The problem with gentrification

First, the problem with complaining about gentrification. People rightly complain that depressed inner city neighborhoods need economic development, not bigger prisons, to address crime and poverty. But as soon as economic development gains traction in a particular neighborhood, the same people rally against “gentrification.” The fact is, “gentrification” and “economic development” are two terms for the same phenomenon, viewed from different vantage points. You can’t wish for one and reject the other. You can’t reject gentrification wholesale unless you’re willing to accept poverty as a better alternative. The sooner this is recognized, the better chance that a neighborhood can get ahead of the curve on its economic growing pains instead of spending time grumbling and shaming.

This is not to say that gentrification doesn’t raise legitimate grievances. Looking at the case of New Orleans* on the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, USA Today described how the African-American population declined as post-Katrina ferment ushered in a “stream of educated professionals to the city flush with new ideas and energy.” This is a genuine concern with an impact on the core identity of the city. But if we skip the “complaint” phase and go straight to the question of where to go from here, it really comes down to one choice: either (1) eliminate the “stream of educated professionals to the city flush with new ideas and energy” and go back to pre-Katrina material conditions — which often meant poverty or at least a dearth of economic and educational opportunity — as a permanent plan, or (2) harness the long-term educational and economic opportunities of these passionate young innovators while coming up with housing programs and policies that protect locals in the meantime.

It seems to me that # 2 (“harnessing”) offers more to the next generation of local kids. Sure, you need to do something about skyrocketing rents that price long-term tenants out of the neighborhood. (Long-term homeowners are different, as even those of modest means generally benefit from the increase in their property values.) Some kind of rent control, or at least government freezing of real estate taxes (for participating landlords and resident homeowners alike) and insurance (via vouchers), could help fight the destabilizing process that often accompanies economic development. Likewise, zoning laws need work to prevent architectural character from being wiped out by new-construction cube condos. But other than that, you really have to go with a vibrant neighborhood at the risk of higher rent over a permanently depressed neighborhood with perpetually cheap rent. You might not like the gourmet donut shop or new yoga center, but turning away all enthusiasm and investment in order to keep the rents down does no service to those next-generation kids. By all means protest income inequality and its spawn of social problems, protest the excesses of the 1%, work for greater equality, but don’t vandalize locally owned startups by middle-class entrepreneurs like the St. Roch Market in New Orleans or Cereal Killer in East London. Better to talk to your neighbors, old and new, talk to business owners (most of whom want good relations with neighbors) and to your city council person about how to get through the economic growing pains with minimal damage to neighborhood continuity.

*The Katrina example is of course a broad-brush view of gentrification, which may vary by neighborhood. Typically, artsy types move in for the cheap rent, leading to a bohemian renaissance of sorts, pricing out some of the traditional renters, in turn attracting wealthier professionals who enjoy the cultural arts but are themselves pay grades above the “starving artists” they admire, resulting in an exodus of creative free spirits for the next low-rent neighborhood. But, again, some neighborhoods skip the middle steps or take different paths. (For a somewhat different view by a professional urban geographer, see Richard Campanella’s “Gentrification and Its Discontents: Notes from New Orleans,” in New Geography.)

Trump-Sanders Debate Stirs Controversy

Donald Trump, recent winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts to relocate millions of Mexicans and Moslems to countries outside of the U.S., turned to his real forte, economics, in last night’s debate against Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT and Democratic presidential candidate).

In his opening statement, Mr. Sanders began with a gambit designed to confound Mr. Trump: the introduction of nuance. Sanders remarked that the U.S. is 30% socialist and Germany 46% socialist, that being the respective portion of the economies controlled by government spending.

“Statistics don’t matter,” said Trump, “I’ll hire the best people to fill me in on all that after I’m elected. What matters is that they’re all a bunch of socialists. Germany is killing us. China is killing us. They’re killing us because our leaders are stupid. When I’m president, we’re going to make America great again. No socialist state is going to have a chance against us.”

Sanders offered that China was not Germany, and that the socialist framework in Germany was a guarantor of middle class stability and prosperity.

This brought a thunderous rebuke from Trump. “You speak of Germany’s middle class,” he cried, “but they are a people without freedom. In the year before Obamacare, over a million and a half Americans freely exercised their right to go bankrupt or lose their life savings over health care. Germany? Not one person. And now with Obamacare we’re headed in the same direction. Countless middle-class Americans last year were free to go into lifelong debt through college loans. In Germany, none. Socialist policies force every man and woman in Germany into six weeks of vacation a year, where Americans are typically free to work 50 out of 52 weeks. That’s what you get with your socialism.”

Trump asked Sanders directly if he did not now regret supporting such socialist policies as a progressive income tax, Pell grants for college, job training programs, environmental protection, and public education.

“These are the policies,” rejoined Sanders, “that have given everyone a shot, white, black, men and women.”

“A shot!” boomed Trump. “Carly Fiorina might need a shot to get over being hit with an ugly stick, but for you, a socialist, to dare come on this stage and talk about shots! Every socialist’s dream is to take away our freedom by taking away our guns. Look at your beloved Germany. I have some facts, too,” Trump said with an impish grin as he pulled out his flash cards.

“Germany has about 200 gun-related homicides a year? I don’t see much free use of guns in that pitiful number. We Americans have over 10,000 gun-related homicides a year. Lump in other gun deaths and we Americans are up to 33,000 dead from firearms each year. I could show you one city of 300,000 with more gun homicides than all of Germany. Tick off a couple of fry cooks at a south side Chicago McDonald’s, and you’ll see as much shooting damage in one day as the whole damn country of Germany sees in a year. What’s an unarmed German supposed to do when some beer-bellied white trash at the Waffle House compares his wife to a Mack truck? This is America and we’re not going to take that kind of shxx here.”

During this harangue, Trump had come over and seized Sanders’s microphone. Sanders stood down and waited patiently at first, but then wandered off mumbling something about “Lil B” and “a Cherry Garcia somewhere with my name on it.” Let his dishonorable exit be a lesson to those flirting with socialism. What true, flag-waving American would go to Ben and Jerry’s for ice cream when he or she could get something called “ice cream” at any one of the three Wal-Marts within a mile and a half of the house?

And finally, as my editors have enjoined me to close on a “fair and balanced” note, let me say that I hope the press attacks and belittles Mr. Sanders for speaking LIES that would DESTROY AMERICA with the same vigor with which they attacked and belittled Mr. Trump for speaking the TRUTH that would MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.

On Cultural Appropriation

With the “cultural appropriation” meme, the political wheel has turned full circle, with liberals adopting the separate-but-equal style of Civil Rights era segregationists – put walls around “my” culture and make it off limits to others (or at least make them sign in before touching). As a 1960s-based liberal, I carry the integrationist torch to an extreme that must horrify today’s liberals and conservatives equally. I advocate every form of cultural appropriation in every direction. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Distrust any form of liberalism (or conservatism) that says we need to respect walls of separation.

Trump’s charisma

Donald Trump’s rise shows a nation woefully descending into a “cult-of-personality” politics that prefers “charisma” over “policy substance.” So says Wall Street Journal columnist, Bret Stephens (8/31/15). It is true that a good chunk of the electorate, especially in the GOP, fed up with politicians and unacquainted with policy nuance, finds Trump’s brash style and showy disregard for political correctness sufficient grounds for support. I don’t know if that counts as “charisma,” but if it does, Stephens shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve always put charisma over ideas. That’s why we can flip-flop from Reagan to Clinton to Geo. W. Bush to Obama. The common thread is clearly not ideology. But Obama had charisma over McCain and Romney, Bush looked charismatic with his guy-next-door grin beside the wooden Gore or feckless Kerry. Reagan had charisma in spades over his much smarter opponents. And Clinton’s “aw shucks” swagger could charm the pants off … well, you get the point. This charisma fetish may apply to any democracy without a universally educated populace but is perhaps increasingly acute in the America of reality TV and radio demagoguery, where a good education (if you can still afford it) will get you scarlet lettered as “cultural elite” and cost you that one big break you might have had on the Jerry Springer show.

The Dull Days of Hurricane Katrina

If you’re looking for high drama, sensational Hurricane Katrina stories are easy to find. But for many of us, reality was less exciting This diary is not to diminish the pain of those who suffered real trauma, but gives a daily account of what it was like for me and my 70-year-old mom.

Sunday, August 28

I took the only precautions I ever take for hurricanes: moved in all the patio furniture and nailed a board across my front screen door. Walking toward Mom’s house past the row of 100-year-old, wooden frame houses, I see that more people than usual are fleeing town. Don and Karen, perennial throwers of the hurricane party, are already in their car.

“Hey Don,” I say, “Where we gonna get our finger food and drinks for the hurricane?”

“Forget about us,” says Don. “They say it’s a category 5. Good luck!”

“Good luck, y’all, too.”

Mom’s house, a corner double, has a cracked window on the street side. Flailing around on the ladder, I patch it with cardboard and duct tape. Then we nail a few ill-fitting boards on windows.

“You think it’ll keep the debris out?” asks Mom. “Hell,” I say, “The way we got it up, we’re probably just providing our own debris.” We laugh at ourselves and go in for coffee. Mom comforts her two dogs. They are beginning to feel some anxiety. I plunk a few batteries down on the table. “That’s all I’ve got.” “That’s OK, honey,” says Mom. “I’ve got everything we need.”

About 5 p.m., Valerie, a Spanish teacher from the Canary Islands, comes over. She doesn’t want to stay alone. Of course, she can stay here for the night, and the storm will be over by early afternoon. But she begins to panic. I drive her just before curfew to the Superdome pickup site. Other citizens are at the pickup site, but no signs or officials. No one seems to know what’s going on, but Valerie chooses to stay there. I get home ten minutes after curfew.

As the night falls, I sit on the porch reading Jane Eyre and watching the storm blow in. Gusts of wind and sprays of mist become more frequent. I know somewhere houses will be ravaged and lives may be lost, and yet the thrill of the storm strikes some deep aesthetic register and I cannot help but love it.

Monday, August 29

Daybreak comes with heavy wind and rain, and the storm makes slow work of our neighbor Antonia’s shed. “There goes another piece,” Mom keeps saying. Antonia’s siding begins to peel like shavings off a pencil. Mom and I watch from the kitchen. She makes us some coffee and fries up a little something to eat as we watch and listen to everything outside.

The storm recedes in the early afternoon The neighborhood looks good, just a few shingles missing here and there. My car sits unscratched. I take note of damages in my house: awnings blown away, balcony screen door mangled, a breach with a bit of water damage inside. Katrina was not so bad. My neighbor, Johnny, calls from Oklahoma and I tell him all is fine. Another neighbor, Willie, calls more desperate. He and Charlene went to Baptist Hospital for shelter at the last minute, leaving Petunia the pot-bellied pig in the house. “Petunia’s fine,” I say. “No water.”

About an hour later, we lose all phone communication and, oddly, there is no rain but about an inch of water in the street. Then two inches. Then four. I move my car to the sidewalk, where it will be about 8 inches higher. Stacy and her thirteen-year-old stepson, Raymond, check out the water, too, but we are all innocent of alarm and I go back to Mom’s.

A few hours later it is too late to move my car. The water is only mid-wheel but the street corners on either side are too deep. Dan, Vicky, and a handful of twenty-somethings splash by with their two dogs. We exchange a joke, a laugh, and half-baked theories on where the water is coming from and when it will go down. I go back to Mom’s and eat yesterday’s mashed potatoes and a boiled egg.

Tuesday, August 30

The water is still slowly rising. It’s about three feet in front of Mom’s house, but her house is four feet off the ground. We hear of a breach in the 17th Street Canal levee. We’re unsure of the full implications.

I trudge through the waters to survey the neighborhood. About two or three families are still on each block, each saying to “come over if you run out of water.” A neighbor occasionally comes by in a skiff or canoe, taking the dogs to City Park or the Orleans Avenue neutral ground, where there are patches of dry land. When you walk toward Delgado Community College it gets shallower. Delgado (the main building) is dry, and fire and police have moved in. Neighbors mull around the Delgado lawn as a kind of central point and sleep in the halls if necessary. In the days after the storm, in fact, I would become friends with many neighbors I’d seen for the last couple of years but never took the time to meet. Mel, the music industry engineer who’d drive back to L.A. right now if he could get to his car in the high-rise parking lot at the foot of Veterans Highway, just on the other side of the 17th Street Canal in Jefferson Parish. Henry, the biker-type, single parent of twin girls, presently sharing his porch with the girls and another neighbor.

Mom and I go back to my house. My fridge and sofa are now bobbing like ice cubes among my books and records and Rachael’s toys and stuffed animals. We return to Mom’s and at dusk the water seems to have crested but we are unsure. It is about six inches from entry into Mom’s house. We’d better take the dogs to a neighbor’s second-story, stone porch, high above any floodwaters. We float flashlights, water, towels, radio, and necessities in the plastic sandbox Mom keeps for little Albert, and go down the block. The dogs half-swim; we half-carry them. The water carries a palpable smell of gasoline now. Bugs, and we suspect red ants, populate the surface.

We settle in on the stone porch. Linda, the owner, has evacuated. Despite the mosquitoes and other, less recognizable, bugs, we don’t feel desperate enough to break in. Mom and I notice the beautiful star-filled sky, an impossible sight in a city electrified with light. The staccato chop of helicopters interrupts the stillness at regular intervals.

A twentyish neighbor arrives in the dark at the house next door with a canoe clipped from the City Park boat dock. He offers to take us anywhere and asks if we want to come into his house. “No, we’re OK for now,” says Mom. “We’ll see tomorrow.”

Wednesday, August 31

We wade home at daybreak and I notice something in the window. “Look, Mom. My cardboard patch is still up on the window.” I am absurdly proud. “Ain’t that something,” Mom says.

The house no longer has gas or running water. We have about four days of food and drinking water left. We can dump water from outside or from the bathtub we filled Sunday night to flush the toilet if necessary. Still I am not worried about us. We can move about the area, and neighbors and firemen periodically come by in boats. I am worried about my daughter, who evacuated with her mom to Houston. Communication has been cut off since before the floodwaters came. She will be wondering day and night if her Dad is dead.

I walk down to Delgado. Everyone has their watermarks. Some say the water is rising, some say it’s going down. At Delgado, the firemen are pulling up stakes to relocate. They will take in boats anyone who wants to get out. I return to Mom’s, and Mom wants to know what I think.

“They said bodies only, no luggage, and yesterday they wouldn’t say where they were going. I’m going to take my daypack and walk down. If they say for sure they’re going to Metairie or Baton Rouge or Lafayette, and not the Superdome or Convention Center, if they let me take my pack, I’m going out to find Rachael. Any ambiguity, I’m coming back.”

“I’m staying here with the dogs,” says Mom. “But I’ll walk you down.”

When my little boat reaches the 17th St Canal at the foot of Veterans, the view in one direction, the Orleans side, shows an open sea with boats zigzagging around the occasional rooftop jutting up. Turning toward Jefferson Parish, it is totally dry land, bicyclers, people walking their dogs, emergency vehicles moving in and out of a staging area.

I walk through the staging area, bypassing the buses and planning to hitchhike out.  I look up at the high-rise parking garage at the foot of Veterans. Just this morning, Mel had damned all boats to hell and said he’d wait until he could walk the railroad trestle to Veterans and get his own car. If only he knew that the boats were going directly there.

Then I saw him. Mel himself, jaunting through the staging area. Some information must have trickled through the chain. He sets out for Los Angeles and I hop in for a ride to Houston. Another mid-city resident, Eddie, hops in the back seat with a near-empty bottle of tequila. But either the storm or the tequila is too much for him. The anticlimax of escape becomes more heavy and dull with each sip, and he gets out in Lake Charles, determined to go back and look for his girlfriend and her child, somewhere in New Orleans East.

“Jesus, Mel,” I say. “One black sock, one white sock, my Mom’s yard slippers, and nothing to change into.”

Mel is fiddling with the CD player.

“Mel, my feet stink. I mean, really stink.”

“I know,” says Mel. “Look. Texas state line. Damn. 890 miles to other side of Texas. I’ll stay in San Antonio tonight.”

“You want to stay with us tonight in Houston, assuming I can find them?”

“No. I’ll make it to San Antonio.”

Thursday, September 1

In Houston, I find incredible generosity everywhere I go and incredible distortion every time I turn on the television. Media coverage of the hurricane well displays the magnitude of the disaster but completely misrepresents the demeanor of the vast majority of New Orleanians on the street. To create the desired image of a “City in Chaos,” the media took the one sliver of the city that was most violent before, during, and after the storm, piled on a few rumors, and presented that as the norm, a city ubiquitous with racially-tinged violence. What was left out was what was going on in most of the city, in neighborhoods like mine: black and white kids canoeing down the street together to see if anyone needed help, families sharing food and water on porches, incredibly resourceful people helping strangers, people taking their dogs to the dry patches to swap stories and rumors about when the water will go down, who’s going to leave and who’s going to stay.

Epilogue: Sunday, September 4

I had not heard from Mom, so Saturday I went back from Houston with an inflatable raft to see if I could cross the three concentric parish (county) line roadblocks and get her and the dogs. I had negotiated a way past the first roadblock and into St. Charles parish when news came that Mom was discovered 150 miles west in Opelousas at a campground with Uncle Al and Paula (and 7 dogs, 2 cats, and a rabbit). Rescue mission aborted. Checked on Mary’s property in Covington and visited Mom at the campground. Uncle Al was happier than I’d ever seen him, with his raggedy folding chairs and his supply tent set up and his truck full of toilet paper and junk food, freed from all the aggravation of modern conveniences. Paula and Mom were equally adaptable and happy to stay there for as long as it takes. Now I’m back in Houston and planning a trip to Austin, where some old friends have their eyes on a couple of used cars for me.