More than Enough

They’re off their meds again. Let’s see what damage the residential property jihad is doing this time. And before the end of this, why don’t we think about what the sane people of New Orleans (yes, there are some, starting with NOLAscape subscribers) can do to stop them.

Truth and lies, reality and delusion, tumbling about on the unlikely playground of some simple restaurant regulation amendments proposed by Council Member Nadine Ramsey. We’ll get a look at them all, but try to focus on the one before Council last week, NMR 16, and especially the process. How they spin the messages. How the paranoid tendency uses the lessons of Edward Bernays and Josef Goebbels.

Let’s look at the original texts first, to see if they match the propaganda our Respectable Preservative Citizens have been spraying around town:

CZO Definition

Restaurant, Standard. An establishment where food and/or beverages are prepared to order, served by wait staff, and usually consumed on-premises. A standard restaurant’s principal method of operation includes ordering by customers from an individual menu or menu board and the service of food and beverages by a restaurant employee at the same table or counter where the items are consumed. Standard restaurants may offer alcoholic beverages for sale as incidental to food and non-alcoholic beverage service. Food service and sale of non-alcoholic beverages shall constitute at least fifty percent (50%) or more of the revenue for said establishment.

Amended definition NMR 16 replaces highlighted sentences with:

Standard restaurants may sell and serve alcoholic beverages. Average monthly revenue from food and nonalcoholic beverages shall exceed fifty percent of the total average monthly revenue from the sale of food, nonalcoholic beverages and alcoholic beverages.

Do you see high drama there? No? No OK Corral? Not ready to man the barricades? Maybe you are not spiritually pure enough to belong to a Residents’ Defense Organization. You need more political indoctrination.

How about writing op-eds and appearing on interviews to insult and accuse Council Member Nadine Ramsey of all sorts of crimes? Maybe you are a member of a residential property association, but you don’t see grounds for abuse and threats. Could you be in the wrong club? We have an intern evaluating everything she calls CRAs (Crazy Residents’ Associations) have been saying since May 14th. They will be analyzed into the malign and the gullible; the rude and crude or coldly polite; the occasionally awake and incorrigibly stupid; the followers of Meg Lousteau and the others, if we can find any. Our database can help you decide which is the right combination of mean spirit, uncritical acceptance of the Talking Points, self-righteousness, prohibitionism and anti-music activism that suits your particular personality type. All communications will be strictly confidential. Your secret vices are safe with us. Give us a call.

Vocabulary item: at the CZO session in May, Acting President Stacy Head assigned a name to one side of the restaurant argument: “French Quarter People.” It included VCPORA, its junior partner French Quarter Citizens and their me-too, Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association. Now they have reached out to other neighborhood associations around the city in their ongoing struggle against demon drink and the satanic Ramsey using their talking points – every restaurant will be a liquor store, etc. I doubt that many of these groups do the homework of checking out the actual amendments, following the arguments in council, reading Ms Ramsey’s own comments or communicating with her office for background. Let’s call this collective FQP.

The nub of the fuss about NMR-16 is removal of the word “incidental.” Restaurant managers want it out because it is ambiguous. Does it mean you can only serve a glass of wine with some food at the same time? Or that serving alcoholic beverages cannot be the main business of the restaurant? How wide-angle is “incidental”? Selective enforcement and private lawsuits are a plague in the New Orleans restaurant business, and VCPORA is the main culprit and carrier, so clear law is important.

The FQP are turning this into soap opera. Maybe there is a market for local political melodrama. We are considering a NOLAscape reality show, Even Assholes Aren’t All Bad. Or depending on the time slot, Even A**holes Aren’t All Bad.

By the evening of CZO day, May 14th, when the restaurant amendments were up for discussion, the residentialists were beginning to sputter and rage. Over the next few weeks, they whipped each other into a satisfyingly shared froth, and got some of our more mindless media to give them space and time to spread misinformation and vitriol.

Before leaving her show, Angela Hill slipped one in, with four guests, all residents railing against the Ramsey amendments. No balance, no opposition and no challenging questions. Angela’s input was mostly “Oh, dear” and “Tsk tsk.”

Garland Robinette did another. He had at least made an effort, he said; he had tried to get Nadine Ramsey to come on the show. Robinette did nothing to represent an alternative point of view or challenge the residential guests’ claims with serious questions. He just lobbed some light softballs that would have drawn praise from Larry King. At least King did it for access to the big names. Robinette and Hill were creeping favor with local activists who love being on their shows. The magic of radio validates their positions. Was he afraid VCPORA would snub WWL?

On August 14th, less than a week before Amendment NMR-16 would be before council for a vote, The Lens published an attack op-ed by Meg Lousteau, Alpha Female of the Residential Jihad Movement. We’ll take a wander through it soon. I emailed The Lens asking, Since Meg’s article is highly editorial, would you publish a rebuttal for balance? I didn’t say I would write it. It would be too easy to dismiss me as an opponent. I would have tried to get someone else to write it.

No answer. I tickled it for a response. No answer. There’s your editorial policy for The Lens, which likes to claim noble purpose.

On the 18th, The Advocate published a florid Letter to the Editor that functions as op-ed in its layout, by an Eric C. Walton, attorney. I asked if the Advocate would publish a rebuttal or balancing position. No answer. I sent something as a draft. No answer.

How’s that for editorial policy? Even Fox News is fairly up front about its position. The Lens, The Advocate and WWL are taking editorial positions siding with the residentialists against the Council and normal people, but they don’t want to say so. As far as I can tell, the Times-Picayune rose above this behavior, sticking to reporting, mostly, and I think best, by Richard Webster.

In this article, I want to focus most on the process: how the hoodie jihadis communicate their message. We can’t avoid content all together, but we’ll come back to it in a separate chapter.

Let’s start with the good. Give them a break up front. Gail Cavett was on one of the panels, focusing on music in courtyards. Gail can speak logically, expressing thoughts in terms of cause and effect. The courtyard issue may have some merit. Her input stood out.

Meg Lousteau understands what she is saying too, but as a skilled soundbite engineer, generally does not use reason to get the effect she wants when speaking to the public. She has developed good vocal skills since the noise ordinance wars, and uses them to develop ominous visual images.

The Talking Points

The current campaign kicked off either late in the May 14th council session, when Chris Young explained the amendment to allow unopened beverages to be supplied with take-away meals, and Carol Gniady lost it. As executive director of FQC, Carol charged the lectern, voice shaking: “How can you even listen to that man. A paid lobbyist . . . . ” Of course, Carol is a paid lobbyist too, but this is the French Quarter Militant Tendency we are talking about. Belief trumps facts.

If they really had no advance knowledge of the proposed amendment, they did well, progressing from an innocuous statement to lift the outdated risk of criminal charge from something that all restaurants do anyway. But if Carol’s outburst was prepared, she might have had long immersion in The Method as part of her training for representing the FQC menagerie.

Since we are exploring process here, notice that there is almost certainly a coordinator keeping these clubs on message. “Morph into bars” can’t be just a spontaneous meme that erupted around the city in the space of a few days. They tell the same stories using the same words, almost the same sentences. Somebody is writing the script. My money is on Meg Lousteau. I can’t say for sure; they won’t tell me. Some evenings I languish by the phone, faint and pale, hoping Meg will call and tell me The Plan. But she never does. Languishing is the best I get.

I think the Residentialist General Staff first wanted no change. They wanted all of Ramsey’s restaurant amendments drowned in a bucket. In op-eds and interviews they never offered suggestions for improvement, modification, compromise or what they call protection. Just: No! CM Ramsey, they said, does not care about citizens. She only cares about “moneyed interests.” They mean the Louisiana Restaurant Association, I guess. Last year, when oil company stalker Stuart Smith seemed to be backing them everywhere, VCPORA was the “moneyed interests.” It’s a meaningless claim. The restaurant amendments have been proposed partly to avoid inappropriate risk and because restaurants think they are good for the restaurant business. Money is – ahem – incidental.

Out there in FQP paranoia-land, the story supplanted the facts. That is the normal process. Not many people can sustain passion in a campaign in full awareness that they are talking jive. Iago in Shakespeare. Maybe Meg Lousteau. Probably Stuart Smith. Maybe Nixon and Kissinger. The rest of us have to believe, so we step into the narrative. We think it is real. Our leader spins us a web. Our friends and colleagues, and we ourselves, are eager to believe it, so we can share the awareness and earn praise from the maestra.

Josef Goebbels said getting people to follow you is easy. Convince them there is a threat, which is not hard. Free floating fear is close to the surface in everybody; just give them a target. Then convince them that you can save them from the barbaric enemy. And all advertising tells us that people respond to images, not reason and language.

Let’s look at some stuff. Generalissima Lousteau’s op-ed in The Lens:

“In a last-minute move, a City Council member has introduced a barrage of complicated amendments that, if adopted, will . . . scatter de facto liquor stores throughout the city and . . . “

The language – last-minute, barrage, complicated, liquor stores throughout – is visual, intended to leave you with scary impressions. Images are what modern politics is made of. Images, slogans and how they make you feel. “Make America Great Again.” Logic, reason – too much work. Too many big words. Honesty? Reality? We are bombarded with ads and political hogwash. Lies and fantasy supplanting truth and reality are no surprise. In Reality TV, reality means fantasy.

Let’s do some deconstructing:

Barrage: About 200 amendments were introduced on CZO day. They have boiled down to 74 on the Council web site, 18 are tagged NMR – Ramsey’s. 24%. Twenty-two are LC – LaToya Cantrell. 30%. Seven were from the Mayor’s office entered by CM Head, “by request.” So far, the LC amendments and the totality have not been called a “barrage,” but CM Ramsey’s amendments are characterized as an artillery attack.

They were introduced on CZO day because that is the way the council and the administration had decided to do it. Bob Rivers, exec of the City Planning Commission, and Leslie Alley, deputy, were on hand for guidance and to report on the CPC’s position when required, which was often. People from the Mayor’s office were there. The method and the numbers were within the law and agreed by the two branches of government.

“The proposed 11th-hour changes to the CZO are the work of Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey . . . Without warning or any kind of public notice, she tried to insert her liquor-friendly amendments into the CZO, effectively sabotaging . . .”

Meg knows the mechanisms of New Orleans city government a lot better than I do. She knows that blaming the amendment process on CM Ramsey is pure BS. “Without warning”? Ramsey says:

“The City Charter sets forth the rules for submitting and amending ordinances. . . . I initially introduced six amendments to be considered at the Special Committee of the Whole Public Hearing on the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance on April 17, 2015. These amendments were made available to the public on April 15, 2015 on the City Council website.”

Lousteau’s “without warning” claim refers to the CZO session of May 14th. April 15th was one month before. And for anecdotal support, I knew about some of Ramsey’s restaurant amendments coming into the 5/14 session just from coffee shop gossip, Meg has assistants and works this patch professionally. If she was not way ahead of me, something’s fishy on Rampart Street.

“Liquor-friendly.” Gratuitously inflammatory, throwing a cheap bone to the neo-prohibitionists. Let’s recognize in passing that most people are no longer so prissy about the distribution of beverages. Carrie Nation and Volstead were enough for a century or two. Inaccurate as well as inflammatory: the amendments are about restaurants being able to operate without fear of selective enforcement and legal attack by folks like VCPORA, who have a history of it. They will not increase sales of alcoholic beverages. What Meg is really protesting is losing some of her ability to threaten restaurant operators.

“The biggest bombshell in her misbegotten slate of amendments is Ramsey’s intent to allow every standard restaurant in New Orleans to operate as a liquor store.” [Emphasis mine.]

This may be the low point. The liquor-store accusation is from a different amendment. Let’s just say it is built on one of the FQP’s hot flash fantasies being mindlessly repeated far and wide, and no more intelligent for the volume. The novel additional insult here is intent. For one thing, it will be immediately apparent to anyone who reads the amendment that turning restaurants into liquor stores isn’t anyone’s intent, let alone a Council Member who does not own a restaurant or a liquor store.

How would Meg know Ramsey’s intent? Illegal wiretap? Previously undisclosed mind-reading skills? If you don’t show evidence for a statement like that, it is just cheap politics. Meg Lousteau has better skills in writing and politics than this Trumpian rubbish. How many Meggites out there read a sentence of such tripe, nodding their empty heads in hypnotized agreement? It fits the story: They are trying to destroy our way of life. They hate our freedoms. It’s them. There is always a they. Who are they this time? I think VCPORA is a rat’s nest of poisonous ideas expressed in educated accents, but even they should consider this kind of fictional witchcraft beneath them.

Quick reminder: we are not focusing on content yet. We are looking at the techniques used to spread disinformation: barbarians at the gate, and visual language with images designed to manipulate fear.

Okay, let’s give Lousteau a break for a minute. The Advocate published a Letter from an Eric C. Walton, attorney.

“Nadine Ramsey is a tyrant,” is his opening. Of all the letters they may have received, this is what the Advocate chooses to publish.

“Tyranny is when officials refuse to do their electorate’s bidding and they satisfy their own interests under the color of law.” I didn’t make it up; that is what Eric C. Walton, attorney, wrote and what the editors chose to put in their comic. Leaving aside the illiterate construction, “Tyranny is when . . . ,” where did Walton learn about representative democracy? Is this guy trying to be an exhibit for the failings of American education? Or just trying to help Ms Lousteau manipulate the gullible?

“Ramsey – and others – began secretly crafting major amendments with bar and alcohol lobbyists before the CZO was even on the books.” He must mean the “secret” amendments that were on the web site on April 15th, then announced in the public executive session on April 17th. I would also be interested in any examples Mr Walton could give us of proposals which were published before they were written, which is what he seems to be suggesting is the right process.

But facts bore Mr Walton, attorney. He is channeling the Greater Truth. Think about “secretly crafting with . . . lobbyists.” Can you think of any ordinance proposed in council that does not involve communication or consultation with somebody? Stakeholders, we usually call them. From the simplest tiny zoning variance to rebuilding South Rampart or the North Rampart streetcar or the infamous Hospitality Zone, council does not work inside a plexiglass wall. People are involved. Using the word “lobbyist” to try to color the process with a watercolor wash of corruption on K Street is just a cheap trick. Walton should leave that stuff to NOLAscape; we do it better.

Walton’s fact-free sentence is structurally deceptive – and that, unfortunately, is the relentless pattern of the militant residents.

“Self-serving changes,” writes our propagandist. How self-serving? Does the expression have meaning, or is it just inserted to communicate negative feelings? Does Nadine Ramsey own some restaurants we don’t know about? What is Walton accusing her of? Come on, Mr Walton, attorney. If you have something to say, say it. Snide hints are cheap.

“Equally appalling” is the next paragraph lead, into an accusation that Lousteau used, and also Jason Berry (who I am told should know better) in an American Zombie blog – Ramsey refused to take questions about the CZO at her “Town Hall” meetings. It is a technical truth abused to generate misinformation: the Town Halls were fully scheduled for an entirely different purpose. I don’t think Town Hall was really the best name. Eight or nine heads of city departments or executives of contractors like Entergy or SWB had been invited to speak about their activities and to field questions about them. If my memory is right, the one I attended ran more than 90 minutes, not counting the feeble demonstration a small Size Matters bunch mounted in the back at the end. The audience had not come to discuss the CZO and the amendments, a controversial subject that would take a long time and had nothing to do with the planned event. “Arrogantly,” says Walton, Ramsey refused to discuss zoning. Not at all, Sir. Ms Ramsey explained pleasantly at the opening that the invited speakers had the evening, and this was not the time or place for CZO debate. Arrogant would have been to bring the speakers to the meeting and hijack their time for a zoning fight.

In fact – well, maybe in fact – I am going to go by memory – Mr Berry is a hot investigator; he can check it – the CZO session had been postponed. CM Ramsey’s Town Halls were scheduled to take place after the CZO vote.

“Her amendments let restaurants become bars and nightclubs and make all restaurants package liquor stores.” The talking point, word for word. The barbarian-at-the-gates image, to scare the children and the horses. It’s rubbish, and if they really believe it, why not discuss it rationally by looking at the specific language of the amendments, showing where they think the weak spots are, and suggesting language that could satisfy requirements of the restaurant owners and the anxious residents? I suspect their pretended fear is more emotionally satisfying than acting in an intelligent manner.

In the same paragraph, without a break, Walton says, “She allows developers . . . to build jarringly out-of-scale luxury high rises flanked by parking lots.” Maybe my browser has gone funny, but what I see on the council web site, not to mention this week’s hearing before Judge Kern Reese, is that the outline of the building rules for the Riverfront Overlay are on an amendment called MJL-6 – Mitchell J. Landrieu 6 – introduced into the CZO by Stacy Head at the Mayor’s request.

Okay, let’s get off of Walton. His piece is florid, fact-free rubbish, but it shows what can happen when the FQP’s agitprop office scores a hit on the malign or the gullible. And when the Advocate falls short of an editorial policy with journalistic integrity.

I won’t take it apart but take a look at Jason Berry/American Zombie http://www.theamericanzombie.com/2015/08/new-orleans-neighborhoods-commentary-i.html to see the same tripe recycled in more literate words. Investigative, people call him. I suppose checking out Chris Young’s brother, a totally irrelevant topic, is Berry’s bid for the Seymour Hersh award, while uncritically reprinting another version of the FQP talking points. If this piece communicates effectively to you, maybe we are all zombies. He may have scored one touch, with the “liquor lobbyist” line. Chris Young’s firm has more than one client. One or another alcoholic beverage company or organization may be among them. But he stated each time speaking on these amendments that he was representing the Louisiana Restaurant Association. That is not a “liquor” group. This puritanical neo-temperance movement is seriously boring.

Let’s flick forward either four months, if you start when the material of the amendments was first generally published, or three months from CZO day when they were acrimoniously discussed and referred to CPC by CM Ramsey, to the August 20th council session, when NMR-16 came up for a vote.

First of the FQP reps was Carol Allen, former president of VCPORA, now with an uptown address and title. Carol “implored” council either to defer NMR-16 two weeks, or vote it down. She had a list of 22 organizations that supported her position . . . shades of Nathan Chapman and Joe McCarthy. Carol asks for deferral based on Ramsey’s statement that there was misinformation about. But Carol’s people created, wrote, published and disseminated the misinformation! Why do they deserve a deferral based on refusing to come to sensible grips with their perceived issues, instead trying to rile up a crowd of misinformed residents?

Second: Ms Lousteau herself. Wait a minute! Change of message, change of tone. She says that she can see that there is legitimate cause for concern about unintended consequences on both sides! If I remembered to wind my calendar, it was just six days before that Alpha Meg thundered of malign intentions from the Restaurant Association and CM Ramsey. That she was declaring not unintended consequences but clear intent to turn every restaurant into a liquor store. Is she “evolving,” in the current jargon? Or was she inciting hatred for PR advantage for the last three months, now offering an olive branch, as if she was willing to be magnanimous and let Ramsey and the LRA off the hook she had skillfully set, writing in the image language of people who watch TV 6 hours a day. If she had not meant it, how about an apology to Ms Ramsey for the incredible rudeness by Meg and her eager followers? Or would she say, It’s just politics, not personal? Now without warning (does that ring a bell?) she changes the narrative to say it should only take two weeks deferral to reach a cordial compromise.

Then came Carol Gniady into court to say the same thing, more or less.

Then the high spot – Albin Guillot tries for the Oscar. He’s pretty good.

He opens with, “Council Member Ramsey, I am sorry that you feel . . .” unjustly maligned and insulted. No, Monsieur Albin – she doesn’t just feel it. It is out there in print. Your colleagues and allies did it. Apologize for what you did, not for the fact that CM Ramsey noticed it.

“It is hard to be a preservationist in New Orleans. We get criticized . . .” Well, whaddayaknow. If you run campaigns of misinformation and downright lies, some people are going to think you are a dick, right? Is that hard to take on board? Either roll with it or clean up your act.

We are not against visitors. We give the Convention Bureau the product to sell. Visitors don’t come for bars, I can assure you . . .

I was on Bourbon Street last night, to hear an excellent band at the Sonesta. Standing in front of the hotel at about midnight among the thousands of people loudly, enthusiastically, vulgarly enjoying the Bourbon Street party, I looked up and down to see if i could see any of those charming old houses that supposedly bring everyone here. Couldn’t see ’em. Just bars everywhere. I wandered up to Dauphine and Burgundy. Classic old plain front FQ houses with little stoops punctuating narrow sidewalks, and pretty much nobody there. There is a bar or two, so there were some Saturday night people. But you can’t compare it to the thundering herds of Bourbon.

In normal conversation, I would not disparage the FQ residential side, For visitors, it is mostly a daytime thing. Maintaining the old houses is expensive, and the residents pick up the tab. Good for them. But the commercial end for the most part takes care of its properties, too. The building that collapsed on Royal was a private property, not in commercial use. The residential FQ is significant, but keep it in proportion. Its appeal is a long way from outstripping the great restaurants, bars, music venues and the Bourbon honky-tonk section. You may not like it, but there it is – tens of thousands of people telling you that they do.

Monsieur Albin said he knows most restaurants would not morph into bars, but there is always that one . . .

Wait a minute: I am reading these attack pieces and listening to interviews where youse guys say all restaurants are going to morph into bars, and then into package liquor stores. Even that there is a plot to get them to do so. Is it all or one?

Guillot wants a deferral for compromise too.

Keith Hardie, a consistent anti-beverage, anti-music campaigner for years, uses his legal skills to demonstrate that the original CZO language would not be precluded by the state law, which nobody had said it would. Two minutes of irrelevance.

There was one common stylistic theme that connected these speakers, besides the coordinated content: superciliousness. Condescension. They instruct the Council Members and most especially CM Ramsey on the law, on public opinion, on the traditions of New Orleans and their neighborhoods. They lecture. I don’t know about Nadine Ramsey, but I was beginning to feel offended. In what world have Carol Gniady or Albin Guillot or Carol Allen earned the right to figuratively finger-wag at CM Nadine Ramsey? Ramsey finally saw off Jackie Clarkson, who held back city progress for years, bringing a light whiff of brimstone into the council chamber. Do they want that back? Probably, because Clarkson seemed to love sucking up to the French Quarter gentry and carrying their water into council. Ramsey was instrumental in closing the curtain on that ugly era. If you can’t say Thank you and speak with respect, you don’t deserve any yourself.

To be fair, Meg Lousteau doesn’t. She has a permanent archness in speech, that she has managed to reduce but not eliminate, but it is democratic. She speaks to everyone like that.

If you keep watching the video, the supporters of NMR-16 come to the lectern, managers and owners of restaurants, officers of the LRA and FQBL. None of them show a trace of that condescending pomposity. Not one. Many of them are significant figures in New Orleans commerce, not just neighborhood gadflies and trouble makers, yet they manage to speak eye-to-eye, with consistent civility.

So the theme had morphed to compromise. Either vilification and misinformation were not polling to win, so the FQP was groping for a more intelligent approach, or a cease-fire was in their scenario.

I got in touch with Chris Young, the FQP’s guest villain of this series. I asked whether any of the leaders had been in touch to discuss the amendments, to see if they could work something out with the LRA.

> Nope. Nobody. Nada.

Wait – it’s been a bit over three months since the big CZO day that’s driving them bonkers. Not one of them has reached out, even for clarification?

> Not even a text message.

So now they need two more weeks, because these two more are the crucial weeks. As opposed to the 13 preceding weeks, in which they did nothing but Chicken Little messaging fueled with hot organic BS – and now the arch, condescending tones implying that it is all CM Ramsey’s fault.

I’m thinking: statute of limitations. And for having played it real bad, you lose.

Maybe the Council noticed it too, because NMR-16 passed, with the two usual Nays, Head and Guidry.

The “French Quarter People” claim to be activists in the city’s interests. Albin Guillot brought up their opposition to the riverside freeway as a show of virtue. It was about fifty years ago. VCPORA did oppose it, can’t deny that. But it was a Robert Moses project. His nemesis and leading strategist for how to oppose his stuff was Jane Jacobs of New York, the great urbanist of national renown. It would have been nice to hear an acknowledgment, It would have been even nicer, a whole lot nicer, if VCPORA had kept on opposing re-routing the I-10 to an elevated freeway that crippled Claiborne Avenue. I wonder what the difference was.

It is hard for them to bring up a record of civic benefit, because they generally act on behalf of their own narrow interests, either against or with no care for the bigger picture of the city. Not much different than Moses’s freeway, really – just stick it somewhere else, not in our sacred fragile bird of a neighborhood. How about linking an apology for where the I-10 is to your self-congratulation about where it isn’t?

They get a lot of mileage out of bad ideas, because although few, they are organized and determined, while the sane people of New Orleans – which I hope include you, gentle reader – who will be adversely affected, are diffuse and just stand by.

We should change that.

Next: Content.

Bob Freilich, 8/30/2015

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T.R.O.

Faubourg Marigny “Improvement” Associations’s hearing of its attempt to put a Temporary Restraining Order on the City’s Riverfront Overlay was today. Wonderful show. Great fun. Free entry. No commercials. The audience included a fair sampling of the Generals of militant residentialism – Meg Lousteau, Pat Meadowcroft, Carol Gniady.

Robert McClendon of the Times-Picayune got his story in quick, and set out the premises of the petition economically.

FMIA’s legal argument was two pronged. For one, they said, the Overlay District violates the city’s master plan, a sort of guiding document meant to set a vision for future development. That document, which has the force of law, says that any zoning changes should be in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.

Additionally, FMIA argued, the way the city went about approving the plan cut out required citizen comment. After several years of debate, Robert Rivers, head of the City Planning Commission, indicated to the group in a 2014 meeting that the city was reconsidering the height bonuses in Faubourg Marigny in light of public outcry.
Times-Picayune/nola.com 8/27/2015

They lost. If FMIA’s story is right, 97% of the population of New Orleans is now in mourning. If mine is right, most people don’t give a tinker’s, and of the ones that care, 60% or more are relieved that we will have some nice new residential styles, more people and better density without damaging the historic cores of Marigny and Bywater.

The claim that almost everyone agrees with Lisa Suarez’s little crusades comes from one of her main men, slow walkin’, slow talkin’ Ray Kern. He tells us that he is an “analyst,” so he understands how to count. The 97% comes from his count of incoming emails. If he understands a little about stats and polls, though, his analytical insight must tell him that a self-selected non-random group is no poll at all, and there is no correction or margin of error factor for it. His number has zero value.

Why Bywater, if it’s the Marigny club suing? Beats me. I don’t know any Bywater residents outside of Suarez’s immediate entourage who want her sticking her nose in Bywater business.

Witnesses for the plaintiff were Brian Luckett, Lisa Suarez and Ray Kern. Luckett is a member of Neighbors First for Bywater, NFB, a breakaway from the original Bywater group, Bywater Neighborhood Association, BNA. NFB always seems like a local Republican club to me, advocating smaller, more violent government with a neighborhood focus. A sample political position: they resist changes in the direction of higher residential density, meaning in this case lot size for building houses. Since they like to pose as preservationists – most of the residentialists do – they are forced to ignore or deny the fact that around 1950 Bywater’s population was twice what it is now. To generate a rebound without perimeter development, people would have to have more children, or share housing, clump up. I think what FMIA and its adherents really want is an increasingly suburban residential neighborhood with one difference from the exurban sprawl: permanently rising house prices.

Lisa Suarez is current president of FMIA. Where do you start? Impressionistically, she likes being a trouble-maker. She is learning to emulate VCPORA, using lawsuits and courts in causes where she and her allies fail politically. She addresses her enemies and opponents aggressively, rudely, with a turn of voice that seems to want to spin it cute, winsome and witty. Doesn’t work for me, but I guess she speaks very highly of us, too.

Third plaintiff’s witness, Ray Kern, is a problem for me. I can’t report him right. Kern always seems to me to have a lock on irrelevance. I find my eyes clouding over, my attention wandering. He usually starts with what a lovely, public-spirited business he has in the Marigny, and what a terrible, community-destroying business Mardi Gras Zone across the street is. Today, he only did the encomium on his Den of Muses; Mardi Gras Zone got a day off. As plaintiff’s attorney Andrew Jacoby asked him questions about the matter at hand, I couldn’t stop my attention once again drifting away.

First witness Luckett declared his familiarity with the Master Plan, the CZO, all things zoning and how everything should be built to fulfill his vision and that of his mentor and hero, Eugene Cizek. For my money, maybe about 28 cents, Luckett’s testimony about consistency with the master plan and his theories of compatibility with existing architecture was entirely subjective and held no water at all. He has written a lengthy article on New Orleans “vernacular” architecture and density, published on NFB’s web site. Using language apparently shaped to communicate precision, Luckett has shown tendencies to incoherence, but I think his platform is that the few forms already represented should be the only architecture allowed in Marigny/Bywater. Or in other words, Marigny/Bywater is immune to architecture. Program in the Creole cottage, the double shotgun and a few other elements in a CAD program, enter the lot size, and out come the plans. Everything is infill. Wait until we come to the Master Plan.

We’ll see if the 21st century agrees with Mr Luckett. My opinion: Luckett shows little understanding of what architecture is or what architects are actually for. He thinks imitating 18th and 19th century designs to make a chocolate box Williamsburg is a design statement, not a retreat.

Luckett revealed an interesting thing in the course of his testimony. They evaluate density wrong. Once upon a time in Marigny – I think traditionally might be the word that helps them feel good – the standard was twelve houses per acre, or 3,583 square feet per house. But a neighborhood is not an architectural inventory. It is people. Real, live, walking-around, making-a-living people, buying stuff, sitting on the steps, hanging on the corner, drinking chai latte or beer out of a paper bag. Now once upon the old days, there were a lot of people in every dwelling. A double Creole Cottage might have had two families with three or four kids each and maybe a cook or a slave running the separate kitchen in back. Now it’s a single occupied by a pair of empty nesters and the old detached kitchen-cum-servants’ quarters is a separate guest cottage for occasional visitors, if not on short term rental. Luckett’s old measurement of density only has any validity if you think Bywater is a museum of houses. In phrase-making mode, Luckett once said to City Council, “We don’t believe in New Urbanism; we favor Old Urbanism, the traditional . . .” But he doesn’t really, because his stuff has nothing to say about how people used the neighborhoods in the mid-nineteenth century. Real urbanists, Jane Jacobs or Smart Growth’s Andrés Duany tune traditional design to support a satisfying community. I think, insofar as I can understand what he is saying, that Kern actually supports that, but doesn’t see that Luckett’s ultra-conservative program would only support a community lacking diversity. A sort of residents’ golf club.

Plaintiff’s attorney Jacoby for the most part seemed to lob them softball open questions that allowed the witnesses to strut their stuff. I was looking for the hooks in the testimony that would prove that the directives for Riverfront Overlay development in the amendment they were specifically challenging, MJL-6, were of necessity inconsistent with the Master Plan, or in some way damaged the authenticity (sorry) and tout ensemble of the Historic Core properties in the center of the neighborhoods, or that the process used to get the amendment on the books was improper and failed to allow for citizen input. My call: they didn’t lay a glove on it.

On cross, Assistant City Attorney Christy Harowski quickly established that Luckett had no formal education, credentials or professional experience in planning or architecture. That would not normally in itself bother me; I have nothing in principle against amateurs. What does, though, is that his conclusions are very narrow. I was not hearing any context here, or in other Luckett work. He doesn’t show much knowledge of anything but his silo of interest, 19th century New Orleans styles and Eugene Cizek. His comment on Old v. New Urbanists quickly convinced the experienced that he had no real idea of Jacobs or Duany or Glaeser. But health warning: I don’t know anything about Cizek,

Second up for the plaintiff was herself, Ms Suarez. She said the overlay area came up to next to her house, and developers would build 80 foot skyscrapers next to her bedroom window. She did not like high buildings; they were not consistent with the neighborhood. I couldn’t hear any objective evidence or logic.

Then – I was wondering whether the City Attorney might jump up requesting a summary judgement. Faced with the undeniable fact that the Riverfront Overlay had been talked about ad nauseam since 2005; and that Amendment MJL-6 was written to include MJL 1, 2 and 4, which it replaced virtually without change; and that the contents of MJL 1 and 2 had been public and published since March, and that they basically summarized the administration’s net position on riverfront development as discussed for ten years; and that she, Suarez, had attended and spoken at many meetings about the riverside plans over the years, Suarez said although she had read MJL-6, she did not fully grasp its impact. She stated this as if it were justification for a Temporary Restraining Order.

How Lisa Suarez’s difficulty understanding something that almost everyone else paying attention quickly grasped – how can that be the basis for an injunction? How is Suarez’s slowness to understand a proposal on a topic that had been an obsession for years be the foundation of a lawsuit? I think the City Attorney was polite in not turning to Judge Reese, saying, “Can we go home now?”

By entering as exhibits copies of speaking cards and lists of attendees including the plaintiffs at various public sessions on the Riverfront Overlay, which under one title or another has been in heated and widespread discussion for ten years, the notion that citizen input in general and their specific argument were blocked was thoroughly discredited. I was with a lawyer. She said the cards were irrelevant. I don’t get that. In fact, I question it. An essential plank of plaintiffs’ case was that they were denied input. Ms Harowski showed that they had had numerous opportunities to speak and debate the overlay.

Faced with records of her appearances and input at council meetings and sessions to do with the overlay over a period of years, Ms Suarez expressed vexation that despite her repeated input and best exertions, Mayor Landrieu and CM Ramsey did not agree with her, so they are obviously pretty evil and undemocratic politicians. Suarez said Council Member Ramsey does not even care about her (Suarez’s) neighborhood. Listening to this and Kern’s fantasy assertion that he has 97% support, I think we can get the picture. They, the honchos of FMIA and NFB, believe that their consistent objection to the administration’s development plans means that their program trumps the government. They have become so used to hearing themselves, they think the city is the interruption.

Whether you agree with Landrieu and Ramsey or not (when they happen to agree with each other) you have to agree that they won elections. They have the authority to choose between options, to decide. There are a lot of citizen participation programs in New Orleans supported by the state transparency rules. But that does not give your particular shtick a right to win, only to be heard and considered. If you don’t like it, there are political processes to reverse or overcome decisions. Trying to hamstring the administration or council through the courts in the absence of a clear violation of law is just abuse of the process. Jacoby had made a very fuzzy case.

I suspect Lisa Suarez thinks she is clever when she attacks Landrieu and Ramsey. I don’t see the wit in her way. Snark in a cutesy voice is still just snark. It might explain why Landrieu gives her sharp, dismissive answers. One of the subtopics is, Marigny was out of the Overlay, then back in. An untrustworthy inner voice keeps suggesting, I wonder if the Mayor did that just to get on her nerves, because she couldn’t gracefully take Yes for an answer.

The plaintiff’s attorney was seriously outgunned. Assistant City Attorney Christy Harowski, looking about 11 months pregnant, quickly put a hard, cold finger on the plaintiffs’ lack of credentials, expertise and logic, which satisfactorily shot a hole through McClendon’s first topic. There was no reason to think their evaluation of the Master Plan was any better than the administration’s. I think she could have gone farther with this – in a few paragraphs, I will try to.

Harowski’s only witness was Bob Rivers, Executive Director of the City Planning Commission. Rivers has more degrees than some thermometers. They include law as well as city planning. His knowledge of the CZO – a 600+ page behemoth – the Master Plan and the recently retired old CZO is exhaustive, completely convincing. His testimony was not tendentious, just factual, and in my opinion decimated the plaintiffs’ claims.

Ms. Harowski asked Rivers to compare two maps of the Riverfront Overlay in Marigny. He said the one that showed the Overlay district to Chartres was wrong. Mr Rivers said the Overlay District in the area ran only from Decatur to the river, not from Chartres, where Ms Suarez lives, so her contention that a contiguous property could build over her was inaccurate.

Mr Rivers was asked – this is technical; hope I get it right – if MJL 6 was a zoning amendment. No, it is not a zoning amendment; it is an amendment to a proposed ordinance. If it were a proposed amendment to a passed ordinance, it would be subject to public input. As an amendment to a proposal not yet passed, it is not.

Does the substance of MJL-6 really need more discussion? In the recent words of CM Stacy Head, usually a reliable ally of the residentialists, “I don’t think we could kill this horse any deader.” For more debate to have a chance to be productive, the anti-overlay/anti-height people have to come up with a new story. “Inconsistent with the Master Plan” and incompatible with existing houses won’t work, at least in Bywater, as we shall see in a minute,

Mr Rivers did say at the end, in a coda that I think Ms Harowski could have left out because it did not help her case, that it would be possible for a builder who met all the “soft” criteria – no zoning variance required, under 55 foot high, no deviation from standard F.A.R., all building code items qualified, CPC and HDLC both satisfied – to get his permits without a public meeting. It would be a shame if a developer actually tried to take advantage of that. Discussion with architects, planners and developers suggests that the only possible way to make a building that would be profitable at 55 feet in the Overlay rules would be to build a cheap, ugly box. What Andres Duany calls the Philadelphia Cream Cheese brick, but in this case it would probably be brown drab not silver and blue. So The judge’s final ruling may have some sound reasoning: there are escape hatches through which bad development could escape scrutiny.

Judge Reese had a soft spot for the plaintiffs’ cause. As McClendon reported, he said that not allowing citizen and neighbor input into a matter with such effect on their lives was “abhorrent.” But he ruled on the law. The CZO including MJL-6 had been passed properly by council, so it was law, and a Temporary Restraining Order could have no just reason short of gross negligence, malfeasance – something like that. McClendon suggests that they may carry on pursuing a permanent injunction, but I think that will go down in even hotter flames.

My lawyer friend, with a finer eye for what Ms. Harowski didn’t do than I could have, asked: Why didn’t she ask for summary judgment at the beginning, since the law passed by Council would be definitive? I’m glad she didn’t. I liked the show.

Now, some gospel according to Pastor Bob before we get out of here.

The Master Plan shares with the Bible the ability to be used to support many things, and their opposites. It’s a Mount Sinai guide to building. A big-picture vision document. I think many of the zoning hawks and doves are wary of quoting it when they argue – which is always. They prefer to cite it without detail: “This proposal is consistent with the Master Plan,” say the proponents. “This is not consistent with the Master Plans!” thunder the opponents. And the dance goes on.

In the plaintiff’s Petition for Injunctive Relief, signed by Andrew K. Jacoby, the MP is quoted:

“Prevailing character, in terms of scale, massing and density, are reinforced so that infill development must be compatible with existing patterns. [Emphasis mine.]

If New Orleans had the misfortune to have me as a judge instead of a humble back street preacher, I might have disqualified the petition on that sentence.

The problem unmentioned in the case is that infill development has nothing to do with the Riverfront Overlay.

Infill buildings are constructed on vacant or underutilized property or between existing buildings.[7] Wikipedia

Urban infill is defined as new development that is sited on vacant or undeveloped land within an existing community, and that is enclosed by other types of development. The term “urban infill” itself implies that existing land is mostly built-out and what is being built is in effect “filling in” the gaps.
From Sustainable Cities Institute

An infill site:imageFrom the Master Plan:

RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOOD ZONING PRINCIPLES

1. Ensure that new housing built within established neighborhoods is compatible with the scale and character of the existing development.

Emphasis on “within” is mine. Are the Riverside Overlay parcels “within” an established neighborhood? I don’t think the Master Plan thinks so. Last item in this section:

• Create riverfront districts based upon the policies of the “Riverfront Vision” plan that implement the plan and reflect existing adjacent neighborhood character.

What does that mean? There have been no actual Riverfront proposals yet. The conditions are tough; developers might not be lining up. But there are some reference points. One is the big project that the ekistics company has in planning for along Press Street between Chartres and Dauphine. Many people think it fits the space and the neighborhood perfectly, and is perfectly compatible, especially given the need for more population density and the small number of spaces available to achieve it in. But others surely have a narrower vision, and think “reflecting existing” means a row of double shotguns. Clearly that is not going to do anything to achieve critical density or address the housing shortage that has resulted from social and demographic changes over the past 50 years. But they believe it. Just “more like us” is their goal.

The same company owns the Rice Mill Lofts, 78 feet high. Most of us say the Rice Mill is a precedent. Some, anti-development folks like Luckett say it is an exception, not a precedent.

More Master Plan mining:

“Promote infill development on vacant lots in existing neighborhoods.(P 14.9) – illustrates what the Master Plan writers meant by “infill.”

Locate mixed-use neighborhood centers on neighborhood edges to draw customers within walking and biking distance of residences. (p 14.9) – The Bywater riverside is a neighborhood edge.

Diversify New Orleans’ housing stock in new residential development. (p 14.9) – New housing does not have to be just like existing.

Include new landscaping standards to buffer incompatible uses, screen parking lots and outdoor storage areas, and improve the appearance of sites and street frontage. (p. 14.7) Good idea – incorporated in the design goals for Riverfront Overlay buildings using height bonus.

•  Provide areas with clusters of ground-floor retail and service uses with residential uses above in mixed-use centers.

•  For large mixed-use sites, create development-specific design guidelines that address building appearance, streetscape,  signage and utilities, parking design, landscape, sustainability, and materials.

•  Provide usable and well-designed open space in mixed-use areas.

•  Take advantage of opportunities for high density uses in developing vacant land on higher ground, and in areas where building can be flood resistant.

•  Diversify New Orleans’ housing stock in new residential development.

(p 14.6) Last five from p 14.6 all in basic sketch of Riverfront Overlay bonus developments.

I see a lot of stuff in the Master Plan that is not only compatible with the Riverfront Overlay – it encourages it, almost prescribes it. I do not see how Suarez, Luckett and Kern can argue these statements away. I think their stuff just shows deep conservatism. They like it like it is, and they want the Master Plan to protect them from parts of the future. It is as if they think the tech-struck iPhone generation is going to sully our cracked streets. It ain’t like that. Buildings have been built along rivers forever. Roman towns had apartment buildings, and shops, and places to stash your horses and oxen. Let your city be a city, and let the Caribbean back in.

Having said all that – in the unlikely event that anybody cares what I say – I think Marigny could be an exception. It does not really have a riverside available for development, as Bywater does. Trains fill it up. It has a few empty and industrial blocks on the lake or neighborhood side of North Peters, which is not the same as real riverside.

The Marigny hyperactivist trio would do better to try to get support from their neighborhood, not political backing and flattery from VCPORA, to get Marigny back out of the overlay, and butt out of Bywater. BNA is doing just fine with Smart Growth and New Urbanism. They do not need Luckett’s Jeremiads on what he seems not to understand. If FMIA focused on sensible goals instead of hosing insupportable ideas all over the map, they might get reasonable guidelines for graceful transition design from North Peters to Chartres. To do it, though:

•  Stop complaining and contribute.

•  Get realistic about design. You have to move on from Luckett’s history book to serious ideas.

Most important: butt out of Bywater. Nobody here needs Ms Suarez’s amateur opinions on urban stasis. The current incarnation of FMIA is an unpleasant little self-important bunch, annoying to most others except their allies in the FQ jihad movement. Get back in your borders.

Bob Freilich, August 27, 2015

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Assez! ¡Basta! Enough!

I was writing an article in support of Council Member Ramsey’s amendments NMR 14-17 when I heard that she had withdrawn them. That means that the residents’ fascist groups must have ganged up effectively, and I am too late. WE are too late. That probably means VCPORA in charge. VCPORA is craftier than the others, more experienced at massaging data into a falling-sky story, and sticking to it. I am listening to CM Ramsey on the Garland Robinette program on WWL right now.

If you missed it: http://media.wwl.com/a/108417966/8-19-the-think-tank-1110am-council-person-nadine-ramsey.htm

New Orleanians: why do you let this go on? Why do WE? These are organized militias of a certain strain of property owners pushing dry, dusty, toxic prairie dust. They are gentrification armies, worshippers of property values, selling re-coded racism – a kind of exclusivism, classism, people-like-us-ism.

Militant puritanism is a sad, damaging and persistent strain threading through American history. It led to the 18th (Prohibition) Amendment, the Volstead Act, creating the Mafia’s great wealth in the mid-20th century. After repeal of the idiotic amendment, drugs got into the infected part of their brains; they started pushing laws that ended up creating the Central Asian and South American narcotics empires, culminating in the brainless War on Drugs, propelling top drug lords into comfortable slots among Forbes’ Ten Richest People since Pablo Escobar was first up there with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

No, I am not saying that Meg Lousteau single-handedly created the WoD just so she could become El Chapo’s lieutenant for Louisiana! Don’t say that! I’ll get sued, or on Guzman’s hit list. But Meg, her hand puppet in French Quarter Citizens and Lisa Suarez, the Sarah Palin of the aggressive fussbudget movement, work out of the same mental space as Carrie Nation and Susan B. Anthony. They try to be cuter or more stylish – but they are channeling old biddy stuff, devoted to banning, limiting, obstructing, shrinking.

They do real damage to New Orleans.

Let’s get some anti-Puritan organization together and back these people down.

In the Bywater/Marigny area, the BNA opposes the proto-fascist groups, but they don’t fight. In the FQ, French Quarter Advocates opposes their poisonous positions and dishonest twisting of facts and truth – but they don’t fight hard enough. They leave Nadine Ramsey’s office to take the Brown Shirts on alone, with almost no backup, and nothing organized.

Come on, guys. We care. Let’s do it. Let’s stamp residential property owners’ fascismo down into the cracks.

Council Member Ramsey’s amendments were good. They either recognized existing practice or simplified procedures.

The Brown Shirts’ real objection, according to NOLAscape: it takes them out of the process, which is exactly the right thing to do. As Nadine Ramsey just said on Garland Robinette: there are real people with real problems out there that she has to see to. She cannot devote her office’s resources to combatting a prosperous old biddy gang’s quality-of-life kvetches that hardly brush up against reality, and she can’t hand over control to them.

Remember when Kristin Palmer once suggested that – with a wink? Nadine Ramsey is the one who finally got us free of Jackie Clarkson, the harpy of that mentality. Let’s come up with some more support.

If I was a French guy with a beret and a long loaf of bread in 1789, I would be standing on a mule carriage in front of Jax Square shouting, “Citoyens! Aux armes!

New Orleans was a great Caribbean city. Since 1803, it has had increasingly to fend off a prairie fundamentalist takeover, marching down the Mississippi from strange places like Kansas and Shreveport.

Let’s take back the sunshine and the music.

Next time, let’s take a look at what CM Ramsey’s amendments actually mean. Not the imaginary scenarios the Hoodies have been telling us – the real significance.

Bob Freilich, August 2015

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Untitled on Press

How about a NOLAquickie? Scaling down from Big Religion to one development project in one corner of one neighborhood. But it’s an important neighborhood. I live in it.

Sean Cummings, a leading developer with a strong focus on Bywater, hosted two Neighborhood Participation meetings at the warehouse properties he and his partners have purchased at and around 2940 Royal Street – about two full city blocks of industrial archaeology on the Bywater side of the Press Street railroad tracks.

The plan is to turn the disused industrial/storage warehouse buildings (you have probably seen them dozens of times) no longer commercially viable in their current zoning, into a residential-centered mixed-use complex. That is clearly the trending direction for the area. Warehousing beside the railroad was once efficient; current property prices and demographics in downtown New Orleans pretty much rule that out for any legal product, now and in the foreseeable future.

It is a big, ambitious project that looks good. Perfect? Not yet, but it is not finished. Aesthetically, it is not only going to be a huge improvement on the empty industrial buildings; it is the most considered, nuanced, best looking project design in progress that I have seen in New Orleans. It will be a big plus for Bywater, as well as a pretty nice place to live.

Cummings and architect Wayne Troyer (the WT of studioWTA) explained the plans in I think four NPP and neighborhood association meetings, of which I have seen three.

Bywater has lost about half its population since 1950, about 22% of households (doubles into singles) and 62% of its child population. The people won’t come back without new construction. The central core of Bywater is HDLC – you can’t build anything. The areas available for new development are three sides of the perimeter – along the Industrial Canal, along the Mississippi riverside, and the industrial buildings adjacent to the Press Street tracks.

Bywater (and Marigny, but since it is currently occupied by a small proto-fascist residents gang, architecturally bewildered but with a hobby of sport suing, best to leave them out of it until the besiegers surrender and come out in straitjackets) . . . where was I?

Oh, yeah . . . Bywater needs more density to support businesses and activity that make a neighborhood: grocery stores, shoe repair, dry cleaners, bakeries, delis, bars and cafes with local appeal. Some businesses are open – impressionistically, restaurants and galleries dominating – but we need more. Pop-up markets, hustlers, a couple of homeless guys. Streets need to be public space again – people on stoops and porches, teenagers hanging on the corner, arousing suspicion; kids playing in the streets, exploring everywhere. More basketball, skates and skateboarding.

Cummings sometimes refers to Jane Jacobs’, Ur-Mother of New Urbanism, statement that eyes on the street make neighborhoods safer. Her comparison in The Death and Life of Great American Cities of kids’ lives in the street compared to parks and play spaces is brilliant and fascinating. But to make it happen, you need living streets, and for that you need places to walk to, and for that you need more people, higher density in the jargon, so that local small business can survive and thrive.

I suspect the white middle/comfortable class in the gentrification neighborhoods might have to get used to the street as public space again, if they want the city to be what they thought they were moving to. They think they love the city, but close up, they get scared. Music, noise, people walking around. Teenagers, dreadlocks, beating out a drum solo on the bottom of a bucket. They remember the feeling of security of a driveway and a two car garage.

They might call the cops if they saw young kids running around without parents hovering over them, and teenagers doing what they do – usually nothing, just watching, talking, inventing new slang languages we can’t understand.

One of our traditional mantras that I just made up: Architectural inventory and quiet nights do not a downtown neighborhood make. You need some life and a future. Too many gentrification neighborhoods are fizzling as local political power in the hands of the non-breeding white comfort zone tries to impose genteel devastation and call it peace.

The Ekistics project is generous. It will include about fifteen separate buildings. Heights will vary for an interesting skyline and building profiles, from a high of about 75 feet facing the railroad tracks, to about 40 or so on the Montegut St. side, where it faces existing houses. There will be careful planting including an urban farm on top of the parking building along the tracks, and green walls to help manage heat. The developers will build a new street, narrow, low traffic, largely for walking, modeled on a street in Rome. There will be courtyards, fountains, leisure and play spaces. It will not be a gated community – all spaces and throughways in the complex will be available to neighbors and the public.

There will be shops and spaces to make stuff. The oldest of the warehouse structures will be renovated not rebuilt, and devoted to commercial use. Graison Gill of Bellegarde Bakery intends to open a retail and manufacturing bakery there. In the NPPs, Mr Cummings introduced Brandan Odums, a muralist and graduate of NOCCA next door, who will be commissioned to create a mural – at least one – celebrating Homer Plessy, a significant figure in the history of racial injustice, whose famous Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, kicked off on Press Street, and resulted in confirmation of the atrocious “separate but equal” formal approval of segregation. Chief Justice at the time was a New Orleans embarrassment, Edward Douglass White III, confederate officer, white supremacist, member of the Knights of the White Camellia terrorist society. There is a statue of him, flattering compared to photos of him, on the Supreme Court steps at 400 Royal. If the Mayor really wants to move statues around, start with this guy. Leave Robert Lee for later; he at least had the decency to honor the surrender.

It is a great concept. I am waiting to find out what the rents will be.

But NOLAscape aficionados, if such creatures exist, will know that our mission is not to praise Caesar, but to find somebody to bury. The NOLAscape sensors were tuned for the funny stuff that the sexy subject of zoning tends to push to the surface.

Last night at BNA, one man articulated a position quite well – dangerously, seductively well. He was uncomfortable; the development was not like the rest of Bywater, characterized by doubles and singles in the usual styles – shotguns, Creole cottages, some Greek revivals. The housing pattern meant neighbors with something in common, who spoke to each other and became a community in a shared environment.

It was the most honest, straightforward, guileless exposition I have heard of the underlying position of many residents’ groups. I call it “People Like Us,” a kind of warmer, fuzzier side of NIMBY. VCPORA and other gentrification militias are more sophisticated in the political application of the sentiment and desire. They decorate it with claims of historical justification – often fictional preservationist mythology, and in any case, inaccurate virtually by definition, since history is a process not a snapshot – as they stride solemnly to the lectern at City Hall, challenging the CPC’s and Council Members’ ability to keep a straight face.

An honest, straightforward, sincere, articulate exposition of a temptation. As warm and comfortable as it feels, if you want to see a great New Orleans and a great Bywater, you have to reject it. Put it behind thee, because a living neighborhood needs diversity. Needs. To paraphrase Andrés Duany, reigning high priest of New Urbanism and co-creator of Smart Growth, neighborhood action by people all the same cannot be called local democracy; it is a mob. Perhaps a non-violent, civil mob, but nonetheless. The cottages, houses and mansions of Bywater and Marigny are all HDLC. Nobody is proposing to replace them. This project has been careful to avoid offending New Orleans’ strange but virulent height phobia by putting high structures facing the train tracks, lower ones facing existing streets. Are apartment dwellers an alien species? Dangerous people? Millennials and other creatures, taking elevators, walking down corridors, keeping their cars in lots, when they have one. Would they eat our children? (If we had any, since their population is down 62%.)

Message for the residents’ militia mentality: if you legislate a comfort zone, you sentence your neighborhood to decline. You know the classic gentrification story? Before the way back, it starts with a steady decline, and the decline starts there, with exclusion.

A quick by the way: kids are down because adult population is down and gentrification: white Americans have fewer children than other ethnic designations. But also decline in population has accompanied and reinforced decline in facilities, which could make a neighborhood less attractive to families with growing children. (Okay, they all grow, but you know what I mean.) This week, a new sports, recreation and swimming complex opened at 4300 St Claude, and a returning school, KIPP Renaissance, opened in the Frederick A. Douglass high school building at 3800 St Claude. Maybe there is hope. Walkable is the watchword.

Parking was an early issue at the NPPs in late July. Something about parking really pokes a pin into residents’ passion. We burble about walkable neighborhoods, then go all survivalist about getting a free street parking space no more than four steps from the door. The complex will provide more than the number of parking spaces required by the new CZO, but people who live two blocks away were suspicious.

At the NPPs and again last night, one woman protested traffic congestion.  I think I was the only one rude enough to chuckle at the NPP; last night I managed to be respectful. She sees traffic congestion in Montegut and the 2900 blocks of Royal and Dauphine. I wondered if she had ever been to a big city, and how she squared this imaginary traffic load with the common sight of people strolling down the middle of the street walking dogs in residential Bywater.

Sean Cummings has added traffic and parking engineers to the development team to try to get this right, but I am going to throw in my amateur two cents anyway.

Cars are not on the endangered species list yet. Cities have to deal with them. But determining population density by parking spaces instead of people – isn’t that back-to-front? Car storage can’t be the measure of the future of a city or a real urban neighborhood.

When these buildings housed functioning industrial businesses, workers would have turned up, possibly hundreds of them, usually all at one time, not distributed, like people leaving for diverse jobs in the morning. Somebody said, there were probably more streetcars then – suggesting that the working class couldn’t afford cars and used public transportation, unlike homeowners, who need cars and wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus. I’ll overcome my impulse at social sneering with just a reminder: long-term survival calls for more public transportation and fewer SUVs.

Traffic jamming generally occurs in the through corridors, not the smaller streets. Residential grid streets are like networks: if it looks busy ahead, take a right and a left, see how the next street is doing. Yeah, a couple of hundred cars leaving the west side of Bywater over a 90 minute or so period will add to the traffic on St Claude and Claiborne, but it is already there, and starts miles before this area. The difference won’t be huge. People with flexible schedules who want to drive somewhere like shopping quickly learn how to avoid the traffic times. My bottom line: traffic ain’t a big deal here, and it is topsy-turvy to consider suppressing growth, or re-growth, for some incremental comfort for die-hard internal combustion commuters.

Another guy at one of the NPPs worried about electricity. Was he serious or auditioning for a stand-up at the Comedy Shop? “We get power outages now! What will happen with 250 new apartments and some shops?” Somebody replied, Entergy has to put in the facility to power the complex. They can’t rent the apartments without enough electricity. It’s all part of planning and S&P. “It will be okay for them,” replied the questioner. “but what about us?!?!” Don’t fix Entergy, if there is a problem; just leave two blocks to crumble, uninhabited. I really saw and heard that; it wasn’t a flashback to a Mark Brothers movie.

I think my favorite was a woman at the second NPP, who seemed to be getting increasingly grouchy as the presentation progressed. Finally she scolded, “Too much density! Too many people.” The presentation had started with the need for more density, but she wasn’t going to be fooled by any new-fangled notions. Sean Cummings pointed out that the density in the complex was lower than the level permitted, even encouraged, by right in the new CZO, and also compared it to the Rice Mill Lofts across the street. The new development had seven times the land area, but only three times the population, so was considerably lower in density than the nearest comparable building.

“Too much density!” she scolded. “Too many people. And much too high! There are no buildings like that around here!”

We were sitting by an open wide loading door on the Chartres end of the empty building. I said, “Look out there. You can see the precedents across the street.” The view over the road a few feet away included the Rice Mill and NOCCA, each peaking at just under 80 feet.

That just got a Harrumph. We were in the reality-free zone where so many residents’ association protests are born and grow up.

Another fellow who had appeared in a “Size Matters” T-shirt at Council (I am avoiding names in this article – it was not a spotlighted public event like City Council) managed not to introduce his topic this time by a tedious, irrelevant backhander at Mardi Gras Zone. His question was why the 75 foot high properties could not be 55 feet instead. It had already been explained, but Mr Cummings gave a courteous answer. I might have said, I refer you to the concept of arithmetic, and also to what Mr Troyer said about the design. It has to do with getting the right rentable area to support the cost while ensuring a good proportion of public space and avoiding boring level rooflines across the development. I am concerned that they may get their T-shirts out again. The “Size Matters” guys are so obsessed with building heights, they have lost sight of the purpose of architecture and design. I suspect the questioner is a member of the Marigny Brown Shirts, and may have been there to report to the Obersturmbahnführerin..

I don’t think this project has a name yet. It needs zoning adjustment, and it needs support. A house topped $!,000,000 on St Claude this week. Without more supply, Bywater is going to become a Monopoly game. The Ekistics complex is a sound project and should clear, but the “Size Matters” militia and the People Like Us syndrome can be obstructive. Lisa Suarez, the troublesome Boadicea of Size Matters has a new hobby of litigation. She is running a lawsuit against the City to block or slow different parts of the Riverside Overlay, and enjoying pissing off the Mayor in the process, and I think now making it worse by applying for an injunction to get Marigny back out of the Overlay, and another to block CM Ramsey’s healthy proposed amendments to the CZO.

Marigny was out of the Overlay. At the last minute, the Administration put it back in. Wags like me say it is because Suarez couldn’t take “yes” for an answer. She kept banging on, trying to limit new development in Bywater and Algiers to infill-style imitations of 19th century houses, until the Mayor’s office said, The hell with it. Throw her back into GenPop. Other wags, also rather like me, think Ms Suarez just enjoys the attention. Even if she doesn’t really care whether buildings in Bywater are 50 or 150 feet high, it is great fun to get your name in the paper for slinging words with the Mayor and for suing Council and City Planning.

Maybe some of the people who followed the experienced, crafty VCPORA into the storm of mostly bogus objections to Habana Café want to find out of they can run a protest campaign themselves, without Mama Meg. They might not care about the benefit or architectural merit of the project. A roof over 50 feet? No thinking! Protest, object, sue, make signs, print shirts.

They are not really “Neighborhood Associations.” They are residential property mobs. They don’t speak for an organic, integrated, diverse neighborhood of residents and businesses; they try to intensify the “No!” of the grumpy Folks-Like-Us/NIMBY emotion. If they have any notion of what makes cities tick, they conceal it well. They promote gentrification-favorable, suburban-mentality policies: low density occupation, segregation zoning and an unfriendly atmosphere for businesses.

If I am being unfair to FMIA and Neighbors First – well, they deserve it.

A living neighborhood is not just a gentrified sandbox for the professional and rentier classes to set up an over-zoned suburban enclave. A small-lot Beverley Hills. A clubhouse for the crotchety to complain about Frenchmen Street and St Claude, bars and restaurants and music. A base for Suarez and her followers to harass Café Istanbul. The point of re-urbanization can’t be for Ozzie and Harriet to give up the big lawn and the two car garage, and bring the crabgrass mind-set with them to a city street, becoming older, meaner Ozzies and Harriets.

The protest may never materialize. I hope not. If it does, oppose it. Support the project. To get Bywater back to its 1950s density, we need at least four more projects like this one. So all you stop-the-world people, leave Bywater alone. Let real ecovery start. Go and beat your backward drum somewhere else.

Let’s keep supply up and rents low, because I might want an apartment in it one day. You might, too.

Bob Freilich, August 2015

 

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Red State Blues

“The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”
Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack (1758)

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”
Thomas Paine, The American Crisis No. V (1776)

Some readers may find this article or parts of it offensive. At least I hope so. It is also too long and wanders about, and may be otherwise annoying.

When more than half the people of the tarnished Shining City on a Hill are up for finding out what a new future might taste like, and the other half is hooked on faith, guns and God only knows what (did I just say that?), and another half doesn’t give much of a damn, all sorts of dust-ups are likely.

In the multi-layered sticky membranous web of American governments, where worm-holes perforate the wall that is supposed to separate church and state at every level, most annoyingly and dangerously enabling the penetration of Dominionist fundamentalism into the beds of power, beavering moistly away trying to give birth to a tacky theocracy, it can’t help but turn into a political vaudeville. Dangerous, but funny, the Prairie God’s gift to compensate us for the loss of George Carlin.

The politics of marriage has been a favorite subject of drama and comedy, from the Biblical Patriarchs to Oedipus through Cinderella, Much Ado About Nothing, Charles and Diana, and the Kardashian exploration of popular psychosis. Now marriage equality and the Prairie Christian backlash are in the headlines looking for new rules of engagement. With neither Shakespeare nor Carlin to protect us, how will we cope?

A few decades ago, headline reasons for marriage expansion, at least in the comics we call mainstream media, were tax and property – good American stuff. Then came Family Values. Say what?!? Gay family values? It’s a sin! Get married, be a couple in the eyes of society, raise children? The idea!

Why not? Republicans seducing Christian Right votes with cultural prescription from Nixon’s Silent Majority, Reagan’s grinning whatever and the unspeakable Bush and the Neocons have sold apple-pie-Ozzie-and-Harriet fantasy as the holy American life. Now it’s coming around to bite them in the bum, and they are fretting. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch.

The secular “founders” legislated separation of church and state. As born Englishmen just a century out from the English Civil Wars, they knew a lot about the damage that could be done through manipulation of state religions and non-conformist resistance. They did not know enough yet about the damage unregulated capitalism could do. Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 – the ideas were still new. The combination enabled a free market in religions, including creepy ones. From non-establishment and our Created Equal right to ignorance and stupidity comes a big gumbo of cults, very strong in prairie evangelical flavors, featuring belligerence, imaginary supernatural judgment, sin and belief in miracles and magic. The Bible teams want prayer in school, and evolution out; courts say move the Ten Commandments sculpture off the courthouse lawn.

Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Co. were not all that far off the English Civil War – a little less than we are from the American one – a conflict framed in religion, Puritans against the established church and aristocracy. Identifying with the Enlightenment in a country just coalescing, having to include the heirs of the same Puritans that had chopped off Charles I’s head, they had to work out a way to include reason and belligerent illusion under the same roof.

In case it seems a bit twee and far away, The English Civil War caused by percentage more death and devastation than WWI and WWII. The royalists and oligarchs eventually won (as might be happening here) so perhaps not too surprising that under the Restoration things were not too comfortable for the holdouts.

We were taught In school that the Pilgrim Fathers came to America for religious freedom. Not quite; they had left England for Holland, where they had the best the 17th century could offer in freedom. But they wanted to be English, not Dutch, so they drummed up some sponsorship for a colony. When they got it rolling, their freedom could be compared to the fundamentalist definition: freedom to impose their stuff on everybody.

Jefferson’s wall of separation was a reasonable survival strategy. But for all they go on about the Constitution when it suits them, our Christian Right isn’t really settling for it. Prairie Evangelicalism has taken post position away from the New England Pilgrims and Puritans, but the battle of magic and illusion v. reason and critical thinking is still going strong

Our latest playground for Jefferson’s and Franklin’s struggles against the legacy of John Winthrop and the Black Hats is non-traditional marriage, in which Evangelicals and fundamentalists are embarrassing and entertaining us.

Even Louisiana’s Jester-in-chief, Governor and presidential hustler Jindal has weighed in.

Jindal had figured out (by copying Texas, Indiana and a few other Jurassic states) that the Supreme Court would have trouble meddling with Deeply Felt Convictions if you can hook them to faith and religious freedom. Deeply Felt Convictions like generosity, equality, fairness, humanity – they don’t cut it in the religion space. Work God into the sentence – yep, your freedom is restored.

Jindal had put in a bill for his Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Legislature sensibly binned it, but Jindal’s sincerely converted soul couldn’t live with that. He needs street cred with The Base for the Primary, and for all I know, maybe he is medieval enough to believe himself, so he puts it out as an Executive Order. The City of New Orleans hits the roof. Discrimination and segregation are not currently in the city’s political agenda. People – customers! – see these religious conscience laws Republican governors are backing as discriminatory. Companies and organizations don’t want to risk embarrassment or appear to support discrimination. We will lose conventions, tourists and movie production companies. So Mayor Mitch issues an Equality Restoration order.

Now the ACLU is suing Jindal, and in the same week as Louisiana’s first same-sex divorce.

Are we having fun yet?

Brother Jindal is quick to tell us that he anticipated – such a smart Republican cookie he is – the Supreme Court decision that states can’t ban or interfere with same sex marriage.

In these Onward Christian Soldiers states, God and the Feds are duking it out. All sorts of people want to marry each other, and almost all the rest of us concluded: okay They’re not hurting anybody. But our Bible Belters and Megachurchers tell us they are offending God. Maybe that should stop the whole thing because God is Really Big and Important. The God of the Prairie is a strong, silent, invisible type, with very noisy representatives on Earth. The Pastorate. Through prayer and listening to sermons, the Faithful can tell when He has had just about enough..

As I sit here scribbling, the text of the latest Religious Freedom Restoration Executive Order, by Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas, is coming down the internet pike. Same stuff: if the marrying couple don’t fit the old mold and the Good Book, well, by Gum, we don’t have to play. It seems to cover private businesses as well as state and civic employees.

Be careful. Kansas is the spiritual home of the Wizard of Oz, the physical home of Dodge City, and Thomas Frank’s paradigm study in What’s the Matter with Kansas? on how the right wing gets people to vote against their own interests.

Could we assemble the various and contradictory sets of orders, acts and judicial decisions under a legislative umbrella called the Free For All Act? Everybody is free to marry everybody else. I am thinking of proposing to a lovely oak tree in City Park, but I know I might be tempted into infidelity by a brushed gold iPhone that I know would come to love me in time.

Defending God, Christians (it seems to be only Christians so far, at least in America, but others may dive in) in Republican states are free (so far) to fold their arms and sulk it out. In their usual way, they spin their intention to continue discrimination against some people into an attack on poor them.

(Wait a minute: I almost forgot the Jewish black hat lunatic who keeps stabbing people at gay pride rallies in Jerusalem. Go international and include the Taliban, the murderous armies defending poor God from offense are diversifying.)

In the liberal PC states like Oregon, Washington and New Mexico, choose your freedom carefully if you are a very small service business. Their blue state flavor of freedom may fine and sue you into bankruptcy. With the best intentions, of course.

The Religion in your Marriage May Not Be Your Own

Jindalism says when you go for a marriage license, if the clerk does not find that the person you are marrying fits into his or her Deeply Felt slot, he or she can refuse to issue the license. The ACLU, on the other hand, apparently in cahoots with the Supreme Court if not the Devil, thinks city and state clerks should do the jobs they were hired for: stamp the stamps and push the paper, not tell the customers who they shouldn’t marry.

I think I am coming down on the side of Jindalism. The ACLU is too serious. “Reality-based,” in the Bush era terminology. Jindal’s way lets the dogs out. More fun.

One sunny day, Jim and John take a nice walk to Benson Tower, where marriage licenses come from.

Matilda, the nice woman with the tattoos and sunny smile who usually runs the license desk, is off today. Substituting is Olive, bony and beetle browed, recently moved to Gentilly because her husband joined NOPD from the Shreveport Sheriff’s Office.

She looks at the forms and documents.

“I am sorry, gentlemen,” she pipes out of pursed lips. “Issuing this would conflict with my Deeply Felt Beliefs. You will have to go somewhere else.”

“What? Where?” say the shocked, embarrassed couple, thinking, perhaps there is a special Supreme Court room.

“I don’t know. Try New York,” snarls dear Olive, from the depths of her deeply felt beliefs and the compassion of her Elmer Gantry Christianity.

I’m thinking this cuts a few ways. I telepath this into Jim and John’s brains, so they go back in a week, and yes – Matilda has returned. They tell her what happened.

Matilda’s deeply felt religious convictions come from a cocktail of Buddhism and Burning Man. But we don’t have a state religion. I don’t think even Deacon Jindal could twist the Constitution that far. We have to treat all superstitions equally. (The Federal Religious Freedom Act, the basis for the Gov’s order, was to protect some Indians in the Northwest fired for using peyote in traditional rituals.) Matilda is incensed. She gives Jim and John their license and waits fuming for the next victim.

There they are. Smiling blonde faces with a few freckles. A white shirt. “Do you have a Church affiliation?” asks Matilda sweetly.

“Why yes,” says young Herbert. “Thank you for asking. We belong to the Second Southern Prairie Baptist Evngelical Church.”

“Why, I bet you guys are born-agains,” says Matilda, even more brightly.

“Yep, Sure are,” says Herbert, with an even broader smile.

The smile clouds over. “Then I can’t issue a license. It would offend my Deeply Felt Convictions.”

“What? What are you talking about. This is the license office. We came for a license. Here are the documents. Do it. We ARE the Christians!”

“Sorry, kids, Governor Jindal said I don’t have to. You know, last week when I was off a day, a couple of nice guys came in. One of your buddies, a skinny religious woman who works here, said same-sex conflicted with her obsessions, so she wouldn’t do it. Right here, at my desk, she turned an applicant down! So I examined my conscience, and I prayed and meditated and smoked about it. And what do you think I found out?”

“What?”

“That supplying licenses to Elmer Gantry Christians who think they know how their misery-guts of a God feels if people play their love in a way their preacher says he doesn’t like – that offends my religious convictions, and also pisses me deeply off and offends some other convictions as well. In fact, anybody who thinks God is against nature instead of part of it pricks my Deeply Felt Convictions. So go somewhere else.”

“Where?”

“Try Shreveport.”

Out there in the Belief Belt . . . .

. . . the Faithful fight off history’s and reality’s challenge to the bible.

Several clerks in towns in Oklahoma and other locales of the Prairie persuasion have stopped issuing marriage licenses and doing weddings. They are testing the legality of discrimination against everybody instead of just some people. Most in the news is probably Kim Davis of Rowan County, Kentucky, but another one, Casey Davis, who might be on day release from a zombie movie, has been catching up fast. Davis’s response to the SCOTUS decision that offended her Deeply Felts: she won’t issue licenses to anybody. She and Casey will hold on to the job of marriage license clerk, but not issue any. The Bible Union is on strike in Kentucky.

Check if I have this right: marriage is a “sacrament” in religion. Under rules of separation of church and state, civil marriage is a contract not a sacrament. None of the marriage “equality” rulings as far as I know compels churches or clergy to perform same-sex weddings. So aren’t the recalcitrant clerks mixing apples with some other serpent’s fruit?

They probably don’t think so. Dominionists control a few thousand Christian radio stations, some TV networks and plenty of bully pulpits. Their ideas infect the Evangelical primitivism that retards this country.

They recognize no distinction between religion and politics. They sell a theocratic program. Under the Dominion, the country will be run by heterosexual white males. Civil rights and all that claptrap will be revoked. Women will stay home and mind the children and the kitchen.

Their reference is the Institutes of Biblical Law written by R. J. Rushdoony in 1973. In the Rushdoony era, the death penalty will be extended to include blasphemy, homosexuality, striking a parent, and for women, “unchastity before marriage.” Anything sound familiar there?

Dominionist Christianity will go on about persecution of Christians for their beliefs and Faith. We are to tolerate the intolerant. We restrict their freedom when we do not support their restriction of the freedom of others. Do they hate us for our freedoms?

I suspect we – liberals, progressives, socialists, secularists, realists, civilization, whatever – are fuel for the bonfire to come. What the Dominion needs to get ready for is the image they see in the mirror: Jihadist Islam. Political Islam fits the bill of The Enemy.

Listen to Anjem Choudhary, readily findable on YouTube, tell you about how life will be under Sharia when Islam takes over. Dominionist Christian fundamentalism is the same story with quotes from a different book. In the manic idiot W. presidency, he got away with channeling a few billion a year to religious groups with his “faith-based initiatives” violation of the Constitution. The Bush-Cheney-Neocon “faith-based” trick, which has continued with a change of emphasis on the beneficiaries under Obama, helps fund Amurrika’s home-grown Prairie Taliban.

Let’s indulge a theory for a couple of sentences. It may sound like conspiracy, but it would really be fairly standard American information management.

What if the Iraq invasion that overthrew a cruel but secular government, then stirred up sectarian wars, social chaos and mass slaughter in and around the country, was not only the result of clumsiness and ignorance, but instigated by smart, crazy Dominionists to generate just the result we are seeing? The government and the common-or-garden Evangelicals would not have to know where some of the motivation was coming from; information management is subtler than that. As a by-product of unleashing the medieval in the Middle East, they gave the US government the terrorism pretext for domestic surveillance and suppression, perpetual war and drone terrorism. It would explain why there was no serious post-invasion occupation plan. Think about it to kill some time in the TSA line at the airport.

Are the Dominion-driven fundamentalists that clever? Hope not, but maybe.

Evangelical mythology is baffling, but I think I can understand the history of Christianity, which does not even support the claim that marriage is a sacrament or a matter for clergy or God  in a way that will satisfy biblical originalists. In early Christianity, marriage was administered by the Roman Empire. Even after Constantine, the Empire’s civil service still managed marriage, which was a legal contract to establish legitimacy for inheritance. The Church picked up its administration as the Western Empire declined, and the monasteries and priests took over recording functions. There is no claim of a divine relevance of marriage until the 12th century, and it was not entered into the list of sacraments until the 13th. Aquinas formalizes the statement that marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman for the purpose of procreation. One of the results was increased power of the Roman Catholic Church, not the favorite folks of the Evangelical heirs of Calvin and Luther.

If they duck around this by diving back into the Old Testament, they have to deal with Abraham’s complex little harem, Jacob’s marriage to two sisters, and Solomon’s 700 wives and 300 concubines.

Is this a convenient place to plant a flag? I don’t think much of most religion I see around us. I try to stay free of fantasy and fairy tale. Magic is not the most sound kind of belief system we have now. I think intelligent people should let it go. Faith is a desperation zone of people selecting facts to support myths, wishes, fears and certainty; scientific thinking discards or modifies theories to fit facts. That is better.

(We have to come to terms with the great artifacts, though: Gothic Cathedrals, Renaissance Italian art, Bach and Spirit in the Sky.)

But there is something wrong with punishing apparently well-meaning fundamentalists like Stutzman, or the somewhat more brimstone Kleins, or the primitives like Casey. Yes, they are the cannon fodder of theocratic Dominionists and the televangelist con men, who steal fortunes recruiting for Christian Jihad. They are not on the side of civilization.

But in the periods when we were manipulated by the Neoconservatives, in much of the Reagan era, Bush II and part of Clinton, the Christian Right was encouraged and even financed by the government. The Neocons’ philosopher, Leo Strauss, cynically taught that Americans need fantasy. It did not have to be true, just effective. Some of Born-again Bush’s Faith-based Initiatives are still being funded by the government, and some of the money gets into pro-theocracy hands. Televangelists and megachurch demagogues tell their listeners that separation of Church and State is false, that they must inject their “personal” religious beliefs into politics. Convicted felons may not own a gun or have an ABO license, but convicted fraud Jim Bakker is back on TV, proudly broadcasting from the Ozarks, telling people what he and God discussed last night and soliciting contributions for snake oil. Freedom of religion allows it and Republican politicians support it. It is hypocritical to turn on them suddenly when they are really doing what has been approved by their party and their pastor for forty years.

Meanwhile, back in Kentucky . . .

. . . four couples and the ACLU are suing Kim Davis. But is that really the best way?

There are two sectors in this struggle of Light and Darkness, private and public. Private is the cakes and flowers; public is the marriage licenses.

Within the private sector, there are two divisions. Big businesses with expensive legal teams are one part – they get away with it. In the blue states, small businesses with marginal finances don’t. They get slapped with private lawsuits and state fines, and serve as poster kids for the Dominion. Seems you need deep pockets as well as a Deeply Felt Conviction out there in Sodom where law trumps faith.

But first . . . .

Is the Confederate Flag a Deeply Felt Conviction?

Did you notice that the Walmart in Slidell made an ISIS flag cake for a guy ? He caught the supermarket in a cute trap. The customer had first ordered a Confederate flag cake saying “Heritage not Hate.” Since that heritage includes one of the world’s all-time nastiest expressions of racism, the terms are not exclusive.

Walmart refused the Confederate flag order. In the anti-Confederate wave after the Charlotte murdr spree, Walmart corporate had issued an order to ditch the battle flag stuff. But management hadn’t mentioned ISIS, so either the employee didn’t recognize the black flag, or possibly in the absence of a specific instruction, saw the opportunity for some fun and headlines.

Catching Walmart out accepting ISIS but not the neo-confederacy is a bit of fun, but what I want to know is: how come it is okay for Walmart to refuse an order for a cake, but it wasn’t okay for for Melissa Klein?

Or for Baronelle Stutzman to refuse an order for flower arrangements for a same-sex wedding? Or Elane’s to refuse a photography gig?

Confederate flags and memorabilia look bad to most of us, protective cover for white supremacy and racism. But that does not explain why there will be no serious challenge to Walmart’s right to refuse the order, but the states of Washington, Oregon and New Mexico can dump some tons of bricks on the Christians.

Why was Ms Stutzman’s deeply held conviction against participating in a same-sex wedding called discriminatory, but Walmart’s unconvincing week-old decision against Confederate stuff allowed it to decline specific orders for Confederate cakes? The Confederacy fetish is not a pretty sight, and has a lot of blood on its hands; but Christian fundamentalism, including the American brands of it, has provided cover for a lot of bad cess, too. The tide has turned against Confederate stuff, but that doesn’t tell us why Walmart will glide by and Ms Stutzman is out of business. (Out of the flower business, anyway. She seems to be in the Christian Freedom business now.)

The PC hammer came down on Aaron and Melissa Klein who used to make cakes in Oregon, but their deeply held convictions told them that if their cake was used in the wrong kind of civic imitation of the magi”cal sacrament ceremony, God would be offended.

In New Mexico, a photographer refused to photograph a lesbian couple. It offended her religious beliefs. The New Mexico Supreme Court said the photographer was guilty of discrimination. The US Supreme Court declined review, so the ruling stands. Of course, there were other photographers in Albuquerque.

What exactly is freedom of opinion, speech and conscience? Only for the causes that either sneak under the radar or are currently fashionable?

Remember the Hobby Lobby decision? This relatively large retailer was allowed to trim contraception out of its employee health care plan for hundreds or thousands of employees, because of the shareholders’ – one pious Christian family’s – Deeply Felt beliefs. Based on the notion of religious “freedom” this employer is allowed to tune its company health plan not to the needs of the beneficiaries, but the superstitions of the owners.

The Hobby Lobby decision was for closely held corporations. Walmart does not qualify, but Melissa’s Sweet Cakes, Arlene’s Flowers and Elane’s Studio do.

For the avoidance of doubt – I am not having a lapse and sharing or supporting the religious beliefs of people who claim nature is against God and God makes laws against nature. I think the beliefs these Evangelicals tell us they have to uphold at all costs are delusional and destructive. I would like to see them just go away. They are trying to sell us the God of the Bible, a judgmental storm lord now fronted by a benign Jesus. They ruin the Bible by telling people, even little kids, that they have not just to understand it, but believe in it.

They tell us the all-powerful God of the Prairie oversees the creation of each one of us but doesn’t like LGBT activity. Instead of all-powerfully sorting it out, he commands the Flock to humiliate and isolate others about it, or as it used to be (and still would if it were up to most of them), get them judged and imprisoned or executed.

To be fair, some of them have worked out ways to try to be kind. Mrs Stutzman seems a nice lady. She was fine with her gay customers, just not the marriage ceremony. You have to draw the line!

Hobby Lobby and Walmart can refuse to do things because of religious or civic conviction, in one case to a single customer who wants a KKK cake, the other to the detriment and disrespect of possibly thousands of its own employees, and they win or walk. Walmart’s cake trap hasn’t been challenged yet, but it wouldn’t be worth it. The cause is too unpopular, the defendant too tough.

But florist Baronelle, confectioner Melissa and photographer Elane get fined and put out of business for small instances of pretty much the same thing, religious crankery.

Is Politically Correct persecution as applied in Richland, Washington and Portland Oregon that much better than the deadly oppression directed at Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing? Well, maybe. But not enough.

The common denominators are: Walmart and Hobby Lobby are big and rich; Baronelle, Melissa and Elane are not. No matter how PC the prosecutor, somebody in the chain of command will be awake enough to think twice before they take on a tough corporation’s combat wing. So this being the land of the free and the home of the brave, all men created equal, deeply felt religious convictions need the usual backup. Money. Lawyers. Politicians. Judges.

I suggest the confectioners and flower arrangers are sacrifices to the Dominion. They justify the persecution that the religious proclaim when their freedom to restrict that of others is limited.

(An interesting example to watch is a guy called Ryan T. Anderson, the Heritage Foundation’s anti-marriage expansion spokesman. Some of his stuff is just anti-LGBT marriage stuff rubbing up against homophobic, progressing to criticism of the court decision, explanation of how it oppresses and damages straight marriage, and now and sometimes a fallback position about the persecution of the Faithful for following their conscience. I think: now he is getting somewhere. He is recognizing that people should be allowed to follow their conscience. He just has to include more people.)

 

Let’s Have a Backlash

LGBT bakers, caterers, florists and photographers: search your souls. If you look carefully, some of you will find convictions so deep you had not noticed them before. They may tell you it would be against the will of Ashteroth or Isis or Osiris that the mean-spirited and the exclusionists, the them-v-us people, the dividers and tribalists, the racists and the righteous, expect and get services too easily from those whom they insult and humiliate.

So turn them down. Don’t make their cakes. They are adherents of cults and thought systems that offend your Deeply Felt Convictions. Don’t complain and sue and get PC governments to put them out of business. That kind of triumphalism is not a thing to be proud of. Refuse their orders. Send them to find Bible Belt caterers and photographers.

Why not? Prairie Christianity isn’t the only religion available. Pretty soon, the Evangelicals won’t be making cakes for the Catholics and the Catholics will shut the window on the Presbyterians. Pentecostals will turn down Hindus, and Muslims will blow up your cake. Parsis are suing Snoop Dogg http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/08/snoop-dogg-zoroastrian_n_7745666.html – just follow the trend.

A hardware store owner in Tennessee put a sign in his window saying “No Gays Allowed.” It has now been re-written, probably by a lawyer. “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone who would violate our rights of freedom of speech & freedom of religion.” Being gay while in need of a screwdriver does not violate anyone’s rights, even deep in redneck country. Journalists say that Tennessee not only offers no anti-discrimination protection – they passed a state law prohibiting the towns from passing anti-discrimination laws. Ah, that Confederate flag – starting to miss it already.

Is this really religion?

Mr Jeff Amyx, the hardware store owner, is also a Baptist minister.

Let it all descend to the level of absurdity that the various streams of rules lead to. Then maybe somebody will wake up.

Pastor Jindal from the Great State of Louisiana – he says it’s okay. Yeah, he wanted the Christians to do it to you, not the other way ‘round, but hey, remember who let the dogs out.

Get Your Beliefs on the Books.

Megachurchers take cover under an armored umbrella of religion while LGBT people shelter behind court decisions and municipal anti-discrimination acts blunting some of the teeth of the Religious Freedom Restoration acts. I am going to give them a suggestion. It is arrogant of me. I apologize. But I am going to do it anyway.

Agree on a Sincere Belief. It has to be unbelievable. The Constitution is not going to stamp your Faith Card for E=MC2 or critical thinking or astrophysics. Falsifiability would make it Science, not Faith. Sorry, no privileges for reality.

You need some supernatural beliefs that make no sense. Test to make sure that no sensible person would accept them. Test here in New Orleans; the proportion of sensible people is not overwhelming.

Egyptian mythology could be a source. A careful reading of Harry Potter might help. If you incorporate your new church, consider a state like Tennessee, where God has approved persecution. Just get on the trigger side of the laws.

Consider following how Scientology did it. In the beginning, the future Church of Scientology was a self-help racket called Dianetics. You paid for assessments with Space Cadet-looking gadgets and gauges, courses and quasi-practical secrets. Then the managers spotted that you can be tax-free and sheltered from government oversight if you are a Church. Churches require Beliefs. L. Ron Hubbard, their founder, had been a very prolific Sci Fi writer and was pretty much off his rocker by then, so just the thing. He came up with Thetans who lived 75 million years ago in Ozzie and Harriet towns having adventures with other fantastical creatures. They set them up as levels of mystery that you had to pay to get access to. Et voilà – deeply held beliefs that must be respected, tax free and Jindal-shielded from the State.

Jindal Interview

I just saw The Bobby on a TV interview. Fact-free, as might be expected, he reaffirmed his Christian faith that marriage is between one man and one woman by God’s law, and that no one and no court, no law, no state can change that, and he is not going to “evolve.” He is not going to win, either, but if he does, he is going to sponsor a Constitutional amendment to confirm his religious belief as law of the land.

So President Jindal is going to tell all the religions present and future what God wants.

First words of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . .” So Jindal’s fantasy amendment is going to contradict the opening ten words of our Bill of Rights. Not expand or improve it, but negate it.

He said his Executive Order means that no one in Louisiana will be prosecuted or charged by the State for following their beliefs. So find or create something sufficiently irrational, neither confirmable nor falsifiable, and you are a protected species. Flash your church badge in Jindal country and you outrank the Supreme Court.

Brother Jindal says they need to get a proper Republican in the White House to appoint proper Republican Justices to the Supreme Court so they will make decisions according to the Constitution, not opinion polls. Like his work on the first ten words.

Also, if we do not get back to core American values, he says (where have we heard that before?) instead of the American paradise we have been living in, we will drift into European hell, like Greece and Puerto Rico. How did Puerto Rico get into Europe? It is in debt trouble, like Greece, but the fact that Puerto Rico is American would suggest that being on the wrong side of excessive borrowing when you do not control your currency is not exclusive to Europe. Detroit and PR might suggest that there are non-EU routes to debt overload.

European hell? Brother Bobby ought to get out more. This is not the time to explore the EU, but if you check out ratings of quality of life, healthcare, education and any others, maybe compare the European Bill of Rights to Madison’s classic, and give a bit of thought to the unique experiment that the EU is, a trans-national, non-territorial political entity committed to advancing the common interests of member countries and peoples, and look at the EU’s commitments and actions on renewables, healthy air and water, climate change, biodiversity, GMO, food labelling – you will see that the ol’ USA needs to pull some wool off its own eyes.

Not Jindal’s, though. He said he is not evolving. Even Darwin can’t help him any more.

Bob Freilich / July 2015

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