Friday, June 12, 2015

AirBnB: Short Term Rentals, A Different Kind of Blight

Well, looks like the folks in San Francisco are upset with AirBnB and their City Council. The council voted to table a bill regarding home sharing, much to the chagrin of many residents who have in any case, decided to take matters into their own hands via referendum. In NYC landlord's are doing all they can to kick everyone in rent controlled apartments out using some pretty shabby methods.

Meanwhile, here in New Orleans things are seemingly out of control in terms of AirBnb and the loss of affordable housing, and it happened almost over night. I have friends in the Marigny who tell me our former local watering hole now has virtually no regulars anymore, or at least not ones I'd recognize. They've moved across the street and elsewhere. One friend said, “I don't have the right clothes and my (gauged) jewelry scares them.” I'm guessing there are fewer gossamer winged girls in green wigs and tall bikes parked on the corner of Franklin and Royal now too.

I lived two blocks from Esplanade in the Marigny for about three years, an area I loved. It was perfect proximity to every place I needed to be or wanted to go. The rent was high even then, the yard was huge and high maintenance but the block was pretty close knit. Everyone said hello, or helped with the feral cat trapping and releasing, or mourned when one of the old timers passed on. We weathered Gustav there, playing blackjack at Buffa's after the storm passed while all the food in their freezer and everyone else's was cooked and eaten. In 2009 a friend asked if we wanted to move into a house he had just inherited. It was much deeper in the Marigny, nearly to Bywater. “It's across Elysian Fields for crying out loud!” I said, and anyone who knows me well is nodding right now. It was smaller, had a less maintenance heavy yard, and it was nearly $400 cheaper per month. Well, sorta. We had to now pay a water bill, but whatever. I didn't want to move but move we did. I asked him why he was living in Da Parish instead of this cute little house? “Because there are too many black people here,” came the answer. I was frankly shocked but I wrote the check.

Once moved in it was tough for a while. I missed my neighbors. I missed my perfect central proximity. I missed hearing the Mac35 band practicing as I could at my old house, but learned to love the sound of the trains. I made friends with the place and the people on the block pretty quickly. Sure, it took ten more minutes to get to Lafayette Square for the Wednesday music, but not a real problem. My hips had a bit more cartilage then. We spent Hurricane Isaac there, getting word of a swim party a block up and cold beer at the Lost Love Lounge while we waited for Entergy. As a Krewe du Vieux member, the closeness to the Den was great if I had to stagger home after a fundraiser. My home bar changed from Buffa's to Mimi's, and although I felt underdressed and over-aged there at first, I met the regulars and became a known quantity—if I left my card they'd just add their tip and wait for me to show up because they knew I would. It became our sub-krewe's second home as the upstairs gave us privacy to act like idiots at the pre-parade party, munching pizza and chicken, drinking whatever crazy ass brew the manager who loved us made in gigantic quantities, and tossing glitter all over each other before we had to line up. Book signings, memorial services, celebrations, “haven't seen you in forEVER” gatherings, sad days, happy days, all the basic parts of life seemed to happen on our porch, inside Mimi's, on a wobbly chair at Flora Coffeehouse. Just sitting there for an hour would bring someone you knew to holler at, and more than likely they'd lock up their bike and sit down for a while to catch up. We showed pictures of our dogs to each other, bitched about the prices at the local store, passed on gossip, and gathered there at 8AM on Mardi Gras morning to roll out with St. Ann. The neighborhood was comfortable. It was home with a capital H.

Every year the rent rose, eventually coming only $50 bucks from the rent I'd been convinced to move there to escape. Homeowners taxes had gone up for sure. Insurance rates had been rising. Everyone I knew was hanging tight as their rents rose little by little. Then in January 2014 the friend who owned the house dropped a bombshell: His new girlfriend hated Da Parish, thought the Marigny was chic, and we had to go. He was in love and they were moving in. I missed the “love” part as I couldn't hear it through the white noise of panic and dread. The lease was technically up, and had reverted to month to month. Nothing could be done, so after the tears abated, the search began in earnest. The realities of a new deposit and first month's rent while paying rent at home was daunting. It couldn't have been done without a friend's help. Feelers were put out on Facebook, friends were asked to keep an eye out (and so very many of them did my email box was chock full of possible leads), “for rent” signs on houses were checked out. I scoured Craigslist while simultaneously packing. Mardi Gras came early that year, complicating the logistics. The sense of anger and betrayal seemed to hang like a fog over all of it. Of course he owned the place, of course he had the right, but the rent had always been paid on time, maintenance had been done so as not to bother him with little stuff, great landscapers were called after Isaac to save a tree paid for out of pocket because it was the right thing to do and it was home. Swallowing hard, the search for a new roof overhead was on. I actively avoided the sense of uprootedness. I'd deal with that later.

The “looking” sucked. I don't have to tell any of you. You've all been there. Too late for this one, reject that one, oh my god this one has a hole in the floor and they want how much? No dogs? No cats? We're screwed?

Just then an old friend called, who had rented our earlier Marigny house to us. The one we had forsaken for cheaper rent. “Meet me in the Quarter at 8AM.” What? Morning drinking? “No. I have the perfect place for you.” He did. After skittering across town on frosty streets the day the city froze the key was turned in the gate and there it was. At $50 less than what we were now paying for the “cheaper place” we called home, the papers were signed on the spot. I thought I'd dreamed it. The nightmare that is moving ensued, the logistics of moving to the Quarter around Mardi Gras were surmounted, amazing friends pitched in at every turn. One day I walked out of the gate and a tourist asked if I lived here, I thought she meant New Orleans, she meant in the Quarter, I wasn't sure how to answer her. No one with any sense looks for a place in the Quarter, but here I was, a total long time Marigny dweller being looked at as a lucky bitch who came out that gorgeous gate. I couldn't deny it. I was lucky. Very very lucky.

It was an adjustment for sure, but here I am 15-16 months out while the neighbors on my old block are now knee deep in AirBnB's. (Or Homeaway/VRBO/Craigslist, whatever vacation rental sites there are out there for short term rentals.) A sea change on one block, actually one block of one street, in that short length of time.

I was slow on the uptake. When I first moved to the other side of the world, I mean, the Marigny, the neighbors had their niece staying in the small shed like building out back. It was in a lovely yard, the shed had been nicely furnished, and she said she had left her home elsewhere, moved here to her uncle's house and was doing some housekeeping for him and his partner til she found a job. We'd talk a little as I pulled the stubborn vines that had overgrown the fence for years, and she swept her uncle's stoop. We'd exchange pleasantries and comment on the weather, we'd yell at our respective dogs to quit barking at the mailman. After a few months she was gone. Last time I saw her she told me she had found that job and moved. After that I noticed a different car in the driveway, a different guy coming out of the back apartment. A little more building and tweaking of the backyard. A week later another guy, another terse “I'm a friend of ____ here on business” as he headed out the gate at a fast determined clip. One warm night, I had brought a beer home from Mimi's, plopped down on my stoop and a beautiful woman swathed in multi-colored scarves with an unidentifiable accent sort of floated by with a soft soprano hello as she disappeared toward the backyard. An SUV would suddenly appear in the front yard driveway overnight and disappear just as suddenly. It was months before I figured out what was going on. Mostly it was unobtrusive and the rest of our friends on the block were still hanging on their stoop, our stoop or watching the game with us in the living room, so nothing seemed really amiss. The neighbors with the merry go round friends coming to stay were amiable and cordial but aloof from the regular shenanigans of the rest of us.

On the upriver side of the street there were two renters, including us I think, but the other homes were owner occupied, although one was occupied only intermittently during Mardi Gras or a Fest. On the other side of the street there were more renters as the buildings were multi-unit dwellings. One of the largest of them had, however, been purchased and apparently had been in Architectural Digest or something. It was supposedly a large loft but most of what I knew was conjecture as that owner/occupant also wasn't swilling Jameson's in our living room yelling obscenities at referees during football season.

That one street, on one side of the block, now has 5 AirBnB's, three of them in a row, the entire middle part of that block, and two on the other side of the street. Five. That's only one side of one four sided block. According to the completely unreliable AirBnB maps (I'll explain about their unreliablility in a bit.) if you follow that block one block toward the river, there are three more, go one block toward the lake and there are at least 5 more (counting both up and downriver sides of the street). That gives that three block section of ONE street a total of 13 AirBnB's, and that's at a minimum. (In fact, rumor has it that the ratty old shed at our old home is now an “elegant renovated cottage”: renovated and listed within a year.)

I am only using AirBnB's map for these numbers. Some of the short term rentals are listed on multiple sites, like VRBO, Homeaway (which I believe is some sort of offshoot of VRBO), vacationhomerentals.com, and Craigslist along with listing it on AirBnB, although I'm sure that that isn't a complete list of short term rental sites. Another trick I've noticed is some people (people I know are definitely short term renting) obfuscate their actual street location to keep neighbors from finding their listings. Once you click on a listing, you might get a street name, and a vague circle on the map in terms of general location, but most of them keep their actual street address off any public listings. Some would be pretty easy to find if they show an exterior shot of the house, others only show the interior of the space to be rented, and some are converted sheds or add ons that wouldn't necessarily be seen from the street. For all of these reasons, the AirBnB home map is unreliable as a definitive tool for counting the number of these rentals per block. The numbers are most certainly greater than what can be found on AirBnB's site alone.

Back to my old block, there are five confirmed on a one block section of one street. (These are confirmed by neighbors still in the neighborhood if not on that block.) If we start multiplying that by all four sides of a block, the numbers are certainly much higher than I would have thought. After seeing that, I decided to go look at the area of our first Marigny rental which was about two blocks off of Esplanade.

Again, understanding that some of these are listed so as to obfuscate their actual locations, my old block seems to only have two, although if you headed toward the river and turned right or left, you'd find two more in short order, one in each direction. Go down further into the Marigny Triangle and you'll see a sea of red placards with prices on them, the deeper you go the more they proliferate. Here's a shot of 16 of them between Esplanade and Touro, just barely above Burgundy and just below Dauphine. The further toward the river you go, the denser it gets, then start heading toward Elysian Fields. They appear like poppies in the field on the way to Oz.


Are all these short term rental people homeowners? Possibly, but probably not. For some folks it's a business. I learned that when I moved into the Quarter.

When I walked through that iron gate on that cold day in February 2014 there were actually two places for rent in this building: one inside the building and one detached way back in the courtyard. I live in the detached building. The one inside the building was smaller, but gorgeous and definitely still in the realm of affordable (not pre-K affordable but post-K affordable, all things being relative.) My idea of affordable housing is “can my bartender afford it?” If the answer is yes, even if it's with a room mate, it falls into the affordable category. I'd prefer the no room mate scenario, but I am a realist. After moving in, I was out one night checking out the local watering hole. On my way back home I noticed a young woman, excited eyes, map in hand, suitcase on wheels, peering up at the building's gated front door and row of doorbells. I helpfully asked her if she needed directions, she suddenly looked wary and said she was “staying with a friend” in the building. I said ok and went in the side gate. Minutes later I heard her walk through the front door of the building (it echoes) and she disappeared inside the first apartment.

As time went on, this happened more frequently: some person or persons would appear outside the building, look bemused and confused, sometimes making a call, having a short conversation, then entering the building. One day the communal trash was overflowing with hand grenade containers and other party down stuff. Another day the trash had a chair sitting in front of it that clearly had had a difficult evening. One afternoon a young man, sitting in the courtyard with four other young folks, all nice kids, was overheard saying to one of his companions, “I'm not sure when she's coming with the other key.” I went down and asked them who they were. They told me they were “______'s friends from college.” Well I'd met _____ and it had probably been a while since she'd been in college. The kids were all staying there for spring break and had been told to tell anyone that asked the college friend story. This went on for months, not every week, not every weekend, but a lot. The building is keyed so that one key opens both gates. Are they returning these keys, I wondered? Are they out there floating around?

Then came the locked in Ecuadorian housekeepers. At least I think that's where they said they were from. One was inside the building and the apartment with enough supplies to clean a hospital ward, while the other was locked outside on the sidewalk. Neither had a key to the gate, the interior door, or the door to the apartment itself. I asked how they had gotten in. One answered in broken English that the “Mister ____” had let them in and was supposed to be coming back at some point. I asked if they knew where Mister ____ was and they pointed vaguely in the direction of the bar. (As far as I knew, there WAS no “Mister” living there.) I went over and asked the barkeep if he knew who I was talking about as the bartender knows me. No he didn't. The two women would have been locked up, one in one out, until someone happened along to spring them, in this case I did.

Finally I started searching. Was this really what I thought or was I wrong? If it was being used as a short term rental, what should I do about it? First I had to prove to myself that I wasn't going to be upsetting a person's life based on conjecture, not to mention when you live in close quarters, folks need to get along so I wasn't going to start accusing anyone of anything.

I started with the address. No dice. The obfuscation I mentioned happening in the Marigny was happening here. I did find tons of AirBnB listings within a two block area of my house. One of the biggest eye openers was that in my search for confirmation of what was going on in my building, I found a few people who had multiple listings. One guy has four “entire house/apt” listings in a six block area. What I learned is that these folks go in as prospective tenants, rent the unit, sign the lease, pay the deposits, then trick them out and promptly list them on AirBnb. Another guy I found had six units he was listing. (BTW these are NOT your standard apartment management companies, these are individuals posing as renters, taking stock off the market.) There was an incredibly expensive place for rent in the huge building next door, and the woman who manages that one told me that even with the rent for the unit at $2000 (how much you say?), someone asked to rent it telling her up front that he meant to turn it into a short term rental. She said absolutely not and was frankly flabbergasted, but then I told her about some of the folks I'd found with multiple units. She's been managing buildings in the Quarter for years and had no idea people were signing multiple leases in order to turn a profit on the units. She, of course, knew about AirBnB and the issues around that, but she was as astonished as I was that people were making a career out of it.

So I keep looking. I find it. Yep. She's doing AirBnB. She's a nice young woman. She's talented. She has a young kid and a dog. She's creative. I find that she has two listings, one in the most unexpected place, somewhere out in the Carrollton area, but inside, not on Carrollton but close to the streetcar line (something she pointed out in her listing). On a “General” Somebody street. (That listing has lately disappeared so I don't know if she's living in that one or gave that one up.) So clearly she's doing this as an income generator. I get it. We're so not rich. We go from week to week, Entergy bill to Entergy bill, like everyone else. I'm not interested in screwing someone over. However, this is my security at issue. This is the other tenants' security at issue. This is a NEIGHBOR issue. Who the hell is your neighbor? The person you think it is or the person your neighbor is renting to—for two or four days?

I grew up in the late 60's early 70's. I don't “narc” on someone. I have issues with ratting someone out. If you grew up with J. Edgar Hoover as the guy who kept the files, you are careful about possibly screwing up someone's life. You have no idea how deep this reluctance is if you haven't grown up with it. But I found the damn listing, in our building, keys being sent out via mail, great reviews, people are having a great time, doing laundry on the landlord's dime since he pays the water bill. The rest of us live in what is a pretty secure place, without these strangers coming in and out of the building. I was angry, and I resented being put in this position. I tend toward live and let live. Others in the building were concerned too, but the concern was whispered.

I took a screenshot of the listing. Our neighbors have lived here for 30 years. (When we moved in there was a woman who'd lived here 17 years. THAT is security!) They had been concerned as we were. I took the print out of the listing to them for confirmation. What was interesting was their/our response. Do we tell the landlord because it sucks and we're not comfortable? What if something happens over there? She's got it listed as great for a “special event.” So what? Her AirBnB “verified” person throws a party that turns into an orgy and next thing we know we got cops swarming the place looking for Fatty Arbuckle? My neighbor says don't say anything, he might raise our rent. His partner says what if something happens there and the owner decides that after he, his insurance and the tenant are sued, it's not worth it for him to keep the place and we all get moved out when he sells it to eliminate the problem or pay the costs? Won't his homeowner's be hit in the lawsuit? Could be and that might be a reason to just bail. Want a vodka and cran asks the neighbor? Yes please? We drink our drinks slowly, clink our ice cubes and stare at the table. Silence. Finally one of us starts the cycle over again: So what do we do? Tell the landlord? Repeat above issues. Not tell the landlord? What if he says “Why the hell didn't you TELL me?” Well the why is that we aren't sure how he'd respond, and that worries us. One landlord in NYC was blown out of court over this very issue.

But we're not NYC and we're not San Francisco. Both have rent control and tenant's rights guardians. Louisiana is very much a landlord preferred system. Well in that case it should bode well for this person to be evicted for breach of lease (although we all said we'd feel lousy putting a single mom on the streets, that sentiment was shortly quashed by noting that she's not living there actually, she's renting it out whenever she wants so she must have another place to be). On the other hand, is the landlord okay with her doing this because, hey, he gets his rent every month with no issues? We're all paying our rent with no issues and NOT short term leasing our place.

So now we start discussing multiple issues related to AirBnb/short term rentals generally.

1. You own the damn place and can do with it what you want.
That said, you should have to register it, pay taxes on the short term/hotel level and keep a homeowner's policy at a certain level to cover any problems that could arise. (Meth dealer cooks in your place, prostitutes decide to use your place as the assignation venue, etc. Yeah, it's all already happened in NYC.) Nevermind you don't seem to care about the fabric of your neighborhood. Rent that place to a waitress who needs a place to be!
2. If you're a renter, you have a lease. In NYC a judge basically said that the lease didn't matter so the landlord couldn't evict. It was a bit more complicated that that statement makes it sound, as the link shows, but still the landlord was out of luck. (I think the judge was wrong, and my guess is that LA judges wouldn't see it that way, however, if they did, what precedent does that set?) In San Francisco I think it was, one landlord tried to get an “AirBnB host” tenant's short term lessee out of the apartment because he wouldn't leave. That landlord lost because the law was that if someone rented a place, (even if not FROM the landlord) for 30 days, a de facto month to month lease was considered in force.
3. One AirBnB court case involved a woman who owned a co-op and her roommates were renting it out if she went out of town for business. Something went awry. It was decided by AirBnB that no issue arising from a third party mattered one whit. You read that right, the owner of the co-op whose name was on the paperwork was deemed a third party. Seriously???

The HUGE concern in our courtyard discussion is that the landlord is rich enough to not give damn about any of this. That if it becomes too much of a burden he'll just sell the building or sell it off as condo's. Most, if not all of us, living here could not afford to buy our units.

Another scenario regarding the issue of Homeowner's Insurance: Our “we'll save $400 a month” landlord had his taxes and homeowner's raised. I checked the Assessor's Office. He was right and our rent raise was totally fair. But what happens if something happens inside an AirBnB property? Something sinister? Something bloody, illegal or just plain out to lunch-spray painting anarchy signs on the walls? Let's talk worst case scenario. Woman gets killed at AirBnB rental. Someone is arrested and charged and we watch it on TV. Family sues. Who do they sue? They shotgun it. They sue AirBnB, the “host”, the owner of the building, the homeowner's insurance carrier, and anyone else they can find. Someone will pay off. What's that gonna do for the rest of you homeowners? Raise your rates? Possible.

One guy in NYC, decided to AirBnB his place. They trashed it. Now he's “blacklisted” as a tenant. What exactly are your rights as a “host” or an owner of a place being rented out via AirBnb? Where do you go for recompense? (AirBnB is notoriously unhelpful in such situations. Some of the other listing sites might be better in this regard but I doubt it.) Who's paying the bill for the spray painted graffiti and broken toilet and the whatever happened to your property? Condo associations and Co-op Councils are regularly scanning AirBnb, etc. listings to see if someone in their building is short terming. AirBnB “encourages” their hosts to carry their own insurance for damages done to their “property”--which of course is a very loose term if they don't own the unit they're renting, or damage is done to a common area like a lobby.

Another issue: What about taxes? All of us have palmed a tip and not declared it. The enormous number of AirBnB's (and whatever other listing they're under) are not paying the insurance necessary, they're certainly not paying taxes for the most part (if the folks bragging to me about how much they've made doing this are to be believed). If they're going to act as hoteliers willing to put up with Led Zeppelin level destruction, then they need to be paying insurance and taxes. This entire neo-liberal, disruption idea is crazy right wing stuff minus the Bible thumping. What they really want is NO restrictions, no regulations. Disruption means nothing but let me make money and screw the rest of you. What's amazing to me is that a lot of the folks touting this “disruption” model are seen as liberals. They're not. They are Reaganites. They are neo-liberals: no regulation, complete privatization, utter free trade folks. By the way, they'd mostly deny this.

In my opinion, what has to happen is some kind of regulation.

If you own the place, well, I'm not happy about your screwing that waitress out of an affordable place to live, but I get it. You're greedy. You own the damn place and can do with it what you want. Okay. I might be willing to buy that IF, and only if, you are okay with registering with the City, paying the hotel taxes, and dealing with the insurance/lawsuits that may come. Good on you. Make that money. (Although I gotta tell ya one conversation I've had more than once starts with “If they can't afford the rising rents, too bad, they have to move” followed by “Do you know how high property taxes and insurance are these days? If I didn't do AirBnB I couldn't afford to keep my house!” This is said with no cognizance of the irony of those statements following one another.)

If you don't own the place, then in my opinion, you have NO right at all to flout your lease and ignore your neighbors' issues on this. Screwing your neighbors and your city shouldn't be a viable career path but apparently these days it is.

Landlords with renters doing this: I am not sure at all what your rights are. I am not a property owner in this state. I know that LA tends to lean toward your rights vs. my rights as a tenant. (That is an entirely different issue and one I'd like to discuss one day, as I am a firm believer in some sort of Tenant's Rights agreement.). But if your tenants are afraid to come to you regarding this AirBnB issue, that should tell you something: wow, they're scared of what I might do that might displace them.

The entire destruction of a neighborhood fabric is something that should be considered, but I doubt it will be. A neighborhood implies “neighbors.” Those are the people who know your car, know your dog, maybe take care of the cat or the plants for a weekend. The folks down the block who worry if they don't see you for a week. An ever changing populace of short term renters do not qualify as neighbors, and if the neighborhood becomes one giant “authentic” tourist destination, it's no longer a neighborhood nor is it authentic.

If the Mayor and the City Council have any gumption at all, they'll take this bull by the horns before there's a scandalous court case that makes national news, and look toward the well being and best interests of the working folks who are serving the tourists their drinks, turning down their sheets, driving them to and fro and generally making this place a place that is still inviting the tourist dollars we depend on. I hope they don't let the short term rental “hosts” cede our neighborhoods to those tourists. The City needs to take a stand against the taking of viable housing stock off the market for a quick buck while the people who live and work in this city find it more and more difficult to find an affordable place to live.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Another Day, Another Letter

Dear Mayor Landrieu and City Council Members,

You're no doubt sick of hearing from me by now, nonetheless there are some things I want to tell you about.

Over the last few weeks I've talked with a lot of people: customers, workers, owners of bars in New Orleans downtown area. It hasn't been a regular beat reporter kind of thing, just talking. I see the lawsuit against the smoking ban has failed. The nola.com comment section is, of course, completely divided along the usual lines. There were also two other articles today about the fallout of the smoking ban, and interestingly they correlate with what I've been hearing. (I'll link to them and have more to say about them later.)

Full disclosure: I'm a smoker.

Second full disclosure: I didn't necessarily bring the topic up in the conversations I've had over the last couple weeks. In fact, the smoking ban and its impact often came into the conversation because of something else they'd said.

What I did notice that was disconcerting was a sense of fear in the conversations. Yes, really, fear. Many of the people who were talking to me knew I occasionally spout my mouth off online, others didn't but I told them I write publicly now and then. All, regardless of whether they were customers, workers or owners, asked me not to quote them by name, not to identify the bar, not to identify them. Many literally looked over their shoulders. It was damn strange. One said when I asked her why she was looking around like a cornered rabbit said, “You never know who's going to report you to whom. We're becoming a city of snitches.” I was fascinated by that comment but found as I went along that no one wanted to be identified. You'd think they were talking about a multiple kilo cocaine transaction, not a cigarette in a bar. Seriously, it was weird.

I figure I'll at least pass along what these folks, New Orleanians all, smokers and non-smokers, have told me.

One bartender told me he felt the ban was defacto discriminatory in that any business that has no possibility of having an outside area is necessarily behind the 8 ball. I mentioned this in some of my last letters to you. Places like Cosimo's, Buffa's, St. Roch or even the ever popular Tropical Isle locations have no outdoor options. I asked the bartender about benches or tables outside, I was told that that's illegal without a permit, which is rarely granted as sidewalks are a public right of way. I am not an expert on that, so I'll have to look it up, but he is right about the discrimination leveled against places without an outdoor patio area—business will probably migrate to places that have that option leaving some of the smaller neighborhood bars out of luck, and that doesn't seem quite fair. Another bartender happened upon our conversation and told us that when a smoking ban went through for restaurants, one restaurant north of the lake took almost the entire roof off the building so the place was a large covered patio with a very small “indoor” section. We all agreed that that wouldn't be possible in an historic district.

(I did notice a bench and a couple of ashtrays chained to a building next to a bar on a recent walk. I suppose that is a possibility, if permitted, for the tinier bars, but it doesn't remove the noise factor. In fact, next to another bar was a stoop with a hand lettered sign saying: “This is a residence. Do not sit.” Clearly the local residents are not crazy about the folks standing outside, and that will get worse I fear.)

A woman who is both a bar worker and a patron mentioned something I hadn't thought of. She works at a hotel bar, so no smoking allowed. She hangs out after work at a local dive that was popular with service industry workers and allowed smoking. She said she'd head there after her shift, which ended late at night, early morning, for a couple of drinks, a smoke and some gossip after work. She said she does it less often now. I expected her to say it was due to the smoking ban INSIDE. She said, no. It was because she felt she had to run a gauntlet of men who were smoking outside in order to get inside. I asked wouldn't those men have been in the bar anyway? She said yes, but there is a big difference between walking into a bar among seated men and having to walk through two lines of them as they part to allow her entrance. For her it was uncomfortable. After she mentioned it I asked a few other women in the same boat. They agreed but hadn't spoken about it for fear of judgment. Interesting on a lot of levels but I digress.

An owner asked me what his 110 lb female bartender is supposed to do if a guy his size, about 6'3” 225 lbs says no when she asks him to put it out or leave? He said he told her not to get in any arguments over it as she could get hurt. (In fact, in an article found today, this has already been a problem for one bartender in the Quarter. Please spare me the "smokers shouldn't have beaten him up" comments. OF COURSE NOT. It's not because they smoked that they were belligerent bullies, it's because they were belligerent bullies period.) He also fears the “snitch mentality,” a term I heard more than once. If someone has a beef against a bar, an ex-employer, a current employee or a customer, they can just call in a smoking ban complaint and cause problems for that owner. I asked if he thought that was improbable. He laughed and said, no, it should be expected and specifically cited anonymous photos that from all reports can be uploaded to the 311 site. (I am not sure about this, but it's a pervasive belief among barworkers.) Another owner told me that some minor fights had erupted outside the bar that normally would have been stopped inside the bar with a simple, “Settle down or leave!” Now, he asked , am I supposed to have my bartenders police the outside to make sure that doesn't happen?

There are also fears of criminal violence like thefts, muggings and worse happening to the smokers congregated outside. Once again, before you commenters start blaming the smokers for smoking and thus being outside, please use your common sense. Of course we know that the guys who committed the crime shouldn't have committed the crime, should be caught, and should be taken to court. Of course. Please, take a step off your nicotine free high horse and commend the folks for NOT pitching a fit inside the bar, for GOING outside like YOU wanted them to, then understand that they didn't get robbed or beat up because they smoked, they got robbed because they were easy pickings. For the record, there are many non-smokers who stand outside with their smoking friends because otherwise they'd be in the bar alone. They too could have been robbed in this kind of incident as I'm pretty sure the gunman didn't ask if they were all smokers standing there. One bar owner said he worries about an incident like this causing harm to his customers, lawsuits for his bar, a trip to the liquor license board followed by neighbor complaints and the guy with the gun will still be out there casing street smokers.

As of yet, I haven't heard of a bartender losing his/her job due to lowered revenues. I have encountered two who are now looking for second jobs to make ends meet. Their tips are half what they used to be. One is contemplating getting a roommate to pay the rent that used to be affordable himself, while another says she's just barely paying her bills and is actively looking for that second job. Not a different job, an additional job. She says the regulars who stayed and tipped aren't coming in or staying as long when they do and the tips are showing it.

I heard the strip clubs are suffering as well. Regardless of your views on strip clubs, they are viable businesses. I spoke with two people in the last two weeks, one a dancer, one an administrator. The dancer said that another dancer had been fired for standing outside having a smoke. I asked if the dancer would have been able to smoke while working prior to the ban. Yes, she said. She would have done her set, then gone over to the bar for a drink and a smoke, then been available to work the floor. She was outside after her set. She's looking for a job now. The administrator said that business was way down in four clubs that he worked with. I asked if it was due to the summer slow season. No, came the answer. “Young guys want the girls, the booze, the cigars, the whole thing, like in the movies. They're not spending as much time or money. The bachelor party guys love all that. I figure they'll move their party to a private house or a cigar bar, order up a stripper from Craigslist and buy their booze at Walmart.”

As I said earlier, the comments at nola.com are the standard issue: SCREW YOU, you idiot smoker! SCREW YOU, you non-smoker! SCREW YOU, New Orleans, I'll go to Jefferson Parish. This last one shouldn't be completely ignored. While nearby parishes might think we're all going to hell here in New Orleans, they'll happily take our money straight into their cash registers, their poker machines, their pool tables, their jukeboxes and their pockets as tips. Of course this whole smoking ban thing might just be a huge attempt to increase DUI bookings and fines. Naturally that was not meant seriously, but what will become serious at some point is that DUI will go up as people head off to bars and casinos unreachable by foot, bicycle or cab and instead hit the I-10 on their blurry way home.

Many smoking customers I talked to said they'd be willing to switch to e-cigs, not all, but a lot more than I expected. But alas, they've been banned. The “private club” idea was mentioned repeatedly, but alas, that's forbidden, which I find bizarre as the term “private club” means a customer necessarily knows what to expect before paying the membership fee. What I heard most from the owners, besides “please don't name my bar”, was the question of a referendum, an actual vote by the citizenry as opposed to an edict from above. When I asked if they'd be willing to pay yet another permit fee if a referendum allowing that was to pass, they were split. Many bar owners feel they already pay enough in fees and permits, others said they'd be willing to pay for a smoking permit if it would keep them in business.

What all of them said, the customers, workers and owners, was that they felt this had just been handled like a royal decree, and they resented that. The weird not quite fear I kept noticing was like they were waiting for a hammer to drop, a letter of marque yanking their hard earned liquor license, killing their businesses with them having no recourse. It's the no recourse that rankles. Is there really no kind of compromise possible?

As for me, I'll keep listening. Although maybe not for long as the noise issue will rear its head again and unfortunately be exacerbated by the sound of talking, zippos and clinking ice cubes outside someone's window.

Monday, January 26, 2015

An Open Letter to Mayor Landrieu: Veto the Smoking Ban as Written


Open Letter to Mayor Landrieu

Dear Sir:
I am writing to urge you to veto the smoking ban passed by the City Council last week. In its present form it can only hurt small businesses and the very employees the Council claims it wants to protect. Notably Councilpersons Ramsey and Gray wanted more information on the economic impact of this kind of legislation in a city such as ours. I am hopeful that they, along with the other Council members, consider carefully what ramifications the smoking ban as written could bring,.

I read the live blogs and the articles covering this in the Times Picayune. I read all 1000+ comments. One kept sticking out to me, and apparently others who commented on it. Richard Rainey, of the Times Picayune, posted: “Bar owners asked the council quietly for a citywide ban because that way bars that want to be smoke-free won't lose customers to smoking bars, Guidry said.” That statement belies the unicorns and rainbows mantra that if all bars go non-smoking the non-smokers will magically take the places of smoking regulars. Clearly the bar owners who “quietly” asked for that unilateral approach knew this to be untrue and cynically asked off the record for something they knew was not a “level playing field” tactic to be implemented. That was patently unfair and frankly a little sleazy.

This is not just about smoking v smoke free. This will be about the loss of a lot of small businesses and jobs.

The new CZO will be coming up for discussion this spring. Some bars, like Mimi's, Jimmy's, St. Roch Tavern, Buffa's and others, will again find themselves involved in the discussion of music (music having been last year defined as “noise”). Many of them have already invested in sound proofing, security guards, complied with closing times and no go cups in order to assuage the neighbors' complaints. (By the way, Buffa's has a non-smoking back room and Mimi's has anon-smoking upstairs, but not all of these places have that space/ability.) After having spent in some cases thousands of dollars in attorney fees and renovations to comply, they turned to staff and security to encourage people to return to the inside of the establishment. (This is particularly the case with both Mimi's and St. Roch.) Now they will be asked to send their customers outside to comply with the smoking ban, and the circle will go around again with noise complaints. The owner of Cosimo's is also concerned with the neighbor/noise issue. I fear this issue will only be exacerbated by now asking those bars to send their customers outside.

(It has also been pointed out to me by some owners that they will have to ask for retention of all drivers' licenses upon the customer ordering a drink as it would be entirely too easy for them to order a drink, say they're heading out for a smoke, and never return. It's the little things like this that some folks aren't thinking about.)

Cosimo's owner stated that the vast majority (85-90%) of his customers are in fact smokers. There are other service industry bars that are filled with workers from non-smoking restaurants that come in after their shifts to have a drink and a smoke before heading home. (These are the same folks, by the way, who are serving in restaurants, working in hotels, dealing in casinos to locals and the tourists that our city pays a great deal to draw every year.) Have you ever seen Johnny White's or other service industry bars after a shift changes? Can you imagine the neighbor complaints with groups of people standing outside at midnight-2AM? This is very much not a level playing field as not all bars are able to suddenly create a patio/courtyard. It's also not a level playing field in terms of creation of private clubs, as “in a nod to tradition” Carnival krewe balls will be exempt, but a private club would not be.

The inclusion of electronic cigarettes in the ban will also greatly affect some of the new businesses that cater to the users of these items. New small businesses known as vape shops are just starting to see their businesses grow. The inclusion of e-cigs in this ban will most likely stall those businesses as well.,

In a British Beer and Pub Association survey done in 2011, the number of pub closures was staggering. (There are similar numbers in Ireland, Scotland and Wales following bans there.)

In an opinion piece written for The Guardian in 2011, the author calls the opinions of people decrying the loss of pubs in England “nostalgia,” and posits that: “It's hard to compete when people's idea of a good Saturday night has now shifted to involve a couple of friends, a bottle of wine and The X Factor. It also removes most of the negative side-effects associated with pubs – drink-driving, antisocial behaviour and aggression are far less likely to manifest themselves when you've spent the evening in your own front room.” The author goes on to say that taxes on liquor have gone up in supermarkets and that there was an influx of “chain pubs” that entered the market on the heels of the old school pubs' closing. After saying that all of that wasn't so bad, the author concedes that: “The real tragedy of pub closures is the number of people losing their jobs. Fourteen pubs closing each week equals devastating effects for families around the country, already hit hard by the recession.” That was 2011 and the pubs continue to close.

Is the economy of our city so good that we can afford to lose tax money from the bars and their customers if they follow the trends seen elsewhere. (For the record, after having spoken with friends in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, all say that a. if you have enough money, your smoking will be ignored by the proprietor hoping you'll spend it in their establishment, and b. that some establishments have just ignored the ban completely and willingly pay the fine if caught.) By the way, if the fines are a new idea for raising revenues, then allow the fines to be paid by the bar's customers and leave the liquor license out of it.

Are we in such good shape that we can afford to put our local bartenders out of work, or put them in a position where their job and tips can't pay the ever increasing rents in New Orleans? While busily talking about worker protection, the Council seems to have overlooked the issue of the wages that are needed to keep body and soul together.

The Casino issue is one that should give us all pause with regard to this ban. The money Harrah's brings in to New Orleans in terms of taxation, ancillary spending and employment is enormous and to cavalierly say that people will show up in droves to take the smokers place and/or not choose to go to casinos in nearby locales is disingenuous.

A friend whose circumspect views and common sense I generally agree with said on social media earlier this week that he felt the default should be non-smoking with a permit issued for smoking. While I usually agree with him, in this instance I think the owners of bars already have enough permitting issues to wade through. That said, if that is the only way for some of them to stay in business, as long as the permit wasn't exorbitant and punitive, perhaps that would be a way to go. I still disagree with the idea, but at least the owner would be given a choice: the owner who has built and nurtured that business sometimes for decades; the owner who hires people to work there; the owner who knows his/her clientele.

I find the exclusion of cigarettes from cigar bars to be just plain idiotic. The exclusion of e-cigs entirely, I also find idiotic. I remain unclear on whether or not a pipe can be legally smoked in a bar as it appears that cigarettes, and only cigarettes (and the smokers who pay very high taxes for them by their own choice) are being targeted. I am also intrigued that the same people who often note the obvious failure of our government's wasteful and decades long War on Drugs are so willing to now criminalize the cigarette smoker or the business owner who knows his/her patrons' preferences.

If New Orleans is going to accept the 2011 UK Op Ed writers' view that an evening at home watching X Factor with friends is a superior choice to going out, or that small bars closing so that chain bars can take their places is better than a neighborhood bar, then we as a city are truly on the wrong path.

The pie in the sky “non-smokers will take their place” myth is just that. A myth. What is not a myth is that non-smoking clubs on Frenchmen are doing fine, allowing e-cigs, and they did that by choice not legislation.

Full disclosure: I am a smoker, do not light up in a non-smoking bar, have patronized all but one of the bars I mentioned above. I wrote about the ones I know will have problems. I am sure that there are others throughout the city that will have the same problems if this legislation is allowed to pass as is.

I hope you will veto this bill, and consider all the unintended consequences of leaving this decision as currently designed. We don't need to make these businesses suffer, put people out of work or criminalize anything else. We have enough of those issues already.

Sam Jasper

EDIT 1.27.15: "This terrible process started with the ban on smoking. Labour was warned that it would result in pub closures, but went ahead regardless. The people it was supposed to protect – the bar staff – have suffered catastrophic job losses as a result (though this is rarely noticed, as so many bar staff are non-unionised, cash-in-hand foreigners). Labour knew this would happen, as the state of British Columbia in Canada had introduced a similar ban a couple of years earlier and the immediate result had been bar closures and (I have been told) one third of bar jobs lost." That from This article in the Telegraph, written last week.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Letter to City Council re: Noise Ordinance Proposal

Since I can't make it to the Council Chambers, because of course, something else was scheduled for this morning and they only JUST announced all this yesterday, I wrote a letter to the Council and hope all of you did too. Most of mine is completely quoted from the Convention and Visitor's Bureau website. Here's what I said:

Dear Council Persons,
I got an email just today about the hearing in Council Chambers tomorrow at 10AM. I cannot be there as I have a previous commitment, but feel that the scheduling of this hearing so quickly during the holiday season was a purposeful decision. With little advance notice given, I believe the hope is that there will be fewer opponents of this ordinance able to attend.

Not only am I outraged by the perception of underhandedness in the pushing forward of this absurd ordinance, but I'm frankly baffled by it.

From the Convention and Visitor's Website:

"A place where centuries old architecture is the backdrop for a culture so invigorating, it'll rouse your spirit. Visit the most fun and authentic city in America, New Orleans."

Under the Nightlife section, same website:
". . . .nightclubs where you can dance the night away. So leave the stress of your everyday life behind, grab a go cup (in New Orleans you can take your drink with you), put on your dancing shoes and get ready to have the time of your life."

Under the Frenchmen Street section, same website:

"It offers an amazing variety of venues styles and music, ranging from traditional jazz to blues to reggae to rock all week long. Many venues along the strip don't even charge a cover! But in true New Orleans fashion, do give a cheer after a great trombone solo and throw a few bucks in the tip jar to show your appreciation.

Frenchmen offers a lively street culture that means the fun spills out from the bars and music venues. Sketch artists and poets line the sidewalks and bluegrass and gypsy jazz pickup bands nestle into the stoops along the strip. Brass bands are commonly found on the corner of Chartres and Frenchmen, and before you know it, you'll be dancing in the streets like a local."

This is the image of New Orleans we sell to the world. This is the actual New Orleans that we street dancing locals recognize as home.

Under this new proposed noise regulation (and forgive me but I have real problems with the word noise used to describe both a jackhammer and a trumpet, for while they both make sounds, one is a tool while the other is an instrument of self expression), if I have musicians in my house, or "nestled" on my stoop, practicing their craft, getting ready for a show, or even a child learning to play drums or tuba or trombone (Trombone Shorty had to learn to play somewhere), I could find myself in violation of this ordinance.

I am not going to go point by point through this ordinance, which by the way, appears to violate the First Amendment as I understand it. I will say, however, that if this proposal is passed, then everything we consider to be our culture, our "authentic" culture, will be in danger. We're busy marketing the very thing that this would wipe out. I don't understand that and never will.

I urge you to toss this ordinance in the trash bin where it belongs and listen to the musicians whose livelihoods could be at stake, listen to the people who are trying to work with you, like MACCNO. If the sound of our city is going to be silenced by a handful of disgruntled but vocal people in various neighborhood associations, then we might as well all trundle off to Dubuque or change the name of our city to Anytown, USA because it will no longer be "authentic" nor will it be New Orleans.

For the record, I live and vote in New Orleans and music is not a criminal enterprise. I'd rather see our police doing actual police work than running around ticketing a pickup band or harassing a bar owner. I am not alone. There are a lot of us watching, and your decisions will be on our minds when next we find ourselves in a voting booth.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

They


Last Sunday a Mother's Day Second Line was shot up here in New Orleans. The incident became national then international news. As a resident of New Orleans I was horrified and not only because I know one of the most critically injured, while another friend and her daughter missed being there simply by virtue of running late. It was a heinous, cowardly and brutally cold act pure and simple.

I watched comments sections, something I normally avoid like the plague. I looked at what my friends and others were saying in social media. One particularly astute friend said he figured in a few days the whole debate would become “gun control discussion” fodder. He wasn't wrong. Some of that has certainly come up from both sides of the argument and that's not unreasonable, but it still somehow misses an even bigger issue.

I watched news reports. I read news reports. I saw the surveillance footage and the suspect named. Something was off and I couldn't put my finger on it. Whatever it was kept me up nights trying to figure out what was bugging me. Was it the violence? Absolutely. Was it the senselessness of it? Yes. Was it concern over friends, second lines, culture and where the blame would land? Yes to all of that. But none of those things were the elusive thing, just out of reach, like something seen out of the corner of your eye that disappears when you turn your head to face it.

Some people argued that this was an act of terror, some changed that up to “urban terror” while the FBI explained their definition of terrorism and finally said no, this particular act didn't fit the definition. Still something bugged me and I stayed up another night.

Finally I figured it out. It was the news coverage but not in the way that some people had already pointed out. Some noticed right away that this mass shooting, while being called a mass shooting, wasn't covered in the same way others had been. Some felt it was due to the lack of fatalities, one thing for which we can be endlessly grateful. Others felt that it was because it was New Orleans, and many made good points on that score: folks across the land do seem to revel in bashing our city. For some it seems to be a sport. Still, that wasn't it.

The elusive thing finally sat in the doorway long enough for me to see it. It was ugly and I was surprised by it, although in hindsight I probably shouldn't have been.

When Cho Seung-Hui, 23, took his guns to Virginia Tech in April, 2007 his Facebook page was gawked at until it was removed. Photos of him in body armor with guns were all over the internet. In no time at all reporters had tracked down bits of information: Korean, came here when he was 8, family in Korea noticed behavioral problems when he was little, family owned a dry cleaners and were very nice people. He had trouble in school, trouble at Virginia Tech where he was enrolled in Business courses. Cho had a long history of mental health issues that were not handled, although he evidently took Prozac for a while. I could go on. There's tons of information.

Then 3 years later, Jared Lee Loughner, 24, took his guns to a political rally shooting Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, killing several including a 9 year old girl, injuring many more. He was captured and his shaved head smirky mug shot was all over the media. Reporters found out he had dropped out of high school, then attempted college, broke up with his girlfriend, had an extreme change in his personality over the course of a couple years, allegedly took a lot of drugs. His mom worked outside the home, his father was rarely seen. Neighbors said his father was strange. His friends said Loughner was sweet then suddenly changed into a truly bizarre guy. Psychiatrists decided he was probably schizophrenic and was in need of mental health help but his problems had gone undetected. Again, tons of information out there.

James Holmes, 25, shot up a theatre in Colorado in July, 2012. His smiling flaming red haired mug shot made him look even more bizarre than Loughner with his smirk. Within hours we learned he was a failed Ph.D student, had been to psychiatrists on campus and off, had been seen as a danger but no one knew if that had been reported to anyone. His lab partners and pretty much anyone he ever spoke to were interviewed. He came from a seemingly normal home. He was awkward. Reporters stuck microphones in everyone's face they could find that might know any little thing about the guy.

The same happened with Adam Lanza, 20, in December, 2012. Awkward, weird, no mug shot but the most recent photo they found made him look like he was an alien or thought he was seeing them. Mom liked guns and was a bit of a strange woman herself, although, the reporters were quick to find out from the local bar/eatery that she frequented that everyone there thought she was sweet and thoughtful, though worried about her son's mental health. He played a lot of video games and was rarely seen. Recent reports say that he was bullied at Sandy Hook when he was little. Upper middle class kid goes sproing, or had gone sproing a long while back, no one could be sure, and he went and shot up a school full of little kids.

All four incidents were covered wall to wall 24/7. Reporters were palpitating to get any morsel of info on these guys, no matter how irrelevant, stupid, or just flat out wrong the information sometimes proved to be. The reporters looked very concerned and empathic. Most reports on air or in print were asking WHY? in big letters. Profilers and FBI guys and psychiatrists all speculated on the cause, prefacing their comments with, “I can't diagnose someone without having actually examined him, but . . . .”

For Cho, most assessments became about his difficulties as a child of immigrant parents, and mis- or undiagnosed/untreated/unacknowledged mental illness. From his writings it was found that he felt poor in relation to the other students he went to school with, he felt left out of the American dream in some existential way. He felt alienated, marginalized.

For the other three, the profiles were rife with items about either parental neglect or over-indulgence, alienation, marginalization, and the standard triad of mis- or undiagnosed/untreated/unacknowledged mental health issues.

None of that happened with regard to Akein Scott. None of it. Not a neighbor, relative, friend, teacher, pastor or school administrator had a microphone shoved into their face with a breathless reporter asking about Akein's first 19 years. Once again we had a smiling mug shot, but a completely different reaction. No one was saying he was a crazy whacko who played too many video games and didn't like to be touched and was bullied in school and was failing in college and his parents tried hard and/or screwed up and my god why didn't someone notice a problem before he started pulling the trigger while aiming his gun at innocents. They couldn't. No one had asked those questions. Correct information, wrong information, an anecdote? Nope. Nothing. People didn't nod to each other over their beer and say, man, did you see how crazy that guy looked? Instead they saw a young black man in a white shirt and seemed to take for granted that his actions were a foregone conclusion.

I am not saying that bad reporting is a good thing, but at least a show of curiousity might be. Before you say that the others killed people and Mr. Scott did not, let me stop you. When we ask 'why' in these cases we want to know why someone would find it necessary, or think it was okay, or be hard and cold enough to shoot a firearm into a soft target like a classroom, a theatre or a celebratory second line, and for the record, it was pure luck that no one was killed Sunday on Frenchmen Street. Before you say that I'm an apologist for Akein Scott, please know that I decry his actions, HIS actions, and expect due process and evidence to put him somewhere away from society.

That does not change the fact that I find it curious that no one else seems to be curious about the why here. The comment sections are full of the word thug, a word, by the way, that I'm really sick of hearing. One commenter thinks we need to ramp up Stop and Frisk: on them, of course, they are the ones we need to stop. They. No matter if they happen to be business men or doctors. They. No one felt we should start ramping up Stop and Frisk on young white men 19-25 after the others went on the rampage, nor do I know of any aggressive Stop and Frisk program in the Korean community in this country. Another commenter says, “It's cool. They will just keep killing til they kill each other off.” Despicable. Again, no one said any such thing about young white men “shooting at their own.” No one.

A friend of mine wrote a stunning piece about the cycle of emotions he feels as a black man in this community. He talked about his anger: "As a black male in New Orleans, there's often a hint of shame because deep down I know the actions of the few reflect so negatively on the many. I feel like I should be going out and doing something to atone for what happened even though I haven't done anything. This makes the anger greater because now I'm madder these fools are making my life more complicated." You can read his entire piece here.  Unfortunately there will still be some people who see this man in his driveway with friends talking about football and walk a little faster wondering if they have a gun in their waistband. They.

Ka'Nard Allen, one of the ten year olds wounded Sunday, was profiled by local news outlets. Ke'Nard's father was stabbed to death, allegedly by his stepmother, after a domestic dispute in October 2012. His tenth birthday, last May, became a shooting gallery with bullets flying past balloons killing his 5 year old cousin, Breanna Allen, and wounding him. A ten year old wounded by gunfire twice in one year. Sickening. No private patrols in that neighborhood paid for by the neighborhood association. It only happens where they live, or so people think, and those that think that never ask why. They.

Law enforcement caught and locked up Akein Scott. I heard they caught his brother, another of the alleged shooters, Shawn Scott, 24. Our Mayor and Chief of Police were on the news today. Here in this house we were both cautiously glad. Why “cautiously?” Because we looked at each other and said, almost at the same time, “I hope they got the right guys. I hope they don't screw up the trial.” We don't have much faith in our Police Department's record on such things unfortunately, not the DA's office either. There are too many stories of the wrong guy being locked up because someone had it in for him and the reward money along with street revenge was too great a temptation, or the right guy getting out and killing a few more before the courts get him. I hear they had multiple ID's of him and his brother so I'm hoping they get this one right.

Meanwhile I'm still curious. I'm asking the same questions I asked when Cho/Loughner/Holmes/Lanza pointed guns at people. What went wrong? Why didn't someone notice a problem? What makes a young man that alienated, that marginalized, that cold and heartless? I see a video, it's jerky. A young black man in a white shirt and blue jeans steps out from next to a stoop near a corner, raises his hand, points the gun at people dancing in the street, suddenly the people scatter, some falling hard on the ground. He turns and runs, not looking back. That's calculated, like the others. That's planned, like the others. Young men aged 19-25 with guns, just like the others with only one obvious difference.

I'm still not seeing the interviews with neighbors and teachers. I'm seeing no FBI profilers here. I won't see them in Chicago or Detroit, St. Louis or Camden, Compton or Baltimore either as bodies fall every day. The comments sections will fill up with rants full of the word thug, others will say a good guy with a gun coulda/shoulda/woulda, another will say no more guns. No one will ask what kind of child Akein was, what kind of student he was, what did his parents do or not do. No one cares why, in fact simply asking the question will no doubt draw the ire of folks who will accuse me of looking for an excuse for him. I'm not. What he allegedly did is inexcusable. I would like to understand though, and to do that I have to ask the question. Are we afraid of the answer, because the answer isn't unique to New Orleans, is it? I'm sure it's not just one thing, one simple easily fixed thing, either. Perhaps I'm naïve in thinking we should at least try to figure this out.

Then again, some of us don't really want to change it, or think it's not possible to fix the problem. Either way, we can go back to our reality shows and ignore the reality right outside our door or over around the way. It's their destiny. It's their culture. It only happens where they live. They.

Maybe we should make sure little Ke'Nard gets counseling and support beyond the end of the news cycle. Maybe we should be asking why more often.

Us.

     

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Unsolicited Advice to the Northeast in the Aftermath


“Tonight I'm gonna take that ride
Across the river to the jersey side
Take my baby to the carnival
And I'll take her on all the rides

`cause down the shore everything's all right”
Song by Tom Waits
Heard in the head of a Jersey Girl in the voice of
Bruce Springsteen,  Jersey Girl

No. It's not all right and you probably can't get across the river right now anyway.

My high school years in Bergen County are peppered with memories not of classrooms and despotic Vice Principals, but of subway rides into Manhattan, afternoon rides on the Staten Island Ferry (cheap fun for a truant), and hustling rides ten to a car down the Garden State Parkway to Asbury Park and Seaside Heights, which were never called by name, only referred to as “The Shore.” I picked splinters out of my feet after walking the now destroyed boardwalk in barefeet like an idiot. I was kissed sweetly in the sand that has now buried cars and shifted houses off their foundations. I rode the rollercoaster that now sits in the Atlantic. At least I think that's the one I rode after being dared.

My last decade has been shaped by the Federal Flood, otherwise known as Hurricane Katrina. The landscape around me has changed since then in both good and bad ways. My interior landscape is forever changed by that experience.

I heard Seaside Heights' Mayor Bill Akers on CNN this morning. He said that when he hears what's going on in other areas his heart goes out to them. His voice broke when he said he was trying to keep emotion out of it. For now. I was on my dry couch in New Orleans in tears.

We here in New Orleans watched the NASA shots of Sandy headed your way. She was huge, well organized, aimed at you and we knew how that felt. She was perfect, as Katrina was, actually beautiful when viewed from the safety of a distant satellite lens. We saw the targets on your backs and understood, possibly as no other group of people can.

Initially there was some bitter grousing about our having had to defend our City's right to exist and be rebuilt, something you might not have to do. We weathered the nasty comments about our being idiots living below sea level, and even nastier comments about tax payer money being wasted on morons and ingrates and freeloaders. These comments were ubiquitous after Katrina, but we wouldn't wish what you're dealing with on anyone because we've been there.

We endured extreme heat, while you folks have to deal with unbelievable cold, as the power went out and stayed out. We are also a city in which some people don't have cars, so we understand the New Yorkers who are utterly stranded as the Subway tunnels have turned into something better navigated by gondolas than train cars. We know as we see aerial views of Asbury Park, Seaside Heights, Atlantic City, and all the coastal towns that what we're seeing in no way shows us the length and breadth and depth of the devastation. We know you aren't overstating it when you say it looks like a war zone. We understand the loss of everything you own. We know the tears you'll shed as your kids' yearbooks and baby pictures are gone forever. We understand your toughness, your determination to rebuild, your compassion for your neighbors and your statements about your family being fine and your losses were “only stuff.”

We get it.

Now for the unsolicited advice:

Expect unexpected consequences. One or more of your leaders will let you down. Right now the adrenalin is flowing and you're all in shock, as are your leaders, who really seem to be doing a great job. It's down the road when the issue becomes money and contractors and the actual rebuilding that you'll be let down by someone. Be prepared to deal with the anger.

Have patience. Your power will come on when it comes on, and all the ranting and raving in the world cannot change that, nor can you expect a timetable from your utility companies. Just two months ago we went through Isaac and the utility issues were exasperating. I say this to you as someone who sat on the porch waiting for bucket trucks, or at least information, in the aftermath of several hurricanes now. Don't waste your energy (no pun intended) calling them or expecting one of them to say Thursday at 9AM. It won't happen. Cuddle up and keep each other warm. Oh, and expect your utility rates to jump as the utility companies go to your local civic leaders and ask who's going to pay for all this repair. It will never come out of the utility company's profits, it will come out of your wallet. That I can guarantee.

Try not to slug your Insurance Adjuster. As I watched the storm coming in the other night, there was footage of a building in Chelsea. The entire facade had fallen down, and this was before Sandy's actual landfall. What I heard, in terms of reasons for the facade falling, was familiar: coulda been rain, coulda been shoddy workmanship, coulda been wind, coulda been anything: and so the parsing began. What happened here, and what will no doubt happen there, is that whatever you're covered for, it will be the OTHER reason that caused the damage. If you're covered for wind, it will be deemed water damage or vice versa. Don't count on your insurance carrier to be compassionate. They won't be. In fact you may find your rates hiked, your policy canceled, your payout to be a pittance that wouldn't even cover one month's car payment. Expect that coverage in your area will be curtailed with some companies refusing to write a policy at all. No amount of righteous outrage about the premiums you've paid for years will alter any of this. Your carrier will go on the news, make statements about wanting to help, tell you that you're in good hands, then send you a letter saying they're dropping you at the same time that they issue their quarterly report on profits. Expect it.

Advocate for your Area. Don't let the officials make all the decisions as the rebuilding process gets started. Get involved, start neighborhood associations, make yourself heard, fight for your little spot on this planet. If you don't, monied interests who view disaster as a profit making opportunity, will show up and barrel some ordinance through your City Council; you'll be really upset after the fact. Get in front of this. You've got a little time. First you have to clean up, but remember what I'm saying as the process moves forward. Without your voice, your advocacy, some things will be proposed and moved into your reality so fast your heads will swim, and they won't always be things you would like to have happen. Governor Christie said today that for a guy his age, the iconic parts of the Shore will never be the same. They're gone. He's right. Just don't let people, especially people who aren't from there, determine what will be put in place, no matter what city, town or borough you live in. Ask us about the “iconic” French Market some time when you get a chance, and that's just one little thing. Your sense of community is what will see you through. Without it you'll be steamrolled by developers with wads of cash and connections. Carpetbaggers don't just come to the South.

Allow yourself time to cry. And cry. Then cry some more. You'll be crying unexpectedly for a long time. Ask us. We still cry over the Flood seven years ago, and are crying as we see your devastation because those pictures dredge up visions burned into our souls that we manage not to notice on good days and can't escape on bad days. You'll find yourselves three years from now looking for something familiar, something you know you had, then get slugged in the solar plexus as you remember that it was in a box in your basement when Sandy slammed through. Give yourself permission to grieve the loss of the little things that marked your journey through life. While they don't matter much in the overall scheme of things, they do matter to you, a great deal. Don't minimize their importance in your determination to stay strong. That last picture of your Dad will haunt you if you don't allow yourself to mourn it's simple paper loss.

Don't be afraid to ask for help, you'll need it. The mental health issues related to this will not show up in force for a couple of months. Some won't show themselves until well after the rebuilding has begun. You are in for months and months of stress, and being a hearty lot, you'll manage. You'll cope. Then you'll find yourselves as we did, with a group of friends, and every 15 minutes one or the other of you will burst into tears. Don't berate yourselves over this. Help the other guy through the sobbing until it's your turn and they'll help you and understand and won't call you a pussy.

Watch your elderly family members. They will quietly weather this, but many of them will internalize it. The deaths of elderly people after Katrina skyrocketed. I am not trying to scare you. I'm just telling you what we experienced and it was not something we expected. Many of us didn't notice that the old man down the street was struggling because everything he ever knew was gone, never to return. We didn't always notice when the old lady around the way gave up, and gave in to her broken heart. It was sobering and scary and we carried guilt for being so concerned about rebuilding that we missed signs. These are the things your leaders or the media won't necessarily tell you. We've lived it. We're hoping you can avoid some of it by knowing ahead of time.

Your little ones will be scared, deeply and for a long time. They'll need a lot of help and attention. Your usually mellow child might suddenly bolt under the bed at the sound of the wind. As scary as this was and is for you, for them it's as though a big malevolent foot stomped their sandcastle of security. They're too young to understand, too young to process some of it, too young sometimes to vocalize their fears, and they'll try to be strong for you as you are trying to be for them. Make sure that your schools have some kind of program in place to deal with the trauma. If they don't have one, demand it.

Retain your sense of humor. Gallows humor will get you through a lot of things. Of course, here in New Orleans, gallows humor is our stock in trade, but I know you've got a pretty good streak in you too. Use it. You'll need it and will find it very helpful as you dig out.

Accept what people give you. Don't let your pride get in the way. We learned that very quickly as packages with cash tucked into them came to us from friends and strangers all over the country. For some of you the cash will be important as your paychecks won't be coming for a while, if your job still exists. Our initial response was, yup, pride. We don't need that, we're fine, we thought. We learned humility fast and we learned to simply say thank you and accept the help. The folks who sent it wanted to help, really wanted to help. They didn't want to give to an organization, they wanted to help us hand to hand, and they knew that if we knew of a place or person nearby who needed the help they sent more than we did, which was often the case, that we'd make sure it got to those people. You will be touched and humbled by the generosity of people and that's something else you can lean on during this trying period.

Be prepared for assholes. There will be those who make outrageous assertions about your character or your home from behind a screen as they sit comfortably a thousand miles away. They will say it's God's wrath for having gay people among you. They will say you're idiots for living at sea level. They'll make all manner of racist comments. They'll say that rebuilding boardwalks and homes on the shore or the barrier islands is wasteful folly. They'll call you freeloaders, opportunists, and worse. For every bit of great kindness you receive, there will be an equal amount of venomous hatred. Ignore them if you can or defend if you must. Understand that idiots will come out of the woodwork as fast as the volunteers who show up to help you. They are hateful cowards. Say what you must to them, unless ignoring them is easier on your psyche.

As Thanksgiving is just around the corner, I am reminded of the first Thanksgiving after Katrina. A small group of us got together for dinner at one of the few open restaurants. (Power, by the way, still wasn't on in many areas of the city.) One of our number asked quietly if we'd mind if he read something. We all said no, of course we didn't mind. He had searched for days for this passage from “Ulysses” by Tennyson:

“Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Our hearts are with you, and our tears are tears of understanding and memory. I am in hopes that the writing of this will arm you for the battle ahead as what we learned has to have some positive use. I cannot accept that it was all for naught.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

An Open Letter to Mayor Landrieu

Dear Mayor Landrieu,
I voted for you. Twice. I felt then and feel now that you really want to work with the community. I felt then and feel now that having grown up here in New Orleans, you have a deep connection to the City, its people and its culture in all the various forms that culture presents. That said, I am greatly concerned, as are many others, that some of the cultural heritage unique to this City will soon be obliterated by bad laws, pressure from monied property owners (both natives and newcomers), and the pursuit of money for the City coffers which admittedly could use some shoring up.

Unfortunately it often looks as though that shoring up is being done on the backs of the regular working folks via traffic cam tickets that are a hardship on just about everyone trying to make it month to month, crazy new taxicab regulations that are a hardship on many career cab drivers, unwieldy and seemingly serendipitous permitting requirements on club owners who are the small business owner/job creators we hear about every day, more permits on the smallest of entrepreneurial business owners--the vendors at Second Lines, and on the culture bearers themselves—the musicians and artists who create the culture that draws visitors to our City every year from all over the world. Lately we've heard words like noise, crackdown, permit, and ordinance used to intimidate bands off of street corners, to cause clubs to stop live music for fear of total shut downs, and as you know, those words have been a sometimes unspoken threat to parades and Indians for a long time.

There have to be other, better ways to pay for the needs of this City, ways that don't threaten an entire cultural fabric with becoming an historic footnote or an artifact in a museum; ways that don't send our club owners into bankruptcy, our musicians into the unemployment lines or worse, into the clubs of Austin.

I know several men who grew up here who are about your age. They have entertained me with stories of their youth: jumping out of bed early to try to catch the Bone Men just as they start out, waiting on certain street corners to hear the approach of an Indian gang and being thrilled to catch a glimpse of the Spy Boy in his suit looking up and down the block. One friend has a story of being about 14, riding a Mardi Gras float as what he called a “float grunt.” He wrote the story down and it was published. They've told me lots of stories, some of which I am sure their parents still know nothing of today, but they all involved spontaneity, expectation of a remarkable experience, and above all, music. Whether they were walking down the street hearing it from a corner or a backyard or out the door of a club on their first forbidden walk down Bourbon Street, to a man their eyes still get wide in the telling of the story, the awe they felt seeing this or that now long dead musician is still in their voices, the joy of hearing that one long perfect note still resonates in their memories today. I am betting you have some memories like that. Perhaps you even have some still secret ones, the ones you'll wait to tell your kids until they have kids themselves.

That makes you and all the other people who grew up here in New Orleans unique. Your contemporaries in other cities in other states didn't have the wealth of culture, the almost embarrassingly rich culture, that you did. They most certainly didn't have the wide range of music right there, right there in the streets.

On the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau website it says: “It is said that in New Orleans, culture bubbles up from the streets. Nowhere is this more evident than in the music scene. You'll know it when you come across a street performance that rivals any ticketed show you've seen.” It goes on to say that “New Orleans is one big stage.”

I have been attending the discussion meetings that Kermit Ruffins has so kindly opened his doors for regarding clubs, permits, and all the other issues surrounding live music lately. The attendees are club owners, musicians, visual artists, and music lovers, all wanting to find a solution to the various issues involved. I very much want to thank Scott Hutcheson for joining us and speaking with us. I believe that since he is there on your behalf, that you believe the words on the NOCVB website. There is no doubt that it's a true statement: “...in New Orleans, culture bubbles up from the streets.” Someone at the last meeting made a comment that that culture has come from the most marginalized neighborhoods and population in the City by and large. What they didn't mention was the scope and importance of the street culture within those neighborhoods and the rest of the city.

As the discussion wandered off into ordinance technicalities, Big Chief Albert Doucette stood up and took the floor. He gave voice to the issues that most concern those of us in attendance. He said, “Things like Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are grandfathered in. They are trying to kill the grandfather. If you allow them to kill the grandfather, the walls are going to disintegrate. They can't allow people who have a lot of money to come into our town and buy into OUR neighborhoods and tell us you can't have that live music in your club. We need to make an ordinance where if you move into a neighborhood, you better accept what's IN that neighborhood. This is our culture. This is our City. This is OUR City. We made New Orleans.”

Mr. Mayor, everyone applauded. The folks at this meeting were from various neighborhoods and various economic levels. Those applauding were business owners. They were musicians. They were creators of the culture we all want to protect. They were the locals who pay to see those cultural creators. They were, I believe, people who hold the same beliefs about this remarkable culture that you do. They also are fierce in their determination to let it grow, organically and naturally as it always has.

In 2009 the Louisiana Endowment for Humanities did a series of interviews with local musicians called, “As Told By Themselves.” I attended one that featured the Treme Brass Band. The LEH graciously put these online and I listened to it again earlier this week because there was one particular story that I remembered but couldn't put the musician's name to. As I listened waiting for that particular story, I heard Mr. Benny Jones, Jr. talking about seeing jazz funerals two or three times a week with parades of the Social Aid and Pleasure clubs on Sunday as a kid. That's about four street performances a week that he saw free from his doorstep. He, along with all the musicians, explained that just about everyone in their family played an instrument, and just about everyone in their friend's family did too. They all spoke of the mentoring, from one generation to the next, dropping names like Harold Dejean and Milton Batiste, Olympia Brass Band, Danny Barker. Each of them could recite a litany of “my uncle played trombone, my aunt played clarinet, my cousin played drums.” It was astonishing, and yes, as I said earlier, unique. I can think of no other city in which music is so totally embedded in the culture through family and community ties. They talked about hearing someone play in a backyard down the way, grabbing their instrument, even if it was only a bucket to bang on, and heading down there soon to be joined by others who heard the music and joined in. They talked about going down to the Quarter to play on street corners as kids learning their craft. They learned traditions from their elders and the great band teachers in the schools. If they saw someone walking down the street with a horn they'd ask if they were going to practice today, and join them. One said, “We created music right then and there, anywhere. There'd be a knock on the door and someone else would join in, then there'd be people in the streets dancing.”

Today, the way the ordinances are written, they could get a ticket for playing or rehearsing in their backyard, or on their stoop, or in their house, or on the street. Mr. Mayor, the way the ordinances are written right now you could get a ticket for playing a tambourine on your front porch, and while I don't know for certain, I am pretty sure there is a tambourine somewhere in your house. It seems to be standard equipment in New Orleans' households in every neighborhood.

Finally as I listened, I came across the story I had been looking for. It was told by Kenneth Terry, the trumpet player for Treme Brass Band. He remembered being about 7 years old, standing on his stoop when a parade or second line went by. There was a man playing trumpet with one hand, holding it up in the air like Gabriel himself. Kenneth was mesmerized and told his mom he wanted to do that. Soon she bought him a trumpet from Weirlein's. A few days later there was a knock on the door and when Kenneth opened it, he saw a man standing there. Kenneth said to him, “You're the guy who played with one hand!” The man said, “Yeah, Kenny, your mama said you want to play the trumpet.” That man was Milton Batiste and he took him to his house and taught him and helped him. Mentored him. A legend helping a 7 year old kid just because the young man showed interest. I am pretty sure that nothing like that happens in Dubuque. In that way the culture was handed down to the next generation intact with room for innovation, evolution and growth, but still uniquely New Orleans.

Every note played, every bead sewn, every dance step taken has been handed down by those who came before. It's a living, breathing thing, this culture we are lucky enough to experience, and if we legislate it too much or try to make it too orderly we will lose the spontaneity that lets it breathe. If that happens, if it is allowed to happen, this culture we love will die, but only after becoming a caricature of itself. That, sir, would be the world's loss not just ours.

Mr. Mayor, someday you'll tell your stories to your grandchildren, maybe even some of the secret ones. I hope that you will be able to tell them the story and then show them what you're talking about. You'll sit on a curb with them in the summer sun, laughing to yourself about the blue snoball juice dripping on their clothes as they dance to the rhythms of an Indian practice taking place inside the door. You'll take them into the Quarter where they'll see other kids their age hoping the bigger guys will let them play a few notes on their horn and maybe one of those grandchildren will ask you for a trumpet. You'll grab your tambourine and take them to dance in a second line letting them choose from the list of Sundays held by a magnet to your refrigerator door. You'll play the music you grew up with for them and look forward to the kind of music their generation will create and hear, still bubbling up out of the streets, just like the Visitor's website said back in your day.

You'll do all this with a huge smile on your face, with the quiet knowledge that you played a large part in allowing that culture to live on by nurturing it and not letting it become a parody of itself. Or you'll do it with great sadness, the sadness we feel when we look at an endangered species. Mr. Mayor, this cultural protection can be your most important legacy. Please, sir, take up the fight so that so that this culture, your City's culture, isn't as remote an idea to your grandchildren as a saber toothed tiger.

One of the attendees at the meeting last week said, “Frankly, the best friend you might have might be the Mayor to tell you the truth.” I am writing this letter in the hopes that that attendee was right.

Sincerely,
Sam Jasper