I’ll go ahead and add my voice to the cacophony of those disturbed by 10th Year Anniversary of Katrina celebrations, though perhaps residents of a city that brags that it “puts the fun in funeral” ought to scoot off their high horse just a smidge. It’s a fact that New Orleans commemorates everything with live music and drinks. Even if you’re trying to be somber, that combo tends towards festivities. And not that there’s anything wrong with festivities!

One of the hardest things to get used to, now that I live in Kansas City, is actually trying to celebrate stuff without live music and drinks.

But maybe the local ethos just something I need to get used to. It’s just so weird, given that there’s so much music history here, especially Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Bennie Moten, and other jazz legends, and a small but lively local music scene even today (albeit mostly in Westport and in parking lots on First Fridays). As for the booze, it seems that statistically Kansas Citians already consume their fair share of it – they just do it in the comfort of their own homes. I can’t really fault them for that since beer (even New Orleans beer) is pretty cheap at stores.

abita on sale

Geez! I’ve never seen Abita Strawberry for less than $6 in Louisiana.

In New Orleans people pony up the ridiculously marked up prices at bars because they’re paying for an experience. Sometimes this experiece involves a 50-year old dude in full Marie Antoinette drag, sometimes a bunch of cats playing rock music.

The festivities start meow.

The festivities start meow.

Here there’s no experience yet. Unless you count the experience of paying double for a beer.

I’m sure someone will call me out on this and name a dozen cool events with live music and drinks that have gone down in this town in the past year, and of course they exist. My point is only that, in general, Kansas City celebrations are exactly that – events. They’re not a way of life. And maybe this isn’t a bad thing, because the locales that remind me most of New Orleans in terms of attitude don’t want to do the distinctly unfun work of fixing corruption, poverty, and other social problems. Cumulatively I’ve probably spent two years of my life in the Philippines at this point and it’s definitely like that there. When I try to think of places I’ve been that have their shit together but still know how to party, the list is short: Berlin, and New York City if we conveniently ignore the rampant criminality on Wall Street, which to be fair we really shouldn’t.

Will KCMO ever become a vibrant, progressive, ultra-diverse, hip yet ridiculously down-to-earth art, food, and fun capital of the world? I guess twenty years ago nobody saw it coming for Berlin, either 🙂 In the meantime I’ll continue enjoying it for how it already is. I’m very excited for Camey and my adorable genius of a goddaughter, Chloe, to come here. One thing the city has down pat: Between amusement parks, science centers, and kid-centered museums, it’s an amazing place for little people to visit.

i love chloe

And for little people to grow up in, too! My campaign to get Camey to move to Kansas City continues forthwith.

And yes, Berlin’s also surprisingly kid-friendly. I’m hoping its existence isn’t some freak error in the fabric of the universe, because just in case it’s real it would be a pretty inspiring urban role model. Yep, role model – if they can go from militarized Cold War chess piece to funky then anyone can get there if they put in the effort. So maybe I should stop pining online and do something to support the budding local celebratory culture in real life. From here on out I resolve to go see at least two shows a month, starting with the incredible band Truckstop Honeymoon this weekend.

The title of this blog post – “I have not worshipped wounds and relics” – is a line from a Leonard Cohen poem. Cohen, in my opinion the best English-language writer ever, is perhaps fittingly also the musician whose 2013 concert in New Orleans made me finally understand how deeply live music can drag us into sadness, ecstasy, and empathy. For it be omnipresent in a city would be a gift to everyone living there or passing through. One of Cohen’s more recent songs, “Samson in New Orleans,” also happens to epitomize the ambivalence I sometimes feel, now that I’m gone, about defending a place where the average white household makes nearly three times as much as the average black one, stuck indecisively as I am between pointing a judgmental finger at the New Orleanians who are insanely celebrating the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and longing to be just like them:

You said that you were with me
You said you were my friend
Did you really love the city
Or did you just pretend?

You said you loved her secrets
And her freedoms hid away
She was better than America
That’s what I heard you say

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On some level I really mistrust nonprofits. In part that’s because so many of them arrogantly presume to provide “cultural enrichment” to “at-risk youth.” I’m sure I’ve bitched about it enough before but I find it incredibly myopic and condescending to assume that material poverty equals cultural poverty. The greatest contribution the U.S. has ever made to world culture may well be jazz – and you know Louis Armstrong wasn’t born with no silver spoon between those sweet lips of his.

Armstrong Park, view from my old place.

Armstrong Park, view from my old place.

And “at risk” for what, exactly, are poor young minorities as a group? Someday trying to take outside of the system what’s being systematically denied them inside it? If you ask me a person is statistically at far greater risk of becoming a war criminal if they’re born into privilege – especially in this country. If only some nonprofit had sent Dick Cheney to free after-school violin lessons!

dick-cheney

Violins is not the answer.

We should all hope that in the future there will be more American parks and monuments dedicated to our creative geniuses and fewer to our remorseless psychos. In the meantime, I wrote a blog post for Wild Fundraising about some of the irreplaceable and pretty badass services that only nonprofits can render – especially in the areas of historical preservation and memory, which are super close to my heart.

Please check it out!

Whenever Jeremy had to get through Vieille Ville in a hurry he took the shortcut down Jolicoeur, along the side of the cramped trailer park that itself lay along the side of Aurore-Chevrolet Park. The people who lived in the trailers were mostly migrant workers from the American state called Georgia. Their home communities had been slowly strangling to death since the 1790s. The people simply refused to do anything other than raise peanuts and tobacco that no one wanted to pay for anymore. Not at those prices, anyway, and now the long decline’s finally over. Late last year a wealthy New Yorker bought up most of the Georgian ghost towns. God himself may know what he wanted them for; Jeremy couldn’t guess. The luckiest of the refugees were here but most were being expelled, in rags, from one American state after the other. The reporters on the vide say they don’t come here because they’re afraid of learning a new language. It doesn’t matter that Neakita is the only place on the continent that welcomes them. Dozens of new charities dedicated precisely to their plight have already sprung up. Mayor Jolimot, for once with solid bipartisan support, proclaimed them permanent citizens. The casino construction meant to employ them while they learn southern Iroquoian was indeed funded by the city. But of course, few of the Georgian refugees had relatives here. Without family support they were still much worse off than even the most down-on-his-luck native.

 
It was already late when Jeremy drove by and the trailer park to his right had already gone quiet for the night. The Georgians, happy to be getting paid on time for maybe the first time in their lives, were notoriously industrious. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the casino opened ahead of schedule.

 
To Jeremy’s left the many auto body shops and other odd storefronts were lit up. Strange, that none of them ever seemed to be open before sunset. The wild-haired natives who gazed out at Jeremy’s Aurore seemed annoyed, or even angry, though he certainly drove under the speed limit and made sure to give the broad-shouldered, gleaming mid-century hot rods parked in neat rows on the side of the road a wide berth. It was a mystery to him. As was the fact that even though the Jolicoeur short-cut shaved an easy ten minutes off driving time he always seemed to be the only one using it.

 
The streets of Vieille Ville were pocked with holes. They weren’t any worse in that regard than the average Neakitan street. The thing is that whenever it rains like it did that morning these holes become invisible under the water. Jeremy tried to recall their whereabouts from memory; the Aurore’s suspension was one bottoming out away from the auto graveyard. Although it had stopped raining hours ago all of the cars were still slowly, gingerly threading their way through the grid of pavement. They made little wakes that rolled off the grass.

 

 

 

Puddle Kanadaga

 

 

An excerpt from the first part of the book I’m writing. I got a bit of unexpected encouragement this morning and it means the world – thanks, M! So grateful!

The whole furor over the Clippers owner (click here to hear the phone conversation that brought him down) isn’t about racism. It isn’t even about free speech, but seems to be just an effort to work damage control and salvage the team’s profitability.

I don’t think I’m being cynical in seeing an ulterior motive in Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban and ritualized public shaming. From every corner now one can hear the “bravo, NBA!” chants. The players who protested by throwing off their Clippers jerseys during practice and the fans who threatened to never again set foot in the Staples Center have been pacified. Not that racism isn’t a lazy and hateful way to organize the world and not that haters don’t deserve to be called out for it, but sometimes I think we’re watching NBA commissioner Adam Silver mime a hollow and holier-than-thou parody of ourselves out for us.

 

Free speech too: Players protested by taking off their jerseys…

 

… and fans weren’t happy either.

 

What should have happened: Clippers players protest (maybe even ask to be traded), fans stop buying tickets to the game. Maybe the infamous phone conversation with V. Stiviano eventually encourages an honest discussion of some of our collective issues. For instance, it struck me that Sterling repeatedly said that although there’s nothing wrong with him associating with black people, it was simply not something that a “delicate” and proper lady did. Perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising given that ever since the first Portuguese traders set foot on the western African coast in the fifteenth century, Europeans (and later European-Americans) have characterized African (and later African-American) women as irredeemably unfeminine. Supposedly they did not feel labor pain, they had voracious sexual appetites, and, most damningly, they did the ultimate unfeminine deed of associating with other Africans.

Something that I found interesting in my own research on nineteenth century New Orleans is that having a child with a white man back then did not, in itself, guarantee a black woman any social status among white elites. Those kids lived in many ways identical lives to their “unmixed” maternal siblings. What made a difference was public acknowledgement by the white father (more common than you’d think – most of these men were bachelors forbidden by law from marrying their long-term non-white partners). It was even better if the father had a family in the area who also acknowledged the children, or if they could score some respectable elite godparents, or if they could depend on the extended white social circle of either parent. In general even a child of two slaves with good connections was far better off than a free child of mixed descent with none.

To be clear, I totally disagree with historians who claim that “whitening” was the only type of social status that prevailed in slave societies. From what I’ve seen I’m positive that among the free and enslaved, whether one had European ancestors or not, most black New Orleanians cared more about what other black New Orleanians thought of them. Many continued naming their children after their enslaved ancestors, attended slave weddings, and otherwise clearly associated with slaves and people “blacker” than themselves in ways that don’t indicate shame in their heritage. The gens de coleur code of respectability centered on learning a skilled trade, serving in the military, offering patronage to those less fortunate, and working hard to succeed in business. Nevertheless, “whitening” was one route to improved social standing. And I do want to emphasize again that “whitening,” at least in New Orleans, had more to do with cultural “whitening” and acquiring the proper social circle than becoming lighter-skinned, even if the two tended to be related.

 

Enslaved kids with white fathers and grandfathers

Enslaved kids with white fathers and grandfathers

 

For a variety of reasons that I won’t bore you with now, status improvement (along white standards) was historically more easily available to women than to men. Essentially black women could fill business niches more easily because there was less competition from white women and black men were perceived as more threatening and not as frequently freed by their masters, not to mention that self-purchase was more expensive for men. Although it did occur it wasn’t very common for black men to have children with white women compared to the other way around. Yet even for upwardly mobile black women there was a limit. In the nineteenth century some of the most egregiously unscientific studies you’ll ever hear of “proved” the biological inferiority of dark skin. Religiously-minded racists started to argue in earnest for polygenesis because they wanted all that silly Biblical jazz about brotherhood and Jesus dying for us to apply to whites only. The one-drop rule and Jim Crow legally instituted the spirit behind these ideas.

In reality of course race doesn’t even exist. Meaning, there aren’t nor have there ever been clear boundaries separating the human race into three or four distinct subgroups. It didn’t exist even as a concept in the fifteenth century, it became the preferred way to categorize in the colonial era because it helped justify and explain why some people who used to be fair game for enslaving (whites) would no longer be so, and what remains of the concept today is a vestigial feature of race-based slavery. One thing about race thinking is that it surely is not a historical constant; It’s already been remade many, many times to suit changing needs and circumstances.

Anyway, Sterling’s words to V. Stiviano, who describes herself as a “mixed” woman, aren’t just slogans to boo or cheer. They’re maybe the vestiges of the vestiges, so to speak: “I love black people, I love you, I hang out with black people, but you can’t. Stay classy.” Why? Because white women aren’t safe around black men? Because it makes Sterling appear like he’s doing a bad job guarding his girlfriend’s lady parts? To me, his words are insightful because they helped me understand those mysterious men in the New Orleans archives, such as one who proudly acknowledged his “mixed” grandchildren by two different sons, shared his illustrious connections with them and their mothers – but was dragged to court for one of the most gruesome slave-beating cases of that era.

It doesn’t mean anything to “have black friends.” It doesn’t matter that you treat your black employees well if you think that deep down they can’t be trusted to treat women decently. It doesn’t matter that you sleep with a woman of partial African descent if your respect for her depends on her being “delicate” and acting like a white “lady.”

It’s not enough to slap on an “Eracism” bumper sticker while refusing to even try to figure out why racism still exists.

And, Commissioner Silver, it really isn’t very impressive that you take your only stand against discrimination just when it happens to be publicity gold. I’ll take you seriously if you stay consistent and give any coach who makes an anti-gay comment or player who makes a sexist comment a lifetime ban, too. It’s easy to be on the side of the outraged.

It’s easy too to be on the side of free speech – as long as you’re the small fry. Personally I don’t think Donald Sterling should’ve faced NBA sanctions for exercising his First Amendment right. Now every conversation has to begin and end with the question of whether his punishment is fair. Meanwhile we’re missing the opportunity to understand how insidious racist thinking is and why it still makes sense to people like Sterling. We could be remaking the idea of race again, using history as a tool to help us move toward a more egalitarian future rather than remaining blindly imprisoned in it.

 

You’ve probably seen the bumper stickers: “Third World and proud of it.” You’ve probably seen the blighted houses even in relatively comely neighborhoods like Broadmoor, spooky boarded-up skeletons of places that haven’t been lived in since Katrina (or maybe before). And if you’ve walked around anywhere near the Super Dome you may have been hit up for change by one of the homeless people who split their time between under the I-10 overpass and the downtown public library. In fact New Orleans’ poverty has been on the lips of residents and politicians long before anyone could blame it on a national disaster, but why is our city so poor?  

A homeless man under I-10.

A homeless man under I-10.

The short answer is that it’s not. Sure, Louisiana trails only Mississippi in terms of overall poverty rate, with 15% of its people under the official poverty line, and the rate in New Orleans is about double that. Let me get back to this point later. Trust me, before I do you’ll want to see just how great the city has been doing.

In certain circles the word “rebirth” has been passed around around like a bong at a frat party. The idea I guess is that when the levees broke the city kicked the bucket entirely and now, thanks to heroic locals who “came back” and some trusty bright-eyed transplants, it’s back from the dead. “Such-and-such street didn’t even look this nice before Katrina!” you hear people gush. And indeed median income is climbing up and unemployment falling. Because of the low cost of living compared to wages New Orleans was actually recently ranked 16th on Forbes’ list of “The Cities Where a Paycheck Stretches the Furthest” – leaps ahead of 32nd-ranked Boston and 41st-ranked New York. Its median household income (2008-2012) was a little under $37,000. Compare that to Aleneva, Alaska, where the average family makes about $3,700, consider that there are 24 towns in our country worse off even than Aleneva, and you might have a new perspective on what it means to be poor in America.

Of course the ugly handmaiden of “rebirth” is “gentrification.” Give them a few Sazeracs at a party and I swear the same venture capitalists who opened a ritzy fusion cuisine restaurant in the middle of the Ninth Ward will rail against it to their friends. Gentrification simply means that poorer urban environments are infused with new businesses that drive property values up. Tulane professor Richard Campanella wrote a piece describing how this played out in New Orleans, a pattern which essentially involved four different waves of migrants moving into a given neighborhood, from “gutter punks” to hipsters to more settled hipsters and finally to the dreaded old rich folk. According to Campanella, the main problem with old rich folk (and hence with gentrification) is that they alter neighborhood structures. Basically, when there are no young children around schools and playgrounds disappear, and suddenly everything is “gray, empty, and frozen.”

There are many interesting points here as well as many problems. To begin with, Campanella used the French Quarter as his prototypical tragically gentrified section and as I live there now I have to politely disagree about it being “gray, empty, and frozen.” Indeed compared to Uptown and Broadmoor, where I’ve lived in the past, I see far more of my neighbors out and about on any given Saturday afternoon. One of the two old rich ladies I’ve met is a painter and the other’s a volunteer historical preservationist who makes beautiful pottery. Half of my neighbors are young and less well-off like we are, though. They rent apartments here because they work nearby or were drawn by the relaxed atmosphere and vibrant cultural life the French Quarter has to offer when it’s not busy getting tourists drunk.  

Your gentrification dollars at work.

Your gentrification dollars at work.

The second problem I have is that New Orleans has a long ways to go before it’s actually gentrified. Excepting Audubon and the Garden District property is still more affordable here than it is in Baton Rouge and most other American cities. The average price per square foot has crept up from $113 to $121 between 2005 and now, which isn’t really all that mind-boggling. In New York City the average price per square foot last year was $1,371. New Orleans isn’t Detroit ($33/ square foot), but it’s closer to other small southern cities like Tampa ($111/ square foot) than to coastal metros where home ownership really is a pipe dream.

Tampa

Tampa

The third problem I have with Campanella’s article and the gentrification debate in general is that in some ways it misses the point completely. Does it matter if your neighbors are hipsters, rich old couples, or working-class families? The fear, or maybe the pretended fear that’s actually almost a hope, is that bringing vibrancy to a poor neighborhood will make it unaffordable to its present inhabitants and force them to find another slum to live in. If you read between the lines this is precisely why New Orleans is so poor. Urban planners, politicians, and entrepreneurs can’t even imagine the poor of this city ever being anything but. As such they feel bad for making them move out, maybe breaking up their communities, to make room for the new hospital and Whole Foods. And that’s where the crocodile tears end.

If you haven’t guessed by now, the only way the above statistics can possibly be true is through a horrendous amount of income inequality. The United States has the highest levels of inequality in the developed world and New Orleans is one of its worst cases. Only New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, and Memphis are worse off. New Orleans is fun, affordable, up-and-coming place to live – except it’s not for the nearly 30% of its people below the poverty line and many more close to it.

New Orleans is poor because the rest of us don’t think there’s anything to be done about it. Yes, unemployment is dropping, but so many people in the service industry depend on tips and tourist seasons. For some reason “rebirth” usually means opening yet another new restaurant. There’s no reason gentrification can’t involve, say, a garment factory that pledges to pay a living wage. There’s no reason that a new business can’t try to hire 100% of its workforce from the people within walking distance. To start we could perhaps at least stop tolerating the hateful, stupid pieces of shit who still try to make black people or poor people out as a group of welfare cheats, lazy workers, and criminals-on-the-loose, since that attitude handicaps them from even the few attractive jobs actually available. Of course personally I’d advocate more extreme measures (such as a petition to ban private schools entirely), in order to not just alleviate the symptoms of poverty or shift it to another group but actually do something, systematically, to root it out. This community is all of us. My point though is that we can do a lot more to keep income inequality from spinning even further into dystopian proportions than it already is. More, anyway, than shaking our fists at the memory of Katrina and griping now and then about that mysterious bogeyman, gentrification.