Characters in this story are neither fictitious nor coincidental, although sometimes not quite real, either. They step out in public to advocate and criticize. Give them a C for courage, just for showing up. Nevertheless, when you say dumb stuff, it’s still dumb stuff.
You might have wanted to bring a box lunch for the CZO marathon. If you showed up early enough for the church and national religious bits, it ran just over ten hours to the end. Council Members had been working late into the previous night. Maybe they were pulling all nighters in the old college tradition, getting through the day on various brands of speed.
Amendments! They had to work through a ton of them to so they could vote in a complete CZO “as amended” and go home. Council VP Head, Acting President for the CZO festivities, had prepared lists of amendments graded by date entered and and ascending level of controversy. More were coming off the printer as the session progressed. Soon this thing might be behind them – except for the usual die-hards, who will find something to sue somebody about. They take a shot at finding a crafty combination of lawyer and judge, to say their particular pet peeve is more valid than whatever the city’s legislature decided. Maybe it is, but seeking Truth in Civil District Court across the driveway from City Hall, presided over by elected judges whose campaigns are funded by law firms, well, good luck. Looks to me just another wild shot in a special-interest gunfight.
As the afternoon turned into Bolero, exhaustion increased, nerves frayed, masks cracked, rules dissolved – and I started to get interested. The CZO was turning into the Roberts Rules version of a brawl.
Between the long, grey, necessary readings into the record of each amendment that passed, we had public and Council comments on amendments that they sponsored, supported or that pissed them off. Acting prez Head limited public comment to one minute, no ceding of time to other speakers. It was surprising to see how much most public commenters managed to say in 30 or 40 seconds when they accepted the rule. Pithy was the day. Stacy’s new rule could make Oscar Wildes of us all. Council Members, unfettered by the one minute rule, still had plenty of rope.
By 4.00 PM, the strain was telling. They were awash in amendments. Makeup was cracking, mascara running. The CMs started looking for excuses to recess or continue, but Mr Purcell, the rules guy, wouldn’t let them off. James Gray said it best: “Ron, is there any way we can get out of this?”
There were still hours to go. Lurking here in the duck blind, I might get a shot at the yellow-eyed animal hiding inside some of the speakers, a snarling little varmint that can hear Fox News telepathically.
You can pick the actual amendments up from the news, the Council web site, or watch the video. I’m cynical about the details. Between Article 5 and anarchy, most of them won’t survive reality anyway.
One of the most savory, oak-aged moments of CZO season came late in the evening as the final ritual was drawing towards a close. The amendment on the table was to allow restaurants to serve drinks, i.e., a bottle of wine or a six-pack, with take-away meals. Sounds pretty innocuous, right? You probably never knew there was a problem, because of course, as in every grown-up city in the world, they all do. What would be the option? “Yes, sir, we would be glad to deliver some goutté starters and filet steaks to your conference room across the street, and yes, we do have a case of Haut-Brion 2012 at $680.00 per bottle, which would certainly impress your guests, but I am afraid we are not permitted to supply it with take-away service. You will have to nip down to Rouses to see if they have it in stock.”
Tease it out a little further: you sit down with your date. The waiter brings your lobsters and champagne. Your date suddenly remembers that the baby sitter has a record for child molestation, so he/she says, “Can you pack this, please? We gotta scoot.” And what is the difference, pray, between that and ordering at the desk?
Emotions swelled. Tempers flared. Not from the amendment itself, fairly pale on its own, but from Restaurant Association advocate Chris Young’s taking the microphone to explain its purpose and request acceptance. He took about 40 seconds to explain that this was normal practice everywhere, including New Orleans, and would make no difference at all, so should just for safety be folded into the new CZO. Personally, I cannot understand why such things are even included in zoning. But never mind – we won’t have time to consider it, because Ms Carol Gniady, FQC exec, who had been popping up and down to the mic many an old time, especially since Mme President gave up on the rules at about 4.00 PM, strode to the podium with more indignation in her stride than normal.
Carol is really worked up this time. Masks are down. Mascara has run. Gloves are off. Voice shakes, lip quivers. She glares at the dais. “How can you even listen to this . . . this . . . a paid lobbyist . . . .”
Whee!! Hang on, folks, this could be a ride..
How indeed can Council listen to the representative of the Restaurant Association, the Beer League, the FQBL, about a restaurant-related amendment? What would he know about it? If Council want to understand the restaurant business, they should come to French Quarter Citizens, of course. Wouldn’t you?
Carol crackled with indignation. Every restaurant in the French Quarter would now be a liquor store! How could Council allow restaurants to abuse the fragile gem this way!?!
Almost sputtering with rage, she had trouble getting her thoughts together. How could council entertain such an amendment, when FQC had not had time to get its objections in a row?
It would have been ungallant at that moment to point out that Ms Gniady, as a salaried exec in the act of advocating for her association, is also a paid lobbyist, but with a considerably smaller client list and no regulations concerning transparency.
Why the lapse from the professional stance? Are we seeing a Kool-Aid moment?
Then came Meg Lousteau into court. More controlled, more chilling, bearing the liquor store fable they claim to have had only seconds to prepare, but still with enough angry rips in the veil that I could get a glimpse of the little yellow eyes of the beast. She tried to sustain her composure, but it was just too late in a long day. She ended with a charge to Council: “It’s insulting!”
Quite a statement, considering the level of rudeness with which the two professionals had just addressed Council and some members of the public.
Okay, yeah, I was chuckling by then.
Time out, with background music: citizen participation is the right way, but people should not be permitted to claim representation of secret societies. With secret membership numbers and decision process, VCPORA/FQC are exactly that. The group title’s significance may just be artificial inflation. The public does not know whether a speaker represents hundreds, dozens or even less; whether the group has a meaningfully diverse mix, or is only the white middle-aged conservative bourgeois types who appear at council; or as Robert Ripley, who is a member, said at one session, the little group of spokesmen represent only themselves. Are positions arrived at by member consensus, decisions of a board, or officers only? The associations that Chris Young represents do not conceal that information, nor does the sane and sensible FQ neighborhood association, French Quarter Advocates. Just because you have heard the name VCPORA repeated thousands of times does not mean you know what it is.
That was just to build suspense until I reveal the insight.
The Stanford experiment, Prisons and Guards, designed by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo in 1971. 24 students were divided into two groups, prisoners and guards. Guards had to set up and enforce rules to keep order among the prisoners. Zimbardo was warden. The role play deepened beyond anyone’s expectation. Guards imposed harsh rules, prisoners accepted passively or rebelled. Guards enforced harder and imposed punishments, down to psychological torture. The role play even affected Professor Zimbardo, who allowed the torment to continue beyond the prudent. Another psychologist pulled the plug after six days.
The light of revelation burst through the clouds. The practical interest could be that Meg and Carol wanted to send some provocateurs in to restaurants to buy a PBR with a take-away Po’boy so they could launch some more of their beloved lawsuits. But was that enough to explain the endorphin floods we were watching?
The Occam’s solution: the presidents and execs of these outfits (really one outfit with two names) are so deep in a role play, they have lost control of it. An Instructor from the past, probably the ghost of Elizebeth Werlein, told them they are Guards. The Night’s Watch. They need invaders for validation. The inner animal eye scans for intruders everywhere. Every drink and cigar and bit of music and sometimes T-shirt is a threat to the fragile, quivering FQ. They try to look normal – except perhaps Susan Guillot, president of FQC, who has a chip on her shoulder like a Waco biker – but that CZO evening, the masks were cracking.
Who is the Warden in this Game of Zones? Maybe it’s their Big Brother, Stuart Smith. Or is he the head of the prisoners’ AB? Maybe it is Council. Maybe Stacy Head, who generally represents their interests and has a good line in finger-wagging, holds the keys. Maybe they are wandering Ronin Guardians in search of a Warden.
In the sound ordinance days, it was their passionate dishonesty that that fascinated many of us, and we wondered why the City Council and others put up with it. Were they in the game, too? Then I wondered: why would people commit with such determination to being pains in the ass? Cui bono? For these guys are not Socratic gadflies puncturing unsupported beliefs to upgrade thinking. They are obstructors. Inhibitors. Suppressors. Zoning hawks.
So perhaps not really evil, just victims of that mysterious Zimbardo nerve in all of us, abandoned by their old Warden to sit around their boardrooms and try to figure it out themselves.
But – whence the frothing antagonism to alcoholic beverages? Drinks and music (unless it is music that they like, in a place and at a time when they want people to play it, with the instruments they want to permit.) They drink. The odd one or two among them is a binger. This tiny detail about take-away meals, which will make no practical difference to anything, was only the last of the Anti-Saloon League pleas of the day. They paraded to the mic to oppose anything to do with alcoholic beverage sales, or to support anything that restricted, opposed or obstructed alcoholic beverage sales.
Then I got it: part of America has not grown up yet. That’s why the federal government lets kids join the military and get killed in imperial wars three years before they can buy a beer. It’s Demon Drink. You would have thought the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, and the War on Drugs, if it comes to that, had proved the futility. But many of us do not learn from failure. We Believe. We have faith.
They are channeling Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Nation and the Anti-Saloon League. Temperance politics is back.
I said I would not do reports but just a bit: the group that Ms Head called “the French Quarter people” did get 8.1 back in. My problem with it is, it helps enable cranks and zoning hawks to harass businesses and the city with malicious, costly lawsuits. The City Attorney’s objection is: under certain conditions, the wording allocates land use jurisdiction to the Vieux Carré Commission, which its establishing legislation prohibits, creating a contradiction. The FQ-favoring CMs said, let’s live with the contradiction and let the courts sort it out.
The Acting Prez fought hard for it. Ms Guidry almost showed strength to resist and go for the more properly legal option, but tough Stacy Head backed her down.
The CMs were mad to pass it. 8.1 assists any old harpy to harass and attack people anywhere in or near the French Quarter, not only where it specifically affects the plaintiff or for architectural preservation. Tout ensemble and 8.1 mean you can channel Susan B. Anthony into all sorts of zoning jihadism. Stacy Head said several times, “We are a nation of laws not of men,” and showed herself willing to let individuals suffer loss of work and income to uphold the letter of pointless laws. Other Council Members fundamentally disagree. Laws can be ugly and men . . . is us.
How many times that day did we hear “the fragile French Quarter”? Even once, disappointingly, from Jason Williams: “The French Quarter is fragile.”
Some of them said the French Quarter is the most important neighborhood. Fortunately for the integrity of Council, James Gray had his BS meter turned on. He countered with, All neighborhoods are important, but if I have to name a most important, it’s mine, District E.
Enough of the preference for pious white folks. (Sorry, Mr Williams, but you know what I mean.) The French Quarter as a physical entity is an important economic resource. The people that live in it are no more important than any other 3,800 people. Especially Lower Ninth people, who have gone through hardships few of them can match.
I think I’m a pretty decent pro-preservationist. Maybe that’s why I lived in Europe most of my life. I had friends whose houses were centuries older than New Orleans, let alone the mid- to late-19th century buildings that are called so fragile here. I like Norman castles and Gothic cathedrals. The “fragile” French Quarter withstood Katrina better than most of the city. Fevers, storms, mosquitos, wars – old N.O. is still there.
The fragility is a myth to enhance the clout of the self-appointed Guardians. Some good rules are in place about the appearance of the buildings. Toughen it up. For instance, I would propose empowering the VCC even more than 8.1 does, but in a more practical direction: somebody should deal with the structural state of the private buildings, not just the outward appearance, to try to avoid a repeat of the collapse on Royal Street. S&P is patently unsuitable. How many other houses have powdered mortar and rotten timbers and might fall down? No one is empowered to find out, and if they did, who would fix them? We need a few simple rules to keep commercial development from damaging the residential stock, but we should have no truck with people dragging exclusionary suburbanism into the city under the cloak of tout ensemble. Cultural management must not be granted to tea-party clubs. People moved to or want to keep living in a city: there are sounds and smells, flowers and mule poo, new and old, and it can happen at any time. It’s all in your Quality of Life reality folder, mate, including chapters from London, Paris, New York, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Caesar’s Rome. Read the small print. It can be dealt with intelligently, without Susan B. Anthony or post-hypnotic puritanism.
Strengthen the VCC and get rid of 8.1. That would reinforce historical preservation, while preventing the word “history” being used as protective cover for preserving the comfort zone of the current residents.
The Downers, a subset of Downtowners. Role-players in a Zimbardo rut. They are looking pretty irrelevant right now. Maybe we should put them in parody sketches to raise their profile again.
The highlight of the afternoon (at 4:00 on the video slider):
My name is Mary Ann Hammett . . . and I am here on behalf of Bywater Neighborhood Association. We are for the Riverfront Overlay bonus provisions as amended which maintain the historic height limits in Bywater. We’re for all the affordability amendments that have been introduced and we are for music and alcohol in restaurants.
There was a breeze of relieved laughter and applause at the concise simplicity and sanity of this statement, the Gettysburg Address of the season’s downtown politics. I think I heard the lid quietly closing on the exclusionist Riverfront Alliance’s coffin, even though a few of their diehards were still posing in their T-shirts. My runes say their alliance must have already cracked. VCPORA/FQC never made a move to support the acrophobics, and the T-shirts never came up to rant against Demon Drink. With a bit of luck, that’s over.
Or maybe not. Let’s do them next time.
Which allows us to change to a wider lens. Jindal, who exercises his Gollum-like wit to criticize President Obama for executive orders, has decided to implement one of his own, to back-door override the Legislature on “religious freedom.” Any hint of stroking the backwoods base there? The Religious Freedom acts that have become one of the hobbies of Republican governors are a funny thing. We know their intent is to enable discrimination. But what kind? A “Christian” bakery doesn’t want to make a same-sex wedding cake. That’s discrimination. But what if a same-sex couple had a bakery or flower shop and didn’t want to make cakes or arrangements for the weddings of religions that give them a bad time? Suppose they refused service to Mormons or Muslims? Would that be religious freedom? Should service businesses put a list of who they don’t serve for religious reasons in the window? “Evangelicals need not apply?” Suppose they refused to supply Republican governors, on the basis that they may be extra-terrestrial? Or should we just worry about drinks zoning trivia instead?
National events like the Superbowl and political conventions are crossing Religious Freedom states suspected of enabling discrimination off their venue lists. Jindal doesn’t care – he is happily sacrificing Louisiana and New Orleans to follow the path of Huckabee and Palin to a lucrative career as a failed Presidential candidate. Landrieu moved quickly and neatly to head off the damage by barring LGBT discrimination in the city, but event promoters will be aware that the state collects most of the revenue from Superdome and other events. And if Vitter is next, a guy with a well-know track record of hypocrisy, the executive order might even stand as a pacifier to the evangelicals.
Jindal seems destined to become a joke, but this doesn’t:
Check it out. The US Military has practiced a lot of slaughter in the name of security. Usual targets in the last decade or so have been Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghanis – people like that. Some sources say at least eight weddings have been droned to smithereens.
Next month the navy is going to work it out on fish, whales and dolphins – in American waters. Why go all the way to Yemen or Somalia to destroy the livelihood of subsistence villages, when you can do it right here to American native communities?
Come to think of it, doesn’t the FQ clubs’ own little Richelieu claim to be a powerful protector of the environment, with shielding us from Demon Drink and sinful music by private lawsuit a sideline? How did he let the Department of Defense, the world’s largest carbon footprint, slip through his net?
The moral of the story: zoning law’s attempt to micro-manage what you do in every little parcel of property and what you can do in every business and with every house is doomed to failure. Zoning hawks promote laws in their interests and are then shocked – shocked! I say – when somebody dares to transgress their little bit of Mt. Sinai. They look silly in Council and should be more irrelevant than they are.