Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Edwards and Poverty

4000 N. Roman
Habitat for Humanity's Musician's Village
January 30th, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

That cold day two Decembers ago, Orelia Tyler thought she'd be getting a few college kids to move some dirt. The kids showed. So did John Edwards, announcing that he'd be running for the Presidency again outside her home.

Tyler came to Edwards' "I'm getting out of the race" announcement the other day in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, a place, he said, is a symbol of the poverty he's fighting to eradicate.

He also said, "We'll never forget you."

When he said it, I wondered if he's the type of big-time politician who has perfected the handshake and forget, handshake and forget routine. When I met Miss Orelia (That's how people address their female elders here in Louisiana), I wanted to know: Has Mr. Edwards stayed in touch?

Miss Orelia is the perfect person to ask, Edwards used her front yard to announce his candidacy. Her destruction was his foundation. "Every time he was in New Orleans, someone from his staff would call me," she said. She saw him at least four times throughout 2007.

A year into the campaign, Edwards' staffers told him that Miss Orelia's mom died. Burdia Jordan was 72. It happened two days before Christmas. Miss Orelia said Edwards called, offering his condolences.

When he'd finished his run and stepped of a make-shift platform, he gave Miss Orelia a hug. The journey had come full-circle.

Edwards had said it was time for him to move over for the other two democratic candidates to make history. He never had the It factor so many are seeking for the future President. But he said he vowed to keep up his fight against poverty in America and that Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton agreed to make it part of their campaigns.

There is a new normal here. New Orleans, at least for awhile, will be the American symbol of social ills that exist within all urban environments. The country's dirty secrets are on display. It's the most honest City in America.

Edwards stopped by a homeless camp by my apartment complex. Some of the people that stay there, I'd call them regular acquaintances. They tell me different "Why" stories all the time. One day, it's the depression, the next it's the drugs, the next it's "I've been clean for months."

Edwards says 200,000 veterans sleep under bridges and on grates each night in America and that we Americans have lost the compassion necessary to care for our poor. A VISTA I work with once said that in all religions, there is a story emphasizing that the poor will always be with us.

I think this is the rub for Americans. Are we willing to care for the weak? In New Orleans, down the street from my home, I see it in their teeth. If I were 50, toothless, skinny and shriveled would I have the will to save myself?

I hope I never have to find out.

Do we have the will to care for them? The guys like Raymond Hall and a guy named Chris who comes into my office almost every day. Chris lost an arm when he was a kid. Hit by a car, he says. He zips his backpack with his teeth. He's a piece of what he once was, I'm sure, speaking in erratic and confusing sentences. Truth is, I've found myself wanting him to leave so I can go about my day.

And then he comes back again the next day or the next week. For the moment, I'm happy, because I know he isn't dead. Chris is the kind of guy that is so far gone that even the homeless camp wont take him. He's been shunned like a nerd in a room of jocks. The homeless make fun of him. Isn't that something, the human condition at all levels, it seems, searches for something to be better than. In this case, Chris is the ammunition for other down-and-outers to say, "At least I'm not him."

It takes a saint to care for the people who sleep under bridges, not a politician. An amount of compassion, which, I believe only a sliver of people have. The fight needs a few more foot soldiers and many more donors.

Then, maybe, our Chrises and Raymonds will have a roof and hot food.

That's what we all want right? Food. Shelter. Happiness.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

New Orleans has an NBA team-For Now.

New Orleans Arena
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

On another night in another city, Chris Paul would already be a superstar. From the stands, he seems unassuming, like a guy that sits in the front row of a class but doesn't ask questions. You know he's smart, but he doesn't advertise it. Even his socks lack the normal NBA standoutness. They aren't the ones that are so low they're not visible or so high that they cover the entire leg.

On this night, in this City, Chris Paul just hopes people come watch his team play. The New Orleans Hornets, until recently, had the lowest attendance in the NBA. My friends and I, we live two blocks from the arena. On a game night, we can walk to the box office and for 10 dollars see the game.

Ticket availability isn't because of a bad product. The Hornets won eight in a row going into last night. Actually, the Hornets won eight in a row by over 14 points, and led the NBA's Western Conference. For the non-basketball readers, it's a pretty big deal for this time of year.

My roommate Jules, a buddy named Pavel and I walked to the arena to see the Hornets try to extend their streak against the Denver Nuggets. As we walked, we talked about how the state of Louisiana and the owner of the Hornets, inked an agreement that would allow the Hornets out of their arena lease after the end of next season if attendance doesn't average at least 14,375 fans a game.

Even on their streak the Hornets haven't been winning at the turnstiles. They've fallen short since the deal was signed. The attendance reporting began on December 7th. Pavel and I went to the Portland Trailblazers game last week with 11,000 others. Pavel says that the Hornets have the most marketing and ticket promotions in the league. I had a guy sell me the tickets to last week's game at work-- a door-to-door salesman in 2008. Tie and ID card included.

As we rounded the corner, the Superdome in the corner of our right eyes, larger lines were forming than I remembered seeing at the two previous games I'd attended.

"Geez, maybe we won't get in," I said.

We did. But, the 10 dollar tickets had sold out. We went up to the 20 dollar section and saw plenty of empty seats but less than the Portland game. The attendance ended up being over 15,000. So, in the race to keep the team here, last night the people of New Orleans kept pace.

The Hornets won their ninth straight game beating Denver by 24 points. Fans chanted "MVP" when Chris Paul left the game in the fourth quarter.

Some say it'd be a PR nightmare if the Hornets left New Orleans. They can't leave until 2010. It'd be five years post-Katrina and the country will really have made the Storm a once-a-year commemoration by then. The Hornets' future can be determined by the residents, it's one of the only outcomes where the people have control.




Sunday, January 20, 2008

Neighborhood groups take action

Olive Stallings Park
January 19, 2008
New Orleans, La.

It’s 6:30 am and Kate Parker’s eyes are bleary.

The clouds that will be visible an hour from now drop cold rain pellets on people’s plastic rain slips and nylon ski jackets. A forecaster has even called for a slight chance of snow in New Orleans this morning.

Snow. In New Orleans.

The conditions are the only thing Parker, the president of the Faubourg St. John neighborhood association, can’t control after months of planning today’s playground. Three hundred people are expected in 90 minutes to volunteer for the all-day affair complete with a mural, tree-planting, horseshoe pit and a spiral slide.

Some will come from the local universities who are mobilizing in honor of Martin Luther King Day. Others are neighborhood residents or AmeriCorps NCCC members, the traveling troupes who spend 10 months sleeping on floors, and other random places.

Parker, the president of the Faubourg St. John neighborhood association since 2006, and members of the Kaboom! playground project have been setting the build since Thursday. Walls were primed, holes dug, and x’s spray painted to mark the destination for purples poles, the structure of the playground.

“Rain, sleet or snow,” Kaboom! members say, “we’ll build in any of it.”

Group by group volunteers went into the rain and cold, equipped with zip-locked bags that contained directions and tool belts with wrenches and sockets, nuts and bolts.

Garbage bags became rain slips for the unprepared.

Funny thing about a volunteer build: figuring out the difference between an Allen wrench and a socket then figuring out how to use them.

One of the Kaboom! captains comes by our station and looks at some of our assembly. Wrong bolts he says. A fellow volunteer and I looked at each other, “I bet he could do this whole thing faster than all of us,” he says.

It’s true, the project managers could probably do this in their sleep. Their patience, with well-intentioned beginners day after day, build after build, must wear thin.

New Orleans’ neighborhood associations, local Bobby Wozniak says, are catalysts of on-the-ground action in post-Katrina New Orleans. “It’s a 100 times more than it was,” Wozniak says. “We figured out that we have to make it right this time. If we’re (New Orleans) gonna do it, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

Michael Green agrees. He’s under a big white tent with a smoker being loaded with hamburger and hot dogs for the volunteers. Friends call him “Cobbeannie” although he didn't say why. He had a restaurant before the storm, but now runs Cobbeanie’s grill, a catering business that is “doing really well.”

Green grew up at Stallings park and has been a bit of an advocate/greens keeper ever since. He learned to play sports here, played pick-up basketball on the courts beginning at age 12. He’s in his early 4o’s now, but has never lost his affection for the nights he grew up here.

“One time when I was 12, we were practicing outside and the street lights went out. We practiced in the dark.”

“Any legends from Stallings?”

“A guy named Willie Bland," Green says. "He ended up playing in college and would always be around playing pick-up,” Green says.

“And me.”

I ask Mark Andry, Green’s friend if he’s a legitimate Stallings legend.

“Cob is a Stallings park legend, he’s a neighborhood legend,” he says.

Green feeds the volunteers who are helping improve the place he’s been “replacing the nets at for the last 2o years.”

A woman comes by with an empty platter to bring the food inside to the wet-socked, muddied pants volunteers.

“They love your burgers in there,” she says.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Outside Tigers versus Buckeyes

Central Business District
January 7, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

The rain sent fans in silver and red, purple and gold running for cover two hours before the beginning of LSU's celebration night. 79,651 attended. A record, Superdome folks say.

For those who came to the game, but weren't inside, technology has made tailgating the best of both worlds. The electric feel of being there along side the convenience of coolers, chairs and television sets.

Tonight, RVs replaced Humvees in the Holiday Inn hotel parking lot.

The lot has housed in the the National Guard's vehicles, here to help the New Orleans Police department protect New Orleans. The National Guard is still here, of course, many of them Louisiana residents. The Humvees now occupy the southeastern corner of the lot.

"We grilled over 1,000 pounds of meat, and 1,000 pounds of crawfish," New Iberia, La. resident Lee LeBlanc says. LSU fans might be more knowledgeable about what happens outside the field than they do inside. And that's not a knock on the fans' collective football IQ.

"Here, have some duck wrapped in bacon," LeBlanc says. He and his father have rented 45 car spots at the Holiday Inn parking lot and brought in 10 MotorHomes, all equipped with TVs and lights.

The game, like last year, turned out bad for the BCS and good for the college football needs a playoff advocates. Tiger fans' celebration walk and the Buckeye's somber stroll both ended on Bourbon Street.

After watching the game from home, two friends and I decided to walk to Bourbon to see the spectacle. We saw a man, middle-aged with a big gash on his forehead. He'd fallen and looked confused as other fans and police attended to him. My friend's sister works at the municipal courthouse, she said they didn't have room in the parking lot for all the fans arrested for public intoxication last night.

By the end, when Monday had given way to Tuesday and long after my friends and I had returned home, the sun began to rise. LSU supporters who stayed out stumbled back to couches and beds, hotels and friend's apartments, leaving a night of excess for an afternoon headache.



Friday, January 4, 2008


January 4th, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

It's the little things that kick people while they're down. We all drive past the schools that say classes are in session, reminders that people mark time here by the summer of 2005. Probably always will.

It's 2008 now, and some people are painting over the time capsules, saying it's finally time to move on. Today, I went back to one of my most favorite acts of artistic and social expression. In June, the side of the building said "Welcome to K-Ville."

The spray paint is gone now. I'd say the neighborhood is better for it. The entire City is better every day the "X"s are painted over and the time-stamped readerboards get updated.

Will 2008 be the year of the disappearing "X"s?

I didn't think I'd drive by the "Welcome to K-Ville" building today and find it painted over. It's not like it was even a job-well-done. The building is vacant--I hope it was a neighbor fed up with walking past the sign every day.

"This is my-ville," she might have said.

New Orleans, in 2008's infancy, has open its arms to the world once again. Ten-thousand Hawaiians traveled here to cheer on their University's football team in the Sugar Bowl. Today, the City hosts the BCS college football national championship. Then, it's on to Mardi Gras and the NBA All-Star game.

Even LeBron James threw a party last week, I hear.

The City is on stage. This is an audition with high stakes and big dollars. To those who ask, and there's a bunch of you, yes it's safe to walk in the French Quarter at night. In the areas visitors don't see, 2008 has been called a make or break year. Until now, it seems, day-to-day living have been social experiments in survival not strategy.

But, fewer people are calling my office with lumps in their throats.

More people, like my co-worker Loretta, are calling contractors and picking out countertops. The final steps, she says, to being finished and leaving the mortgage payment at the broken house and the rental payment at the temp-house life she's had since the Storm.

"I'm almost there," she says. "Just have to get those countertops."