8, family in Korea noticed behavioral problems when he was little, family owned a dry cleaners and were very nice people. He had trouble in school, trouble at Virginia Tech where he was enrolled in Business courses. Cho had a long history of mental health issues that were not handled, although he evidently took Prozac for a while. I could go on. There's tons of information.

Then 3 years later, Jared Lee Loughner, 24, took his guns to a political rally shooting Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, killing several including a 9 year old girl, injuring many more. He was captured and his shaved head smirky mug shot was all over the media. Reporters found out he had dropped out of high school, then attempted college, broke up with his girlfriend, had an extreme change in his personality over the course of a couple years, allegedly took a lot of drugs. His mom worked outside the home, his father was rarely seen. Neighbors said his father was strange. His friends said Loughner was sweet then suddenly changed into a truly bizarre guy. Psychiatrists decided he was probably schizophrenic and was in need of mental health help but his problems had gone undetected. Again, tons of information out there.

James Holmes, 25, shot up a theatre in Colorado in July, 2012. His smiling flaming red haired mug shot made him look even more bizarre than Loughner with his smirk. Within hours we learned he was a failed Ph.D student, had been to psychiatrists on campus and off, had been seen as a danger but no one knew if that had been reported to anyone. His lab partners and pretty much anyone he ever spoke to were interviewed. He came from a seemingly normal home. He was awkward. Reporters stuck microphones in everyone's face they could find that might know any little thing about the guy.

The same happened with Adam Lanza, 20, in December, 2012. Awkward, weird, no mug shot but the most recent photo they found made him look like he was an alien or thought he was seeing them. Mom liked guns and was a bit of a strange woman herself, although, the reporters were quick to find out from the local bar/eatery that she frequented that everyone there thought she was sweet and thoughtful, though worried about her son's mental health. He played a lot of video games and was rarely seen. Recent reports say that he was bullied at Sandy Hook when he was little. Upper middle class kid goes sproing, or had gone sproing a long while back, no one could be sure, and he went and shot up a school full of little kids.

All four incidents were covered wall to wall 24/7. Reporters were palpitating to get any morsel of info on these guys, no matter how irrelevant, stupid, or just flat out wrong the information sometimes proved to be. The reporters looked very concerned and empathic. Most reports on air or in print were asking WHY? in big letters. Profilers and FBI guys and psychiatrists all speculated on the cause, prefacing their comments with, “I can't diagnose someone without having actually examined him, but . . . .”

For Cho, most assessments became about his difficulties as a child of immigrant parents, and mis- or undiagnosed/untreated/unacknowledged mental illness. From his writings it was found that he felt poor in relation to the other students he went to school with, he felt left out of the American dream in some existential way. He felt alienated, marginalized.

For the other three, the profiles were rife with items about either parental neglect or over-indulgence, alienation, marginalization, and the standard triad of mis- or undiagnosed/untreated/unacknowledged mental health issues.

None of that happened with regard to Akein Scott. None of it. Not a neighbor, relative, friend, teacher, pastor or school administrator had a microphone shoved into their face with a breathless reporter asking about Akein's first 19 years. Once again we had a smiling mug shot, but a completely different reaction. No one was saying he was a crazy whacko who played too many video games and didn't like to be touched and was bullied in school and was failing in college and his parents tried hard and/or screwed up and my god why didn't someone notice a problem before he started pulling the trigger while aiming his gun at innocents. They couldn't. No one had asked those questions. Correct information, wrong information, an anecdote? Nope. Nothing. People didn't nod to each other over their beer and say, man, did you see how crazy that guy looked? Instead they saw a young black man in a white shirt and seemed to take for granted that his actions were a foregone conclusion.

I am not saying that bad reporting is a good thing, but at least a show of curiousity might be. Before you say that the others killed people and Mr. Scott did not, let me stop you. When we ask 'why' in these cases we want to know why someone would find it necessary, or think it was okay, or be hard and cold enough to shoot a firearm into a soft target like a classroom, a theatre or a celebratory second line, and for the record, it was pure luck that no one was killed Sunday on Frenchmen Street. Before you say that I'm an apologist for Akein Scott, please know that I decry his actions, HIS actions, and expect due process and evidence to put him somewhere away from society.

That does not change the fact that I find it curious that no one else seems to be curious about the why here. The comment sections are full of the word thug, a word, by the way, that I'm really sick of hearing. One commenter thinks we need to ramp up Stop and Frisk: on them, of course, they are the ones we need to stop. They. No matter if they happen to be business men or doctors. They. No one felt we should start ramping up Stop and Frisk on young white men 19-25 after the others went on the rampage, nor do I know of any aggressive Stop and Frisk program in the Korean community in this country. Another commenter says, “It's cool. They will just keep killing til they kill each other off.” Despicable. Again, no one said any such thing about young white men “shooting at their own.” No one.

A friend of mine wrote a stunning piece about the cycle of emotions he feels as a black man in this community. He talked about his anger: "As a black male in New Orleans, there's often a hint of shame because deep down I know the actions of the few reflect so negatively on the many. I feel like I should be going out and doing something to atone for what happened even though I haven't done anything. This makes the anger greater because now I'm madder these fools are making my life more complicated." You can read his entire piece here.  Unfortunately there will still be some people who see this man in his driveway with friends talking about football and walk a little faster wondering if they have a gun in their waistband. They.

Ka'Nard Allen, one of the ten year olds wounded Sunday, was profiled by local news outlets. Ke'Nard's father was stabbed to death, allegedly by his stepmother, after a domestic dispute in October 2012. His tenth birthday, last May, became a shooting gallery with bullets flying past balloons killing his 5 year old cousin, Breanna Allen, and wounding him. A ten year old wounded by gunfire twice in one year. Sickening. No private patrols in that neighborhood paid for by the neighborhood association. It only happens where they live, or so people think, and those that think that never ask why. They.

Law enforcement caught and locked up Akein Scott. I heard they caught his brother, another of the alleged shooters, Shawn Scott, 24. Our Mayor and Chief of Police were on the news today. Here in this house we were both cautiously glad. Why “cautiously?” Because we looked at each other and said, almost at the same time, “I hope they got the right guys. I hope they don't screw up the trial.” We don't have much faith in our Police Department's record on such things unfortunately, not the DA's office either. There are too many stories of the wrong guy being locked up because someone had it in for him and the reward money along with street revenge was too great a temptation, or the right guy getting out and killing a few more before the courts get him. I hear they had multiple ID's of him and his brother so I'm hoping they get this one right.

Meanwhile I'm still curious. I'm asking the same questions I asked when Cho/Loughner/Holmes/Lanza pointed guns at people. What went wrong? Why didn't someone notice a problem? What makes a young man that alienated, that marginalized, that cold and heartless? I see a video, it's jerky. A young black man in a white shirt and blue jeans steps out from next to a stoop near a corner, raises his hand, points the gun at people dancing in the street, suddenly the people scatter, some falling hard on the ground. He turns and runs, not looking back. That's calculated, like the others. That's planned, like the others. Young men aged 19-25 with guns, just like the others with only one obvious difference.

I'm still not seeing the interviews with neighbors and teachers. I'm seeing no FBI profilers here. I won't see them in Chicago or Detroit, St. Louis or Camden, Compton or Baltimore either as bodies fall every day. The comments sections will fill up with rants full of the word thug, others will say a good guy with a gun coulda/shoulda/woulda, another will say no more guns. No one will ask what kind of child Akein was, what kind of student he was, what did his parents do or not do. No one cares why, in fact simply asking the question will no doubt draw the ire of folks who will accuse me of looking for an excuse for him. I'm not. What he allegedly did is inexcusable. I would like to understand though, and to do that I have to ask the question. Are we afraid of the answer, because the answer isn't unique to New Orleans, is it? I'm sure it's not just one thing, one simple easily fixed thing, either. Perhaps I'm naïve in thinking we should at least try to figure this out.

Then again, some of us don't really want to change it, or think it's not possible to fix the problem. Either way, we can go back to our reality shows and ignore the reality right outside our door or over around the way. It's their destiny. It's their culture. It only happens where they live. They.

Maybe we should make sure little Ke'Nard gets counseling and support beyond the end of the news cycle. Maybe we should be asking why more often.

Us.

     

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Unsolicited Advice to the Northeast in the Aftermath


“Tonight I'm gonna take that ride
Across the river to the jersey side
Take my baby to the carnival
And I'll take her on all the rides

`cause down the shore everything's all right”
Song by Tom Waits
Heard in the head of a Jersey Girl in the voice of
Bruce Springsteen,  Jersey Girl

No. It's not all right and you probably can't get across the river right now anyway.

My high school years in Bergen County are peppered with memories not of classrooms and despotic Vice Principals, but of subway rides into Manhattan, afternoon rides on the Staten Island Ferry (cheap fun for a truant), and hustling rides ten to a car down the Garden State Parkway to Asbury Park and Seaside Heights, which were never called by name, only referred to as “The Shore.” I picked splinters out of my feet after walking the now destroyed boardwalk in barefeet like an idiot. I was kissed sweetly in the sand that has now buried cars and shifted houses off their foundations. I rode the rollercoaster that now sits in the Atlantic. At least I think that's the one I rode after being dared.

My last decade has been shaped by the Federal Flood, otherwise known as Hurricane Katrina. The landscape around me has changed since then in both good and bad ways. My interior landscape is forever changed by that experience.

I heard Seaside Heights' Mayor Bill Akers on CNN this morning. He said that when he hears what's going on in other areas his heart goes out to them. His voice broke when he said he was trying to keep emotion out of it. For now. I was on my dry couch in New Orleans in tears.

We here in New Orleans watched the NASA shots of Sandy headed your way. She was huge, well organized, aimed at you and we knew how that felt. She was perfect, as Katrina was, actually beautiful when viewed from the safety of a distant satellite lens. We saw the targets on your backs and understood, possibly as no other group of people can.

Initially there was some bitter grousing about our having had to defend our City's right to exist and be rebuilt, something you might not have to do. We weathered the nasty comments about our being idiots living below sea level, and even nastier comments about tax payer money being wasted on morons and ingrates and freeloaders. These comments were ubiquitous after Katrina, but we wouldn't wish what you're dealing with on anyone because we've been there.

We endured extreme heat, while you folks have to deal with unbelievable cold, as the power went out and stayed out. We are also a city in which some people don't have cars, so we understand the New Yorkers who are utterly stranded as the Subway tunnels have turned into something better navigated by gondolas than train cars. We know as we see aerial views of Asbury Park, Seaside Heights, Atlantic City, and all the coastal towns that what we're seeing in no way shows us the length and breadth and depth of the devastation. We know you aren't overstating it when you say it looks like a war zone. We understand the loss of everything you own. We know the tears you'll shed as your kids' yearbooks and baby pictures are gone forever. We understand your toughness, your determination to rebuild, your compassion for your neighbors and your statements about your family being fine and your losses were “only stuff.”

We get it.

Now for the unsolicited advice:

Expect unexpected consequences. One or more of your leaders will let you down. Right now the adrenalin is flowing and you're all in shock, as are your leaders, who really seem to be doing a great job. It's down the road when the issue becomes money and contractors and the actual rebuilding that you'll be let down by someone. Be prepared to deal with the anger.

Have patience. Your power will come on when it comes on, and all the ranting and raving in the world cannot change that, nor can you expect a timetable from your utility companies. Just two months ago we went through Isaac and the utility issues were exasperating. I say this to you as someone who sat on the porch waiting for bucket trucks, or at least information, in the aftermath of several hurricanes now. Don't waste your energy (no pun intended) calling them or expecting one of them to say Thursday at 9AM. It won't happen. Cuddle up and keep each other warm. Oh, and expect your utility rates to jump as the utility companies go to your local civic leaders and ask who's going to pay for all this repair. It will never come out of the utility company's profits, it will come out of your wallet. That I can guarantee.

Try not to slug your Insurance Adjuster. As I watched the storm coming in the other night, there was footage of a building in Chelsea. The entire facade had fallen down, and this was before Sandy's actual landfall. What I heard, in terms of reasons for the facade falling, was familiar: coulda been rain, coulda been shoddy workmanship, coulda been wind, coulda been anything: and so the parsing began. What happened here, and what will no doubt happen there, is that whatever you're covered for, it will be the OTHER reason that caused the damage. If you're covered for wind, it will be deemed water damage or vice versa. Don't count on your insurance carrier to be compassionate. They won't be. In fact you may find your rates hiked, your policy canceled, your payout to be a pittance that wouldn't even cover one month's car payment. Expect that coverage in your area will be curtailed with some companies refusing to write a policy at all. No amount of righteous outrage about the premiums you've paid for years will alter any of this. Your carrier will go on the news, make statements about wanting to help, tell you that you're in good hands, then send you a letter saying they're dropping you at the same time that they issue their quarterly report on profits. Expect it.

Advocate for your Area. Don't let the officials make all the decisions as the rebuilding process gets started. Get involved, start neighborhood associations, make yourself heard, fight for your little spot on this planet. If you don't, monied interests who view disaster as a profit making opportunity, will show up and barrel some ordinance through your City Council; you'll be really upset after the fact. Get in front of this. You've got a little time. First you have to clean up, but remember what I'm saying as the process moves forward. Without your voice, your advocacy, some things will be proposed and moved into your reality so fast your heads will swim, and they won't always be things you would like to have happen. Governor Christie said today that for a guy his age, the iconic parts of the Shore will never be the same. They're gone. He's right. Just don't let people, especially people who aren't from there, determine what will be put in place, no matter what city, town or borough you live in. Ask us about the “iconic” French Market some time when you get a chance, and that's just one little thing. Your sense of community is what will see you through. Without it you'll be steamrolled by developers with wads of cash and connections. Carpetbaggers don't just come to the South.

Allow yourself time to cry. And cry. Then cry some more. You'll be crying unexpectedly for a long time. Ask us. We still cry over the Flood seven years ago, and are crying as we see your devastation because those pictures dredge up visions burned into our souls that we manage not to notice on good days and can't escape on bad days. You'll find yourselves three years from now looking for something familiar, something you know you had, then get slugged in the solar plexus as you remember that it was in a box in your basement when Sandy slammed through. Give yourself permission to grieve the loss of the little things that marked your journey through life. While they don't matter much in the overall scheme of things, they do matter to you, a great deal. Don't minimize their importance in your determination to stay strong. That last picture of your Dad will haunt you if you don't allow yourself to mourn it's simple paper loss.

Don't be afraid to ask for help, you'll need it. The mental health issues related to this will not show up in force for a couple of months. Some won't show themselves until well after the rebuilding has begun. You are in for months and months of stress, and being a hearty lot, you'll manage. You'll cope. Then you'll find yourselves as we did, with a group of friends, and every 15 minutes one or the other of you will burst into tears. Don't berate yourselves over this. Help the other guy through the sobbing until it's your turn and they'll help you and understand and won't call you a pussy.

Watch your elderly family members. They will quietly weather this, but many of them will internalize it. The deaths of elderly people after Katrina skyrocketed. I am not trying to scare you. I'm just telling you what we experienced and it was not something we expected. Many of us didn't notice that the old man down the street was struggling because everything he ever knew was gone, never to return. We didn't always notice when the old lady around the way gave up, and gave in to her broken heart. It was sobering and scary and we carried guilt for being so concerned about rebuilding that we missed signs. These are the things your leaders or the media won't necessarily tell you. We've lived it. We're hoping you can avoid some of it by knowing ahead of time.

Your little ones will be scared, deeply and for a long time. They'll need a lot of help and attention. Your usually mellow child might suddenly bolt under the bed at the sound of the wind. As scary as this was and is for you, for them it's as though a big malevolent foot stomped their sandcastle of security. They're too young to understand, too young to process some of it, too young sometimes to vocalize their fears, and they'll try to be strong for you as you are trying to be for them. Make sure that your schools have some kind of program in place to deal with the trauma. If they don't have one, demand it.

Retain your sense of humor. Gallows humor will get you through a lot of things. Of course, here in New Orleans, gallows humor is our stock in trade, but I know you've got a pretty good streak in you too. Use it. You'll need it and will find it very helpful as you dig out.

Accept what people give you. Don't let your pride get in the way. We learned that very quickly as packages with cash tucked into them came to us from friends and strangers all over the country. For some of you the cash will be important as your paychecks won't be coming for a while, if your job still exists. Our initial response was, yup, pride. We don't need that, we're fine, we thought. We learned humility fast and we learned to simply say thank you and accept the help. The folks who sent it wanted to help, really wanted to help. They didn't want to give to an organization, they wanted to help us hand to hand, and they knew that if we knew of a place or person nearby who needed the help they sent more than we did, which was often the case, that we'd make sure it got to those people. You will be touched and humbled by the generosity of people and that's something else you can lean on during this trying period.

Be prepared for assholes. There will be those who make outrageous assertions about your character or your home from behind a screen as they sit comfortably a thousand miles away. They will say it's God's wrath for having gay people among you. They will say you're idiots for living at sea level. They'll make all manner of racist comments. They'll say that rebuilding boardwalks and homes on the shore or the barrier islands is wasteful folly. They'll call you freeloaders, opportunists, and worse. For every bit of great kindness you receive, there will be an equal amount of venomous hatred. Ignore them if you can or defend if you must. Understand that idiots will come out of the woodwork as fast as the volunteers who show up to help you. They are hateful cowards. Say what you must to them, unless ignoring them is easier on your psyche.

As Thanksgiving is just around the corner, I am reminded of the first Thanksgiving after Katrina. A small group of us got together for dinner at one of the few open restaurants. (Power, by the way, still wasn't on in many areas of the city.) One of our number asked quietly if we'd mind if he read something. We all said no, of course we didn't mind. He had searched for days for this passage from “Ulysses” by Tennyson:

“Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Our hearts are with you, and our tears are tears of understanding and memory. I am in hopes that the writing of this will arm you for the battle ahead as what we learned has to have some positive use. I cannot accept that it was all for naught.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

An Open Letter to Mayor Landrieu

Dear Mayor Landrieu,
I voted for you. Twice. I felt then and feel now that you really want to work with the community. I felt then and feel now that having grown up here in New Orleans, you have a deep connection to the City, its people and its culture in all the various forms that culture presents. That said, I am greatly concerned, as are many others, that some of the cultural heritage unique to this City will soon be obliterated by bad laws, pressure from monied property owners (both natives and newcomers), and the pursuit of money for the City coffers which admittedly could use some shoring up.

Unfortunately it often looks as though that shoring up is being done on the backs of the regular working folks via traffic cam tickets that are a hardship on just about everyone trying to make it month to month, crazy new taxicab regulations that are a hardship on many career cab drivers, unwieldy and seemingly serendipitous permitting requirements on club owners who are the small business owner/job creators we hear about every day, more permits on the smallest of entrepreneurial business owners--the vendors at Second Lines, and on the culture bearers themselves—the musicians and artists who create the culture that draws visitors to our City every year from all over the world. Lately we've heard words like noise, crackdown, permit, and ordinance used to intimidate bands off of street corners, to cause clubs to stop live music for fear of total shut downs, and as you know, those words have been a sometimes unspoken threat to parades and Indians for a long time.

There have to be other, better ways to pay for the needs of this City, ways that don't threaten an entire cultural fabric with becoming an historic footnote or an artifact in a museum; ways that don't send our club owners into bankruptcy, our musicians into the unemployment lines or worse, into the clubs of Austin.

I know several men who grew up here who are about your age. They have entertained me with stories of their youth: jumping out of bed early to try to catch the Bone Men just as they start out, waiting on certain street corners to hear the approach of an Indian gang and being thrilled to catch a glimpse of the Spy Boy in his suit looking up and down the block. One friend has a story of being about 14, riding a Mardi Gras float as what he called a “float grunt.” He wrote the story down and it was published. They've told me lots of stories, some of which I am sure their parents still know nothing of today, but they all involved spontaneity, expectation of a remarkable experience, and above all, music. Whether they were walking down the street hearing it from a corner or a backyard or out the door of a club on their first forbidden walk down Bourbon Street, to a man their eyes still get wide in the telling of the story, the awe they felt seeing this or that now long dead musician is still in their voices, the joy of hearing that one long perfect note still resonates in their memories today. I am betting you have some memories like that. Perhaps you even have some still secret ones, the ones you'll wait to tell your kids until they have kids themselves.

That makes you and all the other people who grew up here in New Orleans unique. Your contemporaries in other cities in other states didn't have the wealth of culture, the almost embarrassingly rich culture, that you did. They most certainly didn't have the wide range of music right there, right there in the streets.

On the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau website it says: “It is said that in New Orleans, culture bubbles up from the streets. Nowhere is this more evident than in the music scene. You'll know it when you come across a street performance that rivals any ticketed show you've seen.” It goes on to say that “New Orleans is one big stage.”

I have been attending the discussion meetings that Kermit Ruffins has so kindly opened his doors for regarding clubs, permits, and all the other issues surrounding live music lately. The attendees are club owners, musicians, visual artists, and music lovers, all wanting to find a solution to the various issues involved. I very much want to thank Scott Hutcheson for joining us and speaking with us. I believe that since he is there on your behalf, that you believe the words on the NOCVB website. There is no doubt that it's a true statement: “...in New Orleans, culture bubbles up from the streets.” Someone at the last meeting made a comment that that culture has come from the most marginalized neighborhoods and population in the City by and large. What they didn't mention was the scope and importance of the street culture within those neighborhoods and the rest of the city.

As the discussion wandered off into ordinance technicalities, Big Chief Albert Doucette stood up and took the floor. He gave voice to the issues that most concern those of us in attendance. He said, “Things like Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are grandfathered in. They are trying to kill the grandfather. If you allow them to kill the grandfather, the walls are going to disintegrate. They can't allow people who have a lot of money to come into our town and buy into OUR neighborhoods and tell us you can't have that live music in your club. We need to make an ordinance where if you move into a neighborhood, you better accept what's IN that neighborhood. This is our culture. This is our City. This is OUR City. We made New Orleans.”

Mr. Mayor, everyone applauded. The folks at this meeting were from various neighborhoods and various economic levels. Those applauding were business owners. They were musicians. They were creators of the culture we all want to protect. They were the locals who pay to see those cultural creators. They were, I believe, people who hold the same beliefs about this remarkable culture that you do. They also are fierce in their determination to let it grow, organically and naturally as it always has.

In 2009 the Louisiana Endowment for Humanities did a series of interviews with local musicians called, “As Told By Themselves.” I attended one that featured the Treme Brass Band. The LEH graciously put these online and I listened to it again earlier this week because there was one particular story that I remembered but couldn't put the musician's name to. As I listened waiting for that particular story, I heard Mr. Benny Jones, Jr. talking about seeing jazz funerals two or three times a week with parades of the Social Aid and Pleasure clubs on Sunday as a kid. That's about four street performances a week that he saw free from his doorstep. He, along with all the musicians, explained that just about everyone in their family played an instrument, and just about everyone in their friend's family did too. They all spoke of the mentoring, from one generation to the next, dropping names like Harold Dejean and Milton Batiste, Olympia Brass Band, Danny Barker. Each of them could recite a litany of “my uncle played trombone, my aunt played clarinet, my cousin played drums.” It was astonishing, and yes, as I said earlier, unique. I can think of no other city in which music is so totally embedded in the culture through family and community ties. They talked about hearing someone play in a backyard down the way, grabbing their instrument, even if it was only a bucket to bang on, and heading down there soon to be joined by others who heard the music and joined in. They talked about going down to the Quarter to play on street corners as kids learning their craft. They learned traditions from their elders and the great band teachers in the schools. If they saw someone walking down the street with a horn they'd ask if they were going to practice today, and join them. One said, “We created music right then and there, anywhere. There'd be a knock on the door and someone else would join in, then there'd be people in the streets dancing.”

Today, the way the ordinances are written, they could get a ticket for playing or rehearsing in their backyard, or on their stoop, or in their house, or on the street. Mr. Mayor, the way the ordinances are written right now you could get a ticket for playing a tambourine on your front porch, and while I don't know for certain, I am pretty sure there is a tambourine somewhere in your house. It seems to be standard equipment in New Orleans' households in every neighborhood.

Finally as I listened, I came across the story I had been looking for. It was told by Kenneth Terry, the trumpet player for Treme Brass Band. He remembered being about 7 years old, standing on his stoop when a parade or second line went by. There was a man playing trumpet with one hand, holding it up in the air like Gabriel himself. Kenneth was mesmerized and told his mom he wanted to do that. Soon she bought him a trumpet from Weirlein's. A few days later there was a knock on the door and when Kenneth opened it, he saw a man standing there. Kenneth said to him, “You're the guy who played with one hand!” The man said, “Yeah, Kenny, your mama said you want to play the trumpet.” That man was Milton Batiste and he took him to his house and taught him and helped him. Mentored him. A legend helping a 7 year old kid just because the young man showed interest. I am pretty sure that nothing like that happens in Dubuque. In that way the culture was handed down to the next generation intact with room for innovation, evolution and growth, but still uniquely New Orleans.

Every note played, every bead sewn, every dance step taken has been handed down by those who came before. It's a living, breathing thing, this culture we are lucky enough to experience, and if we legislate it too much or try to make it too orderly we will lose the spontaneity that lets it breathe. If that happens, if it is allowed to happen, this culture we love will die, but only after becoming a caricature of itself. That, sir, would be the world's loss not just ours.

Mr. Mayor, someday you'll tell your stories to your grandchildren, maybe even some of the secret ones. I hope that you will be able to tell them the story and then show them what you're talking about. You'll sit on a curb with them in the summer sun, laughing to yourself about the blue snoball juice dripping on their clothes as they dance to the rhythms of an Indian practice taking place inside the door. You'll take them into the Quarter where they'll see other kids their age hoping the bigger guys will let them play a few notes on their horn and maybe one of those grandchildren will ask you for a trumpet. You'll grab your tambourine and take them to dance in a second line letting them choose from the list of Sundays held by a magnet to your refrigerator door. You'll play the music you grew up with for them and look forward to the kind of music their generation will create and hear, still bubbling up out of the streets, just like the Visitor's website said back in your day.

You'll do all this with a huge smile on your face, with the quiet knowledge that you played a large part in allowing that culture to live on by nurturing it and not letting it become a parody of itself. Or you'll do it with great sadness, the sadness we feel when we look at an endangered species. Mr. Mayor, this cultural protection can be your most important legacy. Please, sir, take up the fight so that so that this culture, your City's culture, isn't as remote an idea to your grandchildren as a saber toothed tiger.

One of the attendees at the meeting last week said, “Frankly, the best friend you might have might be the Mayor to tell you the truth.” I am writing this letter in the hopes that that attendee was right.

Sincerely,
Sam Jasper

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

NOLA 1 Big Stage: Truth and Other Lies

For a long time, my friend LD over at The Truth and Other Lies has been fighting the good fight on the permitting issue, beginning with the absurd exchange he had regarding creating art in his own home. (Seriously, the way the law is written currently you need a permit for that so put down your paint brush and step away from the glue gun. Holster that chisel, you sculptor! You over there, what do you think you're doing with that clay?) He has been through the various ordinances and he's doing a series on his blog about them.

Here at New Orleans Slate, I have several guest posters lined up and will post their perspectives as soon as they are submitted.

Also of immediate importance: THERE IS ANOTHER MEETING AT KERMIT'S SPEAKEASY TOMORROW, OCTOBER 3 AT NOON. We can't let the pressure drop down on this issue and we have to find a way to work together productively, so let's keep it up.

Until my first guest post is ready to publish, why don't you wander over across to LD's and read this latest post. He has a good chronological timeline on all this. (He also mentions the Eris Debacle which I wrote a lot about at the time. For the record, last I heard the Internal Report had still not been a. finished, b. made available, or c. done at all. I talked to someone recently who told me to request it again and I think I will.) His post is a good read so go visit!




Sunday, September 30, 2012

New Orleans is One Big Stage Redux

After Kermit Ruffins' meeting on Wednesday, someone who rarely writes took to the keyboard and sent me the piece below. It gave me an idea: Why don't I open up my blog for a week and have guest posters from the community give us their ideas on the subject of permits and City Hall. Not just a list of complaints but what they would like to see. I'm asking performers, lawyers, business owners, and yes, eventually, even City Hall to write a post which will be posted here on New Orleans Slate unedited.

If you have a suggestion for a guest poster, or want to be one yourself, email me at jasper.sam@gmail.com. I'd like to have a new post every day. I can't guarantee yours will be posted, but am hoping that there are so many ideas for positive change that all will make it up here. I will also be posting all the links from the articles written last week. Some of the reporters got some things wrong, but the articles need to be in one place for folks to see easily. I hope to have that list ready by Tuesday, but as anyone who knows me knows, it'll probably be Wednesday.

At any rate, I am soliciting guest posts. This one, by David Kern, came to me unsolicited and I want to thank him for sparking the idea of guest posters on this topic, and the passion he felt about this very important issue that overrode his abhorrence of keyboards to put this together.

Music
On Wednesday, September 26, 2012, a meeting was called by Kermit Ruffins, the man who, in the calling of this meeting, has become the de facto face of new Orleans music.
“I got real pissed and I called a meeting,” said Ruffins. The source of his anger is the sudden arbitrary and aggressive crack-down on musicians and music venues by New Orleans City Hall and the Mayor's office. 
Answering the call, about 200 (although I've seen numbers ranging from 100 on up) musicians, club owners, lawyers, and music loving citizens converged on Kermit's Treme Speakeasy on Basin Street.
Before leaving the stage, Ruffins said he would like to hold meetings every Wednesday which would culminate in a march on City Hall on the 24th of October, an idea which was met with instant and unanimous support.
There are three things that can be done immediately to blunt City Hall's attack on our culture. 
The first is to completely dismantle the “six month clause” which Councilwoman Stacey Head has cleverly manipulated, making it incumbent upon the club owners to prove there has not ever been a six month lapse in entertainment at their respective establishments. (One club owner said, “If you buy a business it might take MORE than six months to renovate it, so we're behind the 8 ball from the beginning.”) It is unenforceable, unconstitutional, and must go away.

Second, we need to force a moratorium on the capricious enforcement of any ordinances pertaining to any kind of public performance or special event. 
And third, we need the city to respect the “grandfathering”of entertainment venues. 
This is a single cause with many voices, and it is imperative that those many voices be channeled into one clear and cohesive one. Musicians, by their nature are not herd animals, so how this might be done, or whom this voice might be, remains to be seen. But this movement, this cause must not be allowed to collapse upon itself due to petty political infighting. This is what City Hall would most like to see. A united front is an absolute must. 
The old saying “you can't fight city hall” is defeatist bullshit. United, we can fight city hall and we can prevail. City Hall is nothing more than a cabal of lawyers and their minions. Guess what? We have lawyers too. Granted, ours may end up working for free, but they are working on the side of the angels. 
And City Hall has ordinance, dating back to 1952. Well, we have culture and tradition, dating back to when that first luckless Frenchman stepped off the boat. And we have the power of Jazz, Blues, Rock-and-Roll and Gospel, all children born of this city, behind us. If we unite, we will prevail, and our song will not be silenced.