In Which the Knives Come Out . . . .

In which the Neighborhood Knives Come Out
And we begin to wonder
What Job Does City Planning Think it is Doing?

The kind of New Orleans fans who populate many of our neighborhood associations say they revere the city’s architectural difference and legacy. On a good day, I even believe them. They see character and quality that differentiate New Orleans from Anglo America and even from other Caribbean influenced Gulf cities.

Now their conservative preservationist impulses to stop and hesitate are turning the city’s new growth into a set of boring boxes. Not even gleaming, mirrored, tall boxes like New York. Certainly not contrasts, flamboyant ideas and surprising shapes like London, or the impossible swoops and curves of Zaha Hadid. Flat faced, boring boxes with regularly spaced windows that meet the codes and dull the mind. Still fearful of change, despite lamentable results, they stand by the codes that produced them, waving them like verbal banners in City Planning and Council meetings. Contrary to reason, like working class Republicans standing up for the political and economic structure that has been ruining them for 40 years, or the Orwellian cult-speak of the NRA. Like them, the well-meaning and the not-so-well-meaning are turning the city’s new construction into a landscape “weary, stale, flat . . . “ but whether unprofitable remains to be seen.

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What a process.

Unfolding in the modest Council Chamber of the Perdido Palace, with its worn upholstery in an unnamed color that seems to be a concentration of the pale greenish tone of the blocky building’s exterior. A paint company might call it Intense Mildew. None of the walnut or mahogany paneling of some of the grand city halls – gray painted walls, a simple functional dais where Council Members or Commissioners sit above the crowd, a lower desk in sumptuous plywood, somewhere between the people and Kafka-sequel potential. Perhaps a touch of the Soviet, offsetting the ornamental styles of the 19th century city.

Newspapers and chat sites have been following the plot: a developer wants to build a hotel/hostel on a vacant lot about 50,000 square feet bordered by Chartres, Mazant and Royal near the eastern or canal side of Bywater. It will have lodging rooms, a restaurant, a bar, two outdoor patios, one with a pool. Parking, driveways, rubbish collecting space – all the usual things that go with a business providing lodgings, food and drink.

Never a space of elegance, the site used to be a seafood processor. It has been vacant but for weeds and cracking concrete pads for 11 years.

I should get on record as neutral in the land use battle. Unlike our two city dailies, NOLAscape doesn’t confuse neutral with objective, and cheerfully goes editorial or polemical when they are the right ways to go.

Bywater has two neighborhood associations. In this fiesta brava, as usual, one is supporting, one opposing. As usual, supporting is the Bywater Neighborhood Association, BNA, and as usual, opposing is Neighbors First for Bywater, NFB. Their conflict is one of our storylines.

I don’t care about the use, the opposing neighbors care about nothing else, and BNA supporting thinks almost any legal use is better than an ugly weed patch.

The hostel/hotel would have some services likely to be patronized by locals – a laundromat, a bar, a pool, a restaurant – but its revenue would depend on a transient population of predominantly young Americans and internationals and hotel activities like eating, drinking, swimming, some music. Ho hum. For the opposing neighbors, noise and splashing and young visitors milling about would end life as we know it. All surrounding houses would become uninhabitable by respectable middle-class residents. They would move away and turn their houses into AirBnB hostels, and the game would be over. A city abandoned.

For BNA, the hotel/hostel would bring people, services, commerce and jobs, which Bywater needs to transition from a depopulated suburb to an active, walkable, mixed use, lively neighborhood of the resuscitated city.

Both are convinced that the other’s point of view violates the Master Plan, if not the Will of God. (That’s why the Master Plan needs starting over.)

Its negative side for me is that from what we can see so far, like every proposal in the area except Latrobe and Elisio Lofts five years ago, it is architecturally boring. Another tedious block of uncreative design on or near the downriver front. The developer, Ted Kelso, seems at great pains to offend no one, challenge nothing (although the result of his willing compliance with almost every suggestion is that a good chunk of the neighborhood has gone pitchforky over it) so his plans stay within every limit of the CZO except floor space, which puts it into the conditional use channel. The end product, as with almost any commercial product of its dishwater dull prescriptions, is a 55 foot high box. The design is still at conceptual stage, but if Kelso can’t, as we will see, work the CPC when he stays in the coloring book, what would happen if he added the MJL-6 (“Riverfront Overlay”) exceptions to the soufflé? Exceeding 55 feet in height stimulates massive secretions of adrenalin in a segment of the downriver folk. It is not a pretty sight. But opting for the MJL-6 exceptions is the only way the city gets to demand architectural distinction.

I predict visual interest, if the design is completed, will be some applied ticky tacky, like stripes of some alternate building material. Kelso and his architect will opt for a box. If they feel exceptionally frisky, maybe some rounded corners. Minimum cost,maximum revenue. Make my day – prove me wrong.

To paraphrase the great bard of the Mississippi: Bywater’s imminent death from hostel activities, as predicted by the opposing neighbors, is greatly exaggerated. But it continues New Orleans’s degenerative disease of boring buildings that we are cornered into by animated but architecturally dim residents who can’t see more about design than a roof’s height.

For an example of hope challenging reality, see Brian Luckett’s manifesto of architectural prescription for downtown HDLC areas on Neighbors First’s web site. I disagree with almost all of it, but at least Luckett has an objective of architectural excellence. We just are not on the same page about what that is. He shows traditional roof lines, galleries, ornamentation, door and window patterns that he bundles under the label ‘Creole,’. To be fair, he suggests that peaked roofs should be able to rise over the 55 feet (formerly 50 ft.). But that is not how the CZO’s design recipe made up of varying amounts of hesitation and fear came out.

Brian would probably be surprised to know that I think his prescriptions deserve consideration for infill – that is, for new construction to replace destroyed or demolished property in the middle of a block, to fill a space in an existing traditional row. But for new construction in the riverfront revival zones – no. We don’t have to ban the 21st century. We wouldn’t make a law that any new restaurant must serve only Creole cuisine, or every band must play traditional tourist jazz, or that new painting must be certified by the Ogden for Bayou pedigree. To legislate imitation architecture would put every street on the tourist route.

But Luckett’s manifesto or recommendation for a zoning code is form-based. That is positive in principle. Form-based means get the buildings right, because what they are used for will change over time, but they will still be part of the streetscape. If applied everywhere, his prescription is too low density. It would create a Creole themed urban suburb. Even if each building were well done within the patterns, driving through it, it might be a struggle to stay awake.

Only in the optional Riverfront Overlay rules has the city dared to demand architectural excellence, but passing the tests and building the buildings for the Riverfront Overlay costs more and would almost certainly require a longer, riskier, more combative approval process. Variations from the basic box law would almost certainly bring out the fundamentalist armies. As a consequence, only one New Orleans builder has been ready to take up the challenge in the downriver neighborhoods.

Personally, I would prefer Kelso’s project to shift location and for this site to end up in Sean Cummings’ company, not because it is a hostel, but because only Cummings has had the courage to attempt exceptional design. In evidence: the Rice Mill, an industrial re-purposing; Elisio Lofts (never built, but we can hope); and Latrobe, approved and in progress. The CPC docket for the hostel cites Kelso and John Cummings, owner of record of the land. That suggests that Kelso has an option to purchase conditional on project approval, which he does not have so far. Cummings and his Ekistics team are so far the only ones willing to ask their architects to do better, and to be able to manage the struggle against neighbors who gird themselves up in their C.A.V.E. men’s armor of misunderstanding to challenge fine projects. At 501 Elysian, a rabid neighborhood association defeated a good building, and now may be powerless to stop an ugly one in the same space, because it fits within all the maddeningly stupid rules. At his Latrobe project on Press Street, the opponents, represented by Neighbors First for Bywater, opened the process in virulent opposition, playing every one of the PTNP cards, but were ultimately held off, so we will get at least one good space.

The big problem is that New Orleans residents are still land use junkies. If the city could move to a good form-based code, or at least an injection of it, with room for creativity, new construction might come alive again.

A symptom of the addiction is that one of the leaders of opposition to Kelso’s project is Carolyn Leftwich , a member of BNA who has been a member of and advocate for the Smart Growth movement, whose philosophical leader is Andres Duany. Duany and Smart Growth favor form-based codes, but in this case, with the hostel at her back fence, Carolyn went back to the old way: ferocious opposition to the use, no mention of the design.

To continue striving for architectural distinction, whether the site’s use is as a hostel, a seafood factory, a row of multiplexes or for all I care a grand bordello like Lord Pytr Baelish’s, we shouldn’t care too much. Whatever it is next year, one day it will almost certainly be something else. But if the design and structure are ugly and boring, it will still be ugly and boring. That is the legacy of land use zoning – sad cities.

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BNA supports the hostel/hotel proposal, NFB opposes.

Although the two groups rarely agree on anything, public flare-ups are rare, largely because of BNA’s principle of not attacking any other group or meddling into other neighborhoods. NFB people will take the occasional sideswipe at BNA, but real BNA members (as opposed to heretics like me) do not respond, so the spark fizzles quickly.

At the March 8th City Planning Commission session, though, a few lids came off, a few layers of the onions were stripped. While we watched the developer’s team struggle to get their product into focus for the commissioners, and we watched the Commission show itself as a muddled mismanagement team struggling with a flawed process, a third subplot of human drama emerged: open battle between the neighborhood activist armies.

I should have a healthier hobby, but can’t shake an addiction to watching these micro-centers of unelected influence expose glimpses of malignity.

It was not going well for the project. The developer, Ted Kelso, is not a good communicator and seemed to be a passive leader. His team had trouble getting a positive case into focus. His lawyer, Mr Breeland, did his best, and Dave Woolworth, a hyper-qualified acoustics engineer and consultant, did his best to allay fears of noise, the opponents’ most passionate argument, but he had only been on the case a week, and as a responsible scientist, would not make claims that he had not properly verified yet. Kelso eventually stood up for a few words delivered with little conviction, but just three prime advocates? Not enough for a project of this size. You have to put on a bigger show for the Commissioners, after laying some strong background and with a hint of loaded cannon in the background, like the 1812 come to City Hall.

It was good for the developer’s team that the opponents did not push the boat out on the old residents’ standbys of traffic and parking, because they seemed to have nothing prepared on those. It would be easy to defeat, because the traffic there is negligible except rush hour on Chartres, which the hotel would little affect if the car entrance is on Mazant, but you have to have some stuff ready. Determined residential opponents will believe and say anything about parking and traffic.

The opponents have a guy that claims to be a sound expert, an amateur named Michael Bolan. Strangely enough, at least one of the commissioners seemed impressed by Bolan’s stuff, even though he is just a hobbyist with an amateur’s armchair experience and a simplistic, unverifiable presentation, while Woolworth has advanced degrees in physics with a speciality in acoustics, and is a veteran of several decades designing and consulting on sound management for municipalities (including New Orleans) and music venues (including the Jazz and Heritage building). Bolan and Woolworth are not equivalent. The commissioners were seeing what they wanted to see and hearing what they wanted to hear. The developer had not prepared a solid basis of distinction for them.

In the run-up before the hearing, opponents put out the usual, largely dog-whistle issues that residents raise against every public or entertainment business: people, traffic, noise and trash. PTNT. They were light on trash this time, but people and noise were working overtime. What kind of people would stay in a place like this? Young people – OMG. Foreigners (maybe that is why it’s working name is Stateside.) It would not be us staying there, oh no, not good folk like we the residents! It would be traveling strangers, right here in our historical neighborhood.

When it comes to opposing new things, anything built before last Halloween is historical. In fact, that’s basically what New Orleans residential advocates mean by historical: what it is like right now, at this snapshot moment in the gentrification process. Few of them have any real idea of or interest in the actual social evolution of the area over say the last 100 years, or any vision for the next 100.

Scenarios of noise had been written up and dramatized with varying degrees of thespian skill in the two minute speeches that make up public comment. Hundreds of drunks would swill beer all night, talk and laugh and splash in and out of the pool loudly at all hours. Nobody would be able to sleep. Bywater as we know it, Jim, would be over. Bywater would be a branch of Bourbon Street.

I shouldn’t make too much fun of the approach, even though much of it was comically exaggerated, and a few violins might not have been out of place at some points. I was not on either side. I was against a proviso in the staff report to apply unconstitutional limits to music and sound production rather than emission. I could speak about that but there is little legal ground or social support to protest the design as developed so far, a sort of blockhouse. Stay under 55 feet, and none of the committees are going to stop you building in the Stalinist style out of cheap materials. Dear Preservationists and other Hoodies: you are not going to create Florence by the Mississippi with this knuckle-headed strategy.

The neighbors might be right. A hostel might mess up the ecology of that part of Bywater, as it is now. But it is going to change anyway – the coming cruise ship port is across the street, and the naval complex along the canal a few blocks away will be developed into something.

Bacchanal came up as the bad example of noise. Bacchanal’s outside music stage is about three and a half blocks from the back of the immediate neighbors’ houses. Some of them said they can hear it. But Bacchanal has no more acoustic protection than my back garden in all its weedy grittiness. Its dining, drinking and music garden has just an ordinary picket fence. It wouldn’t block the sound of a fork dropping. In fact, if you have ever listened to music played in Bacchanal’s upper room on a rainy day, you may have noticed that the owners seem to have no awareness of or interest in acoustics. But the closest Kelso’s team got to rebuttal on the charge was Woolworth’s statement that he did not believe that Bacchanal had sound shielding anything like what he would design for Stateside. The developer’s team knew from many meetings, reports and newspaper reports that sound was going to their opponents’ strongest objection, but they were just so little prepared for the battle that they allowed Michael Bolan to appear to have something like equal weight with Dave Woolworth. Weak preparation by the developer, bad thinking by the commissioner.

Meanwhile, BNA’s decision already has some practical merit, the one that Breeland cited: an active building and business beats an empty lot. The neighborhood needs higher density to support employment, amenities and stores, if Bywater is not going to sink into suburban torpor.

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Julie Jones, current president of Neighbors First for Bywater, opponent, took the mic. Out of scale, traffic, people, noise, drunks, music, all night parties, sex and drugs will be the inevitable outcome of the project, destroying the quality of life of everyone nearby, ruining the future of Bywater as a perpetual twilight zone. People, the imaginary crowds of thousands who will throng inside, mill about, and threaten the end of the world, are them. Not us. We are historical. They are young, drunk thugs.

But Ms Jones ramped the drama up when she made a few statements about BNA, in response to questions from Commissioner Alexandra Mora about the neighborhood associations in Bywater. Ms Mora asked how NFB arrived at the decision to oppose. President Jones said that the club discussed it in meetings, that she received emails from neighbors and others and that she spoke to people when she walked her dog. I liked that. The Pooch Poll. In other words, no formal process, just soak up some opinions and then the directors decide.

Asked about the two separate neighborhood associations, instead of the more graceful solution of saying it would be better perhaps for BNA to speak for itself, President Jones told the chamber that she used to belong to BNA and in fact had been president of it, but that she and others found that it was not representing their interests, so a few years ago, they left to form a new group. What President Jones did not include is that she and a number of the founders of Neighbors First had controlled BNA for quite a few years, trading most of the directors’ and officers’ posts among them. They became dissatisfied when the current majority of BNA decided that they, the current officers and directors of NFB, did not represent the members’ interests, and voted them out. When they could no longer control the decisions nor re-elect themselves, they left.

Ms Jones had said that unlike BNA, NFB had no zoning committee. Commissioner Mora pursued the subject. Ms Jones looked uncomfortable. It would have been a good moment to say that the question should go to a BNA officer, if one was in the chamber, but instead she started to stumble a bit. Carolyn Leftwich, a BNA member who was opposing its recommendation in this case, went to the microphone. (Commissioner Mora looked like she was starting to enjoy this. So was I.) Carolyn told the commissioners that BNA’s zoning committee could consider only legal matters. It was their job to say whether the project fit the zoning rules, then the board decided by votes whether to support or not.

So no discussion or outreach to the members, asked the Commissioner? There had been meetings with Kelso present, Carolyn replied. The members seemed to be about 50/50 she said, but the last meeting was “quite intimidating.” Wait a minute – I was there. It was people talking and asking questions of Ted Kelso. What could have been intimidating?

“We were called NIMBYs,” she replied.

But they were NIMBYs, more literally than one usually finds. Their complaint was that the hotel’s courtyard was at their back fences. That is Not In My Back Yard to the word. Thinking back, the one who said it might have been me. I had been appalled – well, as close to it as I can get at a neighborhood association meeting – by the ugly things the opponents were saying about people in the abstract, people who weren’t there. All these young people would be noisy drunks, young men and women splashing in pools all night, playing loud music – Spring Break forever. Were young visitors to become a new Civil Rights category? I told Kelso that if I had the authority, I would apologize on behalf of these people for the ugly prejudices they were forcefully expressing, because in a concentrated effusion of classic NIMBYdom, they were embarrassing us. And I remember a rather ferocious old dragon who had come with Ms Leftwich rounding her wheelchair on me, demanding, “Where do you live?” Well, I was not intimidated, nor was anyone else. It was only a neighborhood meeting. Carolyn wasn’t scared off; she was a leader of the opposition.

At this point, Ms Mary Ann Hammett, head of the BNA Zoning Committee, a lawyer with authority in zoning, who had probably been trying to avoid speaking – she had had an injury and walking and standing were uncomfortable – couldn’t take the misinformation any more. Ms Hammett has a clear, inclusive, slightly raspy Southern speaking voice, measured and sonorous. Should have been a Senator. She told the Commission that her committee does not consider only the legal position. They advise the Board on the legal position, because zoning is quite complicated. They also consider other benefits and disadvantages for the neighborhood: employment, cash flow, density, amenities and facilities, alternatives. A principle of BNA is that Bywater needs more people to support more local businesses so that it can become more lively, active and walkable. Like the Master Plan tells us to do.

Winding up, Ms Hammett intoned the one statement of principle that should have been the headline of the day: “We always consider the interests of the whole neighborhood, never only those of a few near neighbors.”

This is a Smart Growth principle and the opposite of the observed behavior of NFB. In the Latrobe conflict, NFB had tried to insert a whole proviso that one side of the building had to be specially soundproofed and triple glazed because one strange woman on Montegut Street said she had been “afraid for her life” when she heard a band practicing in the empty warehouse. Never mind that it would obviously no longer be an empty warehouse with a corrugated iron wall when it was rebuilt – one neurasthenic’s unfounded anxiety was enough to convince them to make an absurd demand.

There’s the difference. NFB wants to defend the interests of every resident who thinks he or she has one, no matter how quirky or personal, against anything new; while BNA wants to encourage more housing, more people, more shops and coffee houses and restaurants, more liveliness, more social and public life in the sunny streets, more life on the riverside.

I know which one I prefer. If you think I am being unfair to NFB, well – to be fair and honest, I like being unfair to Neighbors First, but in this case, I think the distinction is quite clear, and for the future, I hope one or two at least of the Commissioners and Council members will take note of it. Let’s have more neighborhood associations who don’t think architecture ended when McKinley was assassinated.

Outcome: CPC staff had recommended approval, with a couple of provisos, one of which was inappropriate, but the Commission voted unanimously to deny.

The basis of the vote was entirely land use. Scale. (Even though the hostel would occupy the same area as the seafood plant it was replacing.) The City Planning Commission’s interest in the design of the building and its effect on Chartres Street, the riverfront, Bywater and New Orleans was as far as one could see, nil. Nada, zero. Does no one in this process, developers, opponents, proponents and commissioners, notice that the starting point of the fuss about new construction in New Orleans is its legacy of distinctive architecture? They never mentioned it. They take a ruler to see if it fits the CZO box rules. They evaluate the vociferousness of support vs. opposition. Maybe they think about “scale,” through frequently misusing the word.

And if it is in Bywater, there is a special tilt of the Commission that should be dealt with, applied by Commissioner Kyle Wedberg, current Chair of the Commission. Mr Wedberg’s day job is principal of NOCCA, a great school, and he is a resident of Bywater. I am sure he is a man of great intelligence, but when it comes to Bywater, his vision fails. The optics go south. Conflict of interest drips off the dais like thick blood. He was the one opponent of Latrobe, the lone holdout. His reason was palpably that it was diagonally across the street from NOCCA, which already had testy neighbors complaining about its traffic. That is not this particular school’s fault. Like any school, it has two big drop off and pick up times each day, causing delays of a few minutes. The right solution for local residents is to wait like sensible people, or use another route at those times. But some don’t. They complain.

Had the Latrobe proposal failed, there would have been a formal call for a re-run with the Chairman recused.

Wedberg’s take on the hotel/hostel looked equally or more colored by the fact that his house is a few blocks away. My personal opinion: he may be a great principal, but he doesn’t have the hang of city planning, and should not be Chairman of the CPC. Failing that, he should of his own accord recuse himself from any projects in Marigny or Bywater. His judgments in his home area are neither impartial nor objective.

On the site itself, whether it’s destiny is to become a hostel or apartments or townhouses or a detention center for enemy combatants transferred from Guantanamo, we should prefer a building or buildings by a developer that will commit to architecture that counts, design that is good to look at. MJL-6 provided the opportunity. We need developers with the courage and skill.

© NOLAscape March 2016

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Little Laws

All sound amplification shall be prohibited within the courtyard between the hours of 10 p.m. and 10 a.m.

Legislative muddle. Let me count the ways.

This deceptively simple text is a “proviso” in a staff recommendation to the City Planning Commission about one building. One single building in Bywater. It is not a law at this point, but the employed professional staff of an important municipal agency wrote it. If approved it would go to City Council as a recommendation for a site-specific ordinance.

We do not know the experience of the staffers but their Executive Director, Mr Robert Rivers, is not a political appointee to a sinecure, trying to hide behind the pros. Bob Rivers has advanced degrees in almost everything. If something needs knowing about shaping cities, Bob Rivers knows it. Doesn’t mean he gets every move right, but it does mean he knows how the bodies get buried. He has responsibility.

In the intense CZO sessions last year (Rivers in almost continual attendance, by memory) CM Ramsey emphasized a sound principle: don’t fold municipal code items into zoning. Militant residents like repeating or modifying law in zoning ordinances.  The outcome is needless complication and confusion, sometimes contradiction. Ambiguity leads to litigious conflict. Ms Ramsey even said she would try to find an opportunity to comb some of the old junk out of existing zoning. Sound or noise management belongs in municipal code, not in special provisos slipped in by CPC staff.

So this is ad hoc law. Neighbor law. Neighborhood association law. Legislation by nagging. The courtyard in question is about 4,000 square feet. If the recommendation clears Council and they don’t take this out, this would be a law for that domain – 4,000 square feet.

Residential neighbors, especially those whose properties abut its boundary line, are concerned about sound encroachment from a proposed hostel/hotel on Chartres at Mazant in Bywater which will have some music in its social spaces. Can’t really blame them for that; there is bound to be some impact. On the other hand, that corner of Bywater and Chartres Street are changing. The cruise ship port, eventual re-purposing of the naval facility on the canal and new apartment developments on Chartres are going to add population and activity. Change and impact are inevitable. A strip of the city in which some (can’t say “many”; the population of Bywater is too reduced for the word) have come to think the village backwater atmosphere is a permanent condition, theirs by right. They are dreaming. Cities don’t work like that. Re-urbanization will almost certainly increase the population of New Orleans to 600,000 or more. You can walk from Bywater to the French Quarter in about 20 minutes, cycle in five. By car, you can get there in about three or four minutes, then look for parking for for 15. Pressure for new housing both permanent and short-term is inevitable. Contented citizens of the Bywater village are going to have to rejoin the city.

Perhaps the staff thinks grafting an alternative sound management rule onto the plans for a specific building is a good trick to reconcile the developer and the neighbors. But it’s not the right way. If we want to live in a grown-up city, we should expect legislators to craft serious law, not pass the ball to specific residential interests to add legislative power to the already annoying NIMBY phenomenon. Spot zoning is one thing; spot legislating should be another.

The balkanization of New Orleans with little private police forces popping up like weeds has already gone too far.

What justification could there be to have a special sound law or residential privilege for the people on this block, different from any other block?

Many of us may remember the day the last sound ordinance was up for a vote in Council – the last session of the old regime. It turned into a bit of a food fight; the new ordinance was finally scuppered by Jackie Clarkson, the old Queen of Municipal Misrule, her parting legacy to the city. Or perhaps to the French Quarter neighborhood associations, who preferred either very low dB limits, or the existing muddle. Their boss’s weapon of choice at the time was suing people. They might have had as many as 15 on the go, which might have been damaged by realistic limits.

Slipping municipal code items into conditional use documents as a kind of crypto-relegislatiion is just the beginning of how wrong this single sentence of proposed back door legislation is. Note that it does not say that music cannot be played in the courtyard – as indeed it should not. You would be getting muddy bootprints all over the First Amendment if you tried that one. One rung down from that, the statement is still unconstitutional. Not because I in my unerring amateur legal wisdom say so. The Supreme Court and other Federal courts have been unambiguous: legislation can regulate volume but not content. Banning amplification regulates content. Even without the content argument, excluding or banning amplification has been explicitly rejected by courts.

It is also ultimately meaningless and ineffective. The attempted proviso says a singer with a soft voice who uses electronics to achieve her effects, which she may set at a conversational 65 or 70 dB, cannot perform, but an opera singer who can shatter a street lamp on the next block can. It says a performer cannot play a keyboard at 50 dB, but he can play a Beethoven sonata on a grand piano with the top up. It says a blues song on an electric guitar is against the law, but a brass band is okay.

There should be one sound law to cover music in or out of the courtyard. The sole criterion is how much sound gets out of the property into the public space. The dB limit could be different for different areas or times of day, but let’s have one clear rule, not a bunch of different rules that tell musicians how to make music instead of measuring emission. They make no more sense than a law sponsored by the neighbors telling the chef how much pepper to put in the gumbo, applicable only to one kitchen.

Even if flawed logic and unconstitutionality had not finished it off, the proviso would be bad law. It is municipal code law by nature, as stated by Council Members, so should be the careful all-city product of an elected legislature. CPC’s function is to advise council on zoning and building. That is a good function. We need an effective Planning Commission, even if sometimes the stack of Planning, HDLC, VCC and the architecture committees seems a bit over the top. But it does not need to pre-empt legislation with bits of bullet-pointed text that can slip into the final ordinance in one piece. Let’s leave the sleazy amendment arms race to our partisan Congress. Council Members may play a partisan game. That happens in this kind of democratic process. It should not be encouraged for Commissions.

For its last little foot of clay, as law the proviso would not be enforceable. Its contradictions to precedent are too numerous. Any lawyer that can spell “decibel” would be able to see it off. Many of our police commanders would tell their officers to leave it alone.

The residents assembled behind the proviso include a Mr Bolan who fancies himself an amateur acoustician. He appeared at both HDLC and CPC, wielding a folded piece of cardboard which purported to demonstrate that sound can rebound off a flat wall. Can’t argue with science, right? He wrote a fairly lengthy piece in the document pack accompanying the application which combines a pretension to science with sneering at the development in the way defensive residents sometimes think appropriate. The depth of his material seemed about on the level we got to in the first couple of learning hours with Dave Woolworth when FQMD sponsored him to show anyone who wanted to learn how sound propagation worked.

Bolan’s input is not CPC or staff’s fault, of course. I have no idea whether they took any notice of it. I would just hope that if they thought they needed the opinion of a professional sound physicist, they would get one. The developer has now engaged David Woolworth of Oxford Acoustics to review and recommend, so we should get some reliable information soon.

The moral of the story: residents’ and associations are always trying to slip snippets of inappropriate control like this into permits for restaurants and bars. I’m sure the CPC staff means well, probably looking for a workable compromise between residents and the project. But if I understand our City Council members correctly, tweaking municipal code in zoning is not the way to go.

After the CPC session, Ethan Ellestad of MaCCNO told me that he had recently written to Bob Rivers on the insertion of sound provisos in other projects, but has had no response, at least not yet. Yesterday on MaCCNO’s public discussion web site, Ethan posted a reminder to the music community to object to this practice. NOLAscape’s take is wider than that: this micro-legislative habit is part of the same mindset that allows restaurant owners on Frenchmen to hire a guard force to force pop-up barbecues off public space, then to pose all pious about sanitation. How about we have some real law, or freedom where there is no law?
Permit me a throwaway, since we’ve come this far together: for protection of the creative and entertainment industries, Council should work up a good, easily adjustable sound ordinance based on the urban soundscape and the city’s functions, which David Woolworth made a lot of progress with already. Sound complaints are about encroachment. The medical framing of the administration’s Sound Check project looks like a back-door way to exert control. If so, it’s a bad approach.

Can we get some clear discussion and hopefully a good decision on this from Mr Rivers and CM Ramsey? Musicians and venues have a history of harassment based on legal muddle and contradiction. Let’s have a go at clarity.

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On more little thing, then I can hit the road.

Bywater Neighborhood Association supports the hostel/hotel; Neighbors First of Bywater opposes. I don’t have a passionate interest in the hotel/hostel project one way or another. I have friends (well, I hope they are) on both sides. If it came to a showdown, I would probably side with BNA because I consider NFB a grouchy conservative club representing older, more fearful, anti-creative , suburban-style ideas in a self-righteous tone. A social suburb with hundred year old cypress lap houses is still a suburb.

The building was up at the Architecture Review Committee of the HDLC a few days before it was scheduled at Planning. After some discussion, the ARC decided that the prudent move was to defer the project to City Planning, to come back to them when it had CPC’s thumbs-up.

After extensive discussion, City Planning decided . . . that their best option was to defer and send it back to the Architectural Review Committee to get the so HDLC verdict first. So it is hopping about like an architectural hot potato.

Does anyone remember M.T.A. by the Kingston Trio?

Charlie handed in his dime at the Kendall Square station
And he changed for Jamaica Plain
When he got there the conductor told him, “One more nickel”
Charlie couldn’t get off of that train

But did he ever return?
No he never returned and his fate is still unlearned
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston
He’s the man who never returned

© NOLAscape March 2016

 

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Frenchmen Street

I’m going to bang out something like a deadline piece. Hang onto your jobs, Richard Webster and John Simerman. This could be the challenge you have been looking over your shoulder for.

I am not a member of MaCCNO or a musician. I suspect a lot of them will disagree with me. MaCCNO is also painfully diplomatic. That is why they took the link to a NOLAscape off their discussion forum, which is not quite truthfully said to be a free public space, because it annoyed Meg Lousteau! What? It is the purpose of NOLAscape to annoy, harass and expose the self-serving, crotch-clutching, defensive crouch of groups like Meg’s VCPORA, trying to force New Orleans to turn its back on the future.

So they may disagree, either with the substance or the undiplomatic NOLAscape approach. I hope they will let us know.

I went to MaCCNO’s meeting last night. Part of the reason must have been that I received so many reminders over the past few weeks that it worked like post-hypnotic suggestion. At the appointed time, I found myself outside the Candlelight Lounge on North Robertson, blinking like the Manchurian Candidate, wondering, Why am I here? Where is Angela Lansbury when you need her?

Another reason was, I like MaCCNO. In the Sound Wars time, when the Jellyfish Folk were trying to slime the city and I was trying to figure out how the idea for NOLAscape might help discover the anti-mollusk serum, MaCCNO was a part of my learning experience. What’s going on? Who’s who? Who represents what? Does anybody know any &*%$ing thing around here, or what? Nice people.

The group has come a long way. Back then in 2013, they were a herd of kittens almost without leadership. Now, they are a herd of cats, with frustrated leaders trying hard. And I give the members and attendees credit for it. Don’t line up! If you have any hope of being the creative artists you think you want to be, stick with the alley cat. At least while it serves you; you will know when it doesn’t.

Still, shit happened, that cynical spies like me could see. Back in 2013, MaCCNO meetings didn’t have topics. One person would stand up and say, I am concerned about police abuse on Royal Street. The next one would say, My grandmother was a Mayan shaman who gobbled down mushrooms every day for 83 years.

Last night’s topic was Frenchmen Street. Ethan Ellestad introduced the meeting, speaking briefly about MaCCNO and its most well-known maneuver, the second-line like parade into City Hall and the Council Chamber to mock the French Quarter jellyfish people for trying to pass a ridiculous sound control bill – an anti-music, anti-New Orleans nightmare.

Hannah Kreiger-Benson and Jocelyne Ninneman introduced the discussion with some rules of discourse which, to be fair, were occasionally followed.

In an early audience input (I don’t know his name) [weak coverage; you’re probably okay, Webster and Simerman] one young guy said, “Frenchmen is supposed to be a culture zone, but what’s really going on there? A special patrol, police . . . . “

I’m thinking of the guys who played Frenchmen in the 90s, when it was getting started, when its role was to bring New Orleans music back to New Orleans because tourist music had taken over too much territory. They say Frenchmen now is just another tourist whorehouse. Real music is gone. The bar owners tell the bands what to play, and maybe how. If you want to see New Orleans emerging, if that still exists, Frenchmen is not where you will find it, they say.

One thing that struck me was the bewilderment of some of the young players at “enforcement.” They did not how to deal with it. They tell of bands shut down and ordered off, and not knowing whether the “authority” was NOPD or state police or the “Frenchmen Patrol” a “security” thing that an ad hoc group of restaurant and bar owners have pooled some money for to prowl around on Friday and Saturday nights, hassling people.

I don’t know whether this little band has been sanctioned by the city and supervised by NOPD or its just part of a feudalized enforcement mess that is metastasizing in New Orleans, that people should insist be dismantled pronto and the city take full responsibility for proper law enforcement. Just in these two intensive use blocks, at least three “enforcement” agencies with three different notions of the rules, reporting to three different bosses . . . it’s time to quote Cornel West again: “Brothers and Sisters,” boys and girls: this is bullshit. This messy police regime is a municipal dereliction of duty. We’ll be coming back to that theme.

Some Frenchmen property owners were there, and one guy who seemed to be in the security patrol with a zeal for its mission. He said that the FP wore gray uniforms and never stopped the street musicians. What he did was shut down the “illegal” (I would say “unlicensed” is the proper word) food vendors, because they don’t have sanitation rules, there is no place to wash your hands and it adds up to a conspiracy against health and safety. Plus restaurants and bars have permits, pay taxes, maintenance, lots of costs.

I thought: crap. As I listened, I reaffirmed this mentally every few seconds. On several counts. One: street food is as old as markets and fairs. Markets and fairs precede fixed shops. Fixed shops are historically an adaptation of more successful merchants – essentially lockups in a prime area. Second, American public health standards for restaurants are nothing to write home about. Any arrogance based on them is false or a product of ignorance. We even have large industrial food processors lobbying against proper labelling. Americans don’t even know where their food comes from. The United States is not a model of food safety or safe management. French inspectors would shut down a lot of our restaurants like a shot. Getting down to street level, I don’t think guys barbecuing some chicken or ribs on the street look any worse than some of the kitchens.

The real reason is, street barbecue competes with the restaurants. This guy was even outraged that he frequently saw police officers eating food from street vendors, wiping their hands and going back to policing. Dear me. Some kind of sanitation thing may be this guy’s personal bug, but the reason the restaurants support the Patrol is to shut down competition, and their justification is that they pay rent and taxes, not sanitation. I call bullshit. Life in a high density zone can be competitive, but the restaurant owners’ claim to virtue is warmed over BS.

Another thing they like to do is enforce right of way on the public street and sidewalks. They tell people, including street musicians and vendors, to move along because they are blocking some hypothetical escape route. I submit that the main thing you have to escape is these confused cops making up laws as they go along and enforcing the profit-driven will of the restaurant owners. Yes, street operators get off light. So suck it up. Since when does owning a shop give you the right to run a police force? The property qualification for voting and power was rejected in the Constitutional Convention. The Conservative duffers on the Supreme Court have abetted its sneaking back into the polity with Citizens United, but we don’t need that crap in a market street in New Orleans. If the mayor can’t do this right, get a new mayor.

America does not have lively, flourishing markets and fairs in the old tradition. Phenomena like Frenchmen are successors or derivatives. Restaurant owners should mind their kitchens and get out of the street. If they have a complaint, it should go to the city and be managed by NOPD, not a private vigilante outfit. If the city won’t police right, it should not be the role of a special interest to police in their own interest. Here’s the test: if the street vendors and players had the money, would it be okay for them to hire their own patrol to defend them against the restaurant owners’ patrol? Why not? A few tough guys with batons and maybe guns if they have the licenses, or pepper spray for the tamer Patrolmen. If the restaurants can play “enforcement” against competition, why not the brass band? If you think the restaurant owners merit the authority because they own or rent a shop, but the street people don’t, you are favoring property rights over human rights. If you think it is okay for both of them to hire forces, you are playing Cowboys and Indians instead of being a serious citizen of a city.

Perhaps easier: one woman spoke briefly after Mr Patrol, in response to somebody asking a question it was hard to hear but something like: how come the shop owners can send out cops? She was a young lawyer, who was also manning the food table (which was good; I have to lose about 50 pounds, so I was staying clear). She said, under the law, the Mayor can grant police authority to special groups. It’s like special districts: rubbish. A truly degenerate way of urban organization. The problem is not that the mayor can do that; the problem is that he keeps doing it, so that we now have a Toy Story of different police districts – about 30 of them.

But it gave me an idea. I didn’t say anything. It is MaCCNO’s or the musicians’ play, not mine. Why don’t they see if they can find a lawyer or two who might like to volunteer to hang around for a few hours Friday and Saturday nights. Maybe the street people chip in and buy them a great bottle of wine each time. They can be a quick phone call away, and when one of the forces is in hassle mode, come in, get the names and badge numbers, check if their cameras are on, and test their notion of the law they think they are enforcing.

Next big item was a Frenchmen Street property owner. I don’t know which property or his name. He spoke sonorously, solemnly, slowly and at great length. The speaking limit was supposed to be three minutes because they had to wind up at 6:30, but this guy would not yield the floor. He took ten or 15 minutes. He went on about the burdens of property. People scratched his windows. Someone had defecated in his entry way. He had to pay high taxes, carry high costs of maintenance. He never minded the street bands; he just did not want them blocking his entryway. He never was rude to them; he just asked them to move over a bit. He said that people had to leave a space of 16 to 18 inches from his property line, which I do not think is correct in law, but he seemed to believe it. I was thinking once again: yes, property can be a burden as well as an opportunity. In a less dense jungle than Frenchmen has become, he would suffer less damage, and presumably have fewer sales. I would even say, he could hire a security guard to help protect his store. But the idea that he can contribute to a private police force to patrol the street and public right of way – no. His idea was that MaCCNO or the street bands shold join with the shop owners to get a better Frenchmen Street – but it seemed like a one-way street to me. The property crowd wants to be the senior partner with enforcement power over the street. That is not a civil position. When Bourbon Street was working on extra detail ideas, bigger businesses for a bigger, higher pressure, historically more dangerous situation, before Sidney Torres stepped in and found a way, they were never so arrogant about it.

The Frenchmen patrol is hardly managed. The USP of the French Quarter Task Force that Sidney Torres started (we will come to that soon; reserve a few question marks for it as well) was that it was better mangled than the regular police. It was more effective, supervision was shared with NOPD and as far as I can tell, always acted responsibly in its interaction with the public. Not so the Frenchmen Patrol. Whatever they say, it is not there to protect everyone equally. It is there to protect the restaurants first. It has all the moral authority of a Trump rally’s security gang – part of the circus.

The buskers and street vendors need protection from “enforcement” more than restaurants need immunity from curbside barbecue. The new, commercial, tourist orientated Frenchmen Street does not have its act together. Compared to Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, this is a clown show.

NOPD: okay. The Frenchmen Patrol: shut it down.

© NOLAscape March 2016

 

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The Straitjacket

I watched hearings on a few new construction projects at the Architectural Review Committee of the HDLC yesterday – a reminder and another example of how New Orleans is hobbled by the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.

You can often hear grumbling at City Council or City Planning that the combo of the Master Plan and the CZO were supposed to eliminate all the variances and special allowances that people are requesting. The grumblers imply that rambunctious builders and an irresponsible council are trampling on sacred commandments.

I suggest another explanation: the Master Plan and the CZO are messy laws that need serious updating and radical pruning. The Master Plan needs to ditch overly specific stuff mostly used by the usual suspects to beat back innovation, and let the positive goals that make up most of it stand out more.

The CZO needs even more radical surgery and conceptual updating by a pro working without interference from every citizen with a pet restriction he would like passed as law.

Re-opening that can of worms is a big job, but watching the ARC yesterday was bringing it home: that’s a bullet that needs biting.

What are the odds?

  • Following up on Scapegoat, a little more on tax exemption
  • The CZO building rules are dumbing down the city.

Deductible lobbying
Questioning tax deductibility for campaigning against or suing government In Scapegoat might have seemed like a thought experiment intended to tease the yard dog neighborhood associations. But it is more real than you may think. In the UK, it is under discussion in Parliament this season to ban charities (they are focusing on nominal charities) from using government grants for campaigns or lobbying rather than the original or main purpose of the charity. There are decent arguments on both sides. Why should a government subsidize campaigning against itself? On the other hand, issue campaigning is essential to a working democracy.

You may think that is too remote. The Baton Rouge guys are not going to see all the way to civilization. In fact, the people who write bills for politicians look all around for ideas, especially ones that get money for the government, and Louisiana legislators are looking at non-profits’ exemption from state sales tax. In view of the fiscal cesspool Jindal left the state in, I would not be surprised to see them revoke it before long. UK (and I suspect Canadian) charities and non-profits are already required to pay VAT, the European and Canadian analogue of sales tax. So maybe not so far away after all.

What if the group I had in mind were not urban fundamentalist troublemakers, but Greenpeace or an Alzheimer’s charity? Would I be in favor of maximum tax benefit for an advocacy group for sensible, balanced urbanism with a more grown-up notion of design and planning? Probably. The consolations of philosophy, eh?

CZO Building Rules
The zoning laws that some of our neighborhood associations cling to and wave about to get their way are a set of constraints for new construction that is giving us architecture of an embarrassing ugly sameness. Sometimes I wonder – the yard dogs barking behind the mental chain link fences of “historic” neighborhoods do so love a cottage or a double shotgun – maybe they think that new construction following the rules will be blockhouse ugly, making their little homestead seem cuter. But they are probably not that clever.

I wonder whether regulations that make sense for infill construction on residential streets haven’t crept outside the lines and are being misapplied to new construction on wide avenues. That may be how the epidemic abuse of the word “scale” crept into the zoning hawks’ vocabulary. What sense is there in having the same height limit on a 100 foot wide commercial boulevard like Elysian Fields as on a 20 foot residential street with old wooden shotguns in the interior?

I watched a few cases at the Architectural Review Committee of the HDLC yesterday. The one that interested me the most was a new proposal for 501 Elysian Fields. A 2012 proposal for the site called Elisio Lofts had been the center of a storm of protest, conflict of interest, occasional violence and what looks to me like corruption. NOTE: Looks! Alleged! Don’t sue me! We don’t know, but if you check it out, it quacked like good old time Nawlins City Hall duck, scaled down to the Faubourg Marigny Infra-Dig Association. There are encouraging signs of an ethics investigation to probe around in there, let a little daylight in. Should make good copy when it hits the fan.

That protest was the beginning of the “Size Matters” campaign of bad taste and disinformation. Some of the clubs who were in the Riverfront Alliance think that slogan passes for wit. Between well-endowed women and insecure men – oh how we laughed.

One woman came to the hearing sizably accoutered in a bright Size Matters shirt and put in her speaking card. I suspect she might have girded herself for battle because the bright sparks of FMIA linked the property to Sean Cummings, bête noire of their darker fantasies, who had been proposer of the original Elisio. In fact, the current proposal is by prospective owner William Monaghan, and is dully, disappointingly within the rules. Dull as red brick dishwater. So Ms. Size Matters had nothing to say. “It is different than I was expecting,” she said when called, and shrunk down into her folding chair.

The curse of the CZO is that it is now hard to protest the building. Mr Monaghan says he is continuing the industrial look of Elysian Fields, citing Michaelopolis as a precedent. How about improving it instead of repeating it? I think Mr Monaghan knows his audience: imitation is their comfort zone. Lack of courage and creativity is called “historical.”

It is even hard to say that it is the designer’s fault. The architect would probably prefer to do better but he is in a straitjacket. To avoid an uproar of the unimaginative he has to stay within the prescription for unintended consequences that is the current code. If it was not clear to you from reading the rules, if you ever did, have a look at the plans and renderings of the blocky shoeboxes that are getting the green light now on Chartres in Bywater. Think of the infrastructure in place to support the rules that produce these undistinguished plans: the City Planning Commission, several HDLCs, the Vieux Carré Commission, the informal support groups of reactionary neighborhood associations and Preservative clubs like Louisiana Landmarks and other loci of debility – all to back up an architectural framework of profound dullness and stupidity. Showing no understanding of what makes a building worth building, the yard dog clubs support these things, just because they are not higher than 55 feet. That’s the limit of their imagination: 55 feet. Or perhaps some of them are just silenced by embarrassment, since the developers are obediently staying within the lines of the laws they supported.

Can you imagine anything duller than a skyline of buildings all the same height with flat roofs? That is where the misbegotten law is taking us. I guess I am stepping into snobbery when I say it all looks comically provincial to me, but it does. If New Orleans people and government cannot somehow unite to bin this ridiculous code, a caste of urban hicks is going to going to enforce monumentalizing in brick, plaster and cypress siding a transition from a once bold, creative city to a provincial backwater.

The only recourse for a developer with better ideas is getting City Council to override the various commissions, where architects and planners may have better vision personally, but are constrained by the code. The collective decisions of Nadine Ramsey, Jason Williams, LaToya Cantrell, James Gray and Jared Brossett can permit variances and raise the bar as they did on the Via Latrobe project, but for them to do it, the developer has to build a solid case, which can entail risking some serious money. Opponents will nag the hind leg off a donkey asking for traffic studies, parking studies, storm water studies, sound studies and studies of studies. They will claim some kind of prejudice in every study that does not confirm their prejudices if it was paid for by somebody else, but they won’t pay for any. They write polemics based on misunderstood planning baloney that contradicts best practice we can see with our own eyes just by looking around. They will find new ways to abuse the word “scale.” “It’s grossly out of scale!” they shout. Out of what scale?

Council can get you through it, but you have to build a case, which costs money, on an uncertain outcome.

Let’s loop back to the Review Committee this afternoon. Mr Monaghan’s proposal for 501 Elysian was just within the CZO’s height limit. It was supposed to be a replica industrial style to reflect nearby factories. There was some aesthetic yada yada that didn’t ring true to me. I think the real reason was that an industrial building needs no particular aesthetic, no shaping. It’s just a block of bricks, maximizing internal rentable volume.

Monaghan’s design runs a wall of red brick, probably 54’8″ high, along the Decatur Street block face with all the charm of a Detroit car parts factory, punctuated by regularly spaced windows. One of the commissioners suggested the apartments should have balconies, a fine New Orleans tradition. Mary Ann Hammett, chair of Bywater Neighborhood Association’s Zoning Committee, has quick reflexes: “Balconies on an industrial design?” If people are going to live in it, how about blowing off the ersatz industrial and putting balconies back? Balconies link people to the outside. The new design had a prison feel, like it was supposed to keep you in.

But Monaghan’s design ticks the boxes for compliance to the box rule, so will probably pass the committees. They can niggle about aesthetics, but if it doesn’t go outside the lines, it can be hard to say no.

The original 2012 design for Elisio Lofts was immeasurably better, but remember FMIA had gone ballistic because it’s top height was over 50 feet. The design had architectural interest, using contrasting materials and roofline variation. But creativity in architecture, good housing and employment mean nothing to FMIA. To them, Size Matters. And perhaps an allergy to interesting use of different materials or ideas they cannot understand. CM Kristin Palmer fell into line with FMIA’s philistinism, as she often did with any group that could pronounce the word “Preservation.” Last year’s vulgar and aggressive campaign against the Riverside Overlay shows that FMIA’s current president and directors are at least as challenged and provincial in design as the ones back then.

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Elisio Lofts 2012 design

Interestingly, one of the people who might come out badly if the ethics hearing has some teeth is an HDLC commissioner. Considering what is getting approved and disapproved by our architecture Soviets, some of these guys should be out on aesthetic grounds as well as conflict of interest.

From the Times-Picayune about the original Elisio Lofts case:

“Palmer, whose district includes the site, said she thinks “there is some room” for additional height at the corner of Elysian Fields and Decatur, though probably not for 75 feet, but that she was not willing to approve any waiver as long as the zoning law sets a 50-foot limit.”

What hope against a mind-set like that?

Maybe the original design would stand a chance now. The current Council is smarter and more courageous than the last.

The narrow and fanatical tend to join the more right wing yard dog clubs, and to fight most ferociously for their territory. People with more balance and more inclusive minds tend to herd up less. But who wants a diminished city?

So rise up, Brothers and Sisters. Let us slither off our bar stools and save the city from the Brotherhoods and Sisterhoods of Boredom, for they know not what they do. But they keep on doing it.

© NOLAscape March 2016

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