MAC-Notes on the elephant

Excellent input from one of the city’s great clarinetists, himself a transplant albeit decades ago. So as he says (and represents) it is not that all comers are unwelcome. It is that it is vital and brave to truly comprehend what it means to support the complex dynamics of the formal and informal cultural activity that has held our place together. And that actively working for useful and manageable ordinances and zoning that discourage a “monocrop” society has to be everyone’s goal.

Let’s get serious about this damn elephant. He’s being too well-fed by our civic leadership, which continues to march toward a goal of 13 million annual visitors by 2018. Though they are beginning to listen to the bearers of their culture, they mostly try to measure our contributions in terms of “cultural economy.” And, given their attentions to the tourism lobby and neighborhood associations, it seems they still regard us more as an extension of the service industry than part of our city’s lifeblood. The resultant clashes between policy and organic culture are exacerbated by ham-handed and selective enforcement of our sound ordinance and an unwieldy process for amending the Comprehensive Zoning Order and “Plan for the 21st Century.”

Those of us who are truly committed to our community’s cultural vitality need dialogues that reflect appropriate ambivalence from all stakeholders and respect the issue’s complex dynamics.

Source: MAC-Notes: Everyone Sees the Elephant. Now What? | NolaVie – Life and Culture in New Orleans

and this truly accurate response:

I moved from Uptown in 2001 to Burgundy Street in the Marigny. My immediate neighbors consisted of a nice (African-American) family in the double on one side and a Honduran woman, Miss Consuela, who barely spoke English on the other side. Across the street was a corner bar, a Section 8 double, and a long-time resident (Caucasion) who works at a hospital. An old man on the other corner lived behind his long-closed, 1930(ish) gas station. We were a diverse bunch to be sure. But we all knew each other. We all helped each other out. We were neighbors. After the storm, the only ones of us left were us, the bar, the hospital worker and Miss Consuela. Then someone bought the double next door. They completely rennovated it, flipped it and sold it as 2 condos to some really wonderful people who live there now. The Secton 8 house was sold after a brief stint as a crack house. It too was sold and rennovated. It is now a long-term rental. An expensive one. Miss Consuela fell ill and died. Her home was sold at a tax auction to a doctor who took it down to the studs, added a camel back, renovated the entire thing and hasn’t spent a single night there. It is an illegal short-term rental. Less than 3 feet from our home. It sleeps 10. At least that is what the Airbnb ad says. Sometimes the people are very nice. We try to engage all of them. Sometimes they are gaping assholes. The group two weeks ago who were blaring bad disco music at 4:30 in the morning into the top of the line outdoor sound system come to mind. All this while the doctor takes his homestead exemption on this place. We have complained to City Hall. They don’t care. I could go on about the slumlord rental on the block that smells like ass, and rents for $1275. It was $500 pre-K and housed a loveable ‘OZ dj who can no longer afford to live here. Or the house next door to that, which housed a local band, then a young family, and finally turned Airbnb. Or the hordes of bicycle tourists who block the street like a particularly large school of minnows and shout “car!” whenever an automobile approaches, all while gawking at the neighborhood like we are in some kind of bizzaro, New Orleans, performance piece. Don’t get me wrong. I am happy that these buildings around me are being “rebuilt, renewed and restored”. I just wish we could find a balance that allows us to look toward the future without completely losing the past. Sorry this is so long. But it does feel better to write it.

Blight tours in Wilkinsburg PA? It’s a start.

Although the idea of vacant house “tours’ is a little odd, the willingness in Wilkinsburg PA (an area I know slightly) to address the current and the underlying issues of loss of population is certainly better than how various neighborhood associations and City Hall have handled it in New Orleans.

I know heard some anecdotes about a Pittsburgh neighborhood that has been organizing around rezoning in order to allow low-income tiny home development to increase socioeconomic diversity and resident types such as seniors and maybe even the previously homeless to be able to gain a foothold.
I think it’s time for a new citizen-led initiative around quality of life issues across sectors and not just use all of our energy for the “too little-too late” reactions to Loyola Avenue rubber stamping any development.

For example, I know how much Rebuilding Together (previously known as Christmas in October when I worked with the folks there) did to repair low income and senior homes so think how much more that could be done if we gathered and used resources like these at the regional level and didn’t just rely on corporate sponsorship. After all, blight is a outcome of multiple issues happening at once, and from outdated or outsized attitudes about development.

Certainly it would be beneficial for residents to adopt a more activist stance on rental property that goes beyond just posting flyers that yell at visitors and that reduces the issue to “all short term rentals bad.” I actually know someone who told me with a straight face that STR hosts were worse than heroin dealers. That’s the kind of statement that serves no solution, but encourages polemic rants to be the acceptable level of response. Of course, one of the things that is odd to many who are viewing the fury over the STRs is that loss of good rental properties has been an issue for a very long time in the African-American community with little attention paid. And the takeover of public housing for “mixed use” has been an issue since the1990s and became another way for developers to use public funding to get market rate development in our historic corridor, and yet I cannot remember seeing significant organizing against this in the white-led neighborhood associations or not since it was linked to the Walmart development around the St. Thomas Projects.

Or, any inserting themselves to disrupt the sequence of events in any developing area which roughly goes something like this: first, enterprising folks buy low-cost property. Some live there easily and as neighbors, but sooner or later, others come only to buy for investment. When that happens, low-income housing owners (Section 8) are hit with fines and complaints by their new neighbors ’til they sell out (not til they repair but until they are gone) and a new owner can take it over. The security system and the high fence are added and the house is taken from a 2 or 3 unit property to a single home. Next, stores and amenities that chiefly benefit young white residents crowd out the old places. Then, the African-American residents who still remain are monitored for behavior that doesn’t fit the QoL for the new residents and finally get the hint that it is time to get out of this area. (I think of the complaints from new Treme residents about the second lines, or people calling in complaints against people congregating and drinking from paper bags but not about those with wine glasses or Miller Longnecks, or the guy who lives in a posh place on Esplanade has complained loudly against the laundromat at Lopez and Grande Rte. St. John, or those who put glue in bicycle locks of anyone who dares to lock up in front of their business.)
As for airbnb, I do think the city should outlaw any multiple listings and whole house rentals and then leave the others alone; STRers do pay income tax on their earnings and in my mind, offer the opportunity for visitors to become good neighbors and to support amenities such as grocery stores, neighborhood eateries and better public transportation. Actually, I find the blithe acceptance of the massive physical, economic and political cost of skyscraper hotel zones baffling. Why in a town with a huge visitor economy would we want visitors all clustered in one end of town, rather than in small hotels, b&bs and in mother-in-law suites? Why allow so many multi-national and chain companies to benefit from our creative economies and then take most of their money to their corporate homes, leaving us with so little? The gig economy – when done well – can alleviate gaps in earning and can allow creative people time to attend to those ideas and dreams that have been waiting. Let’s try to be creative and comprehensive in our organizing around housing, health care, safe streets, food sovereignty, energy, water management, import-replacing industries and entrepreneurial activity and stop being tools of the system.

1973 Profile- Larry Borenstein

The current configuration of the French Quarter cannot be properly understood without knowing property owners part in shaping it. In many ways, the Borensteins of the Quarter then and now are much more important to study than mayors or preservationists.


For a few months Borenstein worked as a salesman for Uncle Joe Rittenbing, “a famous pawnbroker on South Rampart Street,” Larry added with a touch of awe. Larry opened his first shop at 814 Royal, selling stamps while an associate, Al Williamson, sold coins. Rent in ‘42 was $20 a month; the same space fetches $600 today, Borenstein says, “and I don’t own it.” In ‘43 he moved to 706 Royal ($30 a month them $500 now, he says).

Borenstein continued in the stamp business until about 1950, eventually becoming an editor of Weekly Philatelic (published in Kansas). His Old Quarter Stamp Shop and Jolly Roger Book Shop in Pirates’ Alley did thriving business. Borenstein also was editor of the Old French Quarter News (precursor to the Courier) in its final months. Outside his shop, artists were encouraged to set up in the open air.

“It’s on my conscience that that tradition, which later spread to Jackson Square, started with me,” said Larry, who takes a dim view of the quality of what passes for art on the Square today. The Jackson Square development started when Borenstein sued St. Louis Cathedral “because it seemed that painters weren’t allowed to hang on the Cathedral railings without political help.” The suit stopped the use of the Cathedral railings entirely, and artists moved to the Square. Larry recalls: “I told the pastor, Father Burns, that I wasn’t the first Jewish boy to try to drive the money changers from the temple walls.” Today Borenstein estimates the Jackson Square sales and services (framing, etc.) add up to about $1.5 million a year.

Source: 1973 Profile- Larry Borenstein by Tom Bethell :: The Noel Rockmore Project :: Sponsored by Right Way Wrong Way, Inc.


Wendy Rodrigue writes about 730 Royal

Celebrate Jane Jacobs today

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great writer, activist and thinker and so we should celebrate her impact on planning, on sustainable economies and on local sovereignty.

I found her writing in the mid 1990s, right before I moved to Akron Ohio. If you haven’t been, it is a city that lost a great deal of its small town feel during the bad ol’ days of “urban renewal” with a highway plunked down right at the edge of downtown and massive “disinvestment” (read empty factories and offices) left by the large corporations that had ruled for generations. By the time I was there, it had become a sleepy bedroom community for folks who commuted 40 minutes north to Cleveland. I had also immediately noted the ironic abundance of hiking paths in the gorgeous Cuyahoga Valley National Park that is the area’s greatest jewel, and yet the lack of appealing ways to walk or bike around the actual city. I found Akron lovely, but lonely.  I couldn’t help the constant refrain in my head of Chrissie Hynde’s “My City Was Gone” about her hometown of Akron and her description of how:

There was no train station
There was no downtown
South Howard had disappeared
All my favorite places
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces
A, o, way to go Ohio”


I had become interested in planning and how humans move through the built space while previously living in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in the neighborhood of Shadyside. My apartment was above the five and dime store and had lovely bay windows overlooking the commercial street. I would sit there to read and smoke, and watch people move about below. As I sat there, I wondered if banning cars on Walnut would benefit it or if they reduced the number of meters on the side streets, if they could would encourage more residents with cars. I noted the superior bus system around town and was dumbfounded when they built a freestanding department store in downtown, and even more so when it was immediately supported by workers and residents willing to travel where they had to park or catch a bus and walk to shop.

As always, when I became interested in a subject I searched for as many books I could find about it;  I first found “City” by William Whyte and then  found “The Death and LIfe of Great American Cities.” I devoured them both but after reading Jacobs, felt as if I had found a teacher. Her practical and direct writing illustrated how human activity and personal interaction should matter in thinking about cities and how the cultural, ecological and economic systems must be designed to work together for the person and not the city manager or the egoist planner and all of lit a fire in my soul. One reason for that immediate attraction to her writing was the deep respect she had for local rule. I knew I had met a fellow activist and one that shared a disdain for unnecessary formality or hierarchy:  Why separate people from sidewalk activity with elevated versions?  Why separate stores from living space? Why separate production from where people live or work? Why ban informal vending in cities? Why add highways where none are necessary?

After Akron, I moved back to New Orleans where I had lived as a teen and through my early 20s. Even though I had been raised in Cleveland, it was New Orleans that had always felt most like home, and a city I always knew I would return to live  at some point. Turns out, that point was 2000 and first I moved back to the French Quarter where my family has lived for many years. Of course, Jacobs and Whyte’s teachings echoed in my head as I walked through every block of it, noting the tiny sidewalks full of amblers and walkers, balconies and galleries that shielded a passerby from the afternoon rain and encouraged musicians and shoeshiners to set up shop below. The corner grocery store and drugstores served the community well and while the remaining hardware store had a more upscale feel, it was still a very good place to buy nails or screen repair kits. It was fortifying to be back.

In 2005, the destruction of the city in August at the hands of the shoddy levee management meant that everyone in the city was thinking and talking design and planning and that the next years of recovery were thrilling and scary and collaborative and polarizing and so much more. As residents, we failed our city in many ways during that time, allowing the destruction of our old but useful hospital in order to build a shiny new one 2 blocks away for a billion plus dollars. We allowed the destruction of all available public housing, originally built in the 1940s in townhouse style to build new versions in townhouse style but in wood and not brick this time around. (Of course, the upending of those living there during the years of redevelopment was the point of the entire exercise and has broken up communities and families as expected and pushed the workers of the city  far from where the actual work is located.)

Developers have strong hold over many of our areas now and investors “from away” have taken hold of large swaths of housing stock to either sit on them empty while waiting for the best return to come along, or changed the feel of the area to something new that has little to do with what is also there or even worse, has kicked out scores of residents to offer entire blocks of short-term rentals to visitors only. There is much more that has been a result of this era being forced upon us, but most relative to this post  was the constant refrain in so many heads as we fought it, “What would Jane Jacobs do? What would she say?” In some cases, her observations and teachings have stopped some very bad examples of city planning, added some excellent collaborative work on water management for example and in other cases the inherent activism found in New Orleans then and since simply dovetail nicely with her descriptions of city life when done well.

It was also interesting that during the early days of recovery, the French Quarter became home to thousands more residents as it was untouched by the levee breaks and could absorb those who needed a place to sleep and eat and meet while they worked on their homes in other parts of town. The hustle and bustle of it in those months was thrilling as these 80 or so blocks continued to operate like a well-oiled clock and easily support everyone who needed to be there. Even after many of those folks moved back to their own areas, the comfort of the city center still appealed to many and residential numbers increased between 2000-2010. I am one such resident as my move to the Bayou St. John area of the city turned out to be temporary for the years right before and after 2005 and now I find myself back in the Quarter, I hope for good this time.

The truth is that the Quarter will never return to the population numbers of its zenith, but neither will the Marigny or Central City. The style of living has changed ghettos like the Quarter to single home living or by offering small apartments to a single person where once an entire family lived in the same space. Even though it is fashionable for many New Orleans “super-natives” (see explanation of the term at end of post)  to again complain about the Quarter, the truth is it still works for thousands of residents and workers and visitors and more. It is vibrant all day and all night. It has cars and delivery trucks and buses using its tiny streets, even while sharing space with mule-driven carriages, bikers, skateboarders and drunks. People meet on the street and talk, and they come out to wash their sidewalk and note activity while doing so. They talk to the meter maids and to the guy who hustles for a buck to help workers close up at night. Yes, even in a modern city and time a place designed originally for pedestrians and those living and working in the same space is still incredibly useful. And Jane Jacobs predicted it.

So  even though the Quarter may not still serve the same purpose it did in 2005-2008 or in 1905, it still matters. This city center doesn’t have to remain the Italian neighborhood or hold all of the chicory coffee stands or all of the city’s music clubs to remain necessary. It is allowed to change and adapt as long as it contains “the seeds of its own regeneration” and does its darn best to hold the “unaverage” among the regular better than any other neighborhood.

Jane Jacobs affirmed that for me. So happy Jane Jacobs Day, my fellow Quarterites- I expect to see you on the sidewalk soon.



2 of her many books, always nearby.



Google’s homage to JJ today

• From Richard Campanella’s essay: Transplants arrive endeavoring to be a part of the epic adventure of living here; thus, through the process of self-selection, they tend to be Orleaneophilic “super-natives.” They embrace Mardi Gras enthusiastically, going so far as to form their own krewes and walking clubs (though always with irony, winking in gentle mockery at old-line uptown krewes). They celebrate the city’s culinary legacy, though their tastes generally run away from fried okra and toward “house-made beet ravioli w/ goat cheese ricotta mint stuffing” (I’m citing a chalkboard menu at a new Bywater restaurant, revealingly named Suis Generis, “Fine Dining for the People;” see Figure 2). And they are universally enamored with local music and public festivity, to the point of enrolling in second-line dancing classes and taking it upon themselves to organize jazz funerals whenever a local icon dies.



Gerber on the Big Easy


images.duckduckgoOf course I had noted Gerber’s pictures before, but like so many of our “journeyman” photographers, her work has most often been published in our ephemeral media and with that comes a tiny name credit all that marked it as hers, likely often missed. And oddly for such a visual city, the writer of words is usually given prominence over those who use a camera. It’s not that photographers are never celebrated: Gerber’s own photography mentor Michael Smith is renowned as are at least a half dozen or more names. But since working photographers are thankful to get one shot at a time published, it is often only when you see a number of photos together that the individual’s viewpoint emerges.

This book offers Gerber’s sensitive and sensible view of her city and of her neighbors. You notice she is often at near-to-middle distance, close enough to catch an eye or to elicit a smile or gesture, but not too close to  influence the moment, which points to her work as a photographer for Gambit and other news outlets. Action permeates her work, but just as often she appreciates a simple moment of acknowledgement. Humor more than glee, sadness more than despair make it seem like she just happened to photograph a thousand normal days here. And gives me a sense of the photographer quietly saying to me over my shoulder, “see that guy? he…”

The physical space of New Orleans is covered here, especially in the time of Katrina when less people were here and those who were did not need their picture taken (as Gerber well knows) but her favorite subject seems to be a single person. Even when there is more than one in the photo, the others are usually reacting to the protagonist. And that seems very right in a book about New Orleans since musicians, parades, sporting events and yes even murder scenes all have main characters who propel or narrate the action, all done publicly. Yet the choice of photographs and the layout of this book means the juxtaposition of two or more images on a single page or across two pages forces us to to consider each photo as part of a more complex story; even the choice of Chris Rose and Lolis Elie as the essay writers at the beginning tell us to prepare for that. A photo at the JCC uptown pool with white children jumping in is paired with two African-American boys landing on a pile of mattresses outside of a boarded up house. The two photos uncannily mirror each other in the physical layout and are connected by the childish joy seen in both but still, the divide is vast. Both the connection and the distance between linked images is presented again and again, although not with one image dominant over the other. As a matter of fact, the pairings or clusters seem necessary to tell the entire story of each. Buffalo Soldiers and NOPD on horseback, Metairie Cemetery gleaming and paved next to weedy, handwritten  Holt, Roller Derby girls as bulls on skates next to Mardi Gras Indians with horns, even David Vitter and his Canal Street Madam (well that one made me laugh)…all together tell the story. I don’t think I have seen the life here shared in photos any better.

Buy it here