Thursday, July 27, 2006

Last weekend, my dear friend Danielle pointed out that I never write about anything happy on my blog. Reading back over some of my entries, I see that she’s right. I guess it is usually sadness and frustration that draws me to the page. When I’m content, I merrily roll along, not bothering to report the fluffy details.

While I don’t have a happy narrative to relate, I would like to offer a brief list of things that make me happy—all from post-K life in New Orleans:

1) Reliable garbage pickup
2) Semi-regular postal delivery
3) Working flashlights
4) Citronella candles
5) Water pressure
6) Cats
7) Teaching
8) My new Honda Civic
9) Other people’s blogs
10) Afternoon naps
11) Having friends over to watch “Project Runway.”
12) Interpretive dance (a la “So You Think You Can Dance”)
13) Working traffic lights
14) Taco stands
15) Whole Foods
16) Phone calls
17) Emails
18) Cooking
19) Eating
20) Drinking
21) Planning a vacation
22) Going to the all-you-can-eat buffet with Tony
23) Riding in Tony’s purple truck with his pit-bull, Buddy
24) Kiehl’s bath products
25) The occasional pedicure
26) The painted sign on the asphalt of Burgundy Street that reads “PEDICURES” (like the ones that read “HELP” or “NEED FOOD AND WATER”)
27) Live music
28) Reunions with friends
29) My wedding

I have to go teach now…

Monday, July 10, 2006

My mom and a group of her Episcopalian friends have arrived in New Orleans for a week of volunteering in New Orleans East. Simon and I drove Uptown to meet Mom for dinner at Lebanon’s. She said that her group had stopped at the house on the way in from Atlanta to see the house and the work they’d be doing. “I had no idea,” she said, referring to the degree of devastation in New Orleans East.

“Hadn’t you seen it before on the drive in?” Simon asked.

“Seeing it from the interstate isn’t the same,” I said, realizing that I’ve only seen it from the interstate, myself. I’d warned my mom that it might be a strange and difficult experience, installing sheetrock in a house in the East. When she asked why I said, “Well, it’ll be one half-alive house in the midst of a whole bunch of devastation.”

“Kind of drop-in-the-bucket-like,” she offered.


I am really proud of my mom for doing what she’s doing. She’s sixty-five! And here she is giving up a week to help some guy who’d evacuated to Georgia sheetrock his home. I, myself, have done nothing to help since I’ve come back. N-O-T-H-I-N-G.

That is, unless you count getting up and going to work every day something. Or attending a Memorial Day rally, something. Or offering ideas for making our neighborhood safer and cleaner on the Marigny/Bywater forum, something. Or living here in the midst of this at all, something. Most days I do call it something. It is, after all, all that one can do some days: getting up and going, teaching and sleeping. But there are those days when I feel, well, utterly hopeless/helpless/powerless and I want either to a) punch in the teeth anyone who would suggest that I pull myself—that we pull ourselves—up by the bootstraps, or b) punch myself in the teeth. I grind them, instead.

So I am proud of my mother, and grateful to all those like her who have helped us when we cannot (for a variety of reasons) help ourselves.


I worry about this “drop-in-the-bucket-like” approach to rebuilding.
I worry that Nagin’s free-market approach to rebuilding is a complete non-plan—the total opposite of a plan (“let’s just see what the people do,” when the people can’t do anything until we know the plan)—and I think that most New Orleanians would agree with me. We are, after all, a largely liberal group. And liberals recognize that the free-market approach can be dangerous at a number of levels.

But we are also in Louisiana—which is All About Property Rights. Which means that many homeowners believe that, damnit, they should be able to put their f-ing drop in the bucket, period. Damn the exorbitant costs to all NOLA taxpayers of providing basic services to isolated pockets in the city. Damn being surrounded by blight and raising children in the midst of school-less neighborhoods. Damn the fact that there is no specific support for Louisiana hurricane protection in the Army Corps of Engineers' latest report. Damn conscientious urban renewal. Damn planning. Damn you: I bought this f-in’ house and it’s mine to rebuild, period.

A couple of weeks ago I got all worked up talking about the plan/non-plan for rebuilding New Orleans while talking to a philosophy professor from UNO at the Parkview. Leave it to a philosophy professor to break me down. I can’t remember now the details of what he said, but the gist of it was that imminent domain is dangerous, and that WE ALL have the right to rebuild. He had me thinking. I still am thinking.

I don’t know.

It just seems irresponsible to allow isolated pockets of the city to rebuild. Moreover, I find it self-centered for these homeowners to demand services in their sectors of the city when New Orleans can barely afford to keep the less-ravaged parts of town alive. When you move into a city, you move into a community. You are buying into something more than just your individual property. You agree to adhere to the aesthetic guidelines of your neighborhood. You agree to pay higher taxes on just about everything. You agree to be a decent neighbor because you are living in close proximity to others. In short, it’s not Just About the Homeowner. It’s about everyone living collectively in the city.

Exactly, my philosopher friend would say.

I am conflicted. And I am tired.

Meanwhile, my mom called this evening to report on her first day of volunteering in the East. She said they’ve been moving stuff all day, and you could hear how tired she was. Tomorrow they will be painting, but they’re worried about that because in peeling back the wallpaper, mold was discovered, and evidently the homeowner wants to simply paint over it.

“Well, I guess you just have to do it,” I said.

“I know,” she said. She described how in the Saint Andrews orientation this morning they were told that their task was not to tell people how to rebuild—to offer advice or suggestions—but simply to aid in the recovery that those people saw fit.

Again: the conflict. Wouldn’t some outside advice and guidance right now be a good thing? When our mayor is MIA, don’t we need a little help deciding?

This is the thing: we need a plan.

Until then, it all feels like meaningless drops in one big, grim bucket.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Among the many, many deplorable realities of this post-K New Orleans--most of which, sadly, don't surprise me:

Report: Workers in N.O. endure abuse
Low-wage laborers exploited in recovery
Friday, July 07, 2006
By Gwen Filosa
Staff writer

Post-Katrina New Orleans is a dangerous, oppressive place for the working poor who labor on the front lines of the city's recovery effort, according to a report released Thursday by a Washington, D.C.-based legal center.

"The treatment of workers in New Orleans constitutes a national crisis of civil and human rights," said the report by the Advancement Project and the National Immigration Law Center, which interviewed more than 700 workers over several months only to find glaring examples of unfair labor practices, homelessness, and harassment by police and contractors.

The report bluntly depicts racist, bleak times for those on the working end of construction equipment or in the service industry. It details the experiences of migrant workers from out of town, many Hispanic and Asian, and also of African-Americans born and raised in New Orleans.

"New Orleans is being rebuilt on the backs of underpaid and unpaid workers perpetuating cycles of poverty that existed pre-Katrina," wrote the authors. They include attorney Judith Browne-Dianis of the Washington legal aid group the Advancement Project, and Marielena Hincapie of the National Immigration Law Center.

The report calls on the government to ensure availability of housing for low-income families and asks the philanthropic community to invest in programs that create opportunities for the poor and working classes.

Without reliable transportation, decent housing or child care, hundreds of families have found themselves living off meager wages, sleeping in cars or moldy, flood-ruined buildings. Many construction workers take health risks by working in possibly toxic conditions, the report said, while being denied overtime and, in many instances, all the pay they were promised or any money at all.

Gail Duncan, whose plight is outlined in the report, works in the kitchen of a restaurant on St. Charles Avenue but cannot afford an apartment. She and her children sleep on the floor of a relative's apartment in the Iberville public housing complex, the report said. It took her family seven months to return to New Orleans from their temporary home in Fort Worth, Texas, where her daughter was threatened by other children and school officials told her to "leave Texas."

Gloria Dillon lost her $6.78-an-hour job at a local toy store when Katrina hit and forced her family out of Gentilly. Dillon has no job or car and lives in a FEMA trailer park outside of Baton Rouge, named "Renaissance Village," with her only income $240 a month from public assistance.

"I am an excellent employee," said Dillon, who believes Baton Rouge businesses don't want to hire New Orleanians and has been repeatedly turned away. "I have the skills. But once they see that state ID, they don't want you."

The Regional Transit Authority provides a free bus from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, but often work shifts don't fit the bus schedule. Gwendolyn Hammond, who lived in the now-shuttered St. Bernard public housing project, said the nursing home where she worked only has 12-hour shifts, and she can't afford post-Katrina rents in New Orleans.

"Rents are now $700, $800, $1,000," Hammond said.
The report, titled "And Injustice for All: Workers' Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans," includes interviews with people like Dan Nazohni, who was recruited by a labor broker at his home at the White Mountain Apache Nation reservation in Arizona in September. The tribal government paid the unidentified broker $1,600 for gas and incidentals to help send 80 Apaches to the region with the promise of $14-an-hour wages.

Instead, the broker disappeared once the Apaches were dropped off in New Orleans. Nazohni and his co-workers were homeless for days, only to find a tent city set up in City Park, where the monthly rent is $300 per tent site. For months, Nazohni said he barely found enough construction work to scrape by.

For construction workers who find work, checks bounce or bosses refuse to pay.

The report examines the way the news media and politicians have painted a post-Katrina economic recovery. While the public was told that fast-food restaurants were paying huge bonuses, workers told the Advancement Project that it was mostly a ruse to lure workers to the low-paying, futureless jobs.

In one case in the report, a starting bonus was never paid to an employee who said her wages quickly fell from $9.25 back to the minimum wage of $5.15.

"In reality, low-wage workers of color are all losers in a race to the bottom," the report said.

Demolition worker Mario Fuentes came to New Orleans from Houston before Christmas.

After four days of cleanup and demolition work, his contractors dropped him off at a fast-food place on Canal Street and bought him a hamburger and a soda. They never came back. "I had to leave because I did not even have one dollar to buy something else," Fuentes said.

A group of 12 tree service workers who cleaned up hurricane debris in the Garden District are owed more than $20,000, the report said. Jorge Ramos, a Honduran from Houston, said his crew worked 12-hour days for 13 days straight but were not paid.

They live in tents on Scout Island in City Park.
Police often come down hard on the migrant workers, asking to check their skin for "gang" tattoos, said Tomas Hernandez, 28, of El Salvador, who came to New Orleans after working in New York, where he made $5.50 an hour at a factory.
Hernandez recalled police waking up him and his friends inside their rented house that had no electricity.

They didn't find any suspicious tattoos, Hernandez said, and then one officer asked the men if they had jobs lined up for the next day.

"They were pointing guns at us," Hernandez said. "We said no. He said he needed work done on his house."

The officer returned in the morning to pick up the workers. At least the officer paid them, Hernandez said.

The New Orleans Police Department denied such a scene would take place without a serious complaint having been phoned in. The report does not identify any officers by name or give specifics on what drew police to the home.

"His allegation is absurd," said police spokesman Capt. John Bryson, in response to the report. "We do not stop Latin Americans checking tattoos. We don't stop anyone for that. We have a right to knock on the door and say, there is a complaint that you're in violation for immigration laws. But we do not infringe on individuals in homes. We very carefully guard the rights of the Fourth Amendment."

The report is available on the Internet at
. . . . . . .
Gwen Filosa can be reached at or (504) 826-3304.