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The girl who walks on machetes and other unexpected adventures on the Sunset Limited

Monday, August 28, 2006
Sarah Ann neatly categorised the people who travel on trains in the US. Those who are too fat, those who are too old, those who are too hard up (....to fly) and school choir groups. I thought she was spot on until I took the train from New Orleans to Austin for a second time last week and met some people who defied all pigeon-holing attempts. In the glass-ceilinged observation car I chatted to John from Virginia, a tattoed 24 year old whose Dad had changed plans to fly him from Arizona to rail after the news of terrorist arrests in the UK. We compared our sketchbooks, his featuring considerably more skulls and tits than mine. The cheeseburger in the dining car tasted all the better for the waiter, who told romantic stories of how the railroads once served the finest beef in America. Also eating dinner was a displaced Katrina resident moving to California with her two kids and a lady named Holsom, a disgruntled political activist who launched into Tony Blair´s shortcomings when I told her I was from England. Downstairs in the cafe car, a Denzel Washington lookalike kept us amused with his comedic impressions and seen-it-all-before anecdotes gathered over thirty years of Amtrak service. Holsom offered me a ride from San Antonio to Austin with her friends, saving me a gruesome five hour wait in the early hours of the morning. Not only did one of her friends turn out to be a circus performer who walks up staircases of machetes, she also works for a friend of Robie and Jay´s in Austin. Small World.....Enthusiasm for American Trains Undiluted!

It seems incredible that it takes less time to get to Buenos Aires by plane from Austin than it does to New Orleans by train but I can confirm that´s the case. I´m writing this from Argentina, where my marginal Spanish has at least managed to get me from airport to hostel and an empanada and cerveza into my growling stomach. My activities here over the next two months range from an ILAUD workshop (two week international student affair on the nebulous theme of ´Nature and the City´), followed by work with m7red, architects who ´build forums that bring together both experts and non-experts to discuss pressing political and urban topics´ and Ala Plastica, artists who ´develop projects linking art and socio-environmental causes´.

In the meantime, in preparation for working with m7red on one of their projects called Flood!, I have been hastily reading Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security. It makes such compulsive reading that my first day in Argentina was spent glued to a book about New Orleans. I just finished it so that I can begin cultural adjustment tomorrow. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in penetrating the complex web of politics and personalities behind the government response to Katrina.

And a final plug for Ronald and his steady climb towards presidential candidacy - read about him in the New Yorker this week..... if you missed him on the Weather Channel over the weekend...

‘The People are the Planners’ and more wishful thinking in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006
First there was the Bring New Orleans Back plan that Nagin overturned upon his re-election (after grandiose ideas were rejected by Congress, after FEMA money failed to materialise, after protests from local groups). Next there was the Lambert-Danzey planning process, orchestrated by the City Council, which basically circumnavigated the mayor's office. Now the Unified New Orleans Plan, funded by the Rockefeller Center, is thrusting that process out the way so that an ‘official’ Grand Plan can be finalised by the end of the year. Each neighbourhood will be assigned (sorry, vote for…) a planning team, and organisers are promising to synthesise the process with the grassroots, self-organised planning that most districts have already initiated.

Two important meetings of the Unified New Orleans Plan took place while I was in the city. There are lots of disgruntled, eloquent blogs that have already documented the democratic charade that invited all residents of the city to vote from a preselected pool of planning teams, after a series of 12 minute presentations, in a room designed to hold 300 (plans to get the Superdome fell through apparently). Link to People Get Ready, Becky Houtman and Darwin BondGraham for their relative ironic/earnest/sour takes on it, as well as this genius diagram by Toulouse Street.

I can’t imagine any citywide planning process that could possibly run smoothly under the given circumstances but nonetheless Tuesday 1st August was definitely a reason to feel pessimistic about official efforts to co-ordinate the city’s future. With twelve precious minutes in which to sell themselves most teams did a dismal job. Carol and I were rolling our eyes back in our heads by number eight (there were eighteen in total) and we have some ability to read drawings and understand planning language. Screen after screen of tedious bullet points about relevant expertise or predetermined processes. Irritating slogans with bad graphic effects. Illegible diagrams of teams organised into hierachical boxes. Vague drawings from other projects with lots of nice, green trees. Slides of half empty meeting rooms with whiteboards and neatly dressed ‘facilitators’ wielding sharpie pens as demonstrations of inclusive methods - just what the ‘charette weary’ residents of the city want to see I’m sure. Powerpoint - surely the most disastrous thing that ever happened for civic engagement?

UNOP 01

If teams were local they laboured on it, if they weren’t they went to pains to parade the member of the team who had been born there. There were lots of emotional dedications to the ‘unique spirit’ of New Orleans. Frederic "The Man who Listened" Schwartz had clearly been rehearsing for days, turning bright red as he lyricised “if you’re from updown, downtown, backwater, bywater, lower ninth, upper ninth…we are here for YOU”. Large, bouncer-type men were introduced as ‘implementation strategists’, ‘this is the man who knows how to get the money’.

And the most refreshing speaker by far? Andres Duany of the Congress for New Urbanism, the devil of style over substance, server of thinly veiled real estate interests, magician of pastiche and nostalgia. He spoke simply and directly to the audience with no Powerpoint, immediately creating a more sincere and intimate connection with the audience. He touched on everything people care about – getting things done quickly, holding FEMA accountable. He waved around documents of work he had already done in Mississippi adopted by the Governor. He invited people to go to the River Ranch development a couple of hours away to see their previous work (I looked it up later – a 300 acre "re-creation of historic residential New Orleans", complete with areas named the 'French Quarter' and 'Garden District' and homes starting at $265 000). His smooth delivery was interrupted only when a member of the audience started to yell accusations of hypocrisy, the details of which were drowned out by a rabble of ‘shut ups’ and ‘shhhhshs’. I am not a fan of New Urbanism, but had I been an ordinary resident deciding on those presentations alone I probably would have voted for him.

UNOP 02

Ronald Lewis was my only substantial connection in New Orleans to a resident whose home had been destroyed by Katrina. He is unequivocal in his distrust and disillusionment with the city planning process. “No more dots” he kept saying, referring to the little stickers that he has put on endless maps at endless meetings to indicate where a school or firestation might go. At a UNOP meeting, he caused a stir by telling the facilitator that he could do her job, “I can get up there and ask you what you want and write it down on a list”. Ronald is understandably suffering ‘charette fatigue’. He refused to vote for a planner at the Tuesday meeting because he refused to make an uninformed vote. And he doesn’t believe it would have made a blind bit of difference anyway.

In this broader context it’s interesting to consider the politics of the House of Dance and Feathers, whose opening was on Saturday. Ronald should be moving back into his home of twenty nine years as I write this, just before the one year anniversary of Katrina. The goal of renovating his house and building his museum anew (made possible with a grant from the Englehart Foundation and channelled through the Tulane School of Architecture) (see post below) was to generate grassroots energy and action in the neighbourhood, and in doing so to attract the attention of the media and the city at large.

The event on Saturday night was packed with Ronald’s extended family, local residents like Mr Gettridge (the 83 year old ‘master plasterer’ who is currently renovating his house on the neighbouring block by himself), Tulane students and faculty, the New Orleans media, the editor of the Times Picayune selling his latest book, Breach of Faith. Guests ate barbeque and drunk Budweisers, and the mood was celebratory and optimistic. In Ronald’s speech he said “if this was just about Ronald Lewis it wouldn’t be interesting…but it’s not…it’s bigger than that…it’s about people working for people”. Because Ronald is a trusted and long-term community activist these words were actually meaningful.

The House of Dance and Feathers is a symbol of hope, a catalyst for action and a means to nurture one of New Orleans most unique cultures, the Mardi Gras Indians. But could it have ever materialised within the context of the city-led planning process? I doubt it. It couldn’t have happened because it is built on private land and making extra funds available for one resident’s personal vision would be unfair in a process endeavouring to be equitable and democratic. The paradox is that because of the respect and trust Ronald commands in the Lower Ninth Ward, the ‘private development’ is likely to have wider, positive effects beyond the bounds of 1317 Tupelo Street. It is public in that it is ‘open to the public’, but in code terms it is a private garden shed. In organisational terms Ronald describes it as a ‘dictatorship’. He makes the decisions, he owns the building. And for this reason it will probably prove far more sustainable than a new neighbourhood community center with an elected committee at its helm. Here, in this situation, planning and participation theory falter….there is no accurate way to abstractly describe the sense that this particularly undemocratic renewal strategy makes.

HODAF 02

HODAF 01

No-one disputes that New Orleans is a unique city. But who gets to represent the essence of New Orleans and decide how to preserve it? Andres Duany builds a development that mimics the French Quarter and acts as though the soul of New Orleans is found exclusively in its architectural details and thus restored through them. Ronald can now be found daily at his museum, telling the stories of the Mardi Gras Indians and working on costumes for the first post-Katrina parade of the Big Nine Social and Pleasure Club in December. He will tell you that New Orleans is about its people... probably about how the competition between tribes at the Mardi Gras parades gives him enough stories to last all year until the next one. The new structure is a roof under which to nurture their values, struggles, stories and strength. I don’t think that Ronald’s project is the all-encompassing answer to the planning process. At the same time I do believe it represents a type of project that will squeeze through the cracks and take place in spite of, rather than because of, the official planning process, and in doing so help generate the much-needed vitality, optimism and mental strength that is needed to get the city back on its feet.

On Sunday I danced in the lot next to St Augustine Church, the oldest African American church in the city and opposite the Backstreet Cultural Museum. The bi-weekly celebrations are an energetic assemblage of old and young, black and white, drum circles and brass bands, Chief Fi Yi Yi and other Mardi Gras Indians. I thought of those slides of empty meetings, whiteboards and sharpies, and decided the official planners could do with spending half an hour at St Augustine and the House of Dance and Feathers if they need some new ideas about what really motivates the citizens of New Orleans to ‘participate’.

St Augustine

House of Dance and Feathers Illustration

The House of Dance and Feathers and other anomalies in the Ninth Ward

Tuesday, August 08, 2006
If you’re near Tupelo Street, drop by. You’ll be one of a steady stream of visitors graciously welcomed by the indefatiguable Ronald Lewis of the Lower Ninth Ward.

For the past ten days I’ve been laying tile and hardwood flooring, building decks and losing my bodyweight in sweat at Ronald’s building site. Ronald is a Mardi Gras Indian of the Choctaw Hunter tribe, founder of the Big Nine Social and Pleasure Club, a costume maker, a committed community activist and director of the House of Dance and Feathers, a small, grassroots museum he created in his carport several years ago. There he collected costumes, photos and newspaper cuttings from years of second line parades, as an educational resource for the neighbourhood as well as visitors from further afield. A fragment of the collection was saved from Katrina but the rest of it and his house sat under 14 feet of polluted water for two weeks after the storm ravaged the city last year.

Project Locus, a young, non-profit architectural organisation, applied with Ronald (and under the umbrella of the Tulane City Center) for a grant to reconstruct his house and museum, with the hope that getting him back in his neighbourhood would act as a catalyst for others to return and rebuild also. For now, the site is a lonely hive of activity in an otherwise ghost town of a street. In this sense the elegant little museum structure is inspiring but also poignant – what kind of future will unfold around it and will it come close to Ronald’s optimistic vision for Tupelo Street and the rest of the Lower Ninth Ward? Around his house, which has been completely gutted and renovated, two big patches of sunflowers have been planted by Common Ground Relief. The sunflowers are supposed to suck excess arsenic and lead out of the soil and should apparently have been disposed of just before they bloom. But no-one seems to be motivated to remove the blaze of yellow optimism just yet.

House of Dance and Feathers

We're Home

So if you want to get your hands dirty for a day or two the advantages are numerous – free lunch from the Catholic Church operating out of a wrecked Subway, or a big plate of ribs if you’d prefer from the Rib Shack on St Claude, on-tap access to Ronald’s bottomless cauldron of New Orleans stories and his unique perspective on the post-Katrina process….as well as the occasional Cajun sausage off his grill if you hit the right day.

Rib Shack

If you don’t get a chance to drop in you can listen to him on NPR's Morning Edition soon (Steve Inskeep is on site tomorrow!) or see the project at the ‘Viennale’ come September!

Fried Alligator on a stick and other Southern Favourites

Thursday, August 03, 2006
….for example, the ‘ball fry’. That might be just a Texan thing though, I’m still not sure if that counts as Southern. I narrowly missed out on an annual chow-down of bull testicle to celebrate I’m not quite sure what, but it’s good to realise that as much time as I spend in Austin I’m only just scratching the surface of the unique culture that is Texas. As perhaps could be expected, they are apparently slightly chewy with a juicy centre.

But that’s beside the point because I’m back in New Orleans now. And I didn’t eat fried alligator on a stick either but it was available at the Natchitoches Folklife Festival where I spent the weekend, courtesy of Sam Douglas, filmmaker extraordinaire. Natchitoches is the oldest town in Louisiana, not to be confused with Nacogdoches, Texas, the oldest town in Texas and founded by Natchitoches' brother. Nor should you try to search for it on the internet spelt ‘Nakatesh’.