The Bywater Herd

We form groups and teams and gangs for an infinity of reasons. For defence. To build. To destroy. For community service. To play sports. Leaders form and manipulate armies and gangs.

The herd that has been formed in Bywater and will charge into the Council Chamber on April 19th seems designed to amplify group anxiety and channel it toward imagined objectives that serve the purposes of a few people. The people that seeded it were either very lucky or very clever. He, she or they understood that anxiously protecting the backyards of a very few seldom stands up to the wider interests of the neighborhood and the city. They needed more cattle to follow their hat. They – I’ll use “they” though it is possible that the origin was singular – spotted or lucked into a substantial local demographic metamorphosing into its age of anxiety, putting down their time of adventure to settle into their time of defense. They picked their lieutenants well. They plucked the right notes of vanity and fear.

I wonder if they consciously modeled Trump, a chaos junkie and a “clinic on incompetence”, but skilled in anxiety manipulation. In Trumpism, truth is of no account. You just say that crime is skyrocketing, Muslims are killing everybody, Mexicans are raping the survivors and refugee caravans from Honduras are coming to steal your jobs.  People with the hypersensitive amygdala associated with conservatism and gun-nuttery huddle up. Reason succumbs to older layers of evolution.

Maybe those back-brain molecular pulses spike at a certain age. Maybe herd forming is a psycho-physical process that can be synchronized, like yawning.

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The Bywater herd is going to stage a stampede at City Council soon – on April 19th, Anno Domini 2018. Wrestlemania will have moved on. If you don’t have tickets to a boxing match or a cock fight, come out to City Hall. Bring snacks, in case it is a long day.

A popcorn and hot dog pop-up just outside the Council Chamber door would make a mint.

Main event on the fight card will be The New Bywater Buffalo Herd vs. The Sun Yard.

Sigmund Freud on the Herd Instinct:

It might be said that the intense emotional ties which we observe in groups are quite sufficient to explain one of their characteristics—the lack of independence and initiative in their members, the similarity in the reactions of all of them, their reduction, so to speak, to the level of group individuals

Some of its features—the weakness of intellectual ability, the lack of emotional restraint, the incapacity for moderation and delay, the inclination to exceed every limit in the expression of emotion and to work it off completely in the form of action . . . show an unmistakable picture of a regression of mental activity to an earlier stage such as we are not surprised to find among savages or children. . . .

The influence of suggestion becomes a greater riddle for us when we admit that it is not exercised only by the leader, but by every individual upon every other individual; and we must reproach ourselves with having unfairly emphasized the relation to the leader and with having kept the other factor of mutual suggestion too much in the background.

Sigmund Freud.  Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.  1922.  Chapter 9.

I am going to avoid naming names, mostly, because I consider some of the herd people friends. I hope I still can when this is over, but you never know. They are taking themselves very seriously. They are allowing themselves to amplify and act as weapons for the personal property protection of a very small number of alpha cattle, and they will not want to look at that uncomfortable idea.

The Bywater Herd is out to stampede a project called the Sun Yard. In contrast to the various “anti” movements we have seen in the downriver neighborhoods over the past few years, this newest configuration has some interesting characteristics.

Demographically, the new herd is younger than earlier opponent groupings. The crowds that opposed Via Latrobe on Press Street and Stateside at Mazant and Chartres tended to look and sound old. Their herds moved more slowly. Stampede might have been a medical risk. Their leaders spoke deliberately, trying to sound reasonable, even when they had no facts that could pass a Snopes test and nothing that could pass for logic, or even law. They were property protectors, more worried about a free parking space in front of their house or the tranquility of the rocking chairs on their front porches than the evolution of the city. They were anxious about an invasion of new, younger people engaged in non-traditional businesses like online gaming, internet security or even hacking. People whose lifestyles they did not understand. People who might be . . . you know . . . not just like us.

In the Sun Yard stampede, we are seeing a younger demo ripening into middle-aged conservative property protectors but still capable of snorting and pawing the ground. Among them a few of the old guard are joining in, but they look out of place. Some who used to pass as New Urbanists and Smart Growth advocates, who attended and applauded talks by Andrés Duany and other planners who tried to teach us how cities work, but then quickly joined the hive mind of the ruminating, rocking chair, old herd when Stateside came to their backyards, have joined this faster-tempo, younger demo, telling themselves that Liz Solms and Giuliano Pignataro’s Sun Yard project will end the life and culture of Bywater. There may be life after Sun Yard, Jim, but not as we know it.

Some of these anti-life veterans may speak at council. You can tell which ones they are by a pseudoscientific layer of fluff about sound and music they coat their snarling rejection with. Mostly amateur stuff, fear with a thin coating of physics terms.

Mark Gonzalez of Neighbors First will almost certainly be there to offend reason and annoy the Council. You have to admire his pluck. At Sun Yard NPPs and City Planning, Gonzalez boldly chose to say silly things, largely made up, recently adding insult to his repertoire of unreason. I don’t mind offensive speech if it has some wit in it, but he really should get better before he takes his act public. He usually manages to get positioned late in the speaker list, avoiding rebuttal of his lame Don Rickles tribute act. Perhaps Council Members will read this and make sure that he is on the microphone before me, so I can have a go at helping his efforts to look ridiculous.

A goodly few of the rest will go on about a mythical “creative” mystique that infuses Bywater like a sweet-smelling seductive swamp gas. They don’t think the creative pretensions of the neighborhood are in its residents, who may be really or just pretentiously creative. They seem to be telling us that the muses’ breath has been absorbed into the cypress cladding and cracked streets so you can catch it by moving in (as long as Sun Yard does not exist) – and by syncing with the rhythm of the herd to keep others out.

The heifers and bulls and steers in the Bywater herd at Council on April 19th, holding up their synchronized signs and joining together in communal outcry, will not see themselves as units filling out the numbers in a herd assembled by a few property protectors. They will not want to believe that they have been subtly recruited for the purpose of joining in tactical stampedes by a few adjoining owners who have had this plan on simmer since at least 2016, who craftily recruited a few influential musicians and artists to spread the fashionable word.

The ringleaders want tranquility and no change. They solemnly announce that among the rights granted by the grace of St Claude is the guarantee that his eponymous Avenue will remain forever just as it was when they put the down payment on their houses. They want it to be as quiet as Metairie or a genteel stretch of Lower Garden – but they don’t want to live in those places. Oh no – because when you live on a quiet block of Laurel Street instead of North Rampart, you might just be a personal injury lawyer or a pet store owner. You don’t pick up any of that creative cachet that sticks to your natural fiber clothing from living or working on North Rampart on the downriver side of Press Street (Homer Plessy Way since yesterday, in case you didn’t know).

All you unfortunate readers who live in less creative neighborhoods, know now that by decree of The Herd, ye are forever lesser. You partake not of the sacred “culture” of Bywater – while it may last, for it is a culture so fragile, so ephemeral, so precious, that it will evaporate into evanescent dust if a modestly sized business called Sun Yard opens on St Claude Avenue. In fact, I think I might start the first draft of the History of Old Bywater before it joins Atlantis in the mists of time.

The Sun Yard is a displacer, says the Herd – 99% white, middle class, relatively well-off owners of gentrified property, several times appreciated in dollar value since they bought them. I don’t think they like to discuss how they became the owners of the land that was inhabited not so long ago to over double current density by a 65% African American working class wage earning majority, now dispersed to lower cost neighborhoods by de-industrialization and the processes of urban evolution – the processes that make most of us at times displacers and at others, displaced. The herd stalwarts speaking at Council are no less displacers than their target. For such, friends, herd members and free people both – such is life in cities. Since Harappa, Ugarit, Athens, Rome, Lutetia, Londinium, Bombay and Peking – that’s life – as we do know it, Jim.

From this NOLAscape herd of mostly one: I like Bywater. I kind-of live in it. Holy ground that bestows creativity with the last four digits of its zip code? Give me a break. So fragile that it will be fractured by the Truck Farm transforming to the Sun Yard – come on.

Are they really going to look at our City Council members and say that with a straight face?

They got away with it at City Planning largely because Kyle Wedberg, principal of NOCCA, is a leading Commissioner who repeatedly exhibits bias when Bywater is on the agenda. Wedberg seems to be an excellent leader of NOCCA, who as a Commissioner – is an excellent leader of NOCCA. He lives in Bywater and works at one of its best edges, directing one of New Orleans’ finest institutions. His bias in zoning matters is so strong and visible that he really should recuse himself – but he doesn’t. He tugs CPC toward the outcome that suits himself and friends. I am not hinting at corruption. I don’t for a minute doubt that Wedberg thinks he is doing the right thing. But he transparently mixes the personal with the civic. He should not be a Planning Commissioner at all, or at the very least, pending replacement, should be recused from anything to do with Marigny and Bywater.

Our current City Council, though, is made of tougher stuff.

Some of the Sun Yard opponents at Council will bring in the industrial STR plague. They are right to oppose it. They will attack AirBnB, under banner of which absentee owners have bought hundreds of residential properties and turned them into unregulated hotels that remove residential space from the market. They blame rising rents on STR, unproven but possibly true – then step away from reason trying to associate small hotels with it. While I agree with them that STR needs radical reduction and much better law and limits, they are selling a false but persistent equivalence. I heard it at Council yesterday about another small hotel project, that Lower Garden and Coliseum neighborhood associations objected to, accompanied by their leader or lobbyist Michelle Landrieu, sister of the Mayor and board member of Covenant House, therefore associate of the egregious Jim Kelly, head of Covenant and for New Orleans a truly malignant influence.  

In fact, small hotels have an interest to oppose industrial scale STR. Sun Yard will be a stronger advocate for better STR containment law than the herd will be. If they really want more residential accommodation in Bywater and Marigny, they would do better to cultivate Sun Yard than oppose it.  

The herd scares off independent, fair support for the Sun Yard project. The normal Bywaterite is reluctant to stand in front of the stampede. Her friends are out there in the thick of the buffalo charge. She doesn’t do this kind of thing for a living or a hobby. She doesn’t want to do battle against her inflamed neighbors, and even less to be criticized or shunned by friends and neighbors when the dust settles. Unherded citizens understand that whether Sun Yard is there or not will make no difference whatsoever to their lives, and no significant difference to the neighborhood, except possibly to offer a nice new place that they might want to have a meal, a drink or a swim in. Or not – we all get to choose. So they leave the field open for the stampede.

So sadly the normal people of Bywater (note homage to “the plain people of Ireland,” ennobled by Flann O’Brien) in the event that they have even heard of this battle, are very unlikely to stand against the stampede at City Council. It takes the broader, clearer vision of the Bywater Neighborhood Association and the odd ones out (like me), constrained by a cracked Quixotic oath, to stand at the annoying Mickey Mouse microphone Council provides for public speakers, to stare down the bloodshot rage and printed signs, risking a sound trampling by the snorting, snarling herd pawing its sanctified ground.

In optimistic moments, few and far between, I think an article like this might encourage a few more people to face the civic legislature with the herd behind them, signs aloft, to speak some reason on either side. But reason is a red rag to the herd. They will just print another clenched fist sign, to counter sense with symbol, trying to link some simple, local, private backyard protectionism to important social movements.

May I offer a short shot of reality? Sun Yard will be okay. The owners are going to face-lift the properties, which need it. For me, that comes first by a long old chalk. Land use is secondary. If the first business of Sun Yard doesn’t work, they will adjust or fine-tune until they get as close as they can to a good thing. If they can’t make it work, they will sell up, and somebody else’s vision will take over. Ecce homo, and what’s new? More important by far is our physical environment. Fifteen years from now, the imaginary fragile culture that The Herd is writing prayers about won’t even be a memory. It will be hard to find mention of it in the archives. But if the renovation to the properties is done well, the neighborhood will indeed be and remain lifted up a notch. That counts.

Tell The Herd: I am saddling up for cowboy work.

6 April 2018

© NOLAscape April 2018

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