Thursday, November 02, 2006

We Are Our Own Worst Enemy

This is one of those days I feel discouraged and concerned, maybe a bit frightened about New Orleans. What bothers me most is that it's not because of an ineffective leader who can be easily replaced. It's the heart and soul of south Louisiana, the very neighbors I've never had a problem with.

Tonight I attended a Terrytown Civic Association meeting where our councilman Chris Roberts discussed an ordinance approved by the Jefferson Parish council to discourage the state from giving tax breaks to landlords renting to Section 8 individuals. Before he spoke, two folks from the Volunteers of America discussed early planning to build two 4-story buildings with 200 units total to house elderly and disabled people.

In a packed room of at least 100 people, I was the ONLY person voicing opposition to the effort to keep Section 8 people out of Gretna and Terrytown. Before I could finish my brief statements about the policy (that our efforts need to be geared more toward landlords and HUD enforcement of problems; most people with Sec. 8 vouchers are good, law abiding people; the success of mixed-income housing in other places when done right, etc.) I was shouted down by a crowd of people who were clearly fearful about something, based mostly on incorrect assumptions about "THEY" who live in subsidized housing and what some of the bigger root causes of poverty, crime, and blighted housing are. My goal is not to have things my way, but it seemed reasonable to question how is this divisive ordinance even going to resolve a problem.

It didn't bother me that they didn't agree with me. That's fine. What bothered me most is: 1) the complete lack of willingness to even hear alternate views or about initiatives that have been successful elsewhere; 2) a complete lack of civic responsibility for anyone who does not own a home in our neighborhood; and 3) the entrenched resistance to change and not an unwillingness to confront the core causes of blighted housing and crime -- but AN INABILITY to do so.

The Wet Bank Guide wrote a post a few weeks ago in which he rightfully asked for an apology for the Baton Rouge Advocate's portrayal of New Orleanians and our "dysfunctional civic culture."

I don't remember what the Advocate's story said but after tonight, I have to, in all honesty agree, that our dysfunctional culture is probably our number 1 obstacle to accomplishing much of anything, let alone the biggest rebuilding effort ever. Our collective dysfunctional attitude toward anything that is even the slightest bit unfamiliar or new is quite frankly pathological. I just moved back 3 months ago after being gone for 12 years, and tonight I was reminded of how we are most accountable, not for Katrina, but for the inability to be progressive or at least thoughtful about such civic issues. Those same weaknesses we had pre-K are playing a big part in recovery post-K. Quite frankly, if I were a Congressman watching that meeting, I'd go back to Washington not giving two shits about giving any sort of money for recovery or oil revenues to "those people down there in Louisiana."

I heard people talk about how devestating the storm was for them, and how the healthcare system is barely functional, and how hard life is -- but in the same breath ask "where are 'these' people going to be coming from" as if they didn't know there are still about 500,000 people in the region who can't come home yet. When I said many of us ourselves will need supportive housing as elderly persons, a woman said "not us, we wouldn't qualify," as if the lesson of Katrina that no one is guaranteed anything was completely lost on her and those agreeing with her.

This irrational fear and xenophobia that does and at the same time doesn't stem from race issues is alarming to me. The obvious racial element to this issue would be a different post by itself, because it is there whether or not people recognize it. Frankly, I expect the race thing to always be here to deal with as long as I'm alive and it would have been much easier to deal with that, but the general paranoia, misinformation, assumptions, xenophobia, and plain old stubborness of my very neighbors in a neighborhood I love and still do is a bigger beast for me to fight.

I'm discouraged; I'm concerned; but now I'm even more resolved to the fact that it will take a new guard to really make things in this city happen. The old guard didn't help us much before K, so they sure can't help us now because they are as irrational as their constituents. I think that if this region is going to make a comeback, and comeback stronger, it can only be done with radical change that will quite frankly alienate alot of people -- at least until those changes lead to improved quality of life for them.


Mark said...

Ah, but that was not the dysfunctional culture the Advocate was complaining about, which specifically attacked the current city leadership.

This particular bit of dysfunction has a name--racism--and is going to continue to be a problem. We just went through this in Mid-City with scores of people who've made a choice to live in a racially and income mixed neighborhood, who were dead set against a badly needed apartment complex because it would include moderate income renters (who would have to be employed, pass a credit check and a criminal backround check).

The neighborhood overwhelmingly approved it after two weeks of loud meetings and occasionally ugly emails. So, we can get past it if we invest the time.

The West Bank (and to some extent St. Bernard, and I worked in both places for years) are slightly different. These are people who made a concious decision to live in racially segregated communites (at least to the extent legally possible in the U.S. today) and and bound and determined to try to keep it that way.

That problem I have no perscription for, except the same one we just tried in Mid-City: keep talking until cooler heads prevail. Its just going to take longer in Metairie.

If you want to change the subject, have a handful of people who support this round up a lot of displaced elderly people to come to the next meeting waving their canes and asking why Councilmember X doesn't want them to come home. Hell, if you can pull that off, I want to come and watch. It's always fun to watch politicians squirm.

slate said...

I lived on Algiers Point for yr and a half. Most of the people there were lovely, but. . . .

What I noticed was that as the Point was perfectly gentrified, some owners started renting out Section 8. My husband and I had raging arguments about this because he thought it could work, I said it would never work as planned. My reason? I noticed that a homeowner who lived in his home, was less likely to make friends with, socialize with, or anything else with, the Section 8 families two doors down, thus completely negating the concept of mixed income neighborhoods. I'd sit on my front porch and you could see the quiet, unspoken divide. A great concept that unfortunately is beholden to human beings with their own prejudices for its success or failure.

The further down the Westbank we went, we saw more racism. Again, mostly quiet, but definitely there.

Somewhere in my blog (I'll try to track it down for you) is a story of one of our neighbors and his attempt to get across the Gretna bridge to his house, just blocks away. (The house, btw, was perfectly okay.) He was black, he wasn't coming over, he wound up in Utah.

Even the Walgreen's there on the Westbank Expressway was very much watching black people when they walked in the doors once they were re-opened after the storm. Again, quiet, but there.

One of the reasons (there were many) that we moved from the Westbank WAS that quiet racism, and classism. One guy who lived across the street from us, a white guy, homeowner and a real macho cracker, was happy to take black people's money, either in his bar or by finding bizarre ways to short their checks from his "contracting" business (a business that was instantly up and running after the storm--just add water and stir, no real experience needed.) He'd say, "You lost that hammer, that's why your check is short 40 bucks!" He finally started hiring Hispanics, he could rant and rave and they didn't know what he was saying. It was horrible.

We also heard what he was saying, usually at top volume when he thought only white people were around. We couldn't take it.

I agree with Mark on this. At the root, certainly in Terrytown, Gretna, Marrerro, is racism.

I do love his idea of rounding up some seniors and heading for the meeting. It's a great idea.

E.J. said...

Mark, the idea about the seniors is a great idea! LOL I might just do that. Thanks for clarifying what the Advocate said. I think there's a connection between the old guard of the N.O. city council & the rabid Terrytown residents, the former being Black and the latter being White. I think they are both manifestations of our dysfunctional civic culture that has usurped race relations as our achilles heel, because it has in some twisted way engulfed people of all races.

At some point during that meeting last night, I realized that few of those in support of banning Section 8 had probably even made friends with people who live in subsidized housing. Just like Slate said. The chasm remains because "those people" have never been seen as our neighbors nor welcomed to our neighborhood. Maybe this is splitting hairs but I don't think it's worse on the Westbank; I think N.O. is an island of relatively more openness to interaction in the middle of south Louisiana where people are more like Westbankers than like New Orleanians. BUT the difference isn't that huge, and I think that much of the cross-race interaction stems more from resignation to rather than openness to such interaction.

Most of all though, I think it's telling that we can't talk about "low income" people without linking that designation to Black people.