Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Not a Word. . . . .

. . . .not one word in the State of the Union address about New Orleans. So I will quote some other words:


And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.---George Bush on Jackson Square, September 15, 2005

THIS WAS ABOUT IRAQ, (guess we're not "friends" that shouldn't be abandoned and I guess a "pledge" is not the same as a "promise.")

Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned and our own security at risk.---George Bush, State of the Union Address, January 23, 2007

THIS WAS THE DEMOCRATIC RESPONSE (might be lip service, but at least the words were in there, like hey, we might possibly be part of the "all Americans" thing.)

Let me simply say that we in the Democratic Party hope that this administration is serious about improving education and health care for all Americans, and addressing such domestic priorities as restoring the vitality of New Orleans.--Sen. Jim Webb, D-VA, Democratic Response to the State of the Union Address, January 23, 2007

This article about sums it up. Disappointment, not on the radar, etc.

Given how much time, money and focus is given to those countries holding our foreign oil supplies in their hands, i.e. infrastructure, schools, hospitals, job programs, perhaps we should follow Ashley Morris' advice and become a foreign power ourselves. Bush had a lot to say about domestic oil (um, US, we GOT it, George!) and how we needed to decrease our dependence on foreign energy sources, but still not a word about the Gulf Coast.

Is OPEC looking for any new members? Maybe if we join them we can get what we need here.

Oh yeah, but you would need a passport to come here to party.

Monday, January 22, 2007

World Record Beads at Jackson Square

I'm so proud of him! My grandson, that is! He decided to do this project and so out we went in July to measure Jackson Square, only to find out that it's actually a rectangle. He became the librarian of his first grade class and decided that the school needed more books for the kids to take home for their reading assignment each night, and decided to do this project as a pledge drive. (The original idea owes its genesis to our dear friend, Stuart Johnson, of New Orleans, currently in exile in Houston.)
The original flyer had the photo between all the dimensions you see below, but the Word doc didn't translate well to blogger, so it is what it is. Below is the flyer. We just wanted to let you know that we'll be out at the Square on Saturday with a butt load of beads and his good little heart.

At 2PM on Saturday, January 27, 2007, William Oskay, a six year old student of Ms. McLaughlin’s First Grade class at McDonough 15, will attempt to connect Mardi Gras beads in one continuous strand around Jackson Square. William has collected what he calls “World Record Beads” for over a year in order to do this. (They are the old style clear plastic beads with connectors at the back.) He also decided that Mc 15 needs more “take home” books, so he will do this project as a pledge drive to raise money for Mc 15’s Green School library. The pledges are based on the number of strands it takes to go completely around the Square.

329’ 329’
TOTAL: 1356’ (approx.)
Yes, we really DID measure Jackson Square!
Please feel free to pass this around or just stop by to cheer him on!

Monday, January 15, 2007

HUD, Money and Martin Luther King Day

I really wanted to go to the march today, but it's not looking like I'm going to make it. I've been stashing this post for a while to post today, so am hoping that it will be a contribution to those who are marching.

A friend sent me an email with this link in it. I read it and sat screaming at my monitor. The author, Bill Quigley, is a human rights lawyer and a professor of law at Loyola. I am going to post the entire article here. You'll have to click the link if you want to comment on his post of this over at BuzzFlash, and please feel free to comment here as well.

Bill Quigley: Why Is HUD Bulldozing Public Housing Apts in New Orleans When It's Cheaper to Fix Them?
Submitted by BuzzFlash on Thu, 12/28/2006 - 3:14pm. Guest Contribution
Tale of Two Sisters: Why Is HUD Using Tens of Millions of Katrina Money to Bulldoze 4534 Public Housing Apartments in New Orleans When It Costs Less to Repair and Open Them Up?

by Bill Quigley

Gloria Williams and her twin sister Bobbie Jennings are 60 years old. They are two of the over 4000 families who lived in public housing in New Orleans before Katrina struck who are still locked out of their apartments since Katrina. Their apartments are two of 4534 apartments that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has announced plans to demolish. Demolition is planned even though it will cost more to demolish and rebuild many fewer units than it does to fix them up and open them. Ms. Williams and Ms. Jennings, and thousands of families like them, are fighting HUD, they want to return.

Gloria and Bobbie started working early. As children they picked cotton, strawberries, snap beans and pecans before and after grade school every day in rural Louisiana. "We were raised up to work," they said.

They moved to New Orleans after their father drowned. Their home was marked by regular domestic violence. A few years later, their mother was murdered by a boyfriend.

As teens they moved in with an abusive relative. They ran away, came back, and stayed with other relatives. They can even remember nights when they slept under their aunt's bed in a hospital while waiting for her to recuperate.

As young women they continued working. They worked in restaurants before starting careers as Certified Nursing Assistants. Then they worked for years in nursing homes and in private homes caring for the elderly and disabled. They fed people, cleaned people, bathed people, cared for people. Each married and raised children and grandchildren. Like 25% of the households in New Orleans, neither owned a car.

Both sisters are now 60. In the past few years, their years of physical work took its toil and they could not longer work. Ms. Jennings had back surgery and suffers with high blood pressure. Ms. Williams has heart and lung problems, high blood pressure, and clots in her legs that prevent her from standing or walking for long periods. Each lives solely on about $600 a month from disability. No pensions.

When Katrina hit, they had been living in the C.J. Peete apartments for years. Ms. Bobbie Jennings had been there for 34 years. Her twin sister, Ms. Gloria Williams lived there for over 18 years.

Their combined families, 18 in all, evacuated to Baton Rouge to ride out the storm. When it was clear they would not be going home any time soon, their host family told them it was time to move on. In September 2005, the family of 18 moved into one daughter's damaged home in Slidell, about 30 miles away from New Orleans - all sleeping on the first floor because the roof was still damaged.

One of their sisters, Annie, was in the hospital with cancer when Katrina hit. It took the family weeks before the finally found her in a hospital in Macon, Georgia.

When the city opened, they got rides into town and checked on their apartments. No water had entered their apartments at all. But their doors had been kicked down and all their furnishings were gone. The housing authority told them they could not move back in for a couple more months while their apartments were secured and fixed up. The housing authority started fixing up and painting apartments in her complex, but abruptly stopped after a few weeks.

Slidell was getting tight, so they accepted an offer to relocate to California. After a month, they returned. Being 3000 miles apart from family was too heartbreaking. A four day bus ride brought them back to Slidell in January 2006. After hitching rides into New Orleans, Ms. Williams found a subsidized apartment. The only way the landlord would accept her, though, was if she paid him an extra $400 under the table. Otherwise, he would rent it to someone else who would.

So Ms. Williams paid the extra money and moved in with her grandchildren while she waited for her old apartment to reopen. She used FEMA money to buy new furniture. In late February 2005, Ms. Williams was hospitalized for three weeks for surgeries on her legs.

In June 2005, HUD announced they were not going to let any residents back in her apartment complex and three others (Lafitte, St. Bernard and BW Cooper) because they were going to be demolished. Over one hundred maintenance and security workers for the housing authority were let go. HUD took over the local housing authority years ago and all these decisions are being made in Washington DC.

The demolished buildings would make way for much newer and many fewer apartments which would be built by private developers. The demolition and private development would be financed by federal funds and federal tax breaks designed to help Katrina victims!

Nearly $100 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds were designated for the private developers. Another $34 million in Katrina Go-Zone tax credits were also donated to the developers.

In July 2005, Ms. Williams apartment caught fire and again she lost everything. Her landlord did not want to let her out of her lease. He told her that she and her grandson could still live there, all they had to do was clean the soot off the walls and ceilings.

At this, Ms. Williams broke down and went back into the hospital.

Ms. Jennings got an apartment and allowed her daughter and her grandchildren to live there because they have no place to stay. She also took her in her little sister, Annie, who was dying of cancer. Annie died on August 17, 2005.

Both sisters have severe problems every month making ends meet. Utility bills eat up most of their monthly checks. With no car and their apartments across the river from New Orleans, they cannot get to the doctor.

Christmas was very tough. Ms. Williams said "We didn't have a Christmas. We didn't have food to put on the table." Her grandson went to her sister's house to get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Ms. Jennings cried as she said "Behind Katrina and my little sister dying, my life just stopped. This is the second year we didn't have a Christmas. It is so hard to try to start over. I let my daughter and her two grandchildren sleep on the bed. I sleep on a pallet on the floor. Before Katrina I was on blood pressure medicine once a day. Now I take 4 blood pressure pills three times a day. I also take pills for depression, nerves and stress."

"We just want to go home," Ms. Williams said. "People knew us in our neighborhood. They never messed with us. I could leave my back door open when I went to the grocery. People don't understand that was our home. We want to go home."

Why would people want to go back into public housing? Aren't the developments dangerous and crime-ridden? Isn't this an opportunity to start over and make something better?

Public housing residents know full well the problems of public housing, but still they want to return.

Why? Start with the fact that New Orleans is in the worst affordable housing crisis since the Civil War. Tens of thousands of houses still remain in ruins after Katrina. Rents for the rest have gone up 70-80 percent since Katrina. Even before Katrina, there was a waiting list of 18,000 families seeking to get into public housing - now it is much, much worse. HUD's demolition plans target 4,534 apartments of public housing in the community. They plan to demolish 1546 apartments in BW Cooper, 723 in C.J. Peete, 1400 in St. Bernard, and 865 in Lafitte.

These are not the dense high-rise towers. Public housing in New Orleans is made up of development clusters of mostly two and three story buildings with six to eight apartments in each. New York Times Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, criticized plans to demolish these apartments, saying on November 19, 2006: "Modestly scaled, they include some of the best public housing built in the United States....Solidly built, the buildings' detailed brickwork, tile roofs and wrought-iron balustrades represent a level of craft more likely found on an Ivy League campus than in a contemporary public housing complex."

Most of the public housing apartments rented for very modest rents tied to the resident's incomes. Most did not pay separate utility charges. Leases were essentially for life, unless someone in the family was caught breaking the law.

HUD initially said they had to demolish because the buildings were so damaged they were dangerous to the residents.

That was not true.

John Fernandez, an Associate Professor of Architecture at MIT, inspected 140 of these apartments and concluded in papers filed in court that "no structural or nonstructural damage was found that could reasonably warrant any cost-effective building demolition...Therefore, the general conclusions are: demolition of any of the buildings of these four projects is not supported by the evidence of the survey, replacement of these buildings with contemporary construction would yield buildings of lower quality and shorter lifetime duration; the original construction methods and materials of these projects are far superior in their resistance to hurricane conditions than typical new construction and with renovation and regular maintenance, the lifetimes of the buildings in all four projects promise decades of continued service that may be extended indefinitely."

Residents promise to fix up their apartments themselves if given the chance. "I clean for a living," said one young woman resident at a recent public hearing where 100% of the residents opposed demolition. "I clean for a living and I am proud of it. I clean every body else's houses, I will sure clean up my own house - just let me back in to do it!"

After it the public understood that the buildings were not actually in such bad shape, the authorities then said it would cost much more to repair the buildings than to demolish and start over.

That too was not true.

The housing authority's own documents show that Lafitte could be repaired for $20 million, even completely overhauled for $85 million while the estimate for demolition and rebuilding many fewer units will cost over $100 million. St. Bernard could be repaired for $41 million, substantially modernized for $130 million while demolition and rebuilding less units will cost $197 million. BW Cooper could be substantially renovated for $135 million compared to $221 million to demolish and rebuild less units. Their own insurance company reported that it would take less than $5000 each to repair each of the CJ Peete apartments.

HUD suggests that less-dense "mixed income" communities are the way to go.

But residents and the community knows that if HUD has its way, only about 20% of the families who lived in these developments will be allowed to return.

New Orleans has suffered through the experience of HUD's "mixed income" policies before. The St. Thomas housing development, once home to 1510 families, was demolished with promises that people would be returning to a beautiful redeveloped community. Instead, there is now a Wal-Mart on the site and hundreds of cute gingerbread pastel houses. How many of the 1510 families who used to live in St. Thomas have been allowed to move back in? About a hundred. A few of these families have had to force their way in with litigation by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. The demolition of St. Thomas is hailed as a mostly-good outcome by nearby developers and some of the young professionals who moved into the surrounding neighborhood knowing what was coming. What do the 1400+ families who were moved out and not allowed to return think? Don't ask - no one else is.

HUD has the same plans for the neighborhoods where they are trying to demolish housing. According to documents filed with the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency: St. Bernard will go from 1400 apartments to 595 apartments, only 160 of which will be for low-income public housing residents. There will be 160 tax credit mixed income and 145 market rate units; CJ Peete will go from 723 units to 410, 154 will be public housing eligible, 133 mixed income and 123 market rate; BW Cooper will go from 1546 to 410, 154 public housing eligible, 133 tax-credit mixed income, and 123 market; And Lafitte will downsized in the same way.

As a result HUD plans to spend tens of millions of Katrina assistance funds to end up with far fewer affordable apartments.

The new Congress is looking into this. Representatives Barney Frank and Maxine Waters chair the committee and subcommittee with oversight of HUD. There is also a federal class action lawsuit filed by the Advancement Project, Jenner & Block, and local attorneys.

Residents of the St. Bernard housing development and their allies plan are not waiting any more. On Martin Luther King day, January 15, 2007, they are going in with or without permission. "What better way to celebrate Martin Luther King day than to risk going to jail for justice?" says Endesha Jukali, a neighbor who lived and worked in St. Bernard for years.

But the clock is still ticking. HUD, who has not "officially approved" its own announcement, says the demolition needs to get started to take advantage of the Katrina tax credits. Neither the Congress nor the federal courts have yet stepped in to stop the demolitions.

What do the sisters think about this? Ms. Jennings says: "I lived there for 34 years. That is my home. I just cannot afford to live outside the development. I don't know how else to explain it. I have the tears, but I do not have the words." Her twin sister, Ms. Williams cries and says: "That was my home for over 18 years. I never gave them no trouble. My home never flooded. I will clean it myself, just please let me back in. I wish I could make people understand. I just want to go home."

For more information about this matter see or contact the Advancement Project at (202) 728-9557.


Bill is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. Bill is one of the lawyers representing thousands of families who want to return to their apartments in New Orleans.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Naked and the Dead

Thanks for the title Norman Mailer. In his novel, which I just finished, he writes of a group of soldiers in WWII fighting and clawing their way through jungles and up mountains in the Phillipines. He details sheer exhaustion and unbelievable human endurance to complete what is, in the end, a futile endeavor. I should have chosen something more upbeat to read this week, huh? Ah well, I'm probably going to piss some people off with this post, so upbeat isn't really important at the moment.

This week it seems apropos to have read that book as New Orleans' problems are all the more naked, and more of her citizens are dead.

Over twenty years ago, when my daughter was the age my grandson is now, my husband and I had long discussions as we watched the rise of gangs. We talked about how when we were in school, the baddest ass in the place was some guy with slicked back hair and a switchblade. They liked souped up cars and easy girls and knew where to get beer. They mostly worked in gas stations, maybe committed some petty crimes, maybe ran off to join a biker gang when they got out of school. They weren't a real threat to us as long as we didn't go where their turf was, and we all knew the boundaries. West Side Story had a guy like that who got killed, but killing was something that the kids I knew, even the baddest asses, didn't do. I was in the hippie group. We smoked our pot and talked about peace and listened to music at the Fillmore East. The killing in my teen years was done in the jungles of Vietnam, beamed into our living rooms at dinner time, and we protested it. Killing was NOT cool. No "juice" came from that. "Street cred"--not a term we knew by the way--was based on things like scoring an all access pass to a Led Zeppelin concert, or having gone to Woodstock.

As the gangs took over streets in California, we were living in San Francisco, and while there were some gang problems there, they seemed minor compared to what was happening in Los Angeles. We felt insulated from them in a way, but wondered a lot what was going to happen when we had a generation of kids, reared in the gang neighborhoods, in poverty, with bad schools, too many guns and a culture of consumerism and violence. "What's gonna happen in 20 years when we have to DEAL with these kids?" Well, here we are, twenty years later and it's as bad or worse than we had thought.

At that time we lived on 23rd Street in San Francisco, just up from SF General Hospital where we could hear the sirens going to the ER. Just over our 20 foot fence was the Hunter's Point Housing Project, originally built during the war to house shipbuilders for the Navy, it became it's own fiefdom with the cops afraid to go in. Too many guns, they said. There were children in there then, and probably still are now. Cops were the enemy in Hunter's Point, and these kids grew up hearing that and living in that environment. The San Francisco school system was such a shambles that we sat out in lawn chairs to get our daughter into an "alternative school," which roughly translates to the charter schools here in New Orleans.

This wasn't just happening in San Francisco, though. It was happening in every city in this country including New Orleans. My daughter is 27 and so are the those other kids who grew up in the Hunter's Points and the Ibervilles and mega-projects of Chicago and New York and in Compton. The poverty, the bad schools, the marginalization continued and nothing was done about it. The gun manufacturers made better, faster, more lethal weapons with fingerprint proof grips, and they're all over our streets, in the hands of kids and addicts and maniacs of every stripe. The guns stolen from that law abiding guy down the street are out there too. Every major city in this country is now reaping what it sowed for twenty years or more.

Am I making excuses for the killers out there? Absolutely not. They are lost to us now in most cases, I fear. I don't think we can undo the damage of twenty years anymore than we can undo the horror these kids are unleashing. I am only saying that we are all so shaken up, so SHOCKED by the recent spate of killings here in our city, and we shouldn't be. It's been coming for a long time. What the hell did we think would happen when these kids grew up?

I live in the Marigny, not far from where Helen Hill was murdered. Two blocks away is a place called Buffa's. One of the cooks in there, a lovely woman named Miss Brenda, lost her brother this week. Multiple gunshot wounds. One victim white, the other victim black, the grief is the same. I am not going to arm myself to the teeth, nor am I going to be too afraid to go out. Neither of those options is viable to me. Besides, it's not just my neighborhood that's being hit by this destruction of human life.

Mayor Nagin said in his press conference the other day that it's "black on black crime" and "unfortunate." UNFORTUNATE? Is he fucking kidding? That's the best he can do? Yes the city is strapped for cash, yes we're dealing with entire neighborhoods that would be better suited to a scene out of Blade Runner than a city in the United States. We have problems and more problems here in New Orleans, and evidently, as Ashley Morris says, we're on our own. Sinn Fein. (All of this, contributes more to the marginalization problems.)

I will make an admission here. I was lucky to be chosen by the film company I was working for in 1984 to cover the Democratic National Convention in Moscone Hall, San Francisco. I also voted for Jesse Jackson in the primary that year. (Keep your groans to yourself!)

As we approach Martin Luther King's birthday, I gotta wonder what he would make of all this. Is racism a problem in New Orleans? Oh please, if you're asking you're not living here. (Is it any better where you are?) Is crime a problem here? It's over the top.

This year the voters of this city re-elected Nagin and William Jefferson, both black men with power and connections. We have Oliver Thomas on the city council, a man for whom I have great respect. Our police chief is also a black man. Where is Jesse Jackson? Where is Al Sharpton? Where are the black leaders? Why aren't they here holding these guys' feet to the fire? "Listen, you guys, we fought hard to prove we could do the job, now DO it! You're making us look bad. Some of us died to get the respect we deserved, now you're letting our kids get left behind and shoot each other in the streets and calling it unfortunate? Show the world that you can rebuild New Orleans without handing out contracts to people who are your buddies. Show the world that you can educate the children, ALL the children, so that twenty years from now their blood won't be rolling down the gutters to the still clogged street drains. Show the world that you can get these guns and the criminals wielding them off the streets---um, no, New Orleans Judges, not just for three days, for GOOD. And try to hire some cops who aren't just as bad as the criminals. How can we help?" I think the black leaders of this country need to tell it like it is. I think they should hand Nagin's head to him on a platter for pandering with lines like "black on black" and "unfortunate."

And what about us white folks? We have to stop being so complacent. We need to reach out to our neighbors, whoever they are, and band together as a community and say ENOUGH. I don't want my black neighbors assuming that I view them as a threat or that I wouldn't open my door to them if they needed help. I want them to know that I don't care if the victim of a crime is black or white. I want us to work together as a community and tell our elected officials that "unfortunate" is an understatement of monumental proportions. I want us to band together to make sure that my grandson and theirs don't have to deal with the effects of another twenty years of neglect and idiotic judicial systems and corrupt politicians.

Katrina exposed a lot of the problems of this city, and some of those problems should be like the canary in the coal mine for the rest of this country, but our city has other spectacular problems in addition to rampant crime. The problems have left us naked. Too many of us are already dead. We have to open our mouths and scream loud and long. We must keen on the corners of Mid-City and Uptown and the Marigny with the families of the murdered.

We cannot allow ourselves to be forced out of our love affair with, our defense of, New Orleans. We also can't forget that for decades the neglect happened on white leaders' watches.

Maybe we need to blast "I have a DREAM" on loudspeakers all over the city, and into City Hall, on Martin Luther King day. Or "I can SEE the promised land" but I'd have to change his words to I expect to get there with you. But I will not allow you to kill this city, Mr. Nagin, Mr. Riley, with your inaction.

Twenty years goes really fast, you know. What will shock you in twenty years, and could any of it have been avoided? Please don't take our exhaustion and human endurance in the face of catastrophe and have history view it as futile.