Everybody interested must know at least the outlines of the Cafe Istanbul ABO hearing last Tuesday. Deferred to November 17th pending a “deal.”
It turned into a seeing instead of a hearing. We came in, milled about, said hello to friends and allies, craned our necks to see who was in the chamber, took our seats, waited for the director to say “action.” He never did.
“We are on the cusp of an arrangement which will satisfy everybody,” says Dan McNamara, the shadowy Inquisitor of the ABOs. What was really happening? Facts are sparse. I am going to have to bring some imagination to connecting these dots.
Dozens of people showed up in support of Istanbul, meaning, ipso facto, against Faubourg Marigny “Improvement” Association, the Iago villain of the piece, and the Dark Lord of city government villains, Dan McNamara, ABO “staff,” or prosecutor, whose duties include making sure that no convicted felon can make a living in the bar or restaurant business, and since he can’t get a regular job, he has to sell some crack to survive. Good choices, Louisiana. When tyrannical puritans were less PC, we would have just said Inquisitor. I had solid previous indications that McNamara was acting in alliance with and advising FMIA in a way that would have been way outside of acceptable for any other Assistant City Attorney. Does McNamara’s different title, Deputy City Attorney, and the fact that he is said to be a direct mayoral appointee, mean that he has his own rule book? I think so.
The support crowd included Ethan Ellestad, Exec Direc of MaCCNO, the music and entertainment support group, who was scheduled to be a sworn witness. Prez Kabacoff, who owns the Healing Center where Istanbul is located, and lots of other buildings (see Treme for some of the details) was there for the defense. Jason Williams, President of City Council, was in the chamber, in support of Istanbul’s cause. If he did not know her before, McNamara would have quickly picked up that Istanbul’s lawyer was not just a lease-proofreading pushover who had had six minutes to learn the case.
A lot of people in the city government, both elected and appointed, like Cafe Istanbul. Had any of them had a quiet word with one of the commissioners? Nothing overt, of course. A discreet brandy in the club one evening . . . .
Probably not. Brandy is not that popular here. Maybe a sipping glass of Blanton’s.
Or which one of them will be next Mayor, when Landrieu terms out? Do you really want to piss off Jason Williams? Especially for no benefit, when the other team comes up bogus?
Commissioner Robert Jenkins said he would take the case in hand to make sure there was a satisfactory arrangement. That probably makes him Tessio at the funeral scene.
I checked around with people who would have to know what the deal was, because they would be in the deal.
“What’s the deal?” I asked subtly.
“I don’t know. Haven’t made any.”
Sounds like a hell of a deal.
When I start connecting dots here, don’t get too cynical. My reconstruction is no more fictional than McNamara’s “deal.”
I think our Alcohol Inquisitor took a look at the support crowd, and another at the questionable little clump of accusers, neighborhood cranks who had burnt out any credibility they may once have had.
“I’m in the wrong battle here. Let’s smother this quietly.” That is the English translation. McNamara’s inner reflections are probably in Sith.
Wandering out onto the plaza in front of City Hall, what did I see but Lisa Suarez herself, president of FMIA and principal wooden spoon of this mess, looking quite chirpy. She flashed me a meaningful grin. I read two messages into it: one, that she recognized who I was, had my number, and would get my ass one of these days. And two, she was okay with her day’s work. She had kicked the hornet’s nest, had plucky little Lisa. She had not formally lost. She could pretend that she had not been kicked way out into the tall grass. She had directed a drama. People had taken off from work or whatever they wanted to do to come to the Chamber for her dramatic scene. She imagined people would see her as a formidable gadfly, a spunky watchdog, not just a pain in the butt. Co-conspirators came over for whispered confabs with other of the Maronite cabal. Were they kissing each other’s rings, or did I imagine that?
Reading expressions through my crystal ball, I saw overage teenage schoolyard bullies, silly and cruel, smug in their bit of fun. Maybe they are trying to sell Coppola a new series, The Godmothers.
She may have to sell the result to FMIA, but they have clucked along behind her shenanigans so far, except for the few who became embarrassed and resigned the board or quit the club.
She would do best to agree any deal and avoid the full hearing. It would come out that FMIA never managed its side of the misbegotten Good Neighbor Agreement or CBA (Community Benefit Agreement) that the residents’ club is the other party to. The city used to like to push these dozy agreements to get the city out of basic responsibilities it was failing to handle. Council would deputize a “neighborhood association” to be the other side of a contract with a bar or nightclub, like a hall monitor to make sure the bar behaved like a good little fellow.
These arrangements should all be binned. A lot of our neighborhood associations are no such thing. They are private advocacy groups who sometimes get themselves a 501(c)3 tax status, and think that makes them a local office of the FBI. Sooner or later, somebody with a put-down agenda and twisted conscience,
Dress’d in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d –
gets their hands on the wheel, and all pretense of neighborhood democracy is gone. You have the intentions, intelligence and cartoon shotgun of Elmer Fudd, with a little bit of the craftiness of Bugs Bunny. When you see the officers of FMIA in a huddle, think Looney Tunes.
The CBA between FMIA and Istanbul said that in case of a problem, the responsible person in FMIA was to have meetings with Istanbul’s management to try to sort it out. If after strenuous endeavors they could not come to a satisfactory result, both parties were to submit to arbitration, which the neighborhood club was to arrange.
FMIA arranged nothing that you could seriously call a meeting. Not even one, let alone a series. And no proposal of arbitration, of course. My guess – all speculation of course, and isn’t our Little Caesar of Marigny just such an honorable man? – the present “officers” of FMIA did not know how to conduct a meeting with people they could not pull into their little self-referential world. Successful negotiation demands seeking rapport with some skill, not confrontation, friction and victory or retreat. I suggest that Ms Suarez, this year’s brief authority, is reflexively pugnacious, unimaginative and ineffective in this arena. Chuck Perkins and Soleyman Aydin are outside of her comfort zone. That little part inside of us that we don’t admit to was afraid.
The complaints are not about the shows or what happens inside the gaff. Neighbors complain about the audience going back to their cars after shows, or waiting for them to start, not things that can be directly controlled. The complainers were a ramshackle few who had managed their communication with the company no better than FMIA had.,
So what could Ms Lisa do? She had been lashing out and criticizing Cafe Istanbul in her newsletters for over a year, without reaching out appropriately to develop a relationship based on the CBA. If she was personally timorous, she could have delegated the task, but that doesn’t seem to have happened. I think she needed to show a tough front; if her witnesses would not be convincing, but she wanted to land the big fish – cut to the last paragraph of the CBA, the shotgun option, which says in scintillating prose:
Notwithstanding paragraphs 1 and 2 above, if there are five (5) or more documented violations of paragraphs 5, 7, 11 or 12 . . . within any 90 day period the requirement for arbitration . . . shall be waived and the FMIA shall be authorized to immediately pursue any remedy available under law . . . .
I suggest to you, members of my imaginary jury, that the FMIA cabal set out intentionally to create a dossier of five (5) documented violations, so they could get on stage with the ABO board or a lawsuit or some bit of drama in which Miz Lisa could stand in a spotlight, without ever having to make eye contact with Chuck Perkins or Soleyman Aydin.
Crafty, these residentialist champions of the Silent Night, aren’t they? Like Elmer Fudd working his carrot patch..
The investigating hero was director Matt del Vecchio. He had to stretch things a bit, like using Mardi Gras photos even though Mardi Gras is an exception to everything, and other meaningless stuff.
It must be just chance, don’t you think? None of the old personal or even systemic, you know what I mean? Oh, dear us, no. But somehow, don’t know how it could happen: every face in his pictures of violation is Black and every complainer is White. That is not characteristic of Cafe Istanbul, the most eclectic venue in town. Just bad luck, I guess. I was there for the Spotlight show last week. The audience was about 90 per cent White, despite the fact that a featured guest was Little Freddie King, a celebrated blues man. My guess: that is probably the majority of Istanbul audiences.
One of the complainers told me that noise or decibels have no color. That is, of course, BS. This is not the place for too much sociology, but we all know that the sickening history of slavery, segregation and white supremacy preserved and generated separate cultures, still very noticeable in some dialects and in musical and celebratory cultures. They sound different. They hit cruise at different volumes. And before one of you mental wizards decides to call me racist, I live in a mixed pre-gentrification neighborhood with every kind of music and every kind of laughter and some kinds of crying, and I like ’em all.
So my hypothesis is, FMIA’s “evidence” is actually evidence of irresponsible behavior, showing beyond a shadow that the current FMIA residentialist club was incapable of managing the procedures the organization of that name had agreed to. The reason I say it like that is – they change. FMIA under Lisa Suarez, making coalitions, chasing her obsessions, especially the Size Matters aberration, launching doomed attacks and lawsuits, declaring passionate hatreds and vendettas – is nothing like the more serious group it was under some previous presidents.
Consider the environment. Marigny is post-gentrification White Space. The solid citizens are not racist, oh no, heaven forbid. They would welcome African American members, if they could find any. They would have no problem relating to their Black members, one on one. But they have lost their group memory of Black laughter, of Black groups walking and talking on their muffled night streets. They don’t become interested or curious; they become afraid. But few like to say they are afraid, so they tell each other and us that they have been awakened, they are angry, their Quality of Life has been afflicted. I hear: their space has been invaded. They are afraid of the culture of the majority of New Orleans.
Most bars, clubs, restaurants and theaters in the U.S. are businesses, operating in the capitalist sector of our economy. They need stability. Residential clubs, “neighborhood associations,” are easy prey for the socially ambitious of a certain caste. All the CBAs should be revoked, so the entertainment businesses can work to the rule of law, like other businesses. City Council is probably not a suitable agreement partner either. District C has steady hands on the wheel now, this term – Nadine Ramsey and her capable team. In the last council, the Clarkson comedy show, C’s member was Kristin Palmer – an interesting character, but she collaborated with and advised the residentialist groups, showed bias openly toward VCPORA in Council. And people still roll their eyes at the browbeating, barking, threatening arrogance of her assistant Nicole Webre. Just a few thousand votes the wrong way, and District C might have been afflicted with four years of Jackie Clarkson.
I don’t know what Café Istanbul’s lawyer was going to do, but I would bet a cheap kebab that it included embarrassing the accusers for intention to commit injustice, bumbling foolishness, ignoring procedure, and causing acute embarrassment for Procurator McNamara by fooling him into allying himself with a clump of tinpots.
If they wanted my advice, which they don’t, I would say: City Attorney McNamara and Alcohol Control Commissioner Robert Jenkins should put together any anodyne formula of words that brings the Istanbul case to a quiet close. McNamara should be more careful who he partners with in his persecutions. Probably vain to wish that he would restrain the crippling punishments he lays on the vulnerable, which put people out of work and disproportionately victimize African American owned businesses. But you never know – maybe one fine day some old fashioned stuff like compassion will sneak up on him, and he will get it..
FMIA might want to withdraw for a bit to lick wounds, re-set priorities, drop ridiculous lawsuits and change officers.
Café Istanbul should annul its agreement with the trouble-stirring club that attacked it within 15 seconds of the end of this case.
In case you wonder: why does NOLAscape care? The residential groups are only people who really should get a life, coming together for group tsk tsk sessions., aren’t they? Some are not. They have morphed, like a wayward restaurant.
Part of it is just primate zoology.
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d—
His glassy essence—like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.
But an important part is that our attempt to contribute to supporting people who are trying to create something, whether it is writing a song, painting a picture, building apartments on the riverside, opening a new bar or restaurant, from the smallest to the biggest, is to keep the magnifying glass and a dose of mockery on the people and groups that put down, obstruct and denigrate, especially when the message is built on lies or imaginary history, delivered in the pompous manner of entitlement. That puts us on the case of the people-like-us tribalism, the NIMBY reflex, the stultifying pressure to conform. Some of our former neighborhood associations have morphed into anti-democratic obsessive advocates for narrow causes. We like to help them toward the banana peel, then keep them down.
Next on New Orleans’ residentialist plague: Let’s Revisit VCPORA/FQC. Our purpose will be: kick them while they are down, and the piranhas attacking Via Latrobe expand into violating the environment as well as the future. But first we have to look at another school of piranha fish, Neighbors First for Bywater and the civic and environmental damage it is trying to do.
Bob Freilich October 2015