Levees Not War
National Security Begins at Home

Live-Blogging from Rising Tide 6

08/27/11

A conference on the future of New Orleans

Xavier University, New Orleans

Tune in to webcast here. Rising Tide 6 main web site here, and RT6 blog here. Photos here, here, and here.

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Usually we worry that Rising Tide might be disrupted by a hurricane—after all, it’s held each year on the anniversary of Katrina. Ironically, this year, while Hurricane Irene is lashing at the East Coast and New York City is evacating some 250,000 people from low-lying areas, the weather in New Orleans is warm (okay, hot), clear, calm. At the conference some of us are scratching our heads and asking of the millions who live along the East Coast, susceptible as it is to hurricanes, Why do they live there? 

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Dedra Johnson of The G-Bitch Spot Blog Wins 2011 Ashley Award 

Congratulations to Dedra Johnson of The G-Bitch Spot—a blog that doesn’t just have a great name, but shines with clear, independent thinking and sharp, sassy writing—in which “a mad black woman rants about New Orleans, insomnia, teaching, education, and ‘education,’ various -isms and anything involving a bitch, a spot or the letter g.”

4:30 Presentation of the Ashley Award 2011

Presented by Mark Moseley of The Lens and Your Right Hand Thief and Leigh Checkman of Liprap’s Lament.

The Ashley Morris award was established in 2008 to honor and remember the late Dr. Ashley Morris, one of the founding members of Rising Tide and still a guiding spirit. The award is given each year to someone who embodies Ashley’s fierce passionate defense of New Orleans, its people and culture. And the winner is . . . Dedra Johnson (see above).

3:05 Panel Discussion: New Orleans Food: Continuity and Change

Chris DeBarr, chef at Green Goddess, longtime N.O. blogger as “excitable chef”; Alex del Castillo, chef and owner of Taceaux Loceaux; Adolfo Garcia, chef and owner of RioMar, LaBoca, etc.; Rene Louapre, food columnist at Offbeat magazine; and Todd Price, freelance writer.

2:00 David Simon, featured speaker

Creator of HBO’s celebrated TV show Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, and of HBO’s The Wire.

An argument against “standing.” Not clear at first what Simon means by “standing.” Sounds like a synonym for legitimacy, credentials.

Began as a reporter in Baltimore, covering police beat in a mainly African-American neighborhood. As a young reporter it struck me how few reporters would not want to ask questions to which they did not already know the answer. But I would ask anyone anything. Tells the story of a former Pulitzer Prize–winning Herald Tribune reporter who asks so many questions that an Esso executive complained to the editor why did you send this idiot to interview me? He didn’t know anything; I had to explain everything to him.

As I approached New Orleanians to make the show Treme with Eric Overmeyer, I decided to hire local people, and determined to be very deferential to the people in this city who had suffered through such a terrible trauma. There are no rules. Standing is the lamest way of judging quality, authenticity. I don’t believe standing matters.

Learned to write in predominantly African-American neighborhood in Baltimore because I was assigned to cover police department. People in New Orleans are very different from people in Baltimore; you’re also very much alike, I’m sorry to say.

New Orleans is very sensitive about how it’s treated, represented, especially about the storm. You guys are tough on people who weren’t here during the storm. But there are some things we’ve gotten right in Treme because I’m not from New Orleans, because we weren’t here during the storm. There are sometimes advantages to being an outsider. I could have been from here, my grandfather could have been from here, and I still could have made mistakes in Treme—maybe even more than I actually have.

We’ve reached the point of cultural McCarthyism, where people will ask who are you to tell this story? What’s your standing? You may be accused of having a certain agenda, or having a relationship with this person or that.

Recounts contentious phone call with Mayor Landrieu when bulldozers were aimed at houses in Mid-City where LSU Medical Center wanted to build new center. A local preservation society had asked Simon to write letter to mayor to urge a halt to demolition of homes on Derbigny Street to clear ground for new LSU Medical Center in lower Mid-City. Simon mailed letter to Mayor’s office but it got lost, buried, not responded to. Then without telling Simon, Preservation Society gave the letter to mayor and alerted the press. Mayor phoned Simon and yelled at him. Don’t you realize how committed I am to preservation? These homes could not have been saved, anyway. Then he asked Simon if he (and HBO) had money to offer—to make a deal not to bulldoze? After the call, with the cameras rolling, the mayor said Who is this person [David Simon]? He’s not from here. He doesn’t realize how committed I am to preservation, etc.

Your leaders will lie to you and suggest that no outsiders can tell us what to do. It keeps New Orleans isolated and weaker than it could be. It is not true that outsiders have no standing or understanding or caring about your city. There are people who are from here who do not have the city’s best interests in mind, but rather their own profit.

A similar thing happened in Baltimore with the Johns Hopkins University medical center, and lovely old federal-style houses were demolished, but the center was never built. Now it’s just an empty space. If Johns Hopkins couldn’t make it work, it doesn’t look promising for LSU’s plan. LSU is a fine school but it is not one of the premier medical centers in the South and it’s not going to be.

An audience member asks about storytelling, fact and fiction. We’re trying to tell stories about things that matter that have truth to them (though not necessarily literal, statistical exactitude).

Simon replies with an example. In Season Two we wanted to reference the BP Deep Horizon spill, without going to hard at it. We found that no company or state agency does any monitoring of the condition of the offshore oil wells and platforms. There was a figure given by a Vietnamese boat captain of how many platforms are out there in the Gulf. Some thousands. We got irate letters from oil companies and shrimpers saying “that’s not accurate.” Hey, sorry, but it’s close.

I think Treme changes somewhat the medium of television drama, that it can be serious. The economic model of television has been to sell you something every 10 minutes or so, but with HBO you can have a sustained serious drama without interruption. Makes a different kind of narrative possible. In order to make a season of Treme, you need $30 or $40 million and you need to work on it 12 or 14 hours a day for half a year.

Audience member asks for comparison of mayors C. Ray Nagin and Mitch Landrieu. Simon says Nagin came out of Hurricane Katrina with large reservoir of goodwill and sympathy, but things did not go well for him. An impediment to getting things done in our society is that our system is structured for short-term cycles. The notion that electing the right guy and problems will be solved is flawed. Look what happened with Obama; that promise didn’t last long.

Len Bahr asks what would you say to the argument I made that standing does matter in science. We have politicians who don’t believe in climate change, rising sea levels, etc.

I’m arguing that when it comes to engaging in storytelling, everyone has their own voice. The proof is in the pudding. If someone is read widely even if they don’t have a Ph.D. in the subject, then they’re doing something right and there’s legitimacy there. A political argument will stand or it won’t depending on the merits of the argument.

11:45 Panel: Re-Capping the Well

The aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon / BP oil disaster that began on April 20 (Earth Day) 2010 and the future of the Gulf Coast. A discussion of how what has happened since the blow-out will affect the land and the people of the region for years to come.

Dr. Len Bahr, former coastal science adviser to five Louisiana governors, now editor of LaCoastPost.com; Bob Marshall, Pulitzer Prize–winning Times-Picayune reporter covering environmental issues; David HammerTimes-Picayune reporter who covered the Macondo well; Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade;  Drake Toulouse, BP and Gulf Coast Claims Facility critic, blogs at Disenfranchised Citizen; Moderated by Alex Woodward, Gambit staff writer.

[ The following notes are in order of presentation (not most recent first). ]

11:50 David Hammer. Deepwater Horizon (Macondo) well was known as “the well from hell.” Oil leaked for 87 days. Many failed attempts to cap the well. Junk shot, top kill, etc.

11:55 Anne Rolfes. Astonishing record of industrial accidents in oil industry, but the industry has strong defenders in Congress and Louisiana legislature. The oil refinery workers say the accident rate is much worse than reported by the oil firms. Curious parallel between what Sen. Mary Landrieu and the American Petroleum Institute’s language about the oil industry. They feed her the script, talking points. Louisiana seafood industry and oil industry “coexist peacefully.”

12:00 Len Bahr. I came to Louisiana (LSU) in 1973 out of graduate school to study the effects of oil and gas exploration on the Louisiana coast. Quickly learned how powerful the industry is, and how reluctant scientists are to “get political.” So many connections between the terrible Katrina experience and the BP Deepwater Horizon experience. Bob Bea of Berkeley who studied why the federally built levees failed in Katrina also knows about oil and gas deepwater drilling but was not asked to become involved in studying what happened with Deepwater Horizon blowout.

12:05 Bob Marshall. Another similarity is that nothing this big had ever happened and no one knew what would happen if such a big catastrophe took place. There were 39 possible time bombs out in the Gulf that likewise could blow and leak catastrophically. The pursuit of profit by both the industry and the state for the oil & gas royalties puts us at terrible risk; they say well, there’s risk in everything, as when crossing the street. Yes, but not all with such profound consequences. The oil industry didn’t “rape” Louisiana; it was consensual sex. If you blame oil industry, look in the mirror. If the BP spill did not change our dysfunctional relationship with the industry, nothing will. We keep re-electing politicians who are closely allied with or beholden to the oil industry.

12:10 Drake Toulouse. Pushing the technology too far, not asking questions of the industry that should be asked. On Disenfranchised Citizen I have written about how the (Gulf Coast Claims Facility) GCCF claims system being administered by Kenneth Feinberg [$20 billion fund from BP] is not helping the people who have been damaged. Feinberg said checks would be delivered within 7 days; maybe he did not anticipate the complexity of administrative process. Feinberg talks about transparency but does not deliver. Not forthcoming. Makes general statements but hard to get details. Claims have been denied; money that was not disbursed to injured, disadvantaged Gulf Coast citizens (fishermen, etc.) was sent back to BP, so a nonprofit concern has become a profit-making enterprise.

12:25 Len Bahr. Katrina gave us Bobby Jindal: the fight over Katrina with a Republican administration damaged her and paved the way for Republican conservative Bobby Jindal. Will the BP spill help make way for a Republican president? The Republican denial of science (climate change, sea level rise, evolution) is very discouraging for hopes for restoration of Louisiana’s industry-damaged coastline.

12:30 Bob Marshall. This hurricane heading up the Eastern Seaboard makes me wonder, Why do they live there? [Audience laughter and applause] Congress is dominated by conservatives who do not want any regulation of any industry, particularly the oil industry with its drilling 5,000 below the surface. Obama budgeted millions for coastal restoration and study, but conservatives nixed it. One Republican said What is the Corps of Engineers doing with coastal restoration? They should be dredging. Finally after much struggle supporters (including some Republicans) were able to get a mere $1 million for coastal Louisiana, and the Times-Picayune ran an editorial titled “A Win for Louisiana.” [laughter] One of the things that takes so long for coastal restoration or tidal surge mitigation is that  you have so many property owners’ permission to obtain. Eminent domain? Why doesn’t the legislature give “quick take” (eminent domain) authority to the state agency for coastal restoration because it is in the public’s interest. Coastal authority in governor’s office said that would be the worst thing the state could do, even though the oil companies do have the authority (or are granted permission) to do just that if they want to drive a canal or lay a line through your property.

I recently re-watched Louisiana Story. In the 1930s, there was no sense that the oil exploration was going to destroy the environment. By the 1970s it was clear. The oil industries who said “we didn’t know” did know by the 1970s, and what have they done since. What have these super-rich companies done for the state? When they threaten to leave, where are they going to go, Kansas? These riches are on public land, but they are not being made to pay, and the state is poor; it doesn’t have to be this way.

12:45 Anne Rolfes. The BP disaster has opened up a small window for discussion of questions that were not heard before, such as your [Bob Marshall’s] column asking whether Louisiana’s relation to oil industry is Stockholm Syndrome or spousal abuse. Would you have been able to get an opinion piece in the T-P before the BP blowout? The companies’ sense of entitlement and their size is a sign of their vulnerability. [really? how?] We have an opportunity to make the oil industry accountable. Richard Campanella pointed out that oil refineries are on the same land where the plantations once were. They used to say that slavery would never be brought down but it was.

10:15 Panel Discussion: Social Media, Social Justice

Can tools such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blogs, YouTube, etc., help with the struggle for a more just and humane society?

Mary Joyce, digital activism expert; Jimmy Huck, Tulane Univ. professor of Latin American Studies, blogger at The Huck Upchuck; Steven Ostertag, Tulane Univ. sociologist; and Jordan Flaherty, the first journalist with a national audience to write about the Jena Six. Moderated by Dr. Kimberly Chandler, Xavier Univ. Dept. of Communications.

[ The following notes are in order of presentation (not most recent first). ]

Mary Joyce says digital activism works best if you start with social change goals, then decide which platform of social media to use (Facebook, YouTube, etc.). Or maybe depending on your goal, start offline with flyers, meetings, petitions, before going with social media. The social media can be both good and bad; repressive governments can monitor the social media to know what the activists are up to and then crack down (consider Arab Spring, Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc.).

Jimmy Huck. Use of Twitter etc. to inform and mobilize people on the ground about legislation that is moving through a legislature. For example, many bills in state legislatures in recent years to enact repressive laws against immigrants. If there is no one in the legislature’s public gallery audience to speak up, to testify against a proposed piece of legislation, then there may be no resistance and the bill, however ill-conceived or unjust, may pass to the public’s detriment. With Twitter’s re-tweeting function you can spread the word quickly through a network. For example, set up a Facebook page called “Say No to Bill 20xx.” Gather an audience, call people to the state capitol to represent opposition to a bill that will take away rights. With one bill proposed (passed?) in Baton Rouge, someone giving an undocumented worker a ride to church or the grocery store could be imprisoned for up to six months.

Stephen Ostertag. Access to social media and technical knowledge tends to be limited to affluent, well-educated. The marginalized, disenfranchised tend to be the last to have access to the technically sophisticated means of communication.

Jordan Flaherty. What do we even mean by “mainstream media”? And what is wrong with the old (pre-social media) methods of reporting news? [Loki @ SocialGumbo (watching the webcast) tweets “Flaherty: In this room, who would say they get most of their news online? (Whole room raises their hands).”] There are old-style news outlets such as Democracy Now! and al-Jazeera that are non-corporate but are on the side of the oppressed and report news that the Corporate Mainstream do not cover. Columbia Journalism Review had a recent article on whitening of corporate mainstream news media. In many of the mainstream outlets, there are black reporters who can tell you which riot or civil disturbance it was after which they were hired. We need to find what is missing in mainstream media, and what it is we’re seeking to remedy. It is said that we want reporters who look like underrepresented ethnicities or races, but good reporting can also come from writers, investigators who are not of the culture being reported on.

Jordan Flaherty went to Tahrir Square in Cairo and asked people on the street how they’re organizing, who and what kinds of people were useful in the revolution, etc. One woman said that soccer hooligans were very useful in setting cars on fire in three seconds (minutes?) or less. In the Arab Spring uprising there were 12 million protesters of whom many were not “online”—news would indeed spread through Facebook or Twitter, but many more got the news through the old-style mass media that was giving all the credit to social media: there’s going to be protest at the square on Friday, etc.

10:55 Stephen Ostertag. Important to experiment with different models of making news, reporting. Corporate model seeks to streamline expenses, maximize profits. Non–mass media are not driven by same imperatives (or overhead costs). Also important to broaden the news collection process, the questions being asked. Instead of the narrow corporate model frames, with social media (blogs, etc.) can go out in the community and ask questions beneath the usual corporate frames (not what you think about a prison being built in a neighborhood, but why are we even incarcerating people who are caught with a small amount of an “illicit” substance, and why are most of the inmates of this yet-to-be-built prison going to be of one particular race, or part of town?), and so on. Tweet from Athenae of FirstDraft catches the quote, “Media doesn’t tell you what to think but it tells you what to think about.”

11:15 Jordan Flaherty. We must not disparage “mainstream” corporate media—many of their employees are (or are willing to be) our allies. No need to go it alone. We want to build up the new forms of media but must not ignore the institutions that already exist. This is, after all, where most of the world gets their news. We need to find ways to support independent and grassroots media—the corporate institutions will always find a way to make their money and will take care of themselves.

[For those interested in how corporate media frame news stories and leave out much of the significant context, see Todd Gitlin’s influential The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left.]

9:15 a.m. Rich Campanella, featured speaker 

Tulane University geographer and author speaks on how New Orleanians came to perceive, delineate, name—and argue about—the neighborhoods of their city.

No right angles in nature. Asked a student to draw a map. Very limited area, did not show French Quarter, Uptown, etc.

Shows map of early settlement of La Nouvelle-Orléans. Early hurricane wiped the slate clean. Some of what is now regarded as FQ (on the margins) was not in original settlement. City did not grow much, substantially, during 1700s. Low priority for the French and Spanish governments that owned the settlement.

Explains the cadastral system, originating in Roman or medieval land laws/customs; the French long lots, so that everyone has at least a little frontage on the river, with a long lot stretching back from the river.

Great 1919 photo of New Orleans. Shows “Little Palermo,” an Italian area of the lower FQ. “Chinatown” around where Superdoome is. Pattern of racial settlements, contrasted with divisions between native New Orleanians and transplants. Black New Orleanians more often refer to their ward when describing “where you’re from.” Song lyrics, album titles, blog names more often refer to the ward than to white and transplanted residents.

Natives, transplants, and Katrina’s floodwaters. Highest numbers of transplants tend to live in the historic neighborhoods (FQ, Marigny, Garden District). You don’t move to New Orleans to live in a ranch house out in the suburbs. More native-born New Orleanians in the more-flooded neighborhoods (away from the high ground “sliver by the river”).

Who gets to define neighborhoods?

Around 1923 beginning of  city planning, preservation commissions in New Orleans, starting with census tracts for statistical aggregation. Several decades ahead of New York City and other American cities. City planning becomes modernized, more sophisticated in the Moon Landrieu era (1970s). Rise of the preservation movement. When you give an area a name you begin to give it an identity it might not have had before. The term “Lower Garden District” did not exist before about 1962. Mentions of Faubourg Treme had almost died out before late 1980s. Very few mentions between 1837 to 198os. Same is true of Faubourg Marigny. Preservation movement has boosted identity, consciousness of neighborhood identity. Jazz Fest and other festivals have contributed. Many newcomers are very interested in preservation. Local historic district landmarks to preserve consciousness. Confusion and disputes about where exactly the Irish Channel is—not necessarily where most residents of Irish descent were living. Landmarks are meaningful to some, not to others. Whole Foods is a landmark to more affluent residents; Wal-Mart to others.

Neighborhoods are better understood by their cores than by their peripheries (notoriously hard to define). Avenues tend to unify rather than to divide nearby residents.

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