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A Year of Reckoning
Bakewell's New WBOK
Beating the Beatdown
Cauks Gone Crazy
Cuba and N.O.
Damnable Deeds 2004
Danny Bakewell and WBOK
Dutch to Barack
Ed Blakely Profile
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Borderlines & Other Pieces
Sunday, 25 May 2008
Borderline 5.08
Topic: Dutch to Barack

From Dutch Morial to Barack Obama

Thirty years after Dutch, Obama makes an historic breakthrough using a completely different political style

By J.B. Borders

The Hornets’ season is over but not all our hopes have been dashed. The city’s recovery keeps inching forward and, on the national front, Barack Obama has become the presumptive Democratic Party candidate for the presidency of the United States.

As fate would have it, Obama’s monumental breakthrough comes 30 years after Ernest “Dutch” Morial was inaugurated as the first black mayor of New Orleans. It’s tempting to draw parallels between them as political long shots who overcame incredible odds to snare their respective political brass rings. Tempting, but also too neat.

Though both are the personification of political change, Morial and Obama are products of different eras. Dutch was forged in the Jim Crow South. By the time he became mayor, he represented the last vestiges of the Black Power Movement that helped speed the dismantling of legalized segregation.

Morial’s combative personal style, his refusal to be punked or to play the punk owed more to the tradition of Malcolm X and Rap Brown than it did to the low-key nice-guy mannerisms of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter or the pretend-tough-guy persona of Ronald Reagan, the hero of ignorant, angry, mediocre white folks then and now.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, is the first major beneficiary of fundraising and political organizing in the Internet age. He’s also a bi-racial product of the post-colonial, post-civil rights global village, a point he emphasizes at every available opportunity.

Obama has also proved all too willing to be manipulated by adversarial forces, based on his handling of the Jeremiah Wright issue and his defense of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. And while Obama’s speech on race was refreshingly candid and conscientiously balanced, it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of affirmative action or social and economic justice for black folks.

To his credit, Dutch would have been more emphatic than Obama about the need to dismantle racism and unwarranted white privilege. That might help explain why the 30th anniversary of Morial’s inauguration came and went with so little fanfare (save for the efforts of the African American Leadership Project and the dustup over the changing of the convention center’s branding): too many people are now uncomfortable about advocating for remedies to lessen African American inequities in wealth, employment, education, life expectancy, incarceration, etc .

Obama’s no exception in this regard. He can’t endorse too much black justice these days. It’s apparently part of the pact he’s made in exchange for the amazing $300+ million his campaign has raised to date from tens of thousands of small donors.

Remember, that was the early knock against him – the black guy can’t raise enough real money to be a serious player. And those pundits might have been proved right had it not been for one undervalued and unconventional opportunity. For while the Clintons and other Washington insiders had locked up all the usual strongholds of Democratic funding across the country, they had also overlooked a veritable untapped pot of gold in northern California – Silicon Valley, Nerd World, land of the rich and the restlessly visionary.

Silicon Valley is the one and perhaps only place in America where everyone lives to latch onto the next big new thing before it proves itself in the marketplace, even if that big new thing takes the form of a charismatic, mixed-race presidential candidate.

So, through this one-time-only opportunity, Barack Obama had a clear field to become America’s first techno-populist president – if he could downplay the conventional black-white divide and sell himself as a uniter, not a fighter. That’s why he was forced to denounce Rev. Wright. That’s why he and his handlers will kick any other serious black issue to the curb, at least until the White House is secured. No person of color has ever come this close to winning the presidency. He can’t afford to let anything trip him up now.

Obama’s quest has been aided immeasurably by the Republican Party’s nomination of John McCain. After five years of war in Iraq, more than 4,000 American soldiers have been killed and another 30,000 injured. And, according to the U.S. military’s own reports, 1,000 current and former combatants attempt suicide each month. But McCain wants to stay in Iraq for 100 years, if necessary, to bring “peace and democracy” to the Middle East.

He should be the perfect foil for Obama, this John McCain. He should be what Joe DiRosa was for Dutch Morial’s history-making mayoral campaign 30 years ago – a white man so indisputably dumb many of his own people will be too embarrassed to support him and so might vote for a smart black guy instead, especially if the black guy is not too black in appearance or policy.

Still, the election won’t be a cakewalk. According to several polls, 15-25 percent of white voters say race is a factor in their choice for president. So even though Obama will be the patently superior candidate with the more sensible platform, a lot of McCain’s fellow whites will vote for him anyway. In that regard, the presidential election of 2008 will be interpreted as a referendum on racism in the United States. If you’re white and you vote for McCain, chances are you’re racist. It’ll be good to finally quantify that kind of idiocy.

Meanwhile, as Obama’s star rises, Dutch’s luster continues to grow dull. Some people have suggested that the less said about the Morials these days, the better. After all, Dutch’s brother-in-law, his sister-in-law and various members of the Marc Morial administration have seriously sullied the Morial reputation. Some folks insist the damage is beyond repair.  Time will tell, of course. But 20 years from now, on the 50th anniversary of Dutch Morial’s inauguration, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of attention the occasion receives and what the general assessment will be of Dutch’s contributions to the development of the city.

Five years ago, at the 25th anniversary celebration of Dutch’s mayoralty, Xavier University President Norman Francis spoke candidly about the differences between himself and his good friend Ernest Morial. In a nutshell, he described Morial as a challenger and himself as a bargainer, to use Shelby Steele’s recently published classifications (which are a nuanced update of the old “house Negro/field Negro” dichotomy).

I thought about Francis’ assessment a few months ago when he was named the most influential leader in New Orleans by a poll of predominately “white movers and shakers.” True to form, a white-owned publication promptly put a caricature of Francis on their cover, grinning from ear to ear. He was cited for chairing the Louisiana Recovery Authority and guiding its efforts to bring disparate governmental and private sector forces together to rebuild southeast Louisiana.

Though Francis’s work has been truly laudable, the message embedded in the caricature was unmistakably clear: be extra-affable, black people, or be history. Don’t bring any of that glowering, hollering, pissed-off, snarling Negro attitude up in here, up in here. No signifying, loud-capping, snapping or gangsta rappin’ allowed. If you feel your pain, keep it to yourself. Grin and bear it. Everyone knows you’re getting ripped off, stepped on, cleared out. But let’s pretend it’s the best thing for you. Things had to change anyway. Somebody might as well profit from it. Even though it won’t be you, be happy for those who are successfully exploiting the situation.

Dutch probably couldn’t make it in this post-Black Power, pseudo-kinder and gentler era. He’d bust a gut if he couldn’t go off on some sho’ nuff stupidity with his characteristic retorts: Shut up, sit down or meet me outside.

Barack, on the other hand, will be forced to keep his temper in check. Like Colin Powell. Like Jackie Robinson. Like Bill Cosby once upon a time. To break form and raise your voice is to risk being called a lunatic or a divisive element.

Of course, I always say a black person who’s not angry is a black person who hasn’t been paying attention.

Thankfully, righteous indignation never stays out of fashion for long. When it does come back in style once again, maybe Dutch will be one of its exemplars. A lot can happen in 20 years. For certain, 2008 will be remembered as the year a white man was named valedictorian at Morehouse, a half-white man was named executive director of the NAACP and a half-African was elected president of the United States.

 Maybe it will also be remembered as the year we finally started to make things right in New Orleans, America and the rest of the globe.

That’s a hope worth clinging onto for another six months, at least.

 


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 2:49 PM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, 27 May 2008 8:52 PM CDT
Permalink
Danny Bakewell's New WBOK
Topic: Danny Bakewell and WBOK

Walking the Talk
Danny Bakewell Sr., Danny Bakewell Jr., and the New WBOK

A leading activist/entrepreneur spearheads an investment in the rebuilding of his home town

By J.B. Borders

Danny Bakewell Sr.’s life appears to have come full circle. When he was a star football player at St. Augustine High in the mid-‘60s, the stocky teenager lived for the mornings when he would be invited to discuss his athletic triumphs on the late Champ Clark’s weekly sports-talk show on WBOK-AM radio. The appearances gave Bakewell – a working-class boy from the streets of Tremé – an opportunity to have his voice heard throughout the community.

Today, Bakewell, 61, owns WBOK and has changed its format from gospel to talk in order to give other New Orleanians an outlet to have their voices heard. The move has paid off dramatically.

Since Bakewell’s new WBOK emerged in November 2007 with its “Talk Back, Talk Black” marketing slogan, the station has been the buzz of the town. It’s the only spot on the radio dial where African American journalists, elected leaders, issue-experts, business people and regular citizens discuss the pressing topics of the day from frank, intelligent, black perspectives.

Whether it’s the state of public housing, health and education in New Orleans or the various ripples caused by the Obama presidential campaign, WBOK is the place to hear straight talk free of the large doses of racist jibberish found too often on white-owned media, both the left- and right-wing varieties.

“WBOK is the voice of our community speaking for itself,” Bakewell says. “We’re unapologetically black. You can talk about things on ‘BOK that you talk about at the barbershop.”

With witty veteran radio personality C.J. Morgan anchoring the morning-drive program and savvy commentators Paul Beaulieu and John Slade moderating the afternoon conversations, WBOK-AM 1230 is steadily recapturing the glory it once enjoyed in the 1960s as “the big boss sound” of New Orleans.

The resurgence of WBOK can only be chalked up to fate. Bakewell, now a resident of California, had been in the market for a west coast radio station to complement his 2004 acquisition of the Los Angeles Sentinel, the oldest and largest black newspaper west of the Mississippi. He had no interest in a New Orleans station until the WBOK opportunity presented itself in mid-2006. Even then, he wasn’t convinced the deal made good business sense.

Post-Katrina flooding had inundated WBOK’s Gentilly Boulevard headquarters and ruined everything in it. In addition, the station’s broadcast antenna had been snapped in half. At that time, large swaths of the city were still in ruins and it wasn’t clear if there would be enough advertisers to support the kind of format Bakewell had in mind.

One the other hand, he reasoned, the dire state of affairs called for someone to demonstrate leadership and invest in the city’s rebuilding.

“Everything going on in New Orleans is against us,” Bakewell points out. “We need a vehicle where black people’s voices can be heard. I had a moral obligation to buy the station.”

That phrase pops up repeatedly in conversations with Bakewell. He says that sticking to his principles has been one of the keys to his success in business and in life. “Undertakings that are morally and ethically sound are generally financially profitable, too,” he says.

With Bakewell, the point is not just to talk the talk, but also to walk the walk.

Despite the challenges surrounding the WBOK purchase, Bakewell concluded, “I can do it, therefore I should, and I will.”

Though Bakewell is not primarily a media mogul, he is a successful activist/developer who was described by Time Magazine as one of the “leading proponents of urban bootstrap economics” and "one of the most dynamic leaders in America today" by the L.A. Times.

He currently serves as chairman of the Bakewell Company, one of the largest black-owned development companies in the United States. The Bakewell Company brokers and leads revitalization efforts in Los Angeles, Compton, Pasadena and other California communities.  Since its founding 26 years ago, the company has developed, built and managed over 3.5 million square feet of retail, office, industrial and commercial space for such nationally known corporations as Albertsons, Pizza Hut, Hollywood Video, International House of Pancakes, McDonald’s, Rite Aid, Starbucks and others.

The Bakewell Company is also a housing developer. Most notably, it has partnered with KB Homes, one of the nation’s largest residential builders, to construct 380 homes in Seaside, California, on the Monterey Peninsula. The project is heralded as the first major private development on the site of the now-shuttered Fort Ord Army Base.

Bakewell’s son, Danny Jr., 41, is the company president. He’s taller and leaner than his father, but ideologically, he’s a spitting image of his dad. A licensed contractor and graduate of University of Southern California (USC) Real Estate Development and Finance Program, Danny Jr. is equally resolute in his commitment to empower the black community “because we know that what’s good for black people is good for everyone.”

Noel Foucher, the senior Bakewell’s best friend since kindergarten, serves as vice president of the operation. He’s the person in charge of the WBOK project.

“Noel is a seasoned and valued executive,” Bakewell told the Los Angeles media last year. “We know we can rely on his knowledge, experience and demonstrated resourcefulness to drive our most recent acquisition to its maximum earning potential and to do whatever is necessary to make the Bakewell Company a major force in helping the restore the quality of life for so many black families and small businesses that have been displaced.

“I trust Noel’s business judgment implicitly,” he continued, “and I have no doubt that his leadership, expertise and loyalty to the Bakewell Company, coupled with his knowledge and love of New Orleans, will serve both the company and New Orleans residents well. He is not only a valued executive, but my most trusted friend.”

Foucher, who earned all-state honors in four sports at St. Aug before graduating in 1966, also has a soft spot in his heart for ‘BOK. He, too, was a frequent guest on Champ Clark’s show.

Regardless of his success in the business world, Danny Bakewell Sr. is still better known as the long-time president and CEO of the Brotherhood Crusade, a Los Angeles-based civil rights and community development organization he led for nearly 40 years.

By its own account, the Brotherhood Crusade provides direct services to more than 120,000 underserved and disenfranchised South Los Angeles residents annually. It provides scholarships and youth mentoring programs along with community health services and economic development training and support.

The Brotherhood Crusade was founded in 1968 by a group of activists led by Walter Bremond, then an African-American program officer at the Cummins Engine Foundation. Bremond created the new organization to promote charitable fundraising in the black community for black empowerment and social change.

In 1972, the Brotherhood Crusade created the National Black United Fund (NBUF) to help direct African-American philanthropy to black-led organizations. The NBUF immediately established affiliate organizations in Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles and Fort Worth and began spreading to other communities.

After years of struggle, in 1980 the NBUF won the right to be included in the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), a workplace giving program that previously had granted the United Way sole access to that fund-raising opportunity. When the NBUF finally secured the legal right to enter the CFC campaign, it was a breakthrough that allowed several other ethnic and “alternative” charitable organizations to benefit as well.

These kinds of precedent-setting moves became almost commonplace for the Brotherhood Crusade during Bakewell’s tenure.

It was the Brotherhood Crusade that opened the first shelter for battered women in south Los Angeles and successfully confronted drug dealing and gang violence with their Taking Our Community Back campaign.

It was also the Brotherhood Crusade that financed the launch of the first black-owned grocery in south L.A. after the infamous insurrection of 1992. Additionally, the Brotherhood successfully picketed construction sites in the black community that had no black workers or contractors in their ranks. Its troops also shut down two Korean-owned businesses in Los Angeles after African-American customers were killed there by store owners.

And the Brotherhood Crusade led the battle to integrate the Rose Bowl Executive Committee in the early 1990s just as it had led efforts in the 1970s and ‘80s to force institutions to divest their South African interests during the apartheid era. In the 1990s, Bakewell co-chaired the Million Man March, a move which solidified his status as part of the upper echelon of national black leadership.

Ironically, this career-crowning achievement was spawned by Bakewell’s reaction to the racial prejudice he experienced as a young man in New Orleans.

After graduating from St. Augustine in 1965, Bakewell headed off to college on a football scholarship. A couple of years later, however, he married his childhood sweetheart, the former Aline Moret, welcomed the first of their three children to the world, and dropped out of school to work and support his family. He had secured a job waiting tables at the Royal Orleans Hotel, he recalls, and applied for a promotion to a desk job. The manner in which he was turned down convinced him that he had to leave – both the hotel and the city.

Like countless other Afro-Orleanians before and since, Bakewell moved his family out to Los Angeles in search of greater opportunities. In Danny’s case, opportunity came in the form of a job as a community organizer with the Neighborhood Adult Participation Project (NAPP). Though he had stumbled his way into the position, it didn’t take him long to realize he had found his life’s calling.

“I loved it. It was really rewarding work. I discovered that I had a gift for organizing people,” he says. “I could work with them to identify problems in the community, develop strategies to address them and, for some reason, people would follow me when it was time to take action.”

“When Danny believes in something, there is nothing that can stop him,” says Foucher. “He’s relentless.”

Bakewell’s success at NAPP led Walter Bremond to invite him to join the Brotherhood Crusade while the organization was still in its infancy. Soon, Bakewell was asked to lead the organization. He jests that he didn’t have enough sense back then to turn the offer down.

“The Brotherhood Crusade was $140,000 in debt when I took charge. I didn’t realize how hard it would be to overcome that deficit.”

But he managed to do so. And by the time he resigned the presidency of the Brotherhood Crusade in 2006 – to assume the role of board chairman – Bakewell had helped create $5 million in reserves for the organization. Along the way, the Brotherhood had also invested $50 million back into the community in the form of grants, loans, technical assistance and other services.

Like any successful person, Danny Bakewell has harsh critics. In California, he has been characterized as a race-baiter, a poverty pimp and as “The Godfather of South Central Los Angeles.”  While he disagrees with the criticism, he doesn’t let it deter him.

“Everything I have and everything I have achieved is due to my having the courage to fight for what black people need,” he says. “I won’t ever abandon that.”

One of the keys to his success, says Bakewell, is an impenetrable inner circle that includes his wife Aline, an attorney, his son Danny Jr., and Foucher. In addition, Bakewell continues to have strong relationships with many of the nation’s other major black leaders and their supporters. Some of that clout was evidenced when presidential candidates, Congress people, and major civil rights leaders began calling in to WBOK shortly after it came on the air.

Danny Jr. is taller and leaner than his father, but ideologically, he’s a spitting image of his dad. “We’re creating business opportunities for and about the black community,” says the younger Bakewell, a licensed contractor and graduate of University of Southern California (USC) Real Estate Development and Finance Program, “because we know that what’s good for black people is good for everyone.”

A bricklayer’s son, a janitor’s grandson, and a Charity Hospital baby who grew up on North Prieur Street around the corner from St. Peter Claver Church, the senior Danny Bakewell says the positive support he got from the people in his neighborhood – along with his teachers and coaches at St. Augustine – gave him the confidence and belief that he would be successful.

That success, he says, has now “contributed to my being able to come back home and invest in my community.”

Bakewell Media of Louisiana LLC bought WBOK for $550,000 from Willis Broadcasting Corporation, according to radio industry sources. Bakewell has invested an even greater amount in the renovation of the station’s offices and studios. The company has outfitted the operation with state-of-the-art equipment and installed a new 250-foot antenna atop a transmitter building that is raised 12 feet above ground.

Foucher and the Bakewells are extremely proud of the fact that 90 percent of the rebuilding was done by African-American workers and contractors.

They are also proud of the veteran team they have assembled at WBOK, a 20-person staff headed by General Manager Cheryl Charles and Program Director Gerard Stephens. In addition to their talk jockeys, the station also features sports reporter Ty Green and blues DJ Sandra Jemison.

WBOK is too new to be listed in the Arbitron Radio Ratings for New Orleans. However, Arbitron’s “Black Radio Today 2008” report points out that nationally the News/Talk/Information format has increased its listenership from 3.6 percent to 3.9 percent in the past year.

More important, “N/T/I’s African-American listeners ranked No. 1 among all (nine major radio programming) formats in higher education, as 72% had attended or graduated from college in spring 2007,” according to the report.

“In household income, 81% of News/Talk/Information’s Black listeners earned $25,000 or more per year,” the report continues. “Almost 30% lived in households generating $75,000 or more, ranking N/T/I No. 1 in that category. N/T/I was No. 2 in the percentage of those in households earning $50,000 or more.”

The polling data also show that black folks who listen to talk radio are more likely to vote in local, state and federal elections. National trends also show that African Americans are spending more time listening to talk radio. The increases are led by “an impressive 45-minute jump” among the 12-24 age group.

Bakewell says unofficial preliminary reports indicate that WBOK’s listenership is growing rapidly. “We’re the #1 black talk radio in the city.”

 

And the recent addition of Internet streaming has now allowed New Orleanians throughout the diaspora to listen to WBOK’s broadcasts in real time.

Future plans also include remote broadcasts from HBCU campuses and popular community gathering places like Lil Dizzy’s restaurant.

Even with the promising start and all the planned growth, Foucher said he expects it to take two or three more years before WBOK becomes profitable.

Several locally-owned businesses like Metro Disposal stepped up early on to advertise on WBOK, Bakewell points out, “But we still need increased and continued support.”

In the meantime, the Bakewell Company is also in the market for additional media acquisitions. Bakewell says he always had tremendous respect for the black press. “It’s always been the black press that enabled every major movement and business in our community to flourish.”

And Bakewell says we need another mass movement now more than ever to grapple with the growing inequities affecting the black community.

Thanks to his company’s investment, WBOK is now among the ranks of those committed to the struggle.


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 2:47 PM CDT
Permalink
Sunday, 17 February 2008
Borderline 2.08
Topic: Pee Wee Wilson

The Passing of a Small Man

Sometimes the deaths of “unimportant” people can leave huge gaps in the social and cultural fabric of our community

By J.B. Borders

William Joseph Wilson was 80 years old when he died on February 11, 2008. A waiter for much of his adult life, Wilson was not the kind of person who would rate an obituary in either the white-owned media or the black press. He was just one of the thousands of low-wage hospitality workers serving wealthier, more accomplished patrons daily in the city’s hotels, restaurants and convention center.

William Wilson left no heirs to carry on his name, just his wife of 45 years, Adele. He wasn’t particularly religious or civic-minded. The nature of his work rendered him virtually invisible to those he served. As a result, he learned to live his life mostly below the radar of social recognition. Mostly, but not entirely. In certain arenas, William Wilson was highly visible, a colorful character, a New Orleans original and one of the last of a dying breed.

Wilson was copper-colored, barrel-chested and had leathery skin toughened by hours in the sun. He was less than five feet tall and noticeably bowlegged. Those latter characteristics accounted for his nickname, Pee Wee. I called him Mr. Pee Wee since I was more than 20 years his junior. We played tennis on weekends off and on for more than 25 years, mostly at a public facility now known as the Atkinson/Stern Tennis Center.

Mr. Pee Wee was a terrible tennis player but a great student of the game. He knew its history and the styles of its great players. He knew the right way to hit all the shots. He understood the fine points of the game’s strategy, the best equipment to use and the most effective training techniques.

Still, he couldn’t play worth a lick. It wasn’t due to his lack of height or his advanced age. Nor did he lack competitive spirit. He played hard and he wanted to win. His stamina was also decent for someone in his age group. Much as he loved the game, he just didn’t have a talent for hitting the ball consistently. He couldn’t stay focused and maintain his concentration. His mind was always racing ahead to something else. And that was okay with him because he realized where his true gifts lay – talking trash and hustling to survive.

The Atkinson/Stern Tennis Center, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and has yet to be restored, is not just a tennis facility. It’s also a social center. And the regular players there are part of an extended network of friends and acquaintances who joke and tease each other and exchange views on current events.

In other words, it’s a barbershop without razors – and its peanut gallery is as much an attraction as the play on the courts. That’s where Mr. Pee Wee came to life. He was the chief smack talker, instigator, aggravator and, frequently, the center of attention. There, he was fully visible and triumphant. He didn’t come to play tennis, he came to talk trash. Moreover, he relished nothing more than showing off his knowledge and getting under someone’s skin or into their head with some bit of foolishness.

He was impish, certainly. But he was also a skilled provocateur. His wind-up would generally begin with an innocent-seeming question: “Say, man, let me ask you something.” And he’d proceed to bring up some topic in the news. Embedded in his question, however, was a position he had already staked out and was prepared to defend, sometimes just to be contrary to the prevailing sentiment: “What made O.J. think he could kill that white woman and get away with it?” or “How much money you think Clinton is paying to support his black child?”

Any reply provided an opening for him to launch into an extended riff on the topic. His disquisition was usually humorous and caustic and would trigger additional comments, disagreements and a broadening circle of participants.  

If you weren’t in the conversation, he would drag you into it. He’d call you by name, “Did you hear what so and so just said? Tell him he’s out of his mind.” And you’d be snared. “What you mean, you ain’t in this? You scared to hurt his feelings and tell him the truth? Or is you crazy, too?”

It didn’t matter if you were trying to play a match on the courts or watching a game on television in the lounge. If you were anywhere in the tennis center, you were fair game.

Also no matter where the conversation began, before it was over Pee Wee would find an opening to throw in his standard zingers about the state of the race: “The only thing a black man wants is a white woman and a pork chop fried hard, hard, hard.” “Everywhere you live is a ghetto, I don’t care how much the houses cost.” “The white man won’t let a Negro go but so far in this country. If you don’t like it, you can take your ass back to Africa and run your own country.”

“I know these things,” he would always say, “because I seen it for myself” or “because I reads aplenty, all kinds of things.” His larger point was that we all need to be better informed and we need to do more thinking for ourselves.

Of course, Pee Wee didn’t have much formal education. He started out in some small, nondescript agricultural hamlet upriver from New Orleans. By the time he was 13, he was on his own, “hustling,” he would say, to take care of himself.

He made his way to the city, shined shoes at first, then stumbled into the world of horse racing. He was a stable boy and a groom and then a personal attendant to a wealthy horse-owning family. For years, he told me, he traveled the racing circuit, from New Orleans to Lexington to Saratoga and all the stops in between.

He got an up-close view of how the rich lived and played. He learned their tastes and habits, their strengths and foibles, their power and reach. He also learned how to comport himself in their world, to anticipate their needs and to stay clear of their furies. He learned that the world was run ultimately by people who used their minds and not their hands. That suited him fine. He was small in stature, not built for a lifetime of hard manual labor. He committed himself to developing his mind even though he knew he was consigned by fate never to amass any substantial wealth or power.

When he met his beloved Adele, he gave up life on the road and settled for jobs in the city’s tourist zone. Then as now, most waiters and servants barely earned a living wage, so Pee Wee developed sideline ventures to augment his income. He bet on horses and fights, he played dice and cards for money, he performed odd jobs at every opportunity. He couldn’t be idle. He was always looking for the chance to earn some extra cash. By the time I met him, that was an ingrained part of his personality.

One year I gave Pee Wee a pair of complementary tickets to the Jazz Fest. He said he had never attended and wanted to take his wife. When I saw him again the following week and asked him how he enjoyed the festival, he admitted he hadn’t gone. Instead, he had sold the tickets to a young white visitor.

His wife had declined the invitation to go festing, so Pee Wee headed out alone. He thought he might give the extra ticket away. But a block away from the entrance, he saw people scalping tickets. He couldn’t resist the opportunity to get in on the action. He sold both of the tickets I had given him, pocketed the money and went back home. He only got $40 or $50 from the sale, but it was the return on his investment, $0, that made the deal too good to pass up.

I didn’t chide him about it, but I never gave him tickets again. One week, out of the blue, he brought me two bottles of wine. It was a gift. He wanted me to know that he appreciated a favor, he said. I knew the wine was probably left over from some special reception he worked and hadn’t cost him hard cash. But it was the sentiment that mattered. I accepted the offering and later drank both bottles. Nevertheless, we hit tennis balls less and less frequently after that.

I didn’t miss the tennis but I did miss our conversations. Among other things, Pee Wee was an expert on the history of South Rampart Street, especially the area between Canal Street and Melpomene. Though many of the buildings that used to be there have been demolished, Pee Wee could still remember practically every structure and business by heart. He knew all the owners and, seemingly, some telling bit of gossip about each. In addition to the entrepreneurs, he knew the gamblers, thieves, big shots, pimps, pawn brokers, whores, tailors and working stiffs who made The Mighty Ramp a center of New Orleans street life until the 1960s.

Once or twice I tried to record his recollections and to take notes. Pee Wee clammed up. “I ain’t telling you this so you can write it down in a book and make money off it. I’m just telling you this so you will know. That was a time, boy. That was a time!”

After Hurricane Katrina, I only saw Mr. Pee Wee once. Eighteen months after the storm, he told me of his ordeal and adventures evacuating to his wife’s relatives in Monroe. By then, though, he was back in his Central City home, working to repair damages throughout the neighborhood. I was struck by how vibrant he seemed. He was still wisecracking and strutting around like a little rooster on his rickety bowlegs. The Katrina episode had given him enough material to riff on for decades to come.

Less than a year later, however, Pee Wee’s mouth was shut for good. He was dead, a cancer victim. Only a small paid notice in the daily newspaper marked his passing.

With his dying we lost William Wilson’s unique gifts and contributions – his insider’s view of old South Rampart Street, his uncanny ability to size people up and push their buttons, his appreciation for the fine points of waiting on people and extracting generous tips from them, his mastery of barbershop-style debating. Small gifts, to be sure, but they made a significant contribution to the social fabric of our community and the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next.

Pee Wee’s home-going service was held, appropriately enough, at a Central City funeral home. It was eight-rock Christian – strictly old-time religion – with fewer than 75 people in attendance.

The Atkinson/Stern family was well represented at the event. Roughly 15 of Pee Wee’s tennis friends showed up to send him off. He had messed with us all one final time, getting buried on a perfect Saturday morning when he knew we’d rather be on the courts hitting balls and talking trash.

I’m sure he got a nice chuckle out of that. “That was a time, boy. That was a time!”

 


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 10:08 AM CST
Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008 12:15 AM CDT
Permalink
Sunday, 20 January 2008
Borderline 1.08
Topic: A Year of Reckoning

A Year of Reckoning

Over the next 12 months, we’ll see either an energized movement for economic and social justice or enough soul murder to last a generation. Which will it be?

By J.B. Borders

Like most people, I wish I had the gift of selective prophecy. I don’t want to know everything ahead of time – that would eliminate a lot of the excitement of living – but there are several matters whose conclusion I would love to know well in advance of their occurrence.

Take this year, for instance. I’d love to know now what we will all know on December 31, 2008 – and how we’ll be feeling about it.

Though every year is critical and crucial in the Black World, 2008 is a special year of reckoning and I can’t wait to see how things shake out.

Of course, lots of important things happen every year. But in some years, the things that happen have more of an impact than in others.

This year will be one of those years when some really big issues get settled internationally, nationally and locally.

For starters, we’ll find out if America is ready for a black president. And whether Barack Obama wins or loses his historic quest to become commander-in-chief of the free world, we’ll all end up discovering a lot more than we’d care to know about the underbelly of America’s political process.

I’m afraid we’re also going to find out how low some people will go to prevent a black man from being in a position to run the country. Sadly, there will be black folks in those ranks.

If Obama doesn’t win the presidency, how his supporters feel about the outcome may determine the mood of the nation for several years to come. Will the hordes of newcomers now flocking to the Obama camp be soured on electoral politics if their candidate gets beaten as a result of the kind of smear tactics the Clinton campaign deployed after the Iowa caucus?

If Obama wins the Democratic Party nomination, the Republican attack squads will make the Clinton dirty tricks look like kindergarten games. If the right-wing hate-mongering succeeds in getting another Republican elected to the White House, it will be interesting to see how close this nation comes to experiencing massive outbreaks of civil disturbance and violent strife.

Soul murder is destruction of the love of life in another human being. Some psychiatrists also use the term to describe the compulsion in abused children and adults to subject others to the “cruelty, violence, neglect, hatred, seduction, and rape” they have endured.

If the 2008 presidential campaign leaves millions of Americans feeling abused and violated, how permanent and injurious will the scarring be? I wish I knew that now.

Also, if Obama ends up as the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket, how will that affect him and the global psyche? Will the VP slot be a true stepping stone to the presidency or just a pen to keep him corralled in until someone needs an inspiring speech? In short, will Obama become the Julian Bond of his generation – a major mind and a compelling voice marginalized in the American body politic and other corridors of power?

On the other hand, if by some hope and prayer Obama actually wins the presidency, what then?

All the same, I have a feeling the Obama Movement/Moment will not be the year’s biggest story. That dishonor will probably belong to the economy.

The looming recession has forced the Bush administration to redistribute wealth via short-term tax cuts to keep the economy afloat. Before year’s end, we’ll know if the stimulus worked.

Such moves wouldn’t have been necessary if the financial services sector hadn’t steadily become the slimiest thieves in history during the Bush years. These folks have aggressively unleashed oodles of unethical products into the marketplace since 2000. All were designed to do one thing only – swindle money from the American working class and retirees.

Whether it is outrageous credit card interest rates and fees, payday loans or sub-prime mortgages, the lords of Wall Street – where lying, cheating and stealing are the order of the day – have been intent the past few years on hustling the average citizen out of her or his hard-earned cash. And it has all been done with the blessing of the American government.

As a result, instead of building wealth, nearly 30 percent of black households have zero or negative wealth. And the sub-prime mortgage crisis will continue to create more losses in African-American households across the nation, through both predatory lending practices and a spiraling rate of foreclosure.

According to one study, black folks have lost between $71 billion and $92 billion over the past eight years as a result of excessive interest rates for home mortgages. Nearly 55 percent of African-American borrowers are saddled with these high-cost loans, according to the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council.

Several of these contracts contain exorbitant pre-payment penalties. So even if a borrower earnestly tries to get out of debt, he or she has to pay huge additional fees. It amounts to 21st century sharecropping.

As more and more folks of all colors walk away from these loans, the losses will continue to rock the financial markets and depress the national economy. This is the year something has to be done. And I suspect Bush’s $150 billion tax rebate is just the start of a larger campaign to put rampant corporate greed in check.

While the national economic crisis will be softened in Louisiana and New Orleans because of high oil prices and the infusion of post-hurricane rebuilding funds, Afro-Louisianians and Afro-Orleanians will probably continue to catch hell all through 2008. We’ll have higher unemployment rates, lower business ownership rates and shorter life expectancies – unless we resolve to do something about our situation.

On the lighter side, we’ll also have a clear idea of how much Bobby-Ji actually dislikes and disrespects us well before the year ends. And at the rate things are going, he may be the only person of color in his administration.

We’ll also find out in the next few months whether Governor Jindal’s ethics reform will be substantive or merely cosmetic. I’m not holding my breath on this issue.

Closer to home, in 2008 we’ll also find out if New Orleans ends up with its first black female district attorney or chooses to go in another direction.

On the continuing anti-corruption front, the year started off with Oliver “Big O” Thomas heading to the big house and Jacques “No Door” Morial getting six months of home detention for misdemeanor tax evasion. Roy “Big Smooth” Rodney, who pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of tax evasion, will probably be given a probated sentence in the next couple of months.

Despite the hullabaloo when these investigations were launched, Morial and Rodney have won “moral victories” against the federal government, which has spent countless thousands of our tax dollars over the past five years trying to pin something on the former mayor’s brother and attorney. The government saved face by getting minor convictions. The defendants saved money by not having their cases continue to drag on. Such is the price of justice.

Several people are also betting that this is the year Stan “Pampy” Barre runs out of info to barter and gets assigned a bunk in some federal prison. Imagine the potential drama if Pampy does time in the same joint where Big O is paying his debt to society.

One thing that won’t be resolved in 2008 is the Bill Jefferson case. Whatever verdict gets handed down in the Virginia trial next month is likely to be appealed. So the case will drag on for another couple of years unless Jefferson gets a plea deal he can’t refuse.

The really interesting local development worth watching in 2008 is the role members of the Talented Fifth are stepping up to play to bring about greater levels of justice and equity in the city. People like former Criminal Court Judge Calvin Johnson come to mind.

Johnson, who retired from the bench at the end of 2007, is one of the attorneys working on a class action suit to have the state provide a decent level of health care to indigent Orleanians.

During his 17 years on the bench, Johnson helped create a drug court and a mental health court to provide more effective rehabilitative services than mere incarceration affords.

If more experienced senior black professionals actively join these struggles for the equitable rebuilding of New Orleans, I imagine the city could be transformed pretty quickly. If they – if we – continue to stand on the sidelines, however, the city will be wheedled from us so thoroughly that it will be generations before we recover the few gains we have made.

So, this is the critical year for solidifying a new mass movement for social and economic justice in New Orleans and around the globe. The old order is collapsing but the new one must be actively created.

The days can’t go by fast enough for me.

 


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 11:01 PM CST
Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008 12:16 AM CDT
Permalink
Tuesday, 4 December 2007
Borderline 12.07
Topic: Beating the Beatdown

Beating the Beatdown

Shifting political realities demand shifting responses from both conquerors and the conquered

By J.B. Borders

“Black people will never gain full equality in this country,” former Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell declared 15 years ago in an essay entitled “Racial Realism”.

A deliberately provocative writer and thinker whose arguments are fueled by both fact and imagination, Bell argued that even the hard-won achievements we consider to be successes will amount to no more than “temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.”

I stumbled upon Bell’s observation a few days ago, just as I was trying to wrap my mind around the significance of a number of recent local developments and trends that demonstrate the renewed vigor with which a growing number of folk are attempting to reinstitute and reinforce white domination in all spheres of the city’s life.

I had first read Bell back in the 1990s but his ideas had not had much traction for me then. He seemed much too pessimistic, depressing, wounded, defeatist. But the world and this city have changed considerably since 1992. Today Bell’s arguments seem entirely appropriate for discussion, necessary even for those of us committed to living in New Orleans.

Bell’s key point is that African Americans have to stop being delusional and “acknowledge the permanence of our subordinate status. That acknowledgement enables us to avoid despair, and frees us to imagine and implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph.”

Of course, that’s what we thought was happening in New Orleans in the 1990s – that we were implementing strategies and policies to create wealth, justice and fulfillment in the black part of town. Eventually those transformative changes would lead to some sort of equality, many of us genuinely believed. We knew it wouldn’t be quick or easy. We presumed there would be setbacks along the way. But we never for an instant accepted that it would be impossible or impractical to achieve full equality. After all, our people had journeyed from slavery to freedom. Surely equality was within our grasp.

Back in the early 1990s, the impending changes in South Africa offered hope that people of African descent could continue to overcome almost any adversity anywhere on Earth. Back then, the early days of the Clinton presidency offered hope that urban America could be reinvigorated for black folks as well as for whites. Back then, we thought the unconscionable disparities in household wealth, access to health care and education would close instead of widen in the years ahead. Back then, we assumed the impending technological revolution sparked by the spread of personal computers would increase opportunity for the underprivileged and level the playing field across the globe. Back then, we thought there could be social and economic revolution without bloodshed.

We were buoyed by what Barack Obama today would call audacious hope. And Bell’s arguments and prescriptions sounded too much like the pleadings of 1950s Negroes who argued against the marches, demonstrations, boycotts, jailings, beatings and other acts of defiance in the fight to dismantle segregation in the hyper-racist American South.

We would all be so much better off if the Negro stayed in his place and accepted the care and protection the white man provided, the reasoning went. Besides, this was a battle black folks couldn’t win – the white power structure was too strong to be toppled by a rag-tag gang of unarmed, unintelligent peasants and a handful of misguided white do-gooders and Communist agitators. It would be better to not rock the boat and stay in our own world with our own kind and our own way of life.

That argument ultimately did not carry the day but it was important that such suggestions be part of the public discourse back then. And there were moments in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements when the prospects for victory seemed extremely bleak and people needed to examine what it might cost to keep on pushing forward as opposed to retreating or settling for partial gains. That’s precisely when arguments like Derrick Bell’s needed to be heard.

New Orleans is at such a moment now. This is a crossroads in our destiny. By the time summer arrives, the city will be either one incident away from a full-scale race war or one indictment/election from voluntarily surrendering all our power back to white folks and assuming the Darky Position once again.

Many local power brokers are working diligently to make the latter option become reality but conditions will certainly be ripe for the former scenario to be played out, too.

Large numbers of poor, uneducated black folk will no longer be penned up in public housing projects, which have traditionally given many of them a false sense of well-being and security.

Unemployment and underemployment will continue to make it difficult, if not impossible, for lower-income blacks to support their families. Latino immigrants and whites will continue to grab most of the construction and service-industry jobs.

The Asian and Arab business owners monopolizing commerce in predominately black neighborhoods will continue to hire only members of their own clans and not the black people who spend their money in these immigrants’ stores.

Property crimes and other wealth-transfer initiatives against the relatively well-to-do will be attempted with greater regularity by desperate young people possessing guns, moxie and no prospects for the future.

The small black middle class will continue to be under assault as the salaries and perks of their government jobs get squeezed, the sub-prime mortgage crisis claims their homesteads, and the pace of rebuilding in their neighborhoods continues to move at a snail’s pace.

Meanwhile, the black elite will continue to be hounded by corruption investigations and challenges to all their professional services contracts and entrepreneurial endeavors.

In addition, increasing numbers of ordinary white folk will feel emboldened to verbally and physically abuse “inferior” blacks, which, in their minds, means any of us. One of them will cross the line, however, and say or do something to the wrong black person and – Boom! The war will be on.

The Next Battle of New Orleans

I had been trying to visualize how the next Battle of New Orleans would begin when Jackie Clarkson’s election last month to an at-large seat on the City Council made it all clear.

Clarkson now gives the Council its first white majority in a generation. And the way she won the election will likely set the tone for her tenure. When the race for the seat got tight during the last two weeks of the campaign, Clarkson’s handlers whipped out the race card. Her opponent, the Clarkson campaign gloated, was endorsed by Sherman Copelin and Congressman William Jefferson. Readers of the campaign flyer were apparently supposed to infer that these are corrupt black leaders and that electing Clarkson’s opponent, Cynthia Willard-Lewis, would be tantamount to putting the alleged crooks’ crony into a position of greater authority.

Apparently, the ploy panned out. Though overall voter turnout was low, white turnout was high enough to give Clarkson the edge. The black majority voluntarily ceded control of the Council to the white minority.

I suspect we’ll begin to seriously regret this decision before the weather turns hot again. And then one day at City Hall – perhaps a week or so after the Essence Music Festival Empowerment Seminars take place – Spacey Stacey, Munchkin Midura or Wacky Jackie will say something offensive to a Civil Servant Sister. It will likely be some cutting remark intended to impugn the woman’s professional integrity and intelligence.

The sister will, in turn, slap the bejesus out of that person – how dare she speak to me like that! A black male security officer will attempt to intervene. He’ll put his hand on the sister and she will start scuffling with him. Gunfire might ensue. The sister will take the bullet. Whether she lives or dies, her colleagues at City Hall along with the usual strident community activists will stage a protest in front of the offending City Councilwoman’s home.

The police will be called in to restore order. Instead, they will inflame the situation. More violence will erupt. For several days thereafter it will spread across the city, infecting not just poor, predominately black neighborhoods and Canal Street but also the normally-oblivious white enclaves along Magazine Street and the Lakefront.

Another new New Orleans will then have to be confected – one which will provide greater levels of equity to the city’s black population.

I’m certain this is what Derrick Bell envisioned when he advised us to come to grips with the “permanence of our subordinate status” so that we can “avoid despair” and be free “to imagine and implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph.”


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 11:03 PM CST
Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008 12:17 AM CDT
Permalink
Friday, 12 October 2007
An Instant Classic
Topic: Treme Film Review

Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans

A new documentary finally captures the real New Orleans on film

By J.B. Borders

Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans is a video documentary about the fabled neighborhood in New Orleans which birthed so much of America’s unique culture and freedom-struggle politics. But that’s only part of the picture. The film also deals with the way Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans and the impact that devastation has had on Tremé’s houses, families and the community’s will to recover.

This is a great piece of storytelling, filmmaking and testifying. It is also, arguably, the most poignant film ever made about New Orleans.

In 67 brief minutes, the documentary covers nearly three hundred years of Tremé’s history and legacy using archival photos and early film footage, contemporary video, family films and photographs, historical reenactments, a killer soundtrack, and spot-on observations from noted scholars, artists, laborers and community folk. This is a rich brew of ingredients expertly stirred, prepared and presented by filmmakers Dawn Logsdon and Lolis Eric Elie, two highly skilled and conscientious native New Orleanians.

Logsdon, an accomplished film editor and director who edited the 2004 Academy Award®-nominated documentary film, The Weather Underground, is the daughter of the late University of New Orleans historian Joseph Logsdon. Among his many achievements, Joe Logsdon co-edited a groundbreaking collection of essays entitled Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization, published by LSU Press in 1992.

Lolis Eric Elie is the author of Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, a book about the culture of barbecue. He is also a witty, insightful and award-winning columnist for The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Equally important, he is the son of Lolis Edward Elie, a leading local civil rights attorney, intellectual and resident of Tremé.

The film’s executive producers are Wynton Marsalis, Pultizer Prize-winning composer and trumpeter, and filmmaker Stanley Nelson, a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” recipient whose work includes The Murder of Emmett Till, The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, and Two Dollars and a Dream: The Story of Madame C.J. Walker.

Caryn Cossé Bell, an internationally recognized authority on Creole New Orleans and author of the award-winning book, Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718-1868, served as the project’s research director.

With a team this strong, the final product could have been long-winded and ponderous. Instead, Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans is an engrossing journey of individual and communal discovery, growth, triumph, defeat, destruction, resolve and beauty. The narrative spine of the film concerns Elie’s quest to renovate a home he has bought in Tremé. In the process, he finds out about the neighborhood’s traditions and history, a history long-suppressed or ignored in the mass media.

Elie’s general contractor, a septuagenarian master-craftsman named Irving Trevigne, turns out to be the grand-nephew of Paul Trevigne, the crusading editor of the original New Orleans Tribune, which became the nation’s first black-owned daily newspaper in 1864. Trevigne was part of a larger group of progressive New Orleanians who fought for equal citizenship for blacks and people of color throughout the nineteenth century. Their writings and political tactics laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Some of the other experts helping to fill in the story of Tremé’s significance are noted historians John Hope Franklin, Eric Foner and Keith Weldon Medley.  Father Jerome LeDoux, former pastor of St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, writer Kalamu ya Salaam, musician Bob French and actor Lenwood Sloan also chime in with cogent observations.

In addition to Irving Trevigne, two of the most touching commentators Elie interviews are Brenda Marie Osbey, poet laureate of Louisiana, and trombonist Glen David Andrews. They represent two facets of human development in Tremé: one with generations of formal education behind her, the other with schooling in the hardscrabble streets of the city; both with an abiding love for and unseverable connection to the culture of New Orleans.

Andrews and Osbey are both frank and emotionally honest on camera. Moreover, their reactions to post-Katrina Tremé are emblematic of the two leading trains of thought regarding black New Orleans’s future prospects. One is dazed and pessimistic; the other is soberly optimistic.

And that’s the way things now stand. Recovery is underway but it is happening much more slowly than it should. Confusion and helplessness are nearly as rampant as new levels of community organization, advocacy and self-determination.

On the other hand, as this film makes crystal clear, the people of Tremé and New Orleans have endured tragedy before and are too beautiful and creative to be depressed for long. And if history is to be any guide, out of these recent misfortunes will emerge something culturally spectacular, something to rival the Negro Spirituals, blues, jazz and funk. Local musicians, writers and visual artists are already spewing out new creations that may spread across the globe in years to come.

Perhaps Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans is the first of the new film masterpieces to emerge from this cauldron of suffering. It has certainly raised the bar extremely high. It is richer and far more nuanced than Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke and much more accurate than the post-Katrina documentaries produced by many of the national and international news organizations, despite their well-meaning intentions.

I admit I may be somewhat biased about this film. I helped raise money for this project five years ago and my name is listed in the credits as a project advisor. I believed in its potential then and I am pleased to say it has delivered all I expected and more.

Also, Brenda Marie Osbey has been my beloved companion for two decades and I am partial to the sound of her voice and the sight of her face onscreen and off. I consider many of the other people involved in this project good friends and colleagues as well.

Nevertheless, if I didn’t think this project was exceptional, if I didn’t think the work was flat-out brilliant, if it didn’t hear our silences and nonverbal gestures so clearly, if it wasn’t pitch perfect and visually stunning, I would not recommend it so enthusiastically.

Faubourg Tremé is scheduled to have a preview screening at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival and a series of local screenings at various venues through the end of the year. It is also tentatively scheduled to air on PBS sometime in 2008.

But do yourself a favor. Don’t wait until then. See it as soon as you can. It will make you smile and cry and fall in love with New Orleans all over again.

Some of us need that now more than ever.


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 3:39 PM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008 12:56 AM CDT
Permalink
Sunday, 1 July 2007
Borderline 7.07: Embracing Our Blues
Topic: Embracing Our Blues

 

Embracing Our Blues

 

Victories in the city’s anti-corruption cases are bringing joy and pain

 

By J.B. Borders

 

The day before he was indicted by the federal government on 16 counts of racketeering, fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice, Congressman William Jefferson participated in a celebration of Father Jerome LeDoux’s 50th anniversary as a priest. During the ceremony, held at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, Jefferson saluted LeDoux by reciting Robert Hayden’s poem “Frederick Douglass.”

 

“When it is finally ours,” Hayden begins, “this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air…; when it belongs at last to all, when it is truly instinct, brain matter…reflex action; when it is finally won, when it is more than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians: this man…this Negro beaten to his knees…visioning a world where none is lonely, none hunted…this man, superb in logic and love, this man shall be remembered…”

 

Hayden adds that Douglass will be enshrined not just with the usual honorifics but more importantly, “with the lives grown out of his life, the lives fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.”

 

When I heard Jefferson’s recitation that Sunday morning in St. Augustine’s, I mainly thought how perfectly the phrase “this man, superb in logic and love” described Fr. LeDoux’s central ambition. And I was impressed that Jefferson would have some Hayden stashed in his public-speaking arsenal. It’s a cut above the usual drivel political and civic leaders work into their presentations.

 

But at the end of the week, when Jefferson reacted to the federal indictment by declaring his innocence of all the charges and vowing to fight to the last penny to restore his family’s good name and to stay out of jail, I thought again of Hayden’s description of freedom – “this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air.”

 

I don’t know whether the Congressman will keep his word and go down swinging or cop a plea to spare his family further legal troubles and embarrassment. After all, he is reported to have told a government informant that his efforts to acquire stakes in lucrative African enterprises were intended primarily to secure the future for his children, “the lives grown out of his life.”  Maybe love and logic dictate that he get beaten to his knees and deprived of his freedom in order for his offspring to enjoy theirs.

 

It’s the stuff of literature – the twists and turns of a family’s struggles on the long journey to salvation and security. It’s also the stuff of routine crime dramas.

 

Too true to be good?

 

Of course, the truth is often much more poetic than make-believe. In a novel it would seem corny and trite for a former policeman named Barré to plead guilty to crimes that would land him a lengthy term behind bars. The symbolism would be too obvious to be credible, wouldn’t it?

 

And who think it believable for a character named DeCay to turn out to be a rotten civil servant? Or that he would pour his ill-gotten gains into an almost egregiously lavish lifestyle? Did he think no one would notice? Did he think no one would care?

 

Same thing goes for the school board, the rest of City Hall, the courts, the Regional Transit Authority, the Sewerage & Water Board and other public entities. What Kool-Aid have these people been imbibing?

 

Somehow, many of us have lost our way, our minds, our moral compass – even in places of worship. It’s stunning to think about the numbers of “respectable” people who have been and will be convicted of felonies before year end.

 

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt,” philosopher Bertrand Russell once pointed out. At least half of that observation is true about New Orleans.

 

Far too many of us have been happy to B Stupid, as one notorious young thug proclaimed. Stupidity has now reached pandemic proportions. The elderly, the middle-aged and the barely pubescent among us have all been severely afflicted with this urge to cheat, steal, swindle, embezzle, and even kill to acquire trinkets, chump change and other miniscule scraps from the global economic stockpile.

 

It’s definitely time to rethink the Freedom Struggle in New Orleans. What do we want? Why do we want it? And do we really need to try to get it by any means necessary?

 

Forty years ago, Martin Luther King and many others decried the triple evils of materialism, militarism and racism. Humankind’s lust for Things had driven us slightly insane, they suggested. We had increasingly relied on military might to take what belonged to others and we had used racism and other excuses to justify the thefts and killings.

 

King called for America to undergo a “radical revolution of values” that would lead to a redistribution of wealth. Many people scoffed at the notion. They said it was the obsession with materialism, militarism and white supremacy that had made America great and they weren’t about to abandon any parts of the formula. They said it was the only way to keep the world safe from Communism.

 

Oodles of black folk agreed with this line of reasoning. They said King’s admonitions about materialism, in particular, were misguided. They said they were poor and lacking in material goods. They needed to get more things to have a good life – more to eat and drink, more to wear, more to drive, more to live in. They were the downtrodden have-nots of the world. Some cast themselves as freedom fighters, liberators, servants of the people. There was no way they would ever allow themselves to be corrupted.

 

Now it’s clear King was absolutely on target. His warnings about the dangers of materialism, militarism and racism are more relevant today than ever before. We just have to muster up the courage to admit it to ourselves. As George Orwell explained, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

 

The new blues

 

Novelist Ralph Ellison once described the blues as “an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”

 

I mention Ellison’s observation because New Orleans has been chest-deep in the blues since Katrina. But we are only now finding the lyricism to squeeze from our situation. One of those bits of lyricism is an end to the blatant corruption that has stymied our city’s economic and spiritual development.

 

Often, there is an extremely thin line separating the tragic from the comic, the sublime from the absurd. In post-Katrina New Orleans, we straddle this line every day. We have been known, in fact, to cross it frequently in the course of a morning, an afternoon, an evening. We now understand hardship, resilience, transcendence and joy better than ever.

 

We have been burdened with more than our share of sorrows and disappointments recently. And there are more to come. But we have the necessary equipment to survive – the guts, determination, cleverness and faith to overcome setbacks and to make brighter futures for ourselves and our loved ones.

 

Any good doctor will tell you that the best way to cure a wound is to open it up and disinfect it. That’s what’s happening in our city now. We’re using the truth as a disinfectant. Sure, it stings every time we pour a little on. But doing so speeds the healing process.

 

As we’re healing, though, we can go back to engaging “this beautiful, needful thing” called freedom. It demands constant protection if it is to be more than the “gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians” and the politically connected.

 

There is plenty of lyricism yet to be wrung from these new New Orleans blues. I can’t wait to hear them being sung.


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 2:24 PM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008 12:20 AM CDT
Permalink
Thursday, 1 March 2007
Ed Blakely: The Master of Disaster
Topic: Ed Blakely Profile

The Master of Disaster

 

Ed Blakely Makes His Move to Reconstruct New Orleans. Will it Work?

 

By J.B. Borders

 

One afternoon when Edward J. Blakely was 12 years old, he marched himself up to City Hall in his hometown – Riverside, California – and demanded an audience with the mayor. He was unaccompanied and he had not made an appointment prior to his appearance. But for him the matter couldn’t wait. Something had to be done about the condition of his favorite playground. He figured he could get the changes he needed if he just presented his case to the guy in charge.

 

The strategy worked. Not only did the mayor stop what he was doing and take the time to meet with his young constituent, he asked Blakely to take a ride with him right then and there to inspect the situation. Along the way, the mayor also took the precocious lad on a tour of other parts of the town and revealed his administration’s plans to fix parks and housing and to stimulate business development throughout Riverside. The mayor even asked the boy what he thought about the plans.

 

On that day, Edward J. Blakely’s ambitions came into focus. He knew then what his life’s work would be. He would dedicate himself to public service and to helping improve the quality of life for others through planning and leadership.

 

Of course, playgrounds and athletic fields would continue to be extremely important to Blakely for several years to come. He would, in fact, go on to become a star athlete in high school and at the University of California, Riverside, where he would captain and quarterback his team to a perfect season in 1960.

 

Blakely’s passion for service and leadership, however, were equally distinguished. “I was president of my class or president of the student body every year from first grade through college,” he recalls with obvious pride.

 

Blakely’s family had long been active in local political and social issues. His great-grandfather was one of the early settlers in Riverside in the late 1800s. Blakely’s grandfather was the first African American child born in the town, located about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, and his grandmother was the first black woman in the area to graduate from high school.

 

One of his great uncles started the local NAACP chapter and as a child young Edward was personally involved in breaking down racial barriers in a number of areas, from his part-time jobs to his accomplishments in the world of sports.

 

Today, at 69 years of age, there are few outward signs of the outstanding athlete Ed Blakely used to be. He is only of average height and weight by today’s standards. And the slight paunch around his waist suggests he isn’t obsessed with physical fitness these days.

 

Instead, with his eyeglasses, jowly cheeks, head of thinning grey hair, conservative suits and crisp speaking style, he looks and sounds like a college professor – which he is – or a business man – which he is – or a bureaucrat – which he used to be.

 

More importantly, since January of this year Blakely has assumed an additional role as director of the Office of Recovery Management for the City of New Orleans. It’s his job to guide the reconstruction of the city and to strategically position New Orleans for growth and viability in the future. 

 

It’s a task for which this oft-described “master of disaster” is well-qualified. Blakely, who was serving as chair of the Urban and Regional Studies program at the University of Sidney, Australia, when Katrina smacked New Orleans into near oblivion, has worked on several major disaster major recovery efforts. He helped New York City in the aftermath of the 9/11 bombings; Kobe, Japan, and Oakland, California, after devastating earthquakes rocked those cities; and the Darfur region of the Sudan when genocidal civil war caused death and displacement for millions.

 

Nevertheless, in a life overflowing with important accomplishments, Blakely expects the rebuilding of New Orleans to be his final, and perhaps greatest, achievement.

 

“I will be here until I finish the job. The mayor and my wife have already told me I don’t have a choice,” he chuckles ever so slightly.

 

Blakely has already made a significant contribution to the rebuilding effort. His 17-person office has produced the first phase of a 15-year plan to strategically reconstruct New Orleans. The $1.1 billion initiative calls for publicly funded investments at 17 major commercial hubs around the city. The plan also calls for a major infusion – $145 million – to trigger the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.

 

Some critics have described the plan as “disappointing” and “too modest,” but others have said it provides a clear, achievable starting point for revitalizing nearly all sections of the city. When the strategy was unveiled at the end of March, Mayor Ray Nagin noted that it already had received endorsements from City Council members, neighborhood activists, state officials and the local business community.

 

The funding for this first phase of the recovery plan still needs to be secured but concern over efforts to raise the money took a back seat to a couple of dust-ups that occurred after Blakely questioned the pre-Katrina population of New Orleans and then later told the New York Times that race relations in the city were comparable to those between the religious factions waging civil war in Iraq.

 

In that New York Times interview, Blakely also criticized some people who were using the principle of the right of New Orleanians to return home as a smokescreen for their own political and money-making purposes.

 

He added that the local ruling-class clique was “insular,” and that the economy was built on the import and export of t-shirts. He also charged that some of the folks trying to capitalize on the rebuilding efforts were “buffoons” who would turn off prospective new residents and investors.

 

The remarks were seen as divisive in some quarters and Blakely issued apologies for his errors in fact and for the abrasive tone of his characterizations. Just the same, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF), a grassroots community organization that has been among the chief proponents of the right to return, called for the mayor to fire Blakely.

 

Though Blakely explained that his comments were not directed at the PHRF but rather at some parties who had hijacked the PHRF’s language for self-serving ends, both the mayor and the president of the city council later called upon the recovery czar to hush his mouth and stick to the nuts and bolts of the recovery effort.

 

The incidents were just two in a string of attention-grabbing actions by Blakely since his first post-Katrina visit to Louisiana in October 2005. Before he was hired by the city, he argued that New Orleans needed a single recovery leader to direct the efforts. He also argued that this person should be an outsider with no political or personal stake in the outcome. Over the course of the next year, Blakely would make five trips to New Orleans at his own expense. When he finally met the mayor, Nagin asked him to help with the New Orleans recovery.

 

Blakely was hesitant at first. He already had a full portfolio of work and special projects to which he was committed. But it was his Dutch-born wife and colleagues in Sydney and China who urged him to accept the New Orleans assignment, he said. “They kept telling me it was something I had to do because I was the best person for the job,” he explains.

 

After he was hired for the $150,000-a-year job, state recovery officials were taken aback by Blakely’s demand that all recovery funds for New Orleans be directed through his office, not theirs.

Some members of the local business community were also unenthused when Blakely suggested that New Orleans should remake itself by becoming the nation's gateway to developing markets in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Blakely’s personal style also drew criticism in some quarters. Several people noted that he comes across as extremely confident, arrogant and even cocky – what used to be called uppity in bygone days. In some people’s minds, this is apparently a negative characteristic. Go figure.

 

Other citizens raised their eyebrows when Blakely took a 10-day “vacation” trip back to his home in Australia after just a few weeks on the job here. Later, he was quoted as saying he said he would only stick around to guide the recovery efforts for one year.

 

He has since explained that his original contract was for one year but that he will remain in New Orleans for as long as Mayor Nagin or his successor will employ him. And the recent announcements that several cutting-edge Australian firms will invest in New Orleans and establish business ventures here would seem to vindicate Blakely’s assertions that his visits back to Australia were working vacations.

 

Nevertheless, debate about Blakely continues and two central questions keep popping up in public and private discussions: Is Ed Blakely the supremely skilled, practically superhuman savior the city needs? Or is he merely a lackey of the capitalist fat cats intent on gobbling up New Orleans for the wealthy few?

 

The answer is: probably neither. There is, however, a smattering of truth in both views of Blakely and his role.

 

There is no denying that the brother from another continent “has all the credentials in the world,” as Councilman Oliver Thomas put it.

 

Blakely earned a BA with honors in History, Political Science and Economics from the University of California, Riverside, an MA in History and Development Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, a Master of Management from Pasadena Nazarene College and a joint PhD in Management and Education from the University of California, Los Angeles.

 

Before joining the faculty at the University of Sydney, Dr. Blakely was the Professor of Management and Urban Policy and Dean of the Milano Graduate School at the New School University, New York (1999-2004). Previously, he was the Lusk Professor of Planning and Development for the School of Urban Planning and Development at the University of Southern California (1994-1999) and served as Professor and Chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley (1986-1994).

 

From 1977-84, Dr. Blakely was Assistant Vice President of Systemwide Administration for the University of California. In this capacity, he managed the faculty and academic personnel and policy system for more than 14,000 University of California employees.

 

In 1985-86, Blakely was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. In 1994, he was a Guggenheim Fellow, another prestigious academic honor.

 

Blakely began his career at Pacific Telephone company (1960-65) and later did a stint as a U.S. foreign service officer (1969-71). He also enlisted in the Air Force in the early 1960s but resigned his commission rather than fight in Vietnam. Beginning in the mid-1906s, he worked in Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and other parts of Africa on rural development initiatives.

 

Blakely also once ran for mayor of Oakland, California, losing to Jerry Brown in 1998. “I had fun with the campaign,” he notes, “but I have no plans to run for elective office ever again.”

 

Blakely is an internationally renowned scholar in the fields of planning, infrastructure, transportation and local economic development. He has authored eight books and more than 100 scholarly articles. One of those books, Planning Local Development: Theory and Practice, first published in 1989 and now in its third edition, has become a standard text in many university programs.

 

Blakely says publication of his first prize-winning book, Rural Communities in Advanced Industrial Society: Development and Developers, 1979, prompted representatives of the People’s Republic of China to seek him out and hire him as a consultant. He continues to serve as an adviser to the Chinese.

Blakely has also been an advisor to local and regional governments in Korea, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Vietnam and France.

As befits someone of his stature, Blakely has served on the boards of such major professional and civic organizations as the American Planning Association and the Nature Conservancy. He also serves on the boards of such private firms as Environmental Science Associates and SE Corporation, a real estate development firm.

 

Blakely is especially proud of SE’s Dos Lagos development, a new 534-acre project in Corona, California, that combines a mix of residential uses with upscale shopping, dining, entertainment, live-work lofts, business and resort hotels, an 18-hole championship golf course and office space centered around two signature lakes.

 

 

According to Blakely, the development also provides housing for several low-income households. “The beauty of it,” he explains, “is that you can’t tell the low-income housing from the rest of the homes. It’s all high-quality construction. That’s the kind of thing I’d like to see in New Orleans.”

 

 

If Blakely’s involvement with and comfort around large-scale developers worries some advocates for the poor who think the master plan will eventually squeeze low-income families out of the city, Blakely says his long track record working on behalf of poor should help allay those concerns.

 

 

In 1963, he won the Sargent Shriver Award for fighting poverty in California. Blakely also worked as a community organizer in those days with the late Cesar Chavez, who successfully organized migrant farm workers.

 

 

SE Corporation has also received the Martin Luther King Award for its efforts to combat poverty.

 

 

In the early 1980s, Blakely helped launch Bridge Housing, which now claims to be the largest developer of high-quality affordable housing in California with over 12,000 units completed.

Our definition of quality livable housing encompasses a range of services and amenities that support our residents and their communities, such as play areas, green space, education resources, childcare facilities, and new community services,” Bridge Housing officials say. “But we also look at the big picture and advance innovative solutions to larger challenges that face urban and high-cost areas. Our expanded development efforts bring jobs, economic activity, access to transportation, efficient land use and a safer environment.”

That’s the kind of development Blakely and many others would like to see in New Orleans. Unfortunately, Bridge Housing has no African American leadership at either the board or staff level. And for many Orleanians, the most important aspect of the reconstruction initiative is the empowerment of black folks at all levels and in all phases of the process.

In principle, Blakely agrees with this goal. He says the kind of development he wants to foster will hew to four key principles: “The first is, be really careful with the land. Second, equitable development means both the people and the place. The third is what we call health/wealth building. Every development should make the people affected healthier and wealthier. And fourth, all development must incorporate a spiritual component.”

In addition, Blakely says the reconstruction process in New Orleans will attempt to provide opportunities for black-owned businesses and to help them build capacity to tackle large-scale projects. But he said no standards will be lowered to accommodate these businesses.

Some observers say that’s a recipe for writing most black businesses out of the process. They add that large companies will prosper under such guidelines and that the rest will wither away.

Blakely thinks the most important thing is to create successes. “We have to build a new New Orleans,” he emphasizes, “not restore the old one. It’s too easy not to confront the issues” like racism, white supremacy, poverty and economic inequality. “We have an opportunity to make New Orleans a model for how to do urban redevelopment right – with quality and smart growth and equity.”

So if all goes according to plan, 15 years from now New Orleans will be home to 600,000 people occupying the same footprint it does now, Blakely says. The city will also be physically safe from the kind of flooding wrought by Katrina. In addition to built up wetlands along the Louisiana coast and stronger levees around the city, there will be more green spaces and canals to absorb water from storms.

Besides the increased activity through the port, the new local economy will be more closely tied to digital technology and to the international distribution of New Orleans’s world-renowned culture.  “We have to be careful, of course, that we don’t turn it into Wal-Mart,” Blakely, a die-hard jazz fan, points out, “but we have to control more of the 9-5 aspects of the music business. Too many of our jazz musicians die poor. We’ve got to turn that around.”

Schools and libraries will also be much better in Blakely’s new New Orleans. Housing quality will be much improved, health care will be outstanding and good employment plentiful.

Playgrounds will also be outstanding in the new New Orleans. But if they aren’t, any concerned 12-year-old boy or girl should be able to contact the mayor’s office and ask that something be done. That’s the way Ed Blakely would probably have it.

After all, it worked for him nearly 60 years ago. With proper planning, it could work in New Orleans one day soon.


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 2:19 PM CST
Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008 12:22 AM CDT
Permalink
Tuesday, 26 December 2006
Borderlines 12.06: Beyond Wretchedness, Resilience and Inner Rage: Hopes for the New Year

Beyond Wretchedness, Resilience and Inner Rage: Hopes for the New Year

A positive outlook might engender positive change in 2007

By J.B. Borders


I've decided to be hopeful about the New Year.

I hope I'm not being foolish in making such a resolution. And I hope I don't live to regret my decision.

I hope also that my outlook is not simply the residue of Barack Obama-mania. His new book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, has become a national best seller and is helping to propel speculation about the Illinois senator's candidacy for the U.S. presidency in 2008.

I've read excerpts from The Audacity of Hope. Among other things, Obama uses the book to remind readers that the conservative Christian right does not have a monopoly on religious values. The Black Church, he counters, has long provided a base for both progressive political engagement and solid spiritual grounding.

Moreover, Obama's analysis of the challenges facing those who support social and economic justice is clear and balanced. "The problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect 10-point plan," he writes. "They are also rooted in societal indifference and individual callousness -- the desire among those at the top of the social ladder to maintain their wealth and status whatever the cost, as well as the despair and self-destructiveness among those at the bottom."

I hope Obama does well in the race for the presidency but that's not the reason I'm feeling hopeful about the double-O seven. The truth is, I can't pin it down to anything specific. It's just a feeling, a hunch, an intuition.

For weeks now, I've been attempting to analyze my growing sense of optimism, to ground it in objective reality, to prove to myself that it is something more than blind faith or Kwanzaa-induced ruminations on Imani, the Africanist spin on what the Bible describes as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

I am by nature empirically oriented. So from time to time, I would make mental checklists of positive versus negative conditions, factors and developments. Most of these analyses resulted in ties. The good and the bad kept canceling each other out.

And then came the November elections, which squashed the Republican juggernaut in Congress. Suddenly, there was light at the end of the proverbial tunnel of oppression that most of the country had been crawling through the past six years. Finally, it seemed that the Animal House administration could be prevented from continuing to trash the national economy, the Middle East and all hopes for that most elusive of panaceas, world peace.

As if to prove the point, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned immediately after the election. I took it as a sign that some of the outrageous cronyism of the Bush era would be curtailed. That was naive, I know, but I was hopeful.

Even when I learned that James Brown had died on Christmas Day, I remained upbeat. Though I always thought of Brown the man as an embarrassingly ignorant conk-head buffoon, I have nothing but warm remembrances about the times his music provided the soundtrack to my life.

I'll never forget the moment in the summer of 1965 when I first heard "Papa?s Got a Brand New Bag." Ill also never forget a small, scorching house party a couple of years later when I was in high school. We played all four sides of the James Brown "Live at the Apollo" long-playing recording over and over and over. Nothing else. Five teenage girls, five teenage boys, no parental supervision. Four hours straight of James Brown grunting, squealing and keeping it funky. It was a magical afternoon.

When I heard the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Please Please Please, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business had left this world, I just wished him well and hoped he had gone on to a better place. I tried to think of his passing as just another manifestation of creative destruction -- that something old must die in order for something new and better to be born.

That's also why I'm relieved to see 2006 go and to have 2007 come. This is a chance to make everything better, especially in New Orleans. I'm filled with hope and optimism -- for the time being, at least.

I hope, first and foremost, that this is the year we stop inching along toward a vision of how to save ourselves and, instead, make a giant leap out of poverty and ignorance. I just read somewhere that 90 percent of American businesses are family-owned enterprises and that they account for half of all employment in the U.S. I hope there is an explosion of new black family-owned businesses in New Orleans in 2007. I also hope we start creating all sorts of new cooperatively owned and managed businesses and service providers. That would help create extended-family and neighborhood networks through which we can prosper and take care of each other.


I hope this is the year we stop thinking of ourselves as "wretched but resilient" and instead begin defining ourselves -- and making outsiders do so too -- as triumphal, victorious, successful. It's time to stop whining and start winning.

I also hope this is the year we let go of our inner rage and turn it outward on our real enemies, wherever they are.

I hope this is the year the Archbishop of New Orleans makes good on his promise to combat racism in the church and its enterprises. If he doesn't follow through, I hope the Good Lord slaps some sense into him. If the Catholic Church becomes part of the solution and not just a large part of the problem, it may force the rest of the crackerocracy to slacken up on the blows they have been raining down upon our brows these past 500 years.

As an aside, I also hope this is the year black people stop begging white folk for permission to pray in houses of worship. That's why black denominations started being formed in the first place more than 200 years ago. There's no reason for us to still be confronting these issues and wasting our energy when we have so many more pressing concerns.

For example, I hope this is the year we stop begging government to help us and instead start demanding that the federal administration accept the full and direct responsibility to replace the homes and neighborhoods it destroyed when the federal levee system failed. The buck stops and starts there. No more ducking and dodging the blame.

And if the private insurance companies continue to try to fleece us, I hope we have the good sense to form a new Louisiana Mutual Insurance Company that we all own and invest in to collectively self-insure our lives, property and health. Sometimes the old approaches offer the best solutions.

I have lots of lesser hopes, too, but I'll only mention a couple of random ones:

I hope Harry Lee keeps his big fat mouth shut all year long.

I hope Bill Jefferson really does have an honorable explanation for all his nefarious-looking activities.

And I hope Ray Nagin becomes relevant again.

If these hopes fail to materialize, however, I won't be crushed. For despite all the hell we have been through in recent years, decades and centuries, I'm clinging to the audacious hope that we will turn things around and start to thrive like never before.

Now is the time. This is the year.

No backing down, no turning back.


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 11:01 PM CST
Updated: Monday, 10 September 2007 6:35 PM CDT
Permalink
Thursday, 23 November 2006
The Louisiana Road Home Program
Topic: Road Home Program

Unblocking the Road Home

Can the state's major initiative to rebuild southern Louisiana actually succeed? Or will the money and efforts be wasted?

By J.B. Borders

"Leave it to Louisiana to mess up even the simplest things," an elderly black homeowner said recently in a tone that mixed resignation with disgust. We were discussing the Road Home Program. She didn't have much to say that was positive.

Like tens of thousands of other Orleanians, she has spent her own savings to gut her house. She's also joined a class action law suit to protest what she considers an insultingly low payment from her insurance company.

"I call it the Louisiana Unfair Plan," she says about her insurer, the state-operated Louisiana Fair Plan.

Last August, the homeowner -- who prefers to remain anonymous in order to avoid any future recriminations -- also applied to the Louisiana Road Home Program, a $7.5 billion federally-financed grant fund established as part of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. She hoped the Road Home would provide the supplemental funding she needs to continue rebuilding her home.

It hasn't. Not yet, at least. Instead, she claims to have become ensnared in a cumbersome and confusing process that shows no signs of ending any time soon.

Worse, the recent spate of negative publicity about the excruciatingly slow pace at which awards are being made and the relatively small size of the program's announced grants have caused her to despair that the Road Home will be of much help even if she eventually receives a check.

"The Road Home is a big disappointment," she says. "It's a joke, a joke on us."

That assessment is shared by a large number of other homeowners throughout the city and across the state.

The outcry over the program's ineffectiveness grew so strong in the past few weeks that Governor Kathleen Blanco was forced to call in the program s managers for a meeting to address the Road Home's problems. Several political pundits say Blanco's chances for reelection in 2008 will hinge on the perceived success of the program.

While the Road Home managers placed the blame on bottlenecks at private insurance companies and federal agencies, they promised nonetheless to turn the program around in the next few months and get money into the hands of applicants much more quickly.

Whether they will be successful remains to be seen. As of Thanksgiving, more than 80,000 individuals had applied to the Road Home for assistance but fewer than 50 had actually received any checks. Moreover, the average payout has been slightly less than $50,000. That s a third of the maximum amount available to eligible applicants.

Under the Road Home program, the largest grant a homeowner can receive is $150,000. All insurance payments, Federal Emergency Management Agency aid and Small Business Administration loans or grants must be subtracted from that maximum.

In addition, homeowners who were not insured before the storm are penalized as are those who intend to take their Road Home awards and rebuild outside Louisiana.

Blanco said Road Home officials told her they are having difficulty calculating what is owed to many applicants because the private insurance companies and federal agencies have not yet divulged what has been paid in claims to the homeowners.

The company managing the Road Home program is ICF Emergency Management Services. It's a subsidiary of ICF International, a publicly-traded Fairfax, Virginia-based consulting firm that is heavily dependent on government contracts. In June and October 2006, ICF signed a $756 million agreement with the state's Office of Community Development to run the Road Home Program. The contract is for a three-year term.


ICF officials describe the deal as possibly '"the largest non-construction contract ever awarded by the State of Louisiana." They also acknowledge that the Road Home undertaking is expected "to be our largest contract over the next several years."

"We are honored to be part of this noble effort," said Michael Byrne, a former FEMA official who is now an ICF senior vice president and chief program executive for the Road Home. "We intend to make the Road Home the national model for disaster recovery and community rebuilding."


Under the contract with the state, the ICF team is providing outreach to homeowners and assistance with the application and eligibility process, in accordance with state guidelines, for qualified homeowners and small rental unit landlords affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In addition, ICF officials say the contract funding will continue to provide for hiring and training; leasing, establishing, and maintaining housing assistance centers; building the information technology infrastructure for processing the applications and subsequent data verifications; staffing and maintaining a full-service call center; and funding the program's outreach.

ICF's efforts are augmented by a team of high-powered Louisiana-based subcontractors who are getting pieces of the $756 million in contract fees. The major subcontractors include Deltha Corporation; First American Title Insurance Company of Louisiana; Franklin Industries; Jones, Walker, Waechter, Poitevent, Carrere & Denegre, LLP; Network Technology Group; Peter A. Mayer Advertising; Providence Engineering & Environmental Group; and Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure.

The Road Home Program has opened its headquarters in Baton Rouge and 10 new housing assistance centers throughout the state, including one on Poydras Street in New Orleans. A second housing assistance center is scheduled to open in New Orleans East by mid-December.

As part of its plan to speed up the delivery of grant awards, ICF officials say they plan to hire additional workers. The program has already proved to be a significant new employer in the city and state. More than 1900 people work for ICF in Louisiana, including 316 in metropolitan New Orleans. The New Orleans area work force is 49 percent black, which indicates that the company is not exactly hostile to the needs and interests of the city's majority.

"Many of our employees were displaced by hurricanes Katrina or Rita and are applicants themselves," Carol Hector-Harris, ICF public information officer, said.

ICF plans to hire an additional 230 workers by the end of January 2007. The company s recruiting efforts even included a career fair during this year's Bayou Classic in New Orleans.

An estimated 123,000 homeowners are expected to be eligible for support from The Road Home. Only two-thirds of them have applied to the program so far.

And despite the plans for ramping up the program's staffing, some critics of the program say it has structural flaws that make it virtually impossible for many homeowners to secure adequate funding from the program to rebuild their homes. The key problem, they explain, is that the program factors in the official pre-Katrina assessed value of homes in determining award amounts. A house that was assessed at $100,000 before the hurricane, for example, is eligible only for that amount as a maximum award. But it is not likely that the home could be rebuilt today for that amount.

As a result, critics say that what really matters is the estimated cost to rebuild in the post-Katrina environment, where construction costs are averaging $130 a square foot. They say that's what The Road Home funding policies should be based on. They say the program should be geared toward guaranteeing the total replacement of damaged homes.

Program leaders have yet to publicly respond to those recommendations though increasing numbers of program applicants have begun to express their dissatisfaction with the way grant awards are being calculated.

In the meantime, there is also growing momentum among displaced Louisianans to expand the Road Home Program to include support for renters in addition to homeowners and small landlords. Proponents of the measure say making payments directly to renters is the fastest way to repopulate the city and revitalize its economy. They say the program needs to focus on supporting the return of "residents," not just homeowners.

Program officials counter that the Small Rental portion of the program, which is designed to help landlords restore rental properties, is a key component of the effort to help renters get resettled.

Nevertheless, several grassroots organizations, including the People's Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition, have demanded that the governor do more. Specifically, they want the state to use the federal funds to provide renters "with resources to aid with moving costs, deposits, and rent assistance."

The grassroots organizations also want the state to stop rent gouging, to halt the planned demolition of public housing and to reopen as many public housing units as possible.

Instead of being a national model for "disaster recovery and community rebuilding," activists and observers from across the political spectrum say the program now has the very real potential to become a disaster itself and a prime tool in the destruction, not rebuilding of post-Katrina New Orleans. Good intentions, they say, are not enough. Good results are all that matter.

If the Road Home program continues to be "a joke," as my elderly homeowner acquaintance called it, the big question is who will get the last laugh -- the elected officials, the contractors or the people?


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 11:01 PM CST
Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008 12:26 AM CDT
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