Thursday, March 30, 2006

PNOLA and BNOB ...

Join PNOLA on Saturday:

The Phoenix of New Orleans (PNOLA) will host its 1st Annual Community Rebuilding Day on April 1 between 9 am and 3 pm at the neutral ground located at the intersection of Canal and S. Galvez. The event will feature about 100 volunteers from LSU, plus many more from Tulane and Loyola University working with local residents of the Tulane-Gravier neighborhood. Participants with gut houses, paint, remove water marks and clear debris in this overlooked yet well-situated area that suffered between 4 and 5 feet of flooding.

From an Editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “A controversial start:”

Rebuilding the city that Hurricane Katrina swallowed seven months ago is a complicated, emotional task. It touches on race, family and the pain of loss, on an economy drowned, a forthcoming election, government bumbling, and environmental frailty.

Yet out of this swirl came a smart plan from Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, written by the international planning and design firm of Wallace Roberts & Todd. The firm's Philadelphia office was deeply involved in the effort.

The report, presented in broad strokes, acknowledges that New Orleans will be a different city from what it was before the storm… Since the devastated lower Ninth Ward and some eastern city sections remain vulnerable to flooding, why not follow the plan's creative proposal to build parks there?

Yet that question is not easily answered. Divides of race and class have haunted this crisis from the moment New Orleans filled with water, with mainly poor African Americans left behind. Many African Americans fear a New Orleans built according to this plan's guidelines will be a gentrified New Orleans.

It's understandable that many residents of low-lying areas want to go back; to them, it's home. But rebuilding in areas so prone to flooding poses an unacceptable risk to lives and property. Indulging that urge is not a sign of respect; it is the opposite.

Instead of rebuilding the Big Easy as it was, mistakes and all, the reconstruction should be about creating viable neighborhoods that include affordable housing, including rentals. Building an extensive light rail public transportation system, as the report also recommends, would carry residents of all incomes to jobs.

Though Nagin's commission did a solid plan, he muddied matters last week by inviting residents to return and rebuild anywhere they choose. People who accept Nagin's politically motivated invitation may find, in some areas, that they are lonely pioneers.


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Tolerance, and Katrina …

Wikipedia defines tolerance as “a social, cultural and religious term applied to the collective and individual practice of not persecuting those who may believe, behave or act in ways of which one may not approve.” Its opposite is chillingly represented in the case of Afghan citizen Abdul Rahman, sentenced to death for a conversion from Islam to Christianity.

Louisiana has a deserved reputation for its tolerance of political corruption. Hype heralding the approaching state legislative session shows that there is little chance for good government to make even the tiniest headway.

Wikipedia defines patronage as “a system where someone in a powerful position (the Patron) offers handouts in return for support.” Our previous mayor, Marc Morial, now head of the national Urban League, practiced patronage to a fault. That fault is demonstrated by how close the federal indictments, currently touching his inner circle, are to reaching Morial.

We thought Morial set the “gold standard” for patronage, but his successor, Ray Nagin, has come up with at least one deal that makes Morial look like an under-achiever. Nagin’s explanations for his actions on the City’s latest mis-direction demonstrate a lack of touch with the electorate that is remindful of his “chocolate city” remarks.

The current chicanery relates to a contract for removal of junk cars from the streets of the City. Which offer should we take? Let’s see. A Texas company has offered to pay hundreds of dollars per car that they remove; they were left out of the formal bidding. The consensus of the bidders seemed to be that the City should pay about $350 per car removed. Well, $600 worse than the Texas company’s bid, but at least not the $1,000 per car that would have to be paid to CH2M.

Wait. What’s that? CH2M is the chosen bidder? CH2M showed the sense to remove themselves from consideration while Nagin offered several lame reasons why they were the right choice. For more on this topic, see yesterday's TP editorial.

You lost me on this one, Ray.


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Campaigning, and Katrina …

Under “Flaw and Order,” TP editorial writer Stephanie Grace explains, in her view, why it's important to go ahead with the imperfect, but vital, elections.

As New Orleans, and interest groups from outside New Orleans, continue to debate whether the April 22 election should proceed as planned, it's worth remembering that there's no magic number.

Nobody can say just how many of the disproportionately African-American hurricane evacuees still living outside the city's boundaries must participate in order to show that they were given every opportunity to vote.

The federal Voting Rights Act doesn't offer any formula. It says only that voters shouldn't face discriminatory obstacles, and that procedural changes should not "put racial minorities in a position inferior to the one they occupy under the status quo, as compared to non-minorities, vis a vis their ability to elect their candidates of choice," according to a Justice Department letter explaining why it approved the city's post-Katrina access arrangements.

And vastly divergent population projections do little to clarify who intends to return to New Orleans in the long-term, and who therefore would want a say in the city's future leadership.

There's also no magic date, a point in time when those answers will become clear. With so many variables unsettled -- levees, the buyout plans, and certainly when public housing and rental property will once again be widely available -- we may not be able to get a handle on the city's long-term population for months or years.

Are the circumstances of the April 22 vote perfect? Of course not. Could Louisiana lawmakers have made things easier by setting up out-of-state satellite polling sites in places such as Houston and Atlanta, just as they did across the state? Absolutely.

And was there at least some jockeying for relative advantage embedded in that decision? Yeah, probably. These debates, unfortunately, never happen in a political vacuum, and no question's as politically loaded these days as the racial make-up of the electorate. But that doesn't mean that the whole system was set up to disenfranchise two-thirds of New Orleans voters, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who seems far more interested in grabbing headlines than in solving problems, has charged.

The point is, the election is set, and the campaign is under way, and the only thing to do right now is make the best of it, and do everything possible to make things easier on the voters who aren't back.


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Voting, and Katrina

... Katrina.

This is how we get our news. Sometimes the Katrina effect is discussed directly; more often it is only implied. But it is a factor in every story, ranging from how we could have avoided it to what we are doing to stop the next storm.

The latest news about voting in the upcoming New Orleans elections may not mention Katrina, but the impact of the storm created a situation where a lot of well-minded citizens come down on opposite sides of several questions. Unfortunately, the differentiator between groups is race. New Orleans was about 70 percent black before Katrina, and fewer than half of the city's 465,000 inhabitants before the storm have come back.

The situation is unprecedented. Could you have imagined delaying a municipal election? What about letting people vote in ten other parishes in an election that directly affects only Orleans parish? And the majority of African-American votes are likely to come from Houston. Many of the voters live outside the City and have no intention of returning.

The arbiter in discussions relating to the fairness of elections is the U.S. Justice Department, and they have approved Louisiana's plans for New Orleans' first post-hurricane municipal election next month. The department approved the state's attempts to locate hundreds of thousands of displaced voters with full-page newspaper ads nationwide, to make mail-in voting easy and to relocate polling precincts.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow-PUSH Coalition is protesting the decision, and Jackson has called for satellite polling stations to be set up in 44 states. However, Louisiana opted not to open polling stations outside the state, the Washington Times reported.

The April 22 ballot is a complex one, with 116 people running for 20 positions. More than 20 candidates are challenging Mayor Ray Nagin, and the seven sitting City Council members all drew opposition.

One of Nagin’s challengers is Orleans Clerk of Court Kimberly Butler who, as Clerk, is responsible for the logistics of election-day voting within the City. She has been less than confidence-inspiring; Council president Oliver Thomas said he prays every night that Butler can pull off a successful election.

My wife and son and I have previously voted near our house in New Orleans East. With all the damage in that area we expect that we will vote this time at one of the so-called “super-sites.”


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Disequilibrium …

As we head toward our April scoring of New Orleans’ progress, we are getting very concerned about moving into our new living quarters in Metairie. We have scheduled a moving date of March 31, but our confidence that the place will be move-in ready decreases each day. Early in each of the three previous months we were also told that we could schedule the move for the end of that month.

Our story is far from unique. Builders are overbooked, skilled workers are hard to find, and suppliers of construction materials are having trouble keeping up with demand.

Businesses are reopening or staying open with less employees than they had, and generally far less than they need. Food service is particularly affected; it is hard to find a place to eat that does not have a “help wanted” sign. There is not a shortage of workers wanting to come to the area, just nowhere for them to live. Restaurants are adapting to the new reality by cutting hours, limiting their menus, and apologizing for bad service.

Public sector functions are similarly hard to staff, while budgets are turned upside-down. The effects of this are easy to find. Four-way stops do not work nearly as efficiently as traffic lights. Gaping holes in city streets make it seem as though you are driving an obstacle course; private citizens, being good neighbors, are spray painting the edges of the crevasses.

A new equilibrium must be established between supply and demand. I am afraid that New Orleans will no longer be an inexpensive place to live.

Positive signs of the recovery abound as well. The public area of the city is quite lively, convention business is picking up. New flights are being added. Many houses are beginning to come on line. Utilities are back for the most part.

For this progress to be sustained, we need to know the rebuilding “rules,“ such as elevation requirements for construction, availability and cost of insurance, and what form the new City “footprint” will take. We need to watch this mayor’s race closely to see which candidate we trust most to accelerate what has been a sluggish recovery so far.


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Why start at 35 percent?

For our opening Hospitality Index (HI), March 2006, we chose 35 percent. The basis for this choice is that it is equal to the current percentage of pre-Katrina population in the City. Also, the absolute value of HI is hard to conjure with so this is a good starting point, and our efforts will go toward relative changes as we progress.

The past week had several positive indicators for a better April. Many of these relate to the entertainment scene. Here’s how Entertainment Weekly sees it:

New Orleans' live music scene reemerging, slowly
by Ray Waddell


House of Blues New Orleans… has been presenting shows at its club in the French Quarter since a New Year's Eve gig featuring hometown acts Cowboy Mouth, Better Than Ezra and Dr. John.

"In between New Year's and Mardi Gras we've been at about two, maybe three, shows a week, a lot of that being locals and benefits," says Sonny Schneidau, director of touring/talent buyer for HOB New Orleans. He counts HOB-produced tours by the Academy Is and Flogging Molly among the few national shows that have come through.

And that calendar is filling up: HOB New Orleans has a slate of acts in March, including George Thorogood, Juvenile, Sevendust, Nickel Creek, Kem (sold out), Lucinda Williams (sold out), the Go-Go's and two nights of Bonnie Raitt.

Superfly Promotions president Jonathan Mayers is also looking ahead to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. In the past, the New Orleans-based promoter has been very successful in presenting music around Jazz Fest. The event will return April 28-30 and May 5-7, and Mayers says his company will be active by then.

"I think Jazz Fest will have a lot of support and a good year," Mayers says. "We are still figuring out exactly what we are doing. But we plan to be active and have a good presence."


The New Orleans Arena, adjacent to the Superdome, is also slowly coming back online. The arena hosted Placido Domingo in a theater configuration March 4, with attendance near its 5,000 capacity. The event was produced in conjunction with the New Orleans Opera Society.

"We're anxious to put (more) shows on sale so we can prove to the talent community that we're back," says Glenn Minard, general manager of the New Orleans Arena for Philadelphia-based facility management firm SMG.



jbv's Competitive Edge 

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Introduction to the Hospitality Index ...

New Orleans Blogger to “Score” the City’s Recovery
Score is called the “Hospitality Index,” accompanied by data, stories, facts and opinions on the City's comeback.

There are a few metrics that give us a sense of where New Orleans stands relative to a half-year ago before Katrina. Best estimates seem to be that population is at 35% in the City. The Times-Picayune gives other measures for the metro area: the labor force is at 68%; 91% of hotels are open, though many rooms are occupied by locals at FEMA’s expense. Restaurants are estimated at 37%, while hospital beds are at 50%.Hospitality Index

Would it be useful to have one number that represents a composite of the measurables, with a lot of informed subjectivity? John Vinturella calls that number the Hospitality Index (HI), and suggests that it represents how N.O. is faring in terms of its "hospitality" toward people who live in the City, those that expect to return, and other visitors.

Dr. Vinturella lost two houses and a car in the storm, but assures us that his loved ones are well, and that he was adequately insured (assuming that the insurers will eventually pay reasonable claims). With all the misery inflicted by the storm, John feels personally lucky, a victim of only “massive inconvenience.”

The informed subjectivity comes from his experiences as an “urban warrior,” fighting his way through packed streets looking for a grocery, a gym, a dry cleaner, a barber shop, and a restaurant where wait time is less than an hour. All the while he is living in an unfamiliar part of town and paying exorbitant rent.

HI may be thought of as a measure of how inviting and supportive the City feels to its constituents relative to some norm representing New Orleans before the storm. We hope that, on some characteristics, the Index can exceed 100%, that is, where performance in some category is better than before the storm. Ethics in government and effectiveness of the public school system come immediately to mind.

The Index will be maintained by John on his blog, nicknamed “NOBull.“ For HI to remain useful, John needs a lot of input from his readers, on businesses closed and open, the rental and purchase housing markets, and services weak and strong, particularly in the public sector. EMail your observations and anecdotes to John at

“The impact of Katrina can be better understood in everyday life. Imagine, after six months, that related stories totally dominate the news. Mail delivery is not yet daily, and only first-class mail is being delivered in the City. ‘How did you do in the storm?’ is still the City’s most frequently asked question.”

NOBull is updated on Sundays and Thursdays.


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Hard Times in the Big Easy - Part 2

This story, by Gary Younge, first appeared in The Nation:

Welcome to New Orleans. For this is precisely the contradiction currently unfolding in the rebuilding of the Crescent City. Since Hurricane Katrina the city's Hispanic population has ballooned from 3 percent to an estimated 30 percent. Every morning at Lee Circle hundreds of day laborers gather under the watchful eye of the Confederate general and wait for work. Every night hundreds sleep in a tent city in City Park, Scout Island, where one standpipe and three toilets serve about 200 people.

Globalization brought them here. A system in which one person's overtime is another family's weekly wage will push from despair as much as pull from hope. "You can have a lot of love for your children, but it cannot fill their stomachs," says Mercedes Sanchez, standing outside her tarpaulin home in the tent city. "In Mexico I made 200 pesos a week. I can make that in two hours here." But while capital can roam free, the movement of laborers is restricted and therefore perilous. Sanchez paid $3,000 to trek three days and nights through the Arizona desert. Along the way she was stripped naked by bandits and robbed at gunpoint. "When you walk through the desert, you think you're never going to arrive," she says. "It costs a lot of money and a lot of tears."

Katrina's winds had barely stopped howling before the mood music that created this situation could be heard: George W. Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires employers with government contracts to pay "prevailing" wages, and waived the requirement for contractors to provide I-9 employment eligibility forms completed by their workers. By the time those measures had been restored, their suspension had already signaled a desire to cut corners and pay below-market rates--the ideal conditions for taking on undocumented workers.

Meanwhile, in an address to business owners and contractors, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he knew what they were thinking: "How do I insure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?" His taste for rebuilding a Chocolate City is now renowned; his refusal to stomach one that consists of a sizable portion of crème caramel is only now becoming apparent.

Nagin's words were crude, but his actions have been consistent with a mindset in which Hispanic migrant workers are both crucial and criminalized, encouraged and exploited, accepted and abused. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed two collective-action lawsuits against two corporations on behalf of up to 2,000 mostly immigrant workers in New Orleans who say they have not been paid or have been underpaid. One is against Belfor USA group. Its attorney, David Kurtz, said, "The allegations are groundless," but refused further comment. The other is against LVI Environmental Services and D&L Environmental Inc., a subcontractor. LVI did not return calls; D&L declined to comment.

Carla (not her real name) worked for D&L pulling down drywall in hospitals, clinics and schools. Starting November 9 she was promised $12 an hour and $18 for overtime and worked from 7 am until 5 pm seven days a week. By Thanksgiving she still had not received a cent. When she went to pick up her check, she claims, her boss told her it hadn't been issued because of a computer error. When she started to cry and demand the money security guards threatened her with forcible removal.

There is a name for a system in which you make people work and don't pay them. It's called slavery. It's the institution that built this beautiful city, and its legacy was laid bare by Katrina last year. At that time, as thousands converged on the convention center, then-FEMA director Michael Brown said, "We're seeing people that we didn't know exist." Once again, it seems, the presence of those having hard times in the Big Easy has conveniently escaped the authorities' attention, even as their pain is hidden in plain sight.

Copyright © 2006 The Nation


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Hard Times in the Big Easy - Part 1

This story, by Gary Younge, first appeared in The Nation:

"Just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work," wrote John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley. "I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat."

Almost fifty years later the economy still cannot function without migrant labor. "Because natural population increase is unlikely to provide sufficient workers, immigration will play a critical role in sustaining the labor force growth needed to maintain overall economic growth," the Immigration Policy Center concluded in November.

The paradox is that the country's political culture cannot function without scapegoating migrant laborers either. In December the House passed the Sensenbrenner bill, one of the most draconian pieces of anti-immigrant legislation in a generation. Meanwhile the vigilante Minutemen, no longer content to "patrol" the borders looking for illegal immigrants to "arrest," have taken to chasing day laborers at pickup sites, shouting, "This is America, not Mexico!" Every weeknight CNN airs xenophobic diatribes from Lou Dobbs posing as the friend of the common people.

No wonder two-thirds of Americans think illegal immigration is "very" or "extremely" serious and three-quarters believe not enough is being done to protect the nation's borders, according to a Time poll. Americans, it seems, love immigration. It's just immigrants they can't stand. The principle is central to the mythologies of personal reinvention, social meritocracy, ethnic diversity and class fluidity that lie at the core of the American dream. But the people themselves are often regarded as anathema to it.

This is not new. During the mid-1800s Irish Catholics met severe discrimination. Then there was the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, and during World War II, Japanese internment. Since 9/11 Muslims have been victimized for security reasons. And for the economy, there are Hispanics. So we are left despising the very people on whom we depend, and immigrants are left with the worst of all worlds--economically marginalized and socially demonized. Vulnerable to unscrupulous employers, opportunistic politicians and racist hatemongers, they work simply to exist in a place where their very existence has become an affront.

More next time ...


jbv's Competitive Edge