Thursday, December 20, 2007

New Orleans: The Quiet Time is Turbulent

From Harry Shearer:

In the old, pre-disaster days, this week was the quiet time, the brief period (before the Sugar Bowl inundation) when the tourists left New Orleans, and the city belonged to the locals. Now as I drive or walk through the Quarter, my spirits lift when I see clumps of tourists, walking in shorts despite the few days of relatively frigid temperatures.

But the calm is disturbed by the impending climax of a long-simmering dispute. The local housing authority, taken over by federal HUD in 2002 due to long-standing management issues, is determined to raze four major public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income developments. In ordinary times, that might not have been a terrible idea, although, as the New York Times' architecture critic points out in a blistering attack on the program, these projects are not the sterile high-rise prisons of inner-city East Coast fame: they're two or three stories tall, solidly built, some with notable architectural pedigrees. They did commit the crime common to such projects--destroying the street grid, so that they are "communities" devoid of corner stores, corner bars, corner anythings, which are so intrinsic to the neighborhood fabric of New Orleans.

But these are not ordinary times. A hundred thousand people (at a minimum) remain evacuees from the city, at least 50,000 rental housing units were damaged or destroyed by the floods, and the best evidence is that a good number of the project apartments slated for demolition are actually or (with some work) potentially habitable.

The Times' Adam Nossiter, a day before, weighed in with a peculiar piece, asserting a trend--in this case, the exiles turning their backs on the city--while quoting only four individuals and one statistic. The latter--the dropoff in voting among exiles between the Mayoral election in May 2006 and the runoff election last October--is a peculiarly unconvincing piece of information, since the election for Mayor was widely viewed as a crucial one for the city's future (ironically, in terms of the result, which seems irrelevant to the city's future), whereas the October runoff was an anticlimax, in which voting statewide was down because the crucial race for governor had been decided in the primary weeks earlier. I'd cite, in contradiction to Nosser's reporting, the account of a friend who works in housing assistance in the city. She says her phone rings off the hook every day with calls from exiles desperate to return. But, with the supply of rental housing so depleted, rents have risen, and, Brad Pitt's best efforts notwithstanding, affordable housing in New Orleans is being destroyed, not rebuilt.

N.B.: The City Council votes on the proposed demolitions today (Thursday

Fights break out during housing debate

11 a.m.

The council finally opens the meeting, with the customary pledge to allegiance and the playing of the national anthem. At this time, several people have been removed by police, including rapper Sess 4-5, who when asked for his real name by a reporter, replies, "F---- off."

The chamber is filled and quiet, after the fracas that broke out in the center of the chamber near the podium.

10:54 a.m.

Protester Krystal Glover is carried out of the chamber by a group of police and deputies. She screams repeatedly. "I'm not a slave!" she shouts. A second woman is also forcibly removed, as Fielkow calls the meeting to order, one hour late.

"Next time you'll be asked to leave," an officer tells the remaining crowd. "Plain and simple."

The Rev. James Smith gives the invocation: "May we never be lazy in our work for peace. May we honor those who have died in defense of our ideals....Help all of us to appreciate one another."

10:50 a.m.

A struggle breaks out in council chambers. Police officers race to break it up. At least three people are ejected, as shouting fills the chamber. A woman slaps at a cameraman's lens, drawing his ire.

"Security, security," Council President Arnie Fielkow says into the microphone. "If you do not obey the rules, you must leave."

Krystal Glover shouts out, "I'm not going nowhere."

10:42 a.m.

Several protesters greet the council members with boos and slurs. Krystal Glover calls Council Member Stacy Head a racist. Head responds by blowing a kiss and waving to her.

Glover keeps shouting. "Stacy Head, she's the real devil in charge!"

Jay Arena shouts, "Jackie Clarkson, you're a sell-out."

10:37 a.m.

Council members begin entering the chamber.

"Bring your coward selves out here!" Krystal Glover shouts. "Let the people in here. We've got plenty of seats in here."

Glover, who says she is with the New Black Panther Party, calls out to the council members: "You no good sell outs. I bet your house is still standing!"

10:30 a.m.

City Hall officials stick by their earlier statement that they are limiting the crowd to 278 for safety reasons. Council members still haven't entered the room. The meeting was set for 10 a.m.

Attorney Tracie Washington accused officials of changing the rules for the public housing crowd.

"That's retarded," Washington says to Peggy Lewis, clerk of council. "You have to let these people in. You've got 800,000 police here. Ain't nobody going to do anything in here."

10:22 a.m.

"I'm for the demolition and rebuilding," says John Ales, 42, a cook who lives in Mid-City. He is the man seated behind Sharon Sears Jasper, who minutes earlier had called him a "racist white man."

Meanwhile, the council members have yet to enter the chamber. A man is shouting in front of a bevy of video cameras about the homeless problem and how he is from public housing. "All of us are getting screwed," he shouts.

10:15 a.m.

The meeting hasn't started yet. Council members haven't entered the chamber.

Civil sheriff's deputies continue to try and keep order, telling the people inside that they may not stand during the meeting and that everyone must have a seat. Tempers flare in one section of the chamber.

"You're a racist white man," Sharon Sears Jasper, a former St. Bernard complex resident shouts at a man seated behind her.

"Ma'am, the color of my skin isn't the issue," the man replies.

"Stop the demolition! Stop the demolition!" several people start chanting.

10:05 a.m.

City Hall closes off the entrance, with civil deputies saying the seating capacity is only 278 inside the council chamber.

A few people angrily protest. "They're changing the rules!" Jay Arena shouts out, drawing a deputy to order him to sit down. A few others rise to protest. "I"m tired of being walked on," a woman with an infant says.

"I'm not a slave," another woman says. "How you going to tell me to sit down."

9:50 a.m

The council chambers remains relatively quiet, as dozens of people are lined up outside to go through security. Backpacks aren't allowed, officers tell visitors. Protest signs are, but not any sticks they may be affixed to.

Some activists are offended by the security measures.

"They know when they're about to do something evil, they've got to protect themselves from the citizenry," said Endesha Jukali, an activist opposed to demolition.

9:15 a.m.

City Hall officials have posted police officers and a metal detector at the entrance to the council chambers, in anticipation of crowds protesting the demolition of public housing.

But the council chamber is only about one-third full and the scene is fairly quiet, as the newest council member, Jackie Clarkson, is sworn-in. The meeting will start at 10 a.m.

New Orleans police are guarding the entrance, having put up barricades herding all visitors into one line. Bags are being searched and each visitor had to make it through a metal detector before being allowed entrance.

The Housing Authority of New Orleans is asking the council today to approve demolition permits for the city's four largest public housing developments: St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, Lafitte, and B.W. Cooper. HANO wants to demolish 4,500 units of housing to make room for mixed-income neighborhoods.

The council's first order of business is the HANO demolition requests.