Archive for October, 2009

“Exhilarating and frightening to behold”


I’m not sure where I found this article about New Orleans’ rebuilding process — probably via Gambit or from my pal Tyler. But no matter: it’s a beautifully written piece. Here’s an excerpt:

Four years after Katrina, the rebuilding of New Orleans is not proceeding the way anyone envisioned, nor with the expected cast of characters. (If I may emphasize: Brad Pitt is the city’s most innovative and ambitious housing developer.) But it’s hard to say what people were expecting, given the magnitude of the disaster and the hopes raised in the weeks immediately following. Seventeen days after the storm, President George W. Bush stood in Jackson Square and promised: “We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.”

The terms we, as long as it takes, and help turned out to be fairly elastic. The Federal Emergency Management Agency shuttered its long-term recovery office about six months later, after a squabble with the city over who would pay for the planning process. Since then, depending on whom you talk to, government at all levels has been passive and slow-moving at best, or belligerent and actively harmful at worst. Mayor Ray Nagin occasionally surfaces to advertise a big new scheme (a jazz park, a theater district), about which no one ever hears again. A new 20-year master plan and comprehensive zoning ordinance was being ironed out early this summer, but it remains subject to city-council approval. A post-Katrina master plan has been under discussion since before the floodwaters were pumped out.

In the absence of strong central leadership, the rebuilding has atomized into a series of independent neighborhood projects. And this has turned New Orleans—moist, hot, with a fecund substrate that seems to allow almost anything to propagate—into something of a petri dish for ideas about housing and urban life. An assortment of foundations, church groups, academics, corporate titans, Hollywood celebrities, young people with big ideas, and architects on a mission have been working independently to rebuild the city’s neighborhoods, all wholly unconcerned about the missing master plan. It’s at once exhilarating and frightening to behold.

“If you look at the way ants behave when they’re gathering food, it looks like the stupidest, most irrational thing you’ve ever seen—they’re zigzagging all over the place, they’re bumping into other ants. You think, ‘What a mess! This is never going to amount to anything,’” says Michael Mehaffy, the head of the Sustasis Foundation, which studies urban life and sustainability and has worked with neighborhood organizations here. “So it’s easy to look at New Orleans at the grassroots level and wonder, What’s going on here?’ But if you step back and look at the big picture, in fact it’s the most efficient pattern possible, because all those random activities actually create a very efficient sort of discovery process.”

–full article at

Zombie City: Public Nuisance Properties on NCDC Agenda Nov. 2nd, 2009

2220-22 First St. Cottage

2220-22 First Street There are less and less of these cottages throughout the city. They are becoming endangered.

The city of New Orleans has received CDBG funds to tear down more private properties. These were previously labeled Imminent Health Threat properties (IHT) and there were problems with due process constitutional issues regarding the notification of home owners of demolition. Today these properties are being labled as Public Nuisance Properties under Municipal Code 26-165 and section 28 and will be demolished through an allocation CDBG funds. Community Development Building Grants. The list, thus far, is posted on the city’s website.

In reality, most of these demos have nothing to do with building communities at all. What IF we took that same money and invested it with homeowners to do necessary repairs? Why is that not an option? At the end of the day, we will end up with more vacant lots in the middle of the city which is becoming increasingly ‘jack-o-lantern’, even in the areas which are fully populated, like Central City at Baronne.

After seeing the effect of the FEMA demo phase over the last two years, I would call this the 12-ft weed, flat-tire and broken down car fund instead of the CDBG money, because that’s what the neighbors are gonna get. Demos without rebuilding plans with real money behind them are nothing but fields of weeds and dumping grounds for old tires and dead cars and are just dead zones in the middle of block and which destroy prominent corners. It’s not Community Building Grants. It is Community Hollowing Grants.

The definition of public nuisance in the Code is vague. Code Enforcement never has to prove the condition which characterizes a building a public nuisance. We find inconsistencies. We also find that the city often refers to four year old reports from Katrina . . . and there is never a follow-up with a current engineer’s report on any buildings. We’ll have to see what the City produces in our packets which I won’t get til later in the week. I refuse to accept stale reports from four years ago. You really have to follow-up to be sure. For many of these properties I have done it over the course of years.

Sunday I took a total break from everything to go out in the field again to get some photos of these newly classified, taxpayer funded public nuisance, properties. One question I will ask at our next meeting on Nov. 2nd, in City Hall Chambers, is whether the homeowners will be liened for the cost of city sponsored demolitions.

I noticed that there are properties on the list from people who had previously applied for demos, (see Washington Ave) and who were denied demolition permits and have simply held out on blighting the property further . . . and are now again, trying get the city to do the dirty work of destroying something that could be refurbished. The owners of these Washington Ave properties really wanted to build two-story structures, more dense, more money. . . destroying neighborhood fabric, but were denied.

It was great to be out in the field early on crisp fall morning, I forgot about how much I enjoy observing/documenting New Orleans architecture. I haven’t done any photo safaris lately because a) I am in school and work full-time and can’t do the uploading in a timely manner and thankfully, b) Karen at Squandered Heritage and Michelle’s team at the PRC usuallly have it covered. But, we just got a bigger agenda and I got on it early.

In no time at all, I took some 70 photos and then went to work labeling and uploading. It’s a lot of work, especially the labeling. You can’t leave it til the next day, there are so many houses so fast you have to be organized and systematic . . The Preservation Resource Center recently has picked up the work of preservation news in general in New Orleans with a really handsome new Blog Preservation in the Present. They’ve been covering the NCDC agendas online with results available right after the meeting! But our agendas just got bigger and that job’s gonna get harder! 41 properties are on our agenda this time. We had a lull but things are ramping up again.

I must say that I am very grateful to Councilwoman Stacy Head for appointing me to this position on the NCDC, because no matter how busy I am, I really do love it and this weekend I was refreshed because studying law is very humbling and makes you feel like you know nothing, but the NCDC work is something I love and know and am very passionate about.

The pioneering Disney animator living quietly in the Marigny

Eva Schneider in Vanity Fair, fall 2005

Here’s the problem with New Orleans: its residents walk a lot and talk a lot (to each other, to themselves, and sometimes to no one in particular). We’ve been here for hundreds of years, strolling the sidewalks that buttress our narrow streets, stopping to chat with neighbors, and taking streetcars more conducive to conversation than quick commutes because they travel so damned slowly. The city is flat, movement is easy — unlike the town where I grew up, which was small, decentralized, hilly, the sort of place where you’d get in the car to go anywhere, even to a neighbor’s house for coffee.

That’s what keeps us here. That’s why it’s hard for us to move to new places, places that might be geographically and meteorologically superior. Apart from New York, San Francisco, and a handful of smaller burgs like Provincetown and Savannah, there aren’t many locales that have the same convivial, walkable feel (at least not on this side of the Atlantic). And that’s why we stay, or at least why I stay: not for the 24 hour bars, not for the loose liquor laws, and certainly — certainly — not for our efficient city government.

* * * * *

Over the past 16 years or so — ever since I moved to my current neighborhood, the Faubourg Marigny — I’ve seen an elderly woman walking the streets. She’s a bit stooped and gray and slow, but there’s something unusual about the way she carries herself; to call it “regal” would be cliched and also inaccurate, but “semi-regal” might do. I’ve tried to catch her eye on occasion, but never had any luck. A couple of years ago, a friend told me that she was once an animator at Walt Disney Studios. That sounded like a nice rumor, exactly the kind of story you might spread about an eccentric neighbor, but I didn’t put much stock in it.

For some reason — possibly because the New Orleans Museum of Art is hosting a huge animation retrospective in conjunction with the release of the new Disney film, The Princess and the FrogI’ve been thinking about this mystery woman lately. Yesterday morning, on my way to the gym, I saw her trudging down the sidewalk, and although I’m not ordinarily the sort of person who strikes up conversations with total strangers (I’m shy that way), I did. I turned my bike around, pulled up beside her, and with all the guileless enthusiasm of a seven-year-old, I blurted out, “Excuse me, ma’am, but I’ve heard that you were once an animator for Disney. Is that true?”

She was confused at first. She’s in her mid-80s and not as sharp as she once was. But as it turns out, my friend was right: this woman, Eva Schneider, was one of a tiny handful of women who worked in the animation studios for Walt Disney in the 1950s and 60s. When I spoke to her, she insisted that she was not an animator herself, that she was simply an assistant in the animation department. She made it sound as if she might’ve been a secretary. But when I got home, I did a little googling, and it appears that she was just being modest, or that she didn’t consider her work to be animation per se. Fact of the matter is: her presence at Disney is fairly well-documented, and she’s fondly remembered by former animators.

Two Evas[drawing of Eva by Floyd Norman; full story here]
Eva Schneider with Wes Herschensohn by John Sparey[drawing of Eva with Wes Herschensohn by John Sparey; full story here]
* * * * *

Over the course of a rambling, hourlong chat, she shared fragments of her life. Originally from Zürich, she must’ve come to the states around the time of World War II, landing first in New York, then moving to Los Angeles, where she worked for nearly 20 years at Disney. As I understand from our conversation (decades later, her English is still somewhat broken, and she speaks with a pronounced German accent), her father passed away around 1970, and on the advice of her nephew who lives in New Orleans, she used her inheritance to retire here. She’s never left — not even for Katrina. That photo at top, that’s from a profile run in Vanity Fair in the fall of 2005, documenting the fact that she remained in New Orleans for the storm. (She told me she stayed because she had a dog, and the authorities wouldn’t let her take him.)

Now, I know that not everyone deserves to publish a memoir or to be the subject of her/his own documentary. Certainly there are many that have bored the world to tears. But in my chat with Eva, she seemed very interesting, full of experiences that few living people ever had. I’m not so sure I could tell her life story — in fact, I’m not even sure she could — but it would hold more than my own attention.

David Vitter doesn’t think he’s the only racist elected to public office

David Vitter, professional fuckface

Louisiana’s governor, über-Republican Bobby Jindal, and his nemesis, Democratic U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, have both unequivocally condemned Keith Bardwell, the justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish who refused to marry an interracial couple last week. Louisiana’s other U.S. Senator, noted whoremonger David Vitter, has remained positively silent.

Until now.

In a clip shot by the worst interviewer ever to purchase a low-end video camera, the senator admits that he’s not the only racist elected to public office in Louisiana. In case you don’t feel like clicking through, here’s the important part:

TERRIBLE INTERVIEWER: “…elected from Louisiana not to have commented on the judge that refused to marry the interracial couple. Do you –“

TERRIBLE SENATOR: “I don’t think that’s the case.”


[via BlogOfNewOrleans]

Apparently, you need more than National Treasure to pay the bills

Nicolas Cage's Uptown home

Nicolas Cage’s homes in the French Quarter and Garden District are listed for sale at auction Nov. 12 as a local lender foreclosed on the properties for unpaid mortgage debts, according to the Orleans Parish Civil Sheriff’s office.

In July, the Internal Revenue Service placed liens on Cage’s New Orleans properties for $6.6 million in unpaid taxes. The Academy Award-winning actor and nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola is trying to sell homes around the world to raise money at a time when the values of real estate and stock portfolios have fallen….

full story at

Open mouth, insert foot

America's most ignorant man

America's most ignorant man

I haven’t been paying attention to the wonderful Mayor of New Orleans lately mainly because he has become irrelevant. No one pays attention to him locally because he is a buffoon. Actually he is the leader of the buffoon’s. Now that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been screwing things up, saying dumb things or attempting to hide his corrupted ways but I just haven’t had the energy to care for the last year.

My ears did perk up last week though when it was announced, 1 hour before he boarded a plane to Cuba, that he was going to Cuba, along with other politicians (all of them of the worthless variety of course) and other in the loop business people, to learn about Hurricane Evacuation techniques from the Communist regime in Cuba. You are reading that right. The Mayor of a major American city flew to Cuba to learn what a police state government does when a Hurricane approaches.

Well it seems that the Mayor of New Orleans learned more than any of us thought was possible. Or maybe he didn’t. In a statement to the Associated Press correspondent in Havana, the Mayor of New Orleans praised Cuban leaders for “knowing their citizens at a very very detailed level,block by block.” Really Mayor of New Orleans? Please tell me why you think that is the case. Is it because that government is so concerned about their safety? Or did you think it’s possible that the Cuban leadership knows so much about it’s citizens on a very detailed level because they keep those citizens on a tight leash and possibly watch every move they make or do not make?

This isn’t the first time that the Mayor of New Orleans has gone to a country with a history of repression. Last year the Mayor of New Orleans traveled to China and stated that he “didn’t see a communist country. There are Chinese people there making serious money.”

I am all for safety. I am all for people evacuating in the face of a hurricane approaching New Orleans. Evacuations in Cuba basically go this way. Get on the bus or you will be shot.  Seeing how this still is America Mr Mayor of New Orleans, I will pass on the “Cuban Evacuation Plan”, thank you very much.

So: good news, bad news

From St. Louis Cemetery No. 2

Good news: the Faubourg Marigny has been named one of the “10 Great American Neighborhoods” by the American Planning Association. But what makes a great neighborhood, by APA standards?

“They are enjoyable, safe and desirable. They are places where people want to be — not only to visit, but to live and work every day. America’s truly great streets, neighborhoods and public spaces are defined by many criteria, including architectural features, accessibility, functionality and community involvement.”

Frankly, I think the Marigny fits that bill to a tee. My friends from out of town often comment on the neighborhood vibe, how it’s walkable, relatable, manageable. How we speak to one another, say hello on the street (usually). We’ve got a good mix of inhabitants, rich and poor; straight and gay; black and white; steampunk, hipster, and square. If only we had a grocery store, we’d be freakin’ Mayberry. You know, just like Lincoln, Nebraska, Fargo, North Dakota, and everyone else on the APA list.

Bad news: St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 and Phillis Wheatley Elementary School are among 93 sites from 47 countries named to the World Monument Fund’s 2010 “Watch List” for endangered architecture. That list focuses on “cultural heritage sites worldwide that are endangered by neglect, overdevelopment, vandalism or disaster.” Funny thing is, many people come to New Orleans precisely because of the decay — and its etymological cousin, decadence. But I suppose there are limits to the romance of all that.

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