Floating All Boats?

Rising Tide 8 – Tourism and Recovery Panel

1.

Who owns New Orleans?

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Not who are the developers du jour. Not which national investors are going to build the biggest consumer businesses, which may in their turn consume the city.

Who owns the life of it?

The featured afternoon seminar at Rising Tide was about tourism and recovery. Despite all the recovery stats – population growth, new business starts, etc, NOLA is not just a place people like to visit; it is dependent on tourism to support the city’s needs.

What are the city’s needs? That has to be the reference point for what tourism-significant enterprises do.

From the city’s point of view, the purpose of tourism should be for the city. The purpose of the businesses will be to make money. The purpose of the consultants is probably a kind of fair-and-balanced bridge. Do they have a vision useful to the life of the communities, or are they just trying to look frightfully clever so they keep their contract? What about the professors and the entertainers, the students and the taxi drivers, the factory workers and the unemployed, moms and kids? Are they going to count as well, or is it all about hotels, theme parks and hooking into the national hospitality investment grid?

The current motivation of American business is ROI. Return on investment. Cash now. Cash to buy more assets, to hedge your bets, because the money might tank. Big businesses can read the economic runes. Absent a big sea change in law and finance, they don’t have a lot of choice. Short-termism does not mean they are evil, just that the current framework of American business pushes them to those goals.

But If we don’t make sure that the city’s point of view and purpose is very different from the businesses’, we’re in trouble. The city has to be investing for maintenance, infrastructure and the future of all the people.

Is that what is happening? Are the businesses, the lobbyists and consultants contributing to the future of New Orleans as itself, back again, bigger and better? Or are they in service to the satisfaction of the larger businesses, or the conversion of New Orleans to an identikit American hustle-town?

The good citizens of Anglo-America have been coming to New Orleans for decades to see what life could have been like. Now like all business you have to manage it, analyze it, have consultants in, translate activity and intention into MBA jargon.

But who created that life they came to taste? The great houses of the Garden District, the brass bands, the bars of Treme?

Since the Flood, Big Planning has come to town.

Flood + Money -> Gentrification.

Big Time Gentrification, the biggest gentrification project in the country. And Big Planning sees Big Money Contract Opportunities and arrives in a sleek silver coach with platinum slide rules and stories in a magic language. The power symbols of neo-liberalism had been flashed: Blackwater stopped by, to show what can happen if you resist. New Orleans got a glimpse of how power used to look in Chile and Argentina. Now honor the Brave New World. Or else.

Blow up the old projects, learn the joys of condominium life. Show us your license. Show us your permit. Who says you can play that trombone? No tubas after ten. Consultants, planning, hurry up and wait. The flood left people confused and the population reduced. The Second Reconstruction stepped up with a top-down mentality and commissioned top-down plans. Fragmented, dispersed communities accepted it.

So far. So far.

I think a lot of planning is high class butt-covering. The land and development scams are going to happen in something like the same old way, but a jargon-filled report and some nice charts can help keep you out of jail if it all hits the big fan.

2

Milton Friedman was a predatory economist. He and his academic gang, the Chicago Boys, created economic programs that did not include real people on the strategy game board. Their world was Markets. “Free” markets; money and money supply; government and business. People – they just got in the way of strategic analysis.

Friedman’s first big gig was to try to remake Chile to fit his dream. When the people elected Allende instead of Friedman’s man, Kissinger stepped in. A nice coup ensued. Allende died. Pinochet took over. Then everybody else died. Friedman was Pinochet’s consultant.

Friedman’s last political move at the age of 93 was to push the privatization of the New Orleans public school district. Then he died.

Friedman openly advocated what Naomi Klein later named Disaster Capitalism. Capital and techno experts, natural Lords of the Universe, should be ready for opportunities of confusion, fear and uncertainty; move in to subvert democracy and normal, inefficient life with programs that will put the natural ruler in the driver’s seat. The confused people’s job was to follow obediently or learn what jail and tort

In 2005, Republicans and slide-rulers used the Flood for a takeover by the Friedman class armed with planning policies. It should be a contradiction, free marketeers and shiny new planning, but that is what arrived.

By 2007 the predators’ pendulum had swung too far. The kleptocracy had pulled the rug out from under itself. In the country’s financial disaster state of shock, Henry Paulson went to Washington to cover for the wizard behind the curtain and in the confusion, got away with giving the country’s money to Wall Street instead of to the cities, because it was still possible to say with a straight face that Goldman Sachs was “the system” and it was important to save the system.

Now everybody knows it was a scam. They just don’t see a way out.

The Financialization of Practically Everything got its Monopoly money back. Its myth is moribund. No serious person really believes Friedmanism any more. Those who profit from it and their paid propagandists still preach it; some angry but clueless people like the Tea Party still worship at its ugly altar. But the faithful are very few.

The country’s – and the city’s – problem is that the machinery set up in the time of the free market gospel is still there. Nobody believes in it, but the big rusty gears are still turning. People know it is a giant pocket-picking device, but attempts to replace it with a living system have not succeeded yet. Kept off balance with tales of terrorists, invasions and Republicrat buffoonery, the sane people of the nations have not been able to regroup to form a civilization.

3

In the afternoon session of Rising Tide we could hear the creaking machine through the cold air conditioning, punctuated by a few good shouts saying, Come on, guys, we can do better than this tired old Industrial Revisionism.

A quick aside about the schools discussion. Rising Tide’s statement of the theme was:

“Are charter schools in New Orleans more or less responsive to democratic principles than our old School Boards . . . . ”

I was actually impressed by the acuteness of the panelists, but did I miss something? I don’t think I heard anything about how New Orleans got to 80% charter schools, and was it a good idea? Is there another way? Are the processes that euthanized the school district and created the charters still in play? Don’t we have to question some assumptions?

The tourism panel show did not give us a peek behind the curtain, but it let us know somebody was backstage, and that he was grouchy. Some of it was chilling.

Robin Keegan of GCR – amazing. We used to mock old Soviet five year plans. Robin Keegan representing Big Planning on the tourism panel is in charge of them now. They are not Soviet and not funny any more.  Ms. Keegan seemed quite sincere. I am sure she thinks she is doing the right thing, doing God’s work for the city. It gives me the chills. The Five Year Plan. “We have identified five clusters . . . .” Deputy Assistant Commissar Keegan of the Well Intentioned Soviet. She seemed quite surprised that the whole audience was not warmed by the Big Brother language.

Meg Lousteau is employed by VCPORA to package a NIMBY agenda in professional civic terms. A brief consideration of her bumptious backers will tell you it can’t be an easy job.

Mark Romig – he sells the city. I get that. It is a straightforward mission: bring in the money. He gets the job done. He seemed bemused by the chilly politics of how you design traffic patterns so residents and visitors don’t have to look each other in the eye, while trying to make it look all historic and folklore, and pat yourself on the back and wait for awards from Disney and Las Vegas.

Kevin Fox Gotham. I don’t know Professor Fox Gotham’s work well yet, but I hope to. I think he can see the coded cookbook and the robot chefs mixing up a hydrocarbon cake. I think he knows there is a miserable little illusionist behind that curtain.

Brice Miller: get ready for action. That is why I am here. As well as having an academic career with sound credentials in urban disciplines, Brice Miller is in and from the life of New Orleans. In his academic identity, Miller studies the communities and the people, but he also keeps a beady eye on the people who think they lead the people. With their instinct to manage everything into a static, boring tableau, do the managers and consultants really aspire to lead, or is the mission to achieve their masters’ goals without stirring up the riffraff?

Opryland. Hospitality Zone. Decibel levels. Overlays. Petty containment and control. Historicism. Tourism. Just listen to it. Where is the word that even sounds like life?

What did they actually say about tourism? I don’t think it matters. This is about who we are going to be.

Meg Lousteau cited European cities as models. That is a good idea. She used Venice, a negative example, suiting the VCPORA agenda, but if you want to see how to keep old things relevant and build new things, and keep tourism and the life of the city interweaving and complementing or at least surviving each other, look to Florence, Bruges, Rome. Maybe Paris, but like London, it is probably too big and busy for useful comparison.

She brought Bhutan into it somehow, too. Pretty radical, again intentionally negative. (Owen Courreges took on the Bhutan question in the Uptown Messenger, if you want to follow through.)

Florence, Bruges – not American cities. The American way of re-created tourism is strange. Fake saloons in Arizona. Millions of Americans seem as satisfied by toys and models as anything trying to be real or alive. Read Umberto Eco’s brilliant essay “Travels in Hyperreality” to understand this strange parallel universe. Don’t let the consultants take us there. Those Opryland people may be applying that deathly formula to jazz and blues soon, if you don’t drive them out of town.

I am waiting for the videos to go up on the Rising Tide site so I can pick up the exact words of Brice Miller’s one sentence destruction of the whole managerial superstructure’s Tinkertoy takeover plan. Brice pointed out that Treme used to have 18 live entertainment bars, now down to one. Meg Lousteau corrected that to maybe as many as two, depending on how you count Basin Street. Where did the others go? Complained and permitted and licensed out of business.

And where did the brass bands come from that are a very important component of why people come to New Orleans? Where did New Orleans Jass incubate until it went out to Chicago and New York and spread to the world? How much of that exodus might have been because of top-down fussing and ruling and shutting down, imposing middle class order on a tradition that flourishes in conditions that look more anarchic from the big houses and government buildings?

For New Orleans to have a living future, not just a corporate, short-term, profit-measuring, synthetic future selling postcards of itself, it has to renew itself continually. Renewal is going to come from the streets and the neighborhoods. What they need is space and time and leaving alone. Let’s call it enabling, a word you can put in a report. What they don’t need is a committee and a five year plan and to be identified as a cluster of the creative economy. They need the space to create respect for what they are doing, not the role they play in somebody’s vibrancy ambitions.

How do we survive corporatized tourism consultancy and committees? The star turn of the Rising Tide afternoon was the inspirational General Russell Honoré, whose career now is helping the Gulf area and its communities survive the onslaught of the oil and gas industries. Maybe we can recruit him to protect the living city against the well-groomed, well-meaning, Brooks Brothers-clad, briefcase-bearing top-downers’ assault on time, space, history and real life.

It’s not that they are wrong. Like business in America, they just don’t know how to keep within the lines. They see their own image reflected in everything, and they don’t know how to stop until they have occupied the whole space.

We need a General Honoré to hack a path through.

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