Demon Drink

The City Planning Commission’s Tuesday session is interfering with my serious academic enquiry into how Faubourg Marigny “Improvement” Association still exists. In John Oliver terms, How Is FMIA Still A Thing?

But I have to set this important historico-sociological (or socio-historical) study aside for a few hours to get yesterday’s CPC half-marathon out of what’s left of my system.

You are lucky you weren’t there. Unless you were, in which case we share the pain. And the irony and the Pythonesque procedures. Like a car race or hockey match, the mayhem obscured the game. We got a Demolition Derby, in slow motion.

In the May 14th CZO Council session a small torrent of last minute amendments were unveiled. In late afternoon, new ones were still coming in by teletype (remember them?). CM Stacy Head actually did yeoman’s work that day trying to impose order in the storm. CM Nadine Ramsey, who is gradually bringing repair and a semblance of sanity to District C after years of VCPORA/French Quarter Citizens damage during the Clarkson Keystone Cops period, sent some amendments which looked like they might trigger a shark frenzy to the City Planning Commission for review and recommendation.

Before the CPC got to the amendments, they had to work through several cases of alcoholic beverages. Wait – I think that should be alcoholic beverage cases. You can work it out. The details would be more stupefying than bingeing the stuff from a can in a paper bag.

New Orleans has a substantial neo-Prohibitionist faction. I don’t know if they work together in coordinated campaigns, or it is just in the air, or are some preachers thundering it out of unknown pulpits? How many of them are there? Do they carry a copy of the Volstead Act? Do they have secret handshakes?

Demon drink. The saloon is the downfall.

Izzo’s on Magazine wanted to sell Margaritas with their tacos.

Citizens with stern expressions strode purposely to the lectern, including a contingent from Maple Street and other home addresses far from the site. What was their standing in the matter? It would open the floodgates. The slippery slope. Izzo’s would unleash crime if customers could mix a Margarita with their quesadilla. In this particular Izzo’s, because the company’s other 12 or 13 branches do serve them, and to the best of our knowledge, the world has not ended and neither NOPD nor the Troopers have raised an alarm.

I’m wondering, why can Juan’s Flying Burrito on Magazine Street serve Margaritas like they were going out of style while Izzo’s, another taqueria about a mile up Magazine, can’t? Is it because in Juan’s you sit down and a waiter brings you the drink, but in Izzo’s you would order it at a counter? Why is a Margarita a nice accompaniment to an enchelada in Lower Garden, but a danger to society as you get more Upper?

Amidst the depressing conversation about the timing of fast v. standard eating, and whether there should be a new category (that’s the trouble with zoning, right? Not enough categories.) called Fast Casual – or whatever – one of the hand-wringers did actually say there would definitely be an increase of violent crime if Izzo’s customers could sip Margaritas. A mile down Magazine around Juan’s, it must look like an ISIS attack by now.

Neighbors and not-so-neighbors of the temperance persuasion told us with rhetorical emotion, if Izzo’s sold anything alcoholic, it would “Open the Floodgates.” It was the start of the “Slippery Slope.”

imageHow the slope got slippery

On and on. The CPC did about two and half hours on passionately argued cases about who could sell some beer.

One case was about a craft beer store on Tulane. Objectors were people who lived and worked on the same corner. They said there were already three bars on the corner, and enough was enough.

The craft beer shop would be a kind of specialized delicatessen, something like a wine store. It had committed to putting in exterior lighting and security cameras that would help the neighborhood. It would close at about 7.00 PM. Nevertheless, an angry little mob strode to the lectern to tell the Commission that people might buy a case of expensive craft beer in the store, but the first thing they would do was take out a bottle, stick it in a paper bag, open it and sit down on a stoop, terrorizing decent people and frightening the horses. When they lost, they gathered outside the back corridor. Their expressions of outrage suggest we can look forward to a more emphatic protest when the matter comes to Council.

What do temperance fussbudgets think? A guy finds himself uptown, craving Demon Drink. He just can’t get his killing mojo up. “I know what: Izzo’s,” he says to himself, skipping about 50 bars he could walk to. “A fruity Tequila with a taco, and I can let Mr Hyde out, maybe chop up a few unwary folks on Magazine Street today. Or even go up to Maple and start a crime spree.”

What if an unwary diner orders a burrito and then, just because it sounds nice, a Margarita. Ka-boom – Mr Hyde. He meant well, but he just has to rob a gas station and try out his new gun on the way home.

We are listening to this in the state with the highest incarceration rate in the world, where the War on Drugs is alive and well, destroying people’s lives every day.

I must be from a different moral schoolyard. For one thing, New Orleanians hardly drink much anyway. There are bars and stores everywhere, open all the time – many literally 24/7/365. There are so many alcohol outlets, the notion that one or ten or 100 more or less would change much is soporific. Yet in my observation, person by person, NOLA is not a heavy drinking town, except maybe some visiting revelers on Bourbon or at Mardi Gras, having big public parties. I go to bars. How many people stagger out pissed with blood in their eyes? Statistical zero.

If you want to see what drinking looks like, find yourself an 18 year old girl in a pub in London on a Friday night. Follow her around for the evening. Or if you are trying to keep pace with her, until you pass out. If you get tired of London and all that English language, pop over to Munich or Hamburg for a few nights. If you think you are up to it, stop off in Dublin for a weekend on the way home. New Orleans bars will start looking like 12 step programs.

The obsession with the nuances of alcohol sales is not a sign of society caring for itself. To my corrupted mind, it is a sign of puritanical adolescence, one of the expressions of the centuries old American dichotomy between Puritanism and the Enlightenment, John Winthrop v. Benjamin Franklin. Perhaps this cultural contradiction is one of our great economic engines: Al Capone and Pablo Escobar thank you, good citizens.

After a couple of hours of this, I thought maybe I needed a Bourbon break in the nearest watering hole. But I didn’t want to risk robbing or killing anyone on the way back to the Chamber when the demon drink kicked in.

Finally they got to the NMR (Nadine M. Ramsey) amendments. The water fountains on the ground floor didn’t work. The City Hall snack bar was closed. Just sticking with it this far was a sign of virtue. When Council re-lists the CZO amendments, I am going to apply for a permit for a Cokes and beer stand in the back corridor.

The tout ensemble army was in place, loins girded, in their bunker at the front right of the chamber. As their topics of passion and peeve came closer to the top, the motivational honchos (mostly Meg Lousteau today) were on their feet, moving around, energizing the players, working out batting orders, keeping her players in focus.

What finally happened was no focus at all. The kickoff point of the conversations is the staff recommendations. They were incoherent. The language was tortured. Double and triple negatives dotted the text. Listening as carefully as I could, I usually had no idea what they were talking about, let alone recommending.

As the proponents and opponents came to the lectern, to protest, oppose, support, demur, deter, moan and vent, it was often hard to tell what they thought they were objecting to or supporting. Did they themselves know? On one issue Alex Fein, president of French Quarter Business League, and Meg Lousteau, exec of VCPORA, which has been awarded its own level in Inferno, spoke in support of the same recommendation! They were on opposite sides of the issue; it was just impossible to unravel what the staff recommendation meant.

FQBL and VCPORA playing doubles on the same side of the net is as probable as a collaboration of Bobby Jindal and Michael Moore on healthcare and gun control. I think in this instance Meg probably got the recommendation right, but watching the Hoodies’ huddles preparatory to going to the mike – Miz Meg Herself, probably New Orleans most experienced citizen hustler, had her fingers crossed.

Before each vote, the Commissioners had a time-out discussion to try to agree on what they were voting for. Was it the original amendment as submitted? Or was it the staff recommendation? If it was the staff recommendation, what exactly was it? Sometimes they asked the staff spokesman to recap what the recommendation actually was. Her recap usually made it worse. My bet: in some of the votes the Commissioners did not know what they were voting for or against, or what Yea and Nay meant in the vote.

Bottom line: It didn’t matter!

At some point in the afternoon, enough of the commissioners had beetled off that the population was down to five. Five good men and true. (And women of course, for the PC trolls.)

Five is a quorum, so the session continued. But a CPC recommendation requires five votes for or against. 4-1 or 3-2 are no decision, so in order to send a recommendation to council, they needed unanimous. How likely was that in the general muddle? So the result of CM Ramsey’s attempt to get legitimate support for her amendments was – no result. If there was blame to place, I would have to lay it on the staffers. Their recommendations were incomprehensible. And unnecessary. Ramsey’s amendments were clear enough without the staff messing them up.

One agreement. One recommendation. 5-0 on the dumbest amendment among them, “Takeout alcohol sales.” This simple, sensible amendment had raised an adrenalin storm among the FQ jihadis in the closing moments of the Council CZO session on May 14th. In children’s book terms: if you order a pizza and a beer, that is fine. If you order your pizza and a beer to go, No, no! Every restaurant would turn into a crypto booze store, and you know . . . demon drink. Slippery slope. Floodgates.

Even Kyle Wedberg, the Commissioner of the rational persuasion, voted for it. Or had he fallen asleep by then and pushed any old button on his keypad?

The remaining five commissioners quickly agreed that this simple thing was undesirable, a step too far, a great no-no. So if you want to pick up a pizza and a beer to eat at home, or take to a friend’s to watch the game, you have to go to two stores, one for the beer, one for the pizza. If you go to the grocery store first, the beer gets warm. If you get the pizza first, the pie gets cold. What happens if a grocery starts selling pizza?

I don’t know. Better ask the CPC staff. They can clear things up.

CPC has thus saved New Orleans from a dire threat of takeout abuse. Don’t forget to say thanks.

Let’s hope Council overrides this ridiculous recommendation.

The CPC shambles promises a very entertaining series of bouts and an all star card at the next City Council session. The Usual Suspects will champion prohibition and intone about encroachment and “the residents.” The entertainment and food businesses will have to waste time and effort struggling for the right to keep doing what they have always done, while the militant against almost everything cite instances of bad actors acting badly to justify why nobody else should be allowed to do anything. In matters music, they will keep insisting that laws about live and recorded stay in zoning, thereby creating confusion, instead of in a clear sound ordinance.

Well, you have a choice. You can do some work, like a sensible person. Or you can stay home and watch Louis C.K. on YouTube. Or you can go to City Council and watch either the fights or Monty Python, whichever happens to be playing.

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The Plague

DISCLAIMER.

I have no investment or interest in Café Istanbul. I am not employed by it. I have no contract with it. I am just a common-or-garden audience member. No owner or manager of Café Istanbul knew about this article in advance.

I also have a real short fuse for neighborhood associations who start to play fantasy J. Edgar Hoover, losing track of the line between their game and reality. They are one of the increasingly annoying plagues of city life.

A few weeks ago, I started hearing about Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association’s recurring attacks against Café Istanbul.

What? Café Istanbul! Neighborhood clubs are noise nuts. Café Istanbul has some of the best soundproofing in the business. What do the Capos of Stalag Marigny want now?

The teams:

Café Istanbul has become an amazing, valuable resource of serious cultural importance. I don’t think there is anything quite like it in the city. Maybe even anywhere. Istanbul hosts shows, plays, movies, music, politics – every day. I saw Nicholas Payton there. Joan Rivers played Istanbul, but I missed it. I have seen movies sponsored by Alliance Française and the Spanish cultural organization. The Good Night Show plays there every month. Top level original creative music, not the increasingly touristy Frenchmen stuff, gets good audiences at Istanbul. I saw the magnificent Birdfoot Festival chamber players present a program including pieces by acclaimed composer and UNO professor Yotam Haber, who was there to introduce his composition. The program included works by Webern and Ravel. Istanbul has excellent acoustics and is set up so everyone is close. In New York, it could have cost four times as much for a seat a hundred yards from the stage.

Istanbul has a pleasant bar. Nobody gets drunk or loud. The general tone is something like Mahalis Jackson when an opera is playing, with less formal clothing.

FMIA – Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association – is a neighborhood association very taken with itself right now, controlled by a few people who seem to enjoy the role of troublemaker. “Seem” because I could not get Lisa.Suarez to settle down and talk straight, so what I have to go on is the mischief that I see.

Neighborhood associationism should be a good thing. Citizen participation. Local democracy. In practice, however, many of the local clubs become political pressure groups run by the professional, upper income and comfortably retired class, in the paradigm of gentrification. Some – do we need to name names? – seem to cross to a dark side, identifying as combat watchdogs or drone-force gadflies, scanning their turf for something to complain about, attack, undermine or destroy, for things they don’t like that they can call zoning infractions, for ways to turn their malevolent activism into influence and political capital, by threatening or pressuring officials elected and civil, or by wheedling their way into their confidence. You can hear them at Council or when they get on the Angela show, where they are usually uncritically accepted, pompously intoning what they approve or do not approve, often in zoning matters, as if they had some qualification better than prejudice about town planning or architecture.

Quick funny story: when I first saw Lisa Suarez’s act at Council I thought she might be interesting, so I got in touch, said something ever so sophisticated and newshoundy like, Let me buy you a coffee or a drink and ask what makes Lisa tick. She replied, Ms Lisa actually replied, that she would not meet but I could attend the next FMIA meeting, submit a question in writing in advance, and if she approved the question, she would answer it at the end of the meeting, if there was time.

Honestly. That is what she replied. I said something like, I wouldn’t take that deal from Vladimir Putin, and I bet nobody else has accepted it either. The new president in all grandiosity replied that people had accepted and seemed quite satisfied. Who? I asked. Some graduate students, she said. Still gives me a chuckle when I think of it.

Taking the most benign, generous, Dalai Lama-inspired view of all our fellow creatures, I can’t get FMIA’s current iteration and its leader’s Energizer Bunny performance anywhere near a plane of civic or cultural value. Or really onto a plane of much value at all. When I return spiritually from Dharamshala to Bywater and the Dalai Lama slowly fades, FMIA is still what it was: a snarky clique bustling or sneaking around telling everybody that they, FMIA, have to approve or disapprove what they are doing. Some people are still swallowing the story, despite our District C Council member Nadine Ramsey’s frequently showing that she will not be cowed by aggressive neighborhood-associationism. CM Ramsey is clearly setting some of their teeth on edge, too frequently doing the right and sensible thing instead of the harpies’ bidding. La Suarez and Susan Guillot of French Quarter Citizens have become fun to watch. Right ominous finger-waggers, they have resorted to warning, threatening and insulting selected Council Members. Top marks to Nadine Ramsey! She listens impassively and moves on, making us increasingly grateful that she forcibly retired the embarrassing hack Jackie Clarkson and brought sanity back to Downtown.

Have you seen – I digress, but I always do, and this is fun – last week’s Council Meeting? One of the issues was the La Habana cigar bar on Toulouse, which had so pissed off Suarez at the CZO session last month. She did not appear to mind them selling cigars and serving brandy, which greatly exercised VCPORA/FQC; she was cross that the tricky process of legitimizing this business was given much more time than Lisa’s Big Issue of Cosmic Importance, buildings over 50 feet high on the Mississippi levees. You see, Lisa and Co. want architecture and design cancelled, effective retroactively to the Civil War.

La Habana Hemingway greatly exercises the FQ jihad. Channeling Carrie Nation, they have alcohol sales to stop, barrels to chop, bars to shut down. La Habana Hemingway operated for a couple of years by twisting zoning and other restrictions, but significant people like the place and its owner. Senator Edwin Murray went on video to praise it as a great place for meetings. Council, or probably CM Ramsey’s legislative team, wrote a neat set of laws to enable it. It was good work. Opponents kept saying “spot zoning” but they could not quite pin the tail on it. Four people spoke in opposition Thursday, about ten in support. Rob White of FQC spoke thoughtfully and intelligently in opposition, but I don’t think his approach will catch on in that organization.

Susan Guillot of FQC came to the microphone, with a scowl like Doc Holliday with a hardcore hangover stalking into the saloon in Tombstone for his first drink of the morning. Holding up her hand, she said she had right here the tool that would exact revenge for the betrayal Council was laying on her today by validating that cursed cigar bar on Toulouse. She folded four fingers, leaving only her right index finger, her trigger finger, pointed skyward, an indoor Ahab bringing down the wrath of . . . what? “With this finger, I cast my vote at election, and this finger will defeat you.” Or something like that. (You think I am making this up, right? Watch the video.) VCPORA/FQC supported Clarkson last election, so I don’t think Ms Ramsey is losing much. Still scowling, President Guillot resumed her seat.

Let’s flit back across Esplanade to Marigny. FMIA has been gathering complaints against Café Istanbul. A group of perhaps four or five people were working up a jihad against a young institution of enormous value, which brings entertainment, culture and education to hundreds of people every week.

For what?

The usual zoning hawk’s mantra: people, parking, noise and trash. They had “evidence.” They had a video of one of their people, possibly FMIA director Matt Del Vecchio, confronting an Istanbul security guard one night, when there were people in the street and in a line, possibly to get in. The security guard, a young, energetic guy, got angry and used a few expletives. I suspect there was some provocation, but the video omitted what went before. Did director Del Vecchio goad or provoke him? Del Vecchio characterized what the young guard said as homophobic, which is just PC rubbish, and neglected to mention that the guard was given a week’s suspension by Istanbul for inappropriate rudeness, and warned that any other outburst of that kind would result in instant termination without further warning.

Another “evidence” was a photo of some cups and trash on the comms box on St Roch Avenue beside the Healing Centre, the building Cafe Istanbul is in. When you check the date stamp, it was the morning after Mardi Gras. I found out that Istanbul’s cleaning crews were out and in the process of cleaning the car park and surrounding areas. Mardi Gras, as everyone knows, requires clean-up. FMIA’s photographer ran out to get the shot quick, beating the cleaners to it by a few minutes. Evidence or entrapment?

Another was a video of people milling about late one night. A weekend night, but late and loud. Check the date stamp: it was Mardi Gras weekend. You want quiet on MG weekend? Are you in the wrong city or what?

Another was a photo of a Mardi Gras Indian putting on his costume in the car park near the back door. No noise or disturbance, just a guy needing space to get the big suit on. They found something threatening enough in this to claim it was evidence of something. Turns out, the chief was appearing at a fundraiser for Trumpet Black’s funeral expenses, for which Istanbul had donated its space and services. An FMIA director emailed: it is an unfortunate coincidence that it was for a second line, but still, part of a pattern.

A pattern of what? A pattern of FMIA trying to bulk up flimsy visuals to build a case against Istanbul and being called out for junk built on bad faith, perhaps.

The Trumpet Black event an unfortunate coincidence! Get a grip on your values, people. An MG Indian quietly masking up near the back entrance of the Healing Center, bothering nobody, photographed from a window across the street and the photo entered as “evidence.” Of what? The good citizens of FMIA apparently find feathers incompatible with their QoL? Cheez. What if it had not been a Black Indian but a white dentist putting on his lab coat?

(NOTE: In case of some inaccuracies of detail in these statements, it has become hard to verify details. It looks like FMIA took a lot of their “evidence” down. We will come to why.)

I spoke to the owners of Istanbul, Chuck Perkins and Suleyman Aydin. They showed me that FMIA had been attacking Istanbul in its newsletters fairly consistently since the election of President Lisa. Chief harasser was director Matt Del Vecchio.

I felt myself getting as pissed off as Susan Guillot, an honorary Waco biker, looks. Café Istanbul has value that ankle-snappers like the current FMIA can’t even aspire to. Thousands of people care about it. It brings more pleasure and satisfaction to more people every week than the bad tempered snipers of all the neighborhood nag-fest gangs will in their lives.

A representative of MaCCNO had once asked Del Vecchio for some context to justify the images and videos which had questionable aspects. I don’t have to provide any, said Del Vecchio.

I sent him an email detailing some of weak spots I saw in the “evidence” I had checked, asking for an explanation that would validate the stuff.

Silence.

After a day or so, I poked it. If you do not intend to answer, please let me know. I am okay with writing, “FMIA and Del Vecchio declined to respond.”

A reply did come, not from Matt Del Vecchio, but from President Suarez her august self. I quote:

Dear Sir;

On the advice of the City Attorney, Dan McNamara, we have already satisfactorily answered the pertinent questions.

Thank-you for your interest and kind consideration.

Lisa Suarez
President, Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association

“Dear Sir.” Puts me in my place, right?

Here is a quote from another Assistant City Attorney that I had received just 24 hours before:

Robert,

Thank you for your email. Unfortunately, I cannot respond to your specific inquiries because our office cannot offer legal advice.

Sincerely,

The Assistant City Attorney’s reply is certainly correct. We are not clients of the City Attorney. So why would McNamara, the city’s attorney for ABO matters, advise Ms Suarez on attacking Café Istanbul?

My first communication to FMIA on this subject had included the question: People say you are trying to shut down Istanbul. Is that correct?

An FMIA officer named Gretchen Bomboys replied that they were not.

However, Suarez’s reply obviously suggests that she had indeed brought a complaint against Istanbul to ABO prosecutor Dan McNamara. When people want to attack, harass or terrorize a business which includes alcoholic drink sales, and they can’t win by above-board channels, they go to the ABO, even though their argument has nothing to do with an alcoholic beverage violation. The ABO board does not have the same constraints as normal law. In this case, it seems that Ms Suarez went to the ABO prosecutor without even first going through the dispute resolution process outlined in the GNA between FMIA and Istanbul.

I am in the process of checking this with the City Attorney’s office. I do not have a clear answer yet.

If Ms Suarez’s assertion is correct, she was getting advice from a City Attorney. Rumor, or in journalese, “a reliable source” says that McNamara further suggested that both sides “cool it,” following which FMIA/Del Vecchio took down some of their “evidence.” Or unjustified harassment, as it looks from here. I will be trying to confirm whether this is true. So disclaimer: strong suspicion, but not proven.

When it comes to “cooling it,” well, I am an observer, not one of the parties. McNamara does not look like the kind of guy to be on the wrong side of, but why “cool” anything? Is the reason to get FMIA’s attack off the ABO table, or to keep it out of public sight while they try to reinforce the dossier?

My instinctive response is to suggest that McNamara cut Suarez loose. Find a better plaintiff, and leave Café Istanbul alone.

Let’s wander back a little farther into the tall grass. In 2011, when Cafe Istanbul was trying to be born, along with the Healing Center itself, they needed variances, zoning, permits, all that stuff. With enough money to get the doors open if they worked quick and neat, they did not have the leisure and funds to pay lawyers to argue and negotiate for years, as neighborhood organizations and the City Planning process sometimes force people to do. The Council member at the time was Kristin Palmer. I suspect her office, possibly an unusually notorious assistant, Nicole Webre, wrote the enabling ordinance. It is a public document, easy to read, but it could be a lot better. It was stamped by Jackie Clarkson, who was president of council at the time. Clarkson’s imprimatur even as a formality always raises suspicions – and hackles – for me. Something like Ray Nagin’s – just makes you want to check further.

Council handed over to FMIA as cop and arbitrator on the fledgling venue. Not all FMIA directors liked the idea. At least one key director voted against being party to a “Good Neighbor” or Community Benefit Agreement” – also a public document – which would give FMIA the job of policing a business. That director knew that FMIA was not equipped for the task, but less wise heads prevailed.

My opinion: the GNA is ludicrous. It provides for fines of up to $500 a day for infractions by Istanbul (not infractions by FMIA, apparently a font of permanent virtue) the money to be paid to, held and used by FMIA!

Fast-forward a few years: Café Istanbul has grown in stature, maturity, community service and significance.

FMIA has moved from a voluntary civil entity at least in part responsible, to a rambunctious gang that seems to hanker for headlines and hassle.

I cannot speak for the owners of Istanbul; they must do what works for them. But best for the community and the city: the ordinance covering Istanbul should be re-written or throughly amended to reflect current reality. Write FMIA out of it.

The GNA should be cancelled. Forthwith. Café Istanbul has grown up, and FMIA has become a teenager, not suitable as a responsible partner. Istanbul’s compact should be with the area and the city, not with a self-appointed amateur cop club. CM Nadine Ramsey should protect Istanbul from any attempted malicious retribution by FMIA, the ABO and the City Attorney’s office while the changes are made.

Council should move quickly to protect one of our most important cultural and entertainment sites from an irresponsible campaign by FMIA. And FMIA should be sentenced to a special community service: they should have to read Sinclair Lewis, especially Main Street, and demonstrate an understanding of the American brand of provincial barbarism,
Is there anything you can do about it?

I think so.

To the members of FMIA and the residents of Marigny, I would suggest: take your neighborhood organization back. The current gang will bring shame upon you before the end of their reign.

If you support Café Istanbul, you can email or call your Council Member, the two CMs At Large and CM Ramsey of District C, where Istanbul is located. Ask them to protect it from FMIA and the ABO.

If you are not sure about FMIA, you can check it out in nola.com and the Advocate. You can watch their performances at City Council and the CPC on the archive videos. See if you like that kind of thing. You can think about the fact that they are suing the city because their Luddite views on architecture did not carry the day – or rather the year – about new riverside development, so they think it is okay to try to get a civil court judge to force the city to bend to their will, which many of us (including Council, City Planning and the Administration) think are just backward.

You can write to the Office of the City Attorney, saying that you have discovered that FMIA has taken steps to push an unjustified, privately motivated ABO case against a valuable cultural venue, and suggest that Ms. Williams order this to a halt.

You can email FMIA, informing them that their activities whose effects spill over from their own backyard into city territory, such as Café Istanbul and riverside development, are unwelcome and will be vigorously resisted.

You can speak to any friends you may have in Marigny. Urge them to do something to get rid of the current FMIA regime and enable sound people to retake the driver’s seat.

Help protect New Orleans from these people.

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The Energizer Bunny of Marigny

“Increasingly, we live in a world where nothing makes any sense,” is the opening line of the great documentary film maker Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake.

If Curtis is right, Lisa Suarez of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, the increasingly bumptious club that claims to represent the neighborhood, is a sign of the times. FMIA’s latest antic is a suit against the City to nullify the CZO’s Riverside Overlay building parameters. (At least I hope it is the latest. They might be up to some new mischief this week.)

If you live in a riverside neighborhood, that means FMIA’s directors want a civil court judge to endorse their authority to decide what happens in your neighborhood. If you don’t, it means FMIA wants the authority to trump the decisions of your city government when they don’t fit the club’s narrow vision.

FMIA’s high jinks fit into the current trend for lawsuits as a new branch of government. The Times-Pic published a slideshow of recent feature lawsuits yesterday. Just a few days ago, Bamboula’s launched another new lawsuit against the city, and VCPORA jumped in as an extra voice in the attack on Hotel St Helene. Most of the lawsuits are intended to shut something down. Bamboula’s is a bit different: an option of shutting down is a tactic, but the underlying purpose is to open something up.

What do we call it? A Sue-Fest? Sue-Gras? Should we have a Plaintiff Parade?

Lisa Suarez is the Energizer Bunny of neighborhood club Looney Tune-ism, sometimes doing a turn at City Council and CPC with acolytes wearing silly shirts with slogans or holding up signs to support equally silly statements, occasionally lobbing a few insults at Council Members, hoping to provoke some on-camera interviews in the hall outside.

I wonder if FMIA’s ruling junta is oblivious to the recent decline of French Quarter neighborhood Schutzstaffel groups’ status and influence through arrogance, overreach, transparent dishonesty and failed attempts to rule by private lawsuit. Anecdotal evidence from social media suggests a sizable chunk of Marigny residents deeply dislike the club that claims to represent them, but that is unlikely to faze FMIA. When neighborhood clubs step over to the dark side, they feel validated by the jeers of the uninitiated.

We hear that sensible FMIA directors are resigning in protest, most recently former president Alex Vialou, in protest against this lawsuit, leaving the inmates holding the keys to the asylum. The online grapevine suggests that Miles Swanson, another former president, is either on a collision course or might walk away.

Zoning hawks and neighborhood associations on a power toot love The Law. THE LAW! The wonder of Law gets them soft and gooey, the vision of a tough lawyer hard and defiant. They say, or in Miz Lisa’s case, act out, that some fragile piece of urban ecology urgently needs protection by a suppressive law, or that they and their lawyers are compelled to gird their loins to enforce The Law. When they say “It’s The Law,” in the flat, hard tones of a warrior of faith you can almost forget that zoning law is largely made by people pursuing narrow interests, folks just like them, disguising squabbles over property values in orotund legalese.

The Law of American mythology, the Law intended to inspire positive emotion for the statement “We are a nation of laws,” was law to protect rights and freedom. Law that enables.

Our aggressive neighborhood association wingnuts and their exploiters weaponize laws that limit, constrain, suppress. Laws that hamper, obstruct, impair. It gets into their tribal head that they must block, obstruct, impede, disable. FMIA under Lisa Suarez is making its bid for the front lines of civic suppression.

(Not all – there are positive neighborhood associations. We will praise the good Caesars one day soon. But today is a shovel day.)

FMIA will probably sink faster than the FQ groups. VCPORA frequently behaves badly, but with a veneer of dignity and never in ignorance. Even when engaged in unjust persecution of a person or business with bad evidence and tortured logic, Meg Lousteau masters her material and organizes her presentations. Suarez wanders around, like the robot bunny ricocheting off the furniture, beating its little drum. Frequently speaking in fractured sentences, difficult to understand, sometimes she resorts to a little-girl approach. In the anti group in the Habana Café attack, she would come to the mike with material like, “I am not really an expert on zoning, but, ummm, we don’t really like glass doors . . . ”

In their campaign against riverfront development, FMIA and its allies pushed a lot of nonsense and fictional claims. At one meeting, they handed out flyers showing an ugly 60s or 70s apartment block behind some pretty houses, intended to warn us what the “height bonus” would afflict us with. Even if it was not Photoshopped, the picture had nothing to do with the design and landscape specs of the new Riverfront Overlay. It was dishonest advertising. They twist sentences to imply that 97 or 98% of people support their movement. Marigny and Bywater populations total about 4,300. 3% is only 129 people. After the months of rancorous argument about overlays and districts and developments, FMIA and their Riverfront Alliance are actually brazen enough to say that only 129 people in the downriver East Bank neighborhoods this side of the canal are in favor of the overlay plans. You could find that many anti-FMIA people in Mariza (the restaurant in The Rice Mill Lofts) or Café Istanbul on a Saturday night.

Richard Webster’s Times-Pic report on the suit is very gentle on a cranky neighborhood association attempting to impose its will against Council, the Administration, City Planning and the expressed preferences of other neighborhood groups. Jaquetta White’s article in the Advocate is also cooly accurate but by the appearance of objectivity misses the essential point: a small clique is trying to use an elected judge or amateur jury to override not only city government, but the public and Bywater Neighborhood Association by forcing new construction to conform to their notion of perpetual imitation.

The right to sue government is important to prevent politicians from oppressing people through unconstitutional legislation. Tyranny, the 1789 guys used to call it. No matter how hard they spin it, that is not what is going on here. FMIA is attacking government for insufficient squelch.

In comedy mode, NOLAscape’s mission is to assist the self-righteous toward the banana peel. But FMIA is a rising pest; laughter may not be enough. The city lawsuit is not even the worst of it. Next chapter will get on to an even more malignant running project.

You can see the charge sheet on FMIA’s web site. I guess it is to their credit that they are proud of it, and have posted it for anyone to see.

One thread of their attack is about procedure. They say council should not have voted on last-minute amendments, that all zoning law must be vetted by the CPC before Council votes. I don’t know if that is true, but it should be easy to overcome even if they win. Run the amendments through the CPC, let Lisa and the acrophobes do their song and dance, and pass them again.

They say they want to be heard, but what they mean is: obeyed. We have been hearing them ad nauseam for almost a year. In the cracked logic of FMIA, say observers: if you do not agree, you were not listening. After ten months of noise, CPC, Council, the Administration and most of the concerned public don’t agree with them, and they won’t settle for it. They don’t want to see buildings higher than their houses. They want architecture and design to stop, not only for themselves, not even for just their own patch, but for everybody around here, and Uptown and Irish Channel and Algiers (while it is still in New Orleans). Think of it as an architectural Scopes trial. In their minds, just as Darwin damaged God, an 80 foot building on the levee side of Chartres in Bywater diminishes the aesthetic wonder of an 1860 house on Burgundy in Marigny. How this height magic works is probably in the same scripture with black cats and broken mirrors. They believe it. Don’t bother arguing.

Neighborhood fusspotteries generally wave Historical Preservation as their banner of virtue. The Urban Sinner can be saved by the Preservation Army.

When reason rules, I am with them. Marigny and Bywater have some great old Spanish Caribbean houses. Marigny has been restored to charm and pleasant atmosphere after a mid-century patch as a falling-down slum. Real preservation counts. Respect to the people who cope with the HDLC and maintain the lovely old cottages.

BUT: stretching preservation to the notion that the real 19th century buildings of Marigny will be honored by building copies of them on the levee side of Bywater is almost too silly to discuss, possibly surpassed only by its opposite: that a different kind of construction there will diminish old houses eight blocks away.

A new mid-size building on the levee side of Chartres in Bywater, with a plaza, a bridge to Crescent Park and a coffee shop on the roof is an abomination in the eyes of the Angel Werlein, say the faithful.

Now congregation, all together: Bullshit.

Litigation generally likes precedent. Here’s mine: take a trip along the downtown riverside staring from Elysian Fields. The riverside road in Marigny is North Peters Street, now mostly an incoherent litter of electric works, empty lots, corrugated iron industrial tedium and the train wall a few yards from the kerb on the river side. As you walk, cycle or drive a convertible downriver, your eye will almost certainly be drawn to the interesting, almost cubist planes of the NOCCA buildings – about 80 feet high, and the most attractive structures between Elysian Fields and St Ferdinand.

There is no building space that I can see on the river side Marigny’s five blocks, so what is going to happen on the neighborhood side? That is what the City and Marigny have to work their way through.

Keep going. When you cross Press Street and the choo-choo tracks into Bywater, check out the first building on your right: The Rice Mill Lofts, an excellent conversion of a late 19th industrial building. It has commercial space on the ground floor, including a first-class restaurant, apartments above, and a fine roof terrace. The developer and operator has plans for a few more coordinated buildings, proceeding downriver. Historical precedent? Built in 1892, the Rice Mill is the precedent for riverside development in Bywater. The plans as we know them anecdotally sound good. It is fairly certain that most Bywater residents of sound mind wish FMIA would shut up and go away.

Opposite the Rice Mill are some old warehouses, owned by the same company. Not likely to object. Next along the river are empty fields and an ironside industrial/warehouse housing a produce company. Nothing against that; it either fits the space, or we are just used to it. If it wants to sell up to residential developers, okay.

FMIA supports a planning regime of perpetual imitation. Their plan appears on their ally Neighbors First’s web site. It is an essay about the New Orleans iteration of Caribbean architecture. I doubt it adds much to a professional NOLA architect’s knowledge. Pros would have to be on top of the legacy designs to work on infill and restoration. But the descriptions of some of the old styles are interesting.

The author tends to run off the rails when he gets speechifyin’. The William Jennings Bryan mode is not really his thing; he ought to let that go and talk straight. It goes even more wrong in the introduction and his own proposed housing code. He turns his description of some interesting old styles and his vision of the ideal neighborhood from a recommendation into a prescription that everybody must follow. Some will like the idea; others – including me – consider copies okay in appropriate context, but a recipe for inefficient retro-kitsch on the levees. In the Luckett prescription, you might not even need architects, except to sign the forms. Enter some parameters in a program, like lot dimensions and internal square feet, assign a model like Creole Cottage, and print out a set of chocolate-box plans. McCreole. Replica City.

We like old cars. I would love to have a 1969 Eldorado – I had one once; another would be a nostalgia orgy. Or my Lancia Fulvia HF – austere Italian design, all motor and minimalism. Very authentic. What would you think of a bill to make it illegal to drive any car newer than 1975 in a “Historic District” because they did not match the architecture? What if a stricter preservationist said, “1975? Not authentic enough. Only pre-WWII cars should be allowed to park in a serious HDLC district. But they don’t have to be real. Replicas will be fine.” How about clothing? How about music? Will there be an authenticity committee to vet the program at any venue whose music the neighborhood associations have not shut down to make sure it is consistent with Jelly Roll Morton? And painting – should we stop at Degas? Will New Orleansy paintings of quaint cottages be allowed? Will imitation houses be required to have imitation art?

What would the developers of some of the old commercial and mixed-use blocks like Decatur Street have done if they had access to modern materials and methods, and elevators and air conditioning? Would they have built three stories when they could have done six? Would they have used wood frame and soft brick if they could have done steel frame and harder walls?

Reasonable preservation says: value the old housing stock. Encourage or even enforce restoration. Think about consistency on infill, or maybe sometimes referential contrast, like the Brad Pitt houses in the Lower Ninth. But new levee development  is not replacement stock on a street of old cottages. Good new design would enhance and set off the older sections of town, not cheapen them by copying. And the FMIA, aspiring tyrant of a neighborhood that does not even have riverside land to build on, should not be dictating what people do in other areas or the city as a whole.

Not everyone might agree. That’s city life. Debate, discussion, opinion of experts and professionals. The processes of participatory and representative democracy, which can still function at town level. A decision emerges.

How do you rate a lawsuit after the end of the process? One of the players didn’t get its way, so decides to nullify the process. No recourse but Civil District Court, they say, to annul the result and establish the Dictatorship of FMIA. To empower FMIA’s amateur members to tell you what can and cannot be built on the levee. How do you like the sound of that? Does your neighborhood really want Ms Lisa Suarez’s fingerprints on its future?

The court might sling their case. That would be nice – get it over with cheap and quick. Or possibly send some amendments to the Planning Commission, which would almost certainly validate them, since CPC wrote the Riverfront Overlay in the first place. Then Council would pass them again – it was a 7-0 yes on the 14th.

A fair court would have a harder time with the claim that the “height bonus” plan diminishes the “historical character” of the neighborhood. The rules of landscaping, public access and water management for a higher building are general but clear. Outstanding design is one of the requirements. That could mean different things to different people, so not a slam dunk, but it means that design quality will be considered. Can they make the case that a well designed 80 foot building on the levee side of Chartres, with concealed parking and public access plazas, where the precedent model is in fact some 80 foot buildings, would somehow diminish the appearance or value of houses across the street or blocks away in Marigny? Experience suggests the opposite: increased park access will increase the price of the facing houses.

In fact, the loophole that would concern me, if I am reading a gap in the law right, is a developer evading the quality requirements by not choosing the 80 foot option, building a row of 55 foot blockhouses of lousy design. Following FMIA’s Creole Imitation formula, a developer could even try to achieve some density in kitsch mode by filling the riverside with three story cubes – imitation Decatur Street. A few galleries, horse-head posts and imitation gas lamps – Ye Olde Mission Accomplished. Hang out the For Rent signs (approved design) for Preservation Acres.

Let’s suppose the court agreed that there had not been enough public debate on the new amendments. Would FMIA really support open debate and open voting, or just FMIA voting? There is no indication that most residents agree with FMIA or even have a good opinion of the club. Letting FMIA run it is no choice at all.

FMIA’s suit claims that the riverfront development plan violates the Master Plan. Be suspicious. In NOLA zoning skirmishes, everybody claims that the other guy’s idea violates the Master Plan.

The City’s requirements for the height “bonuses” are tough. By rumor, Prez Kabacoff, a well-known developer in Bywater and beyond, said they were too tough. The costs would defeat market rents. That may be pessimistic, but it tells us the administration has not been a pussy in this.

Here is our bang of the gavel:

Most days, the appropriate reaction to a carny act like FMIA is indifference. But now they are deliberately getting in your face. Do you want some creativity, variety and interest in the next phase of urban evolution, or do you want FMIA and its obstreperous directors to handcuff your neighborhood to a nostalgic theory for the next decade or so? Who decides, you and the city, or Lisa and the Marigny gang?

One suggested solution was, let FMIA agitate for Marigny. Let them tie themselves in legal knots. Let Marigny sort it out. But butt them out of Bywater, Algiers and the Garden District.

Another possibility: help Marigny residents recapture its neighborhood association.

Next: it gets worse.

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