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The Little Way October 26, 2009

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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The peculiar virtue of New Orleans, like St. Theresa, may be that of the Little Way, a talent for everyday life rather than the heroic deed.”
— Walker Percy

This quote from a 1968 Harper’s Magazine article by noted local author Walker Perc7y is one that New Orleans writers keep coming back to. I last saw it in the book of essays My New Orleans edited by Rosemary James, and it just popped up again in a Conde’ Nast Traveler article on bars of New Orleans. Reading it again today tied together any number of things that have popped up in the newspapers and online in the last few days.

The first trigger and the fulcrum of this post was a column by an old colleague from West (not Wet) Bank Guide days Dennis Persica on living with Jack O’Lantern development in his Vista Park neighborhood, the same part of town where Tim of Tim’s Nameless Blog once lived, and was defeated trying to rebuild an elevated house on the site of his pre-flood home.

Jack O’Lantern development is not a nod to the season but the name some wit came up with the describe the problem of some people coming home and rebuilding while other around them did not. I think the general idea is that houses along a street would look like the intermittent teeth of your typical Halloween pumpkin. Fair enough. You have to describe it somehow. In many badly damaged places like Vista Park that is precisely what has happened. There were attempts to stop it, but most of them were bungled through political ineptitude.

In the early days after the flood, a panel put together by Mayor Ray Nagin called the Bring New Orleans Back committee spearheaded a first draft recovery plan that suggested condemning entire neighborhoods that were particularly flood prone to concentrate population is more sustainable areas. The first maps that came out put big green dots over areas devastated communities like Broadmoor, Gentilly Woods and the Ninth Ward. Many of these neighborhoods were also full of the working class poor who could afford to live no where else; no one suggested converting the low lying and upper middle class Lakeview to park space. (Except maybe me, who also once suggested that the city retreat behind the Industrial Canal and focus on saving its core. But that was a long time ago. No one listened to me then and reminding people of this will probably just piss them off again now. But I still think I was right).

The BNOB plan was roundly (and rightly) rejected by outraged citizens, helped in fact to spawn a wave of civic engagement and resident led planning. The Broadmoor Civic Association became the model for a self-organized recovery long before it was apparent that government was going to botch the job as badly as it has done. In every neighborhood including my own citizen planning groups sprung up or got themselves reorganized with new residents and members and began the Lambert planning process. I was myself housing chair of the Mid-City Recovery Planning Group (I think we finally called it, to keep it separate from the established neighborhood group).

This was all assembled under something called The Lambert Plan, the most democratic of the long alphabet soup of plans for the future of New Orleans. The Lambert Plan was then subsumed into the Unified New Orleans Plan, which attempted to squish the wishes of the residents into boxes carefully constructed by their political minders, including the state’s Louisiana Recovery Authority which was charged with signing off on the disbursement of recovery funds to the satisfaction of FEMA and Congress.

And now we are confronted with the latest challenge, the New Orleans Master Plan, which will attempt to cobble together from the long string of post-flood plans an over-arching plan that will guide all future zoning and development decision. I don’t know whether to yawn or scream.

Are you bored to tears yet? Are you still here? I’m amazed. If you visit this blog you probably know most of this at least in outline, and you know I don’t write about crap this like anymore like I used to on my old Wet Bank Guide blog. I don’t write about it because it is painful to think about. It is painful not because of its complexity, but because for one bright shinning moment in 2006 we all believed that the citizens would band together and build a better New Orleans, a utopia of level streets and buses than run on schedule.

Watching the unfolding of everything that came after uprising against BNOB, all the subsequent plans that tried to quash down the citizen drafted version, and my own planning fatigue reminds me for some reason of the scene at the end of the film 1900 when the U.S. Army asks the Italian Communist partisans to give up their weapons. I almost got tossed out of the Prytania Theatre once in my young, radical days for hollering at the screen, “don’t do it. Don’t let them take them!”

In the end planning fatigue finally overwhelmed all but the most resolute of warriors and the rest of us went home. Reading about the new Master Plan in the paper is like running into your ex-wife. Everyone is trying to be charming but either it had best be over quickly or it might get ugly. I voted against the master plan because we were asked to vote for the idea of a plan, that would have the force of law, before it was written.

Requiring us to vote to give the plan force of law was supposed to keep things in the hands of the Professional sand protect us from Corrupt Political Influences, but I am afraid in the end it will allow those precise and persistent influences, the people who over a cup of coffee and a handshake have managed to make zoning in the city near meaningless, to triumph over the weary populace.

After following this depressing train of thought all day, stopping to Google up a chronology of it all so I would not mangle my acronyms, the Percy quote landed in my lap to save me from despair. What happened to all of the energy and idealism of 2006 is this: it was swallowed by the city itself and put to other uses. In the end we spent our time patronizing re-opened restaurants and bars, reviving our carnival krewes and going out to second lines. We didn’t give up entirely on our civic duties, but our own Mid-City group turned inward and focused on the immediate and local concerns of the neighborhood. Rather than worry about reforming the NOPD we hired off duty cops to form a security district, and became more concerned with what the new Walgreens would look like instead of how the downtown medical complex will be rebuilt.

Perhaps Percy had us nailed back in 1968 and the sort of great struggle that appeared to be getting started in 2006 (think blocky socialist realistic figures doing heroic planning things) is beyond our capacity. We were not bred in the bone to that. Percy wrote over 40 years ago that New Orleans “has nurtured a great many people who live tolerably, like to talk and eat, laugh a good deal, manage generally to be civil and at the same time mind their own business. Such virtues may have their use nowadays.”

Perhaps they do, as we contemplate another bite at building a better New Orleans with all of the gruesome meetings run by insulting junior contractors with out of town architecture firms. it will take a whole lot of civility to survive another round of this. What is important is that in spite of a city government so dysfunctional it would shame the bureaucrats of Mogadishu, a new governor who doesn’t hide his contempt for the city, three years of the complete disregard of the last central government and a current regime too busy with other things to care, we have managed to make again a city we all recognize as home: long standing problems and all.

That doesn’t mean we will cheerfully live forever with our problems. Crime is out of control, basic infrastructure like drinking water is at the edge of collapse, and city government has saddled itself with obligations we will have no way to pay for once the federal disaster loans are played out. If we want to keep this city and it’s particular if not peculiar ambiance and charm, at some point that early uprising against the green dot plan will have to prove our Easter Rising, and we will have to be ready to settle down about the business of the real revolution to come. Until then, however, we have managed to settle back in comfortably to this unique place and get most of the pieces back where they belong, especially the ones that involve talking (read drinking) and eating. I just hope we can get ourselves up from the table when push comes to shove.

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