Identity Issues

Proposition:

In order to speak to the city in an official forum, an organization should be required to define and describe itself, and enable verification, so we can evaluate its significance.

Minimum information required should be the number of members, its mission or purpose and the decision process for the position being stated: by executive or board decision, or poll of members.

An acceptable alternative to describing repeated information, such as membership, might be to post the information on a website where it is easily accessible. The speaker can identify the web site in his or her introduction,

If an organization declines to provide specific information enabling evaluation, it should not be permitted to address the city in any official forum.

Louisiana may not be the most advanced state in the realm of Western culture, or even in the USA, or perhaps even in the South. That is not likely to change much while Jindal holds the throne, but the state’s laws of transparency for public bodies are pretty good. Meetings must offer public access and published minutes. The people have the right to comment and to criticize.

Examples of such public bodies are City Council, the City Planning Commission, the Vieux Carré Commission, the French Market Corporation and the French Quarter Management District.

When representatives of any of these organizations come before Council or the people and state that they represent it, they can give – in fact, be required to give – particulars of the organization, so that we know whom they are speaking for. In practice, they usually have web sites that facilitate the process of clarifying their organization, members, directors, purposes and activity.

When officers of French Quarter Advocates, the youngest of the French Quarter’s civic organizations, stand before Council, they usually state clearly that their organization launched in April 2014, now have 115 members, and that they poll the membership before representing their opinion to the Council and public. Name, population, decision process. FQA is not a state body, so is not required to do this, but as an honorable organization speaking to the city, they tell us who they are.

I have to give credit to Neighbors First for Bywater, a neighborhood group I almost always disagree with, for conducting open meetings and providing clear information including updates in its published minutes.

Membership information for Bywater Neighborhood Association is less obvious, but not secret; its meetings are also open to the public.

French Quarter Business League, or FQBL, is a private business association of the operators of the major Bourbon Street bars and entertainment venues. Under current rules, they are not obliged to provide identity information, but they do. We have also heard the Louisiana Restaurant Association address Council with similar clarity.

A fellow called Anthony Johnson appeared at Council, VCC and City Planning to oppose Habana Café, saying that he represented the Citizens’ Action Committee. But he does not say what it is, who is in it, or how they arrive at a group opinion. What is Mr Johnson representing – just three words, with no content? One of his consistent complaints was that the city bodies and the Habana company were insufficiently transparent and forthcoming, which did not seem at all correct to most spectators, while revealing nothing about the organization he claimed to represent but a name.

Deacon John Moore appears at City Hall on behalf of the Musicians Union, but the New Orleans chapter is not clearly defined on its web site, I am sure they need specifics for negotiations with employers; they should be available to the public and city as well, if he claims to speak on the union’s behalf. I do not think the union is trying to hide anything, but they should be more transparent, if they expect their name or prestige to validate an opinion.

Two organizations who might appear before the city more than any others similarly provide little more than a name, and the expectation that their testimony will be validated by their reputation. Is that enough? The question as to who they really represent is repeated frequently, and there is no clear answer. The Vieux Carré Property Owners and Residents Association and their linked club, French Quarter Citizens, conceal their membership, their membership numbers and their decision process.

When the directors or executives of VCPORA and FQC come to the lectern at City Hall, they state their names, the name of the organization, and its office address. They say nothing to validate the significance of the group. Based on repetition of the name thousands of times, she expects us to accept and assume that she is representing a significant entity. But we do not know how many unique members and how many overlap members belong to each, or whether the majority of the members support the proposition. Why are some groups entitled to claim significance just on a name, while others must show that the group is not just an empty box?

Strangely enough – or maybe not, when you get to know them – these same two, who are for some reason entitled to nominate one commissioner each to FQMD, have been insisting to the point of exhaustion that FQMD write and enforce more transparent bylaws on itself. In fact, they have occasionally become quite truculent at FQMD Commissioners’ meetings, wanting the bylaws to be not what the Commission, the authority in charge, wants them to be, but what VCPORA wants them to be. It is not an attractive sight. As far as observers can tell, the two secretive clubs’ intention is to obstruct and harass FQMD for not adhering strictly to some point of order. Of course, this may be pessimistic. It is always possible that their objective this time is enlightenment and harmony,

Check Harrah’s for the odds.

I have tried to find out the membership numbers of both clubs. Not the members’ cell phone numbers or personal habits – just how many there are. That information, I have been told, is confidential.

I have tried to understand their decision process. When they state the position of VCPORA, who do they represent? How many individuals have voted? How many residents? How many businesses? How many permanent residents, how many absentee landlords? The information is hidden. Except for its name and address and the board members listed on their web site, and the issues they advocate, VCPORA is a secret society. A black box, hidden in pain sight. And French Quarter Citizens is a smaller, less articulate black box stuck in a corner of the VCPORA box.

Some information surfaces from street espionage. Their spokesmen often say they represent “the residents.” I think that is meant to imply that the organization is a benign umbrella for all 4,000 residents of the French Quarter. But that doesn’t compute – we encounter too many FQ residents that roundly detest them and their policies.

Some ex-directors and officers imply that membership is probably a couple of hundred each, with a significant overlap, so on this evidence about 300 to 350 between the two.

But even if we had the numbers of members, the issue of who the directors represent before Council remains. For that, you need the decision process. At the Habana Council hearing, Robert Ripley, one of their members, said he had never been consulted on anything, let alone his position on Habana – which is strange considering his office is directly opposite, He said that the small group in the Council chamber represented no more than themselves.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” A famous statement by Margaret Mead. It is not the commitment or beliefs of these groups, as wrong as they may be, as much as we may disagree with them, that should be suppressed. It is their commitment to deceive and to misinform that is reprehensible, and that can be radically improved locally with a simple ruling of the Council.

I am picking at VCPORA here because it is probably the most frequent speaker at Council, and among the easiest to see, though not to see into. It is no secret that I consider it a toxic element within the spectrum of urban influences. But the identity requirement should be applied fairly and equally to all.

This should not be an exotic or excessive requirement. It is in the spirit of Louisiana law.

Identity should depend on current reality, not repetition, or even worse, prestige. One way of characterizing the regulation might be that the state does not accept input from secret societies.

Council and all the City administration should insist on a single improved set of rules for public advocacy. The same rules should apply to all. City and state bodies should decline to hear any presentation made on behalf of any body or association which will not provide basic information.

Why don’t we turn this into an action petition? Let’s get Council and the municipal administration applying equal standards to all public input.

Think about it. I will draft a petition within a few days.

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The Sonny and Stacy Show

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Son and Stace

A Comedie in Three Actes

“He owes a shitload of taxes”

Did La Presidenta cook her own goose, and was it out of golden eggs anyway?

The best commentator might be a theater critic, not a local politics grouch. The Good Guys won. Our beloved Council Members put down two appeals by Prophets of Gloom against the Vieux Carré Commission’s approval of the design of Habana Café for Esplanade and North Rampart.

Will they stay down? Or, inflamed by Boss Smith’s January threat at VCC to take the Great Taco Case to the Supreme Court, will they turn the mini-series into a soap opera? (If it does, I hope this was the season finale. It’s fun, but we have to move on.)

One appeal was by a list of panic merchants including a few usual suspects manning the foggy parapets of their walled dreamtown, armed with rusty legal muskets and damp powder; the other was by Anthony Johnson’s Citizens Bewildered Committee.

Lloyd “Sonny” Shields, esq., once more in dented armor strode to the lectern to save the world. Gladiator Shields (pun unavoidable) seems capable of some considerable style, but is groping unsuccessfully for it in these cases.

Lawyers for neighborhood association dictatorship, SmithStag, Michael Martin and now Shields, make me feel better about not joining the legal profession. I considered it very seriously once. It was at the High Court in London, where the barristers ply their learned theatrical trade in robes and wigs, with great oratory and a lot of standing up and down. The thespian aspects were intriguing, but to use this forum briefly as a confessional, the real reason was that the women barristers were hot. I am not kidding. They come out of court, pull off the grey wig, twirl it around their fingers for a few seconds, shake out their hair a bit, and breeze off to next appointment, at chambers or to Fleet Street for a drink, while I stand and wilt. I would start imagining the process of helping them out of the silky black robes, imagining unsuspected charms of the legal profession.

So how does yesterday’s hearing stack up against my best forensic fantasy?

Why do we care? Habana won, NIMBY lost. Fair maiden rescued, dragon gasping. Hope for North Rampart rekindled. So why go on about it?

Know your local Hoodie, is why! Keep a beady eye on the people that want to sell the idea that preserving unique historical character means denying history, stopping history,

The CZO and a new Noise Ordinance are on the docket. These same moblets of the gentry will be back on the case. If they re-run their standard game plan, we can look forward to dishonesty, coercion, dire predictions, irrelevant “expert” witnesses – anything to get their own way and to limit or remove your rights and choice.

Also, they were funny.

Act I
Shields’s opening thrust: the Council should not be considering this matter because the site is within 300 feet of a church.

Begging your pardon, M’lud. Point of law, Sir.”

Now, outside of the occasional cold sweat about barristers, I generally know as little law as I can get away with, but I have some nice friends. Phone and text messages: “Does this guy call himself a lawyer?”

Section 10-236 of the Louisiana Code of Ordinances:

It is hereby declared the sense and policy of this section and section 10-238 that no permit shall be granted for the opening of any barroom, saloon, cabaret or other place where alcoholic beverages are sold at retail, to be consumed on the premises within 300 feet of any playground, church, public library, or school. Exempted from these provisions are the following: . . .

 

and the following do not apply, until, down at the bottom:

 

Sec. 10-239. – Section 10-236 not applicable to hotels, etc.

“The restrictions contained in section 10-236 do not apply to premises which are maintained as a bona fide hotel, restaurant, fraternal organization, bus terminal or railroad station, nor to any premises licensed to deal in alcoholic beverages for a period of one year prior to May 1, 1953.”

My teacher said, “You could open the restaurant inside the damn’ church, if you wanted to.”

I got a chance to ask another savvy lawyer (American; no wig or black robes, so I managed to concentrate) why the CMs didn’t challenge that. She said the appeals were against the VCC decision; churches were irrelevant.

The VCC had approved a change of use, said the doughty gladiator, and that is not within their authority. Wait a minute – no they didn’t. Brutus (for today is the Ides of March) is an honorable man – but my feeble command of language suggests that in accord with normal practice, the VCC noted that the approved design was suitable for the proposed change of use. Restaurant is a permitted use at this address. Absent some other violation, such as a cockfighting ring in the courtyard, the change should be a rubber stamp. But not VCC’s rubber stamp.

Mr S. says the VCC did not consider 8.1, the old tout ensemble catchall. I watched some of the Architecture Committee hearings. That is exactly what they kept considering, and if they happened to forget to mention it for a minute, Anthony “Windmill” Johnson was always ringside to remind them of it.

Questionable as it is as a decision tool, 8.1 is still in force. The annoying “quaint” part of “quaint and distinctive” is still on the books, and the VCC understands it well. The difference of opinion is that the appellant caste wants tout ensemble to mean veto power for neighborhood association directors, not a fuzzy guideline for professionals.

Habana Café is a “beach party,” declares Shields, feeding the fevered imaginations of his clients.

Give us a break, Son. Keep your Cuban fantasies for a more private place. Sean Meenan speaks about what he intends to do. Even Stacy Head, a sky-is-falling preservationist who will go all Blanche in Act III, said she was nervous of what might happen. Future conditional. The appellants speak about what it is, as if their fantasies were real and crowds of drunken zombies were already pressing through the fence.

And so it goes. Irrelevant stuff about Fire Marshals, table placement, disreputable behavior of imaginary people on patios that don’t exist yet. The CMs waited in vain for a hit.

Shields’s slightly softened version of the condescending, snippy tone he had used addressing the City Planning Commission seemed a poor choice for a losing cause using irrelevant arguments based on faked-up law. With a solid population of lawyers and maybe a future mayor or two up on the dais, he could have played it better.

Anthony Johnson’s arguments were as forlorn as usual. The VCC, he told us, does not understand traffic, pedestrians, building design, customers, restaurants, the neighborhood or anything much. The law is clear, you see, but the VCC just doesn’t get it. Johnson can teach them planning, architecture and restaurant management.

Send it all back to the VCC, the querulous Quixote concludes. Make them do their job right. On the video, you can see vigorous nodding with grave mien just behind, by Mr Albin Guillot of FQC. He also must understand architecture and town design better than the VCC and the City Planning Commission and their staffs, and restaurant operation better than the creator of the Habana group. The FQ clubs for residential myopia are certainly fortunate to have such experts among their members.

Lisa Suarez steps to the plate for Marigny Improvement. Her voice and style are kinda cute. If you look up her careers on the internet, you will see that she is a gutsy, resourceful lady. The contrast is attractive. I really want to like her, but saying kooky stuff makes it hard. “We are in a fight for our lives in Marigny.” Really? A restaurant is going to kill you?

“We do not want to see rooftop and canopy chairs and tables.” The “rooftop” is at the floor level of the second floor, just like a balcony or gallery. How can tables on a balcony – a pretty common phenomenon, don’t you think? – facing North Rampart on the FQ side of Esplanade threaten the life of Marigny?

“We need you to stick to the rules; I’m not an expert on that . . .” No, but the VCC staff, commissioners and executive director are. So whence, pray, your unsupported claim that you or Johnson know better than they? Ms Suarez is not “really happy” with glass doors enclosing the space under the canopy. I guess she wants glass in wooden frames, perhaps with some quaint and distinctive gold lettering. Ye Olde Café.

“We need the ability to negotiate; so far we just come up against a brick wall.” (Glass wall?)
Negotiate what? It’s been going on for years. If Habana didn’t like your suggestions, VCC did not see fit to impose them and CPC did not see that as a deal breaker, then you didn’t win that one. Let it go.

Ms Suarez mentioned future appeals. That suggests that FMIA, the French Quarter Jihadis and their allies by treaty, the Riverfront Alliance, who have no more skin in this game than I do, will be back trying to ensure that the corner remains a black hole for a few more decades.

John Reid was back for Johnson’s group, with the death-by-a-thousand cuts riff. Reid could be their best spokesman. Good voice, tone, understands rhythm and rhetoric, stays on the mic. Just missing one thing: a good argument. He exposed a big weakness of the appellants’ case, which most of them disguise more successfully: “I, I, I”. “Nothing wrong with a bar; I go to bars. Nothing wrong with a restaurant; I go to restaurants.” I am sure I was not the only one in the audience thinking, “So what?”

Johnson wants Habana to be another restaurant with a courtyard. No glass doors, because other restaurants don’t have glass. (Actually, some do.) No balcony, because other restaurants don’t have balcony tables. (Actually, some do.) Build a high wall, not a low wall, because other restaurants don’t do that. Pave the yard with bricks, install a wrought iron gate, plant some ivy for the quaint of it, hire a celebrity chef. Just what New Orleans needs – another foodie temple.

The French Quarter is a regulated area. We get that. But it is the Habana company that invested in the buildings and has sat on them while the city’s Byzantine procedures grind slowly on. Habana has to operate the restaurant, not Johnson and the Sanchos. If they wanted to decide design and operation, at any time in the past 40 years or so they could have formed a co-op, bought the site, built a wall and painted it quaint, but they didn’t. What’s the logic of this lot deciding the decor on someone else’s private dime?

Both appellants’ cases rested on the claim that the lower Quarter is traditionally, historically, a quiet residential area. If you accept re-starting history after the 1930s wave of Anglo invasion and gentrification, maybe they can make a case. It would be a tough one in a fair court, though. Why should the most recent occupier get to declare itself the authentic tradition? The back or lake side streets had a pretty raucous history between the Creole culture that built it, through their gradual departure and several waves of immigration that fed the lively ethnic, social and commercial mix. Claiming that the neighborhood was always a dull memory lane inhabited by bland retirees building walls of social exclusion devalues their story. I would have more sympathy for their cause if they just said, “We bought it. It is ours now. Go away. Shut up. We need to sleep . . . to dream.”

Act II. Habana sallies forth
Robert Ripley gave a well-reasoned and composed riff on the dark, unsafe corner coming back to life due to this well thought out standard restaurant, which had patiently dotted every i and crossed every t of a painstaking process over vitriolic opposition who had been given every consideration by the commissions.

Mr Ripley pointed out that as a member of several of the organizations participating in the appeals, he had never once been asked his opinion, by any of them. There was no poll of members. Small cliques have taken over these neighborhood clubs. Not even democratically representing their own couple of hundred members, they imply that they speak for all 4,000 residents of the FQ, and by allying with other, similar tribelets, for thousands of people.

They represent only themselves, said Mr Ripley.

Bryan Drude spoke in support for French Quarter Advocates, a neighborhood group with a sane operating system, which does explain its status and poll its members before telling government what their opinion is. There were more, but we must rush.

Act III: The Council Speaks. The Nays lose it, in more ways than one.
CM Nadine Ramsey’s opened the curtain with a carefully logical introduction and motion to deny the appeals.

Stacy Head was unnervingly animated. Her team was losing. Whence the froth? What did she have cooking up her sleeve?

She just loved this project. Fabulous! It looked like so much fun and so full of life . . . she just couldn’t wait. But not here! Take it to areas that need it, like OC Haley or Freret.

Government sponsored Nimbyism: go someplace else! Maybe they will love thee there, Doctor Fell. Wrong, Madam! OC Haley and Freret are well along in their renaissances. North Rampart is in bad need of revitalizing. Its Soviet aspect may be sustained by the hostility of these same people to all things lively.  Habana might just break the ice and bring the music back. The Council prez acknowledged that her side was going to lose, but she was in danger of palpitations from what Habana might do to the French Quarter. Just think of Lucy’s in the CBD or Big Box furniture like at Bacchanal. (Shields had done a Lucy’s number in his 15 minutes.) Or Dat Dog! It would just be . . . just be . . . .

There is a Buddhist story that a man painted a picture of a tiger on the wall of a cave. His mind wandered. Later, he looked at the tiger, took fright and ran from the cave. CM Head’s palpitations come from the same place as the ancient artist’s tiger: fear of images you painted in your own imagination.

Habana could be like Lucy’s because of the low wall of its open space, they say. But what exactly are the architectural characteristics that get the sidewalk crowd going at Lucy’s? Nothing that I can see. The gathering is a social phenomenon, not building design.

CM Head said “us older folks” have to adapt to Tactical Urbanism, a term we picked up from Andrés Duany’s talk about planning, Bywater and the CZO a few weeks ago. We have to use the good parts, discard the bad.

Duany is a renowned planner and leader of the Smart Growth movement. His contempt for the draft CZO is unfathomable. He suggests, don’t try to fix it; toss it. Not much chance of that, though. They paid the consultants too much to admit it is no good.

Tactical Urbanism refers to building and creating in gaps between the domains of red tape. Maybe it is a positive example of the Shock Doctrine. Examples can be found in pockets of Detroit, where regulation has broken down and there is no way through the civic muddle. Free development has re-emerged, with some creative results. With three years of painful red tape so far, before operations permitting even begins, the Habana case is the opposite of Tactical. The traditional regulators – eg, Stacy Head – picking-and-mixing a plan means ipso facto it ain’t tactical urbanism any more. It isn’t tactical until the Staceys step out of the way. It can’t be the intensely regulated French Quarter.

But at least she listened to Duany. Maybe our Council President will read his stuff and get it. In downtown NO we don’t have to worry too much about Smart Growth’s principal demon, suburban sprawl, but we have to resist imported suburban segregation zoning, which not only the fogey mob engages in. Watch out for the new California-style yuppies, full of beaming self belief, and no self-awareness, accumulating property in Bywater and Marigny, thinking they are much cooler than the old New Orleans crowd. Keep an eye on the Riverfront Alliance for lip service to mixed use and real pressure in favor of enclave zoning. Nimby is going on here. Fearful residents are telling you this restaurant will attract undesirable elements. You know, them. People not like us. A key theme of Smart Growth is that neighborhood democracy requires diversity. Requires. Diversity in age, income, gender, viewpoint. Take a look at the appellants – what do you see? All one kind of people clumping together. The mentality is mob not democracy.

Stacy Head is a clever, energetic woman. Hard to understand why she does not see that mob action by discredited right wing neighborhood associations is the real danger, not a restaurant finally bringing life back to a derelict location.

The Congress for the New Urbanism views divestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one interrelated community- building challenge.

That is a quote from Suburban Nation, of which Andres Duany is co-author. I added the bold type. Enclave zoning is ugly in a city. Segregation or stratification has led to some of the most vile practices and betrayals of the original promise of America to the society of fear, surveillance and widespread injustice that it has become.

Then Mme President pulled the stunt of the afternoon. She brought out some pages to wave, McCarthy-like. Is Mr Meenan going to be a good business citizen, pay his taxes, comply with the rules? Absolutely, he says from his seat. She asks a muddled question – did you buy the properties on a tax sale or from a tax sale . . . ? Question too muddled to answer. Then she says, It was on the way to a tax sale, for an outstanding amount. $3.00. She summons Meenan to the mic.

If this was a comic strip, there would be “gasp” balloons over the audience.

Sean Meenan usually sounds optimistic and congenial, but you couldn’t build a business like his if. that was your only voice. Now we saw another one, quiet and cold: “Are you saying I owe $3.00?”

“That is not the point. It says the property was on the way to a tax sale for non-payment/”

“Of $3.00?”

The insinuations got worse, with repeated qualifiers that the city got things wrong “all the time,” so is it correct? No, said Meenan. Didn’t stop her.

This was low comedy, even for City Hall. Stunned looks in the audience. What was Stacy playing at? She justified it: we have to know whether you are a good guy, a reliable operator.

With incredible vulgarity even for them, the claque of Residents for Urban Coma dropped their gentrified mask and began to applaud! Abandonment of any pretense of dignity is what they want in their civic representatives? Is Stacy Head trying to channel Clarkson back into the chamber?

Did Madame President cook her own political goose right there in front of our eyes? Were there any golden eggs left, or might she as well shove the bird in the oven? She may have cemented ten votes with the embittered clubs, but the low blow lost her 1,000 in the space of a minute.

Jason Williams came through! The Fortinbras of Habana. Well done, Mr Williams! Glad I voted for you. He said as a resident of the FQ and friend of the restaurant’s next door neighbors and some of the opponents, he personally could do without Habana Café on that corner, but his job as a public servant was to vote the broader needs of the area and the city, not his own or his friends’ comfort. Bravo, Sir!

James Gray, as we have come to expect, asked intelligent questions and reached wise conclusions. Gray is a threat to satire. NOLAscape’s mission is to kickstart your bullshit meter. On the Ides of March, we come to bury Caesar quick because he is getting ripe – not praise him. But James Gray keeps on being uncooperatively cool and smart.

Susan Guidry’s conclusion followed President Stacy’s, reiterating the Hoodie appellants’ mantras – mega-parcel, fragile and all that.

The French Quarter will be all right either way. What Habana endangers is the controlling grip of a narrow demographic that wants veto rights over all activity from Canal Street to Arabi. However, since CM Susan went out on the Bernard Noble protest, sponsored more civilized marijuana law, and has shown principle and courage outside of the hypnosis range of faux-preservationists, we award her a NOLAscape Get-out-of-Jail Card.

So after three years of round-and-round, Habana wins on points. Is it over? Who knows? Malign fogeydom might keep trying to keep the corner dark and derelict and North Rampart bleak, to the detriment of all except their grumpy little groups. If they keep causing Habana more waste and expense, it would serve them right if Meenan sold the two properties to Pepsico for Pizza Hut. Let VCPORA/FQC see what a legal war chest can look like.

Epilogue
We thought it was all over. The chamber mikes were turned off. But the video mikes were on!

CM Ramsey to CM Stacey, “He does not owe all that money. My staff checked.”

CM Stacey to CM Ramsey: “A steak dinner on it. He owes a shitload of money. At least $5,000.”

It is funny when people do this. It’s also pretty funny to think that $5,000 of tax questions covering eight or ten properties in renovation worth a few million bucks qualifies as a shitload.

Will our Dear Leaders tell us who won the dinner?

15 March 2015

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Habana Café v. Historical Creationism

Episode XXXIII Pt. 1
When the Suburbs Come to Town

“Just when you think you are out, and free, they pull you back in.”

I had another project. I really did not want to get into FQ foolishness this week.

But Habana Cafe was up for judgment at City Planning. I couldn’t miss the chance to see this storied and gloried Cuban taco shop pry another finger loose of the death grip of the Neighborhood Crusaders and their new co-zombies on North Rampart loose, so I wobbled over to City Hall to catch the show.

Why do I care? Why should anybody? (Do I have to be serious now? Groan)

•  Cities are interesting. I like cities. I like this city. With few exceptions, from Socrates to Woody Allen, civilization gets made in cities. Great creative cities swirl with interdependent diversity. NIMBY and segregation zoning isolate little sticky clumps of “people like us.” They are imports from the wasteland of suburban sprawl. They go against the grain of civilization and undermine the life of cities. Let’s hope the proponents and all they advocate will be circumvented and eventually kicked aside by the real people of New Orleans. The city will regain its character, and it ain’t quaint.

•  In the meantime, though, imported suburbanism is doing a lot of damage. Let’s hope New Orleans defeats the trend, exiles it back to the tract houses, McMansion zones and housing associations it came from.

•  If I can throw a few banana peels in the path of the NIMBY army and its zoning ordinances and overlays, it should be worth at least a weekend in heaven, don’t you think? A couple of days with the old harp on a cloud, before I am sent to my punishment, eternity in a neighborhood meeting.

Would the next stage of the Habana saga be interesting or soporific? A trusty New Orleans progress-blocking technique is to delay, obstruct and prevaricate until the applicant starts to lose the will to live, and wanders off.

Background, in case you don’t know: Sean Meenan bought two decaying adjacent properties at Esplanade and North Rampart a few years ago, intending to open a Habana restaurant. Over vociferous, unconvincing neighborhood association opposition, the Vieux Carré Commission passed the restaurant’s plans in session after session. Last campaigning season, in 2013/14, a big final push back had been organized, they say, by Stuart Smith, a competent if malevolent organizer, who takes the wheel at VCPORA when he senses it slipping toward civility. It was the waning months of the Clarkson Fun House Council, and somehow they swung Kristin Palmer over to the dark side.

Habana went back to the drawing board and submitted modified plans. This time, something had changed. The arguments against Habana Café were same-old, but the VCC kept liking the new plans. The NIMBY brigade again grew vitriolic. The high point this year was probably the day in January Smith showed up at an Architecture Committee meeting, probably to show the ordinary street hoppers how a capo does it. But the Architecture Committee members are pros. They didn’t scare.

“Mr Meenan is going to end up paying his lawyers all the way up to the Supreme Court because that’s where this case is headed,” Smith said. “The court is going to throw your decision out in the street and you are going to be embarrassed when that happens.”

         http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2015/01/cafe_habana_approved_by_vieux.html

Antonin Scalia will sneak the famous Esplanade Avenue Burrito case into the docket on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s retirement day. She listens incredulously to Smith’s argument. After a storied career of many decades, Justice Ginsburg’s valedictory opinion is, “WTF?”

She should keep her cell number close, just in case; he can get wicked with text messages.

The funniest opponent is a guy called Anthony Johnson. He looks like Don Quixote and brings his own fictional windmills on slides and PowerPoints. Mr Johnson repeatedly tried to prove that the architects and planners of the VCC, chaired by Nicholas Musso, architect, professor of architecture and restaurant designer, did not know what they were doing, and would benefit greatly by learning from him.

His most touching windmill is a Photoshop of a few hundred shadowy stiffs wandering around North Rampart and Esplanade outside of a rendering of the restaurant, looking like an uncertain carnival crowd on a rainy Mardi Gras afternoon on St Charles, wondering when the first parade would arrive, thereby proving . . . that Don Anthony can work Photoshop, I guess.

What happens if all the political hurdles are cleared, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg gives Habana the nod? Johnson might have to get tough. He could have his shadow figures throwing up, a major element in Hoodie demonology, or maybe sex under the tables or a gunfight, to prove the evils that would overcome us.

We give him smiling admiration, as we do the original Don Quixote, for his tenacity and ability to sustain beliefs against all evidence.

Opposition arguments really boiled down to: This is our plantation. We don’t want foreigners on our patch.

They might as well have jumped up and down on their hats shouting, “Tout ensemble! Tout ensemble!” As Monday’s City Planning Commission session opened, neither the VCC nor the CPC had been willing to dispense with reason and intelligence to placate the FQ harpy team. Best sign of hope for the future of downtown that I have seen for some time.

For a clear summary of Tuesday’s action, I suggest Richard Webster’s article in the Times-Picayune. He has followed the story through, so for more background, use the T-P’s search box.

Here’s the thing: Habana’s opponents’ mantra is “historic” and “preservation.” They are talking through their Panama plantation manager’s hat. Habana Café connects to older, stronger traditional roots in the French Quarter than they do.

The neighborhood associations who claim preservation chops use the same litany that every neighborhood NIMBY association uses when they want to block a restaurant, bar or corner store: traffic, parking, noise and trash. French Quarter and some other snipers just flash some extra magic words: historic, precious gem, tout ensemble and sometimes some invented history.

Back to the showdown at the Perdido Corral: Speaking in favor of the motion: attorney and French Quarter resident Kay Baxter, a neighbor, said she is looking forward to a cheerful business operating there, instead of the decades-old dark, dangerous eyesore, now a shooting gallery, outdoor toilet and site of decay and danger. Bryan Drude, President of French Quarter Advocates, the new and growing neighborhood association advocating sanity as an operating program, affirmed his association’s support. FQA is democratic, so that would be by members’ vote, not just the decision of of a boardroom clique. Earline Torres of the baronial Torres family, who lives across the street, told the Commission she was looking forward to getting rid of the corner eyesore and the great Habana food right in her own home neighborhood that she gets at the Malibu Habana. And Ethan Ellestad, an activist New Orleanian, said this painful process has been going on for three years. It’s enough. Let’s get it done.

I thought of going to the mic to say, I don’t live in the French Quarter, but I do live along the St Claude/Rampart/OC Haley corridor, which is scrubbing up nicely. St. Claude is livening up, with mostly private investment in restaurants, stores and entertainment. South Rampart is under major reconstruction, and after a few false starts with public backup, Oretha Castle Haley is on the way to real nice. From the St Claude bridge to St Andrew Street, the lights are coming on in this four and a half mile city corridor. But the river side of the North Rampart section, where neighborhood no-niks and their buddies in North Rampart Main Street, Inc, roam and snipe, still looks too much like East Berlin in a black and white spy movie. They claim that the North Rampart stretch is their neighborhood. The CPC and Council should smack that down. North Rampart is part of a major city corridor. Yes, New Orleans neighborhoods are different, and individual, but the linking commercial corridors should be ‘at large’ – the city’s from end to end.

For the sake of clarity: I am in favor of historic preservation, but if you are serious about historic preservation, not just using it as a bogus benediction for what you want, use real history and real preservation. Dictating lifestyle is not preservation. Neighborhood Associationism is not synonymous with preservation. Cities evolve; turn one into a boring outdoors museum, and it dies.

Ms Kelly Brown, Chair of the CPC, called for the opposition speakers. Mr Lloyd “Sonny” Shields, their lawyer and representative, strode decisively to the podium. He had just received eight and a half single-spaced pages of additional information. The opponents, his clients, had not been notified. He moved for deferral to digest the new addition to the staff reports.

Ms Brown smiled softly. Her gentle tone did not change. Uh-oh. Shields was in trouble. Unruffleable feathers were in his future this afternoon. “Since we have come this far, why don’t we just proceed with the hearing, and at the end, you may make that motion again.”

The opponents had put in 26 speaker cards for the total of 15 minutes allowed for opposition. Ms Brown pointed out that that would be about 35 seconds each, so did they perhaps want to reorganize their input? Shields said there would be two speakers for two minutes each, and he would take the rest of the time.

First up was the Don, he of the Mournful Countenance. Glass, he said. Glass doors and windows. Accordion glass doors. People could see right in! There was no precedent for it. Glass was a step too far.

Mr. John Reid, a neighbor, brought the Willie Nelson look to the podium. He said the French Quarter had always been a residential neighborhood. They had already lost territory to Bourbon Street, sin, hard music, hard women and sex. (He missed Harrah’s.) Death by a thousand cuts, he said. Save the FQ from this disastrous new intrusion.

“Always” seemed a dangerously fish-eye view of history. I would be more conservative. A span of about 220 years ought to do it. Not all that long ago in the life of a real city, the French Quarter was not a neighborhood. It was New Orleans. After Bonaparte flipped Louisiana to President Tom Jefferson in 1803, a wave of American Protestant immigration hit the Franco-Spanish colony. The old city became the Creole area of new Orleans, later called the French Quarter, as the indigenous culture exerted great efforts to keep the Anglo invaders – the cultural progenitors of lawyers Shields and Smith, executive gunslingers Lousteau and Gniady and Chairwomen Meadowcroft and Garrett – on the other sides of Canal and Esplanade. But still, Yankee immigrants bought property in the Creole areas. When one of the great New Orleanian Creoles of history, Micael, Baronne de Pontalba, came back to the city in 1830 after 19 years in France, she found more shops and businesses, commercial buzz and English spoken in the streets than when she left. The Creoles were already getting squeezed.

There was no zoning. There were breweries, factories, warehouses, blacksmiths, taverns, gambling, prostitution and other fun that you could get to in a few steps through the streets made of mud and horse dung. New Orleans was a small city, but a real one with real mixed use and occupational diversity, as you can still see in French and Spanish small towns today. There was even a slave shop on Esplanade a few blocks toward the river from the Habana site. That would have been before Bourbon Street.

New Orleans was a Spanish Caribbean city populated mostly by French speakers, a royalist colony first of France, then Spain, then briefly of the Napoleonic Empire. It had no part in the American rebellion against Britain. No zoning did not mean no bureaucracy. The city and the notaries made a good income out of requiring a certificate and a fee for everything, and lawsuits seem to have been a major sport. But since smuggling and fencing pirated goods was a major industry that the Lafittes’ Barataria business almost turned respectable, there must have been a lot of slipping around the rules. If the CZO in its present draft is going to be the rules, long may that tradition continue.

There had been a burst of Yankee immigration in 1803, but the Quarter’s Creole character got a reinforcing shot after the St Domingue revolution in 1804, when thousands of new Spanish and French speakers arrived from Haiti and Cuba. Most joined the Creoles, setting back Americanization a few generations.

These Caribbean people in their Caribbean city would surely have been very pleased to see a cheerful Cuban restaurant on the corner.

The French Quarter’s Creole Caribbean character and history are so evident that if I were representing the current Anglo anti-diversity community, as Mr Shields is, I would be a lot more diffident and less arrogant about it. Their takeover of the French Quarter was facilitated by post-Civil War Jim Crow, one of the most shameful chapters of US history. Binary Jim Crow racism disabled the multi-layered Creole community. Eventually, in the 20th century, determined incoming colonists from across Canal did save the Quarter from destruction by developers, but they also gradually gentrified their predecessors’ homeland to a defensive white enclave. Habana Cafe is much closer to the culture that created New Orleans and built the French Quarter than the NIMBY movement that now opposes everything.

Cut back to Perdido Street last Tuesday: Lawyer Shields brought up a backing group including officers of FMIA, VCPORA, FQC, Anthony Johnson, Louisiana Landmarks and even Holy Cross.

Holy Cross? Really? ‘Fraid so. The NIMBY tribes are organizing defense by treaty. The Riverfront Alliance, probably the biggest, includes Holy Cross. Member clubs support each other’s bad ideas. Shields said his clients represent “thousands” of people. Let’s call it figurative exaggeration, because unless Louisiana Landmarks is a lot bigger than I think it is, that group does not represent thousands of people.

In a waspish way, Shields worked on some technicalities. There is a church whose name he could not recall less than 300 feet away, so the CPC should not be considering this issue. Shields knows the old church law is as dried up as the the most shriveled NIMBY soul, but he tries it on anyway.

He tells the Commission that the staff did not explicitly write a section demonstrating Master Plan compliance in their January report, so even though they did today, the motion should be retroactively dead. Isn’t law wonderful? Then he lectures the CPC on the scope of their responsibility. and what they must do.

What is he after here? This scolding approach is not likely to win friends and influence. Would Shields be a good coach if you were trying to learn to shoot yourself in the foot, or is he laying down foundation for an appeal or challenge by lawsuit?

Commissioner Steeg asked Shields to name five principal reasons that the commission should reject the motion. (Was it my imagination that someone muttered, “Said the spider to the fly”?) At the end, Steeg voted in favor of the Habana motion, I think for the first time. His reason for change might have been because the motion was correct and recommended by staff – or could it have been because Shields’ arrogance got on his nerves?

Shields put up Johnson’s old slides with those photoshops of 400 people outside the restaurant. Is he seriously trying to sell these cartoons to a City Planning Council? I am sure seating capacity at sprawling, multi-story Antoine’s is considerably higher than Habana will be, especially when you include the Hermes Bar. Has anybody in the last 147 years ever seen 400 people milling about on St. Louis Street because of the restaurant?

Shields repeated that Habana is an event venue, not a restaurant. People of all ages will come – a reminder that VCPORA and Smith separately characterize all young people as barbarians who get drunk and throw up everywhere. (If you substituted “Black” or “Jewish” for “young” in some of their sentences, the police would be taking an interest.) They will make noise, and throw trash. Nice. Meg Lousteau and Stacy Head have said that Habana looks like a great project that they might like to go to but not there. I guess the implication is that under NIMBY morality they want to go to other people’s neighborhoods and make noise and throw trash. Or maybe French Quarter residents are so superior to lesser species that they never generate rubbish and their dulcet tones do not contribute to ambient noise.

Shields did the “historic, precious gem” prayer and repeated the misleading statement, that their part of the FQ was always a residential area. It depends on what you mean by “always.” “We lost Bourbon Street,” he said, “and now the rest is being whittled away.”

In the neighborhood association faux-preservationist world, there are two histories. One features the buildings, which are sacred. They come from a mystical, holy time and must be inviolate. The other is a political time-warp where history starts in 1936, when persistent lobbying got laws passed to protect the “quaint and distinctive character” of the French Quarter. That may be VCPORA’s political platform, but it ain’t history. French Quarter history began when Bienville landed in 1718, or maybe when Pauger laid out the grid plan in 1721. The history of the next three centuries was rarely quaint. Quaint is just a condescending adjective comparing Caribbean to the British and Northern American architecture that the Anglo colonists believe is normative. Real history included all sorts of juicy stuff, from Congo Square to Jackson Square, gambling, prostitution, prisoner exile, piracy, smuggling, slave trading; and also great civic stuff, like Andrés Almonester financing construction of the Cabildo, the Presbytère and St Louis Cathedral out of his own funds, and also carrying all the expenses of Charity Hospital. It includes his daughter, la Baronne Micael de Pontalba, designing and building the famous Buildings and Jackson Square.

La Baronne once demonstrated how a decisive developer might deal with administrative impediments. Some trees in the Place d’Armes were in the way of her new landscape plan for Jackson Square. A worker ran to her house one day to tell her some sheriff’s deputies had come to block them. They would not allow the trees to be chopped down. Micael Pontalba rode to the square on a horse with a shotgun and told the deputies if they didn’t hop it quick, she would shoot them where they stood. The trees came down and we have Jax Square.

On the unlikely assumption that somebody has read this far, what are some Bottom Lines to take to the next chapter, coming soon?

The picture of the French Quarter that the neighborhood associations say Habana would violate is a construct of Anglo preservationism written into statute in 1936. By then, the Quarter’s built environment was beginning to recover from extensive deterioration and the heirs of the culture that created it had largely moved away.

• The French Quarter was built by people of the French and Spanish royal cultures, and to some extent the French Revolution and the Napoleonic empire. (Pontalba was a barony granted by Bonaparte.) After 1865, the greater Anglo culture’s Jim Crow laws contributed to the degradation of the quarter, until about the 1920s, when serious preservationists started to reverse the trend.

• That was good, but they also re-set the clock of history, summing it up as an essentially vacuous notion of “quaint” character, as if in a manual for writing tourist brochures.

• Take away their revisionist notion of history, and objection to Habana Café is simple, straight NIMBY, no different than all the other neighborhood associations objecting to every bar, shop and music venue.

• Habana Café will be more in keeping with the real French Quarter than the opposing organizations. Havana was part of the Caribbean network of cities – in fact, a key trading partner of New Orleans until Kennedy’s embargo in 1960.

• Opponents invoke the principles of segregationist zoning (not racial segregation, although that may be a factor; excessively setting up walls between uses and occupations. Gentrification and property prices contribute to it.) Zoning was not a factor in Creole New Orleans. Even the aristocrats were at ease with mixed use; they did not need remedial classes in New Urbanism.

Back to the Perdido Palace last Tuesday: after Mr Shields and his solemn constituents proved by ineluctable Euclidean demonstration that the sky was falling, the Commission called Sean Meenan for rebuttal. It was star quality, worth watching on the video. Personal, informal and unrehearsed, Meenan’s presentation kicked Shields’s way into the long grass. Watch it for the best parts. One of my favorites: “The French Quarter came through yellow fever, floods and wars; I think it will survive a taco shop on the corner.”

Philosophically, the opponents are wrong. Shields said the opinions and feeling of immediate neighbors should be paramount. Completely wrong: benefit to the community as a whole is more important, and the particular communities in question are not just local residents. In closer focus urban planning, they are wrong, because North Rampart needs to come to life, and those who are holding it back must be pushed aside.

And a practical trump card: both properties are commercial and restaurant is a permitted use. What would be the difference between one restaurant with 36 tables, and two with 18 each? A Photoshop slide with 2 sets of 200 zombies instead of one set of 400. The Supreme Court is going to have a tough time deciding.

Did I remember to mention: Habana won. New Orleans won.

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I want to explore whether the NIMBY factions even see themselves in the name. Not whether they believe what they do is right. For all I know, the No! cult may really believe that Habana Cafe will end civilization as we know it, or that live music by a living local player in a restaurant diminishes quality of life, but recorded music of a centuries-dead European does not.

Do the neighborhood associations think NIMBY is socially a good thing? Or do they just not care about the larger community, or the value of the activity? Maybe they cannot see themselves in the NIMBY descriptor; they think it refers to somebody else.

 

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