Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Trumpet Contributor, NOLA Blogger Profile: Marcia Wall of 411 NOLA

On St. Joseph’s Day a few years back, a man and a woman stumbled upon our celebrations at St. Augustine. I was serving food from our altar and asked them if they wanted any. They asked me what the cost was. I replied that there was no cost and began explaining to them the customs and traditions of St. Joseph’s Day. They were thrilled to be with locals and partake in our traditions but noted that if it weren’t for mere chance, they never would have found us. Read more here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Michelle Obama Announces Commitments to Provide Millions of People Access to Healthy, Affordable Food

Michelle Obama Announces Commitments to Provide Millions of People Access to Healthy, Affordable Food

SUPERVALU, Walgreens, Walmart and regional retailers among those making major commitments

First Lady Michelle Obama joined leaders from major retailers, foundations and small businesses today to announce commitments that will provide access to healthy, affordable food to millions of people in underserved communities. The commitments from SUPERVALU, Walgreens, Walmart and regional retailers will include opening or expanding over 1,500 stores to serve communities throughout the country that currently do not have access to fresh produce and other healthy foods. These stores estimate that they will create tens of thousands of jobs and serve approximately 9.5 million people in these communities throughout the country. Currently, 23.5 million Americans – including 6.5 million children – live in low-income areas that lack stores likely to sell affordable and healthy foods. Studies have shown that limited access to healthy food choices can lead to poor diets, higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases.

“The commitments we’re announcing today have the potential to be a game-changer for kids and communities all across this country,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “We can give people all the information and advice in the world about healthy eating and exercise, but if parents can’t buy the food they need to prepare those meals because their only options for groceries are the gas station or the local minimart, then all that is just talk. Let’s Move is about giving parents real choices about the food their kids are eating, and today’s announcement means that more parents will have a fresh food retailer right in their community – a place that sells healthy food, at reasonable prices, so they can feed their families the way they want.”

Mrs. Obama has been leading a nationwide effort to combat childhood obesity so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight. The Let’s Move! Campaign is a comprehensive, collaborative, and community-oriented initiative that has sought to engage every sector of society to tackle head-on the many different factors that lead to childhood obesity. Today’s announcement is a historic step towards addressing that issue and achieving the primary goal of Let’s Move! – solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation

The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the President identified access to healthy, affordable food as key to solving childhood obesity. In February 2010, Mrs. Obama traveled to Philadelphia where she announced the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a multi-million dollar public and private investment to improve access to healthy food. The President’s 2012 Budget proposes funding for the multi-year initiative to increase the availability of affordable, healthy foods in underserved urban and rural communities. The Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Treasury are proposing $330 million in financing to community development financial institutions, other nonprofits, public agencies, and businesses with sound strategies for addressing the healthy food needs of communities.

Partnership for a Healthier America secured the following commitments and will be working with the companies to evaluate and monitor their progress with these efforts. Decisions on store locations will be made with communities based on their needs.

National Commitments

SUPERVALU – Committed to opening 250 Save-A-Lot stores over the next five years
SUPERVALU is committed to opening 250 new Save-A-Lot stores over the next five years in areas with limited or no access to healthy foods, and estimates that these new stores will serve approximately 3.75 million people and create more than 6,000 new jobs. Headquartered in Minnesota, SUPERVALU is one of the nation’s largest retail and wholesale grocers serving customers across the United States through a network of approximately 4,294 stores, includingACME, Albertsons, Cub, Farm Fresh, Hornbacher’s, Jewel-Osco, Lucky, Save-A-Lot, Shaw’s, Shop ‘N Save and Shoppers, as well as independent grocery retailers served primarily by the company’s food distribution business.

Walgreens – Committed to expanding its food offering to include whole fruits and vegetables, and other healthy options in at least 1,000 stores
Walgreens is the nation’s largest drugstore chain, operating 7,733 drugstores in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. More than 45% of those stores are located in underserved communities. As part of today’s announcement, Walgreens is committing to convert at least 1,000 of its stores into food oasis stores. This means that whole fruits and vegetables, pre-cut fruit salads and green salads as well as basic amenities like breads and ready-made meals will now be available at these locations, along with Walgreens accessible pharmacy, health and wellness services. This will bring basic fresh and healthy food to many communities where there currently is limited or no access. Walgreens estimates that these stores will serve nearly 4.8 million people.

Walmart – Committed to opening or expanding up to 300 stores by 2016
In January, Mrs. Obama joined Walmart executives to help launch the company’s initiative to make food healthier and healthier food more affordable. Walmart’s healthier food initiative will reduce sodium and added sugars form packaged food items, make healthier food more affordable and develop a simple front-of-package seal for identifying healthier food choices. Today, Walmart is committing to opening or expanding 275 to 300 stores which will serve more than 800,000 people in rural and urban areas with limited or no access to grocery options. Walmart also estimates that more than 40,000 associates will work in these stores.

Regional Commitments

California FreshWorks Fund – Secured $200 million to promote healthy food retailing in California
A project of The California Endowment and an all-star team of partners, FreshWorks is a $200 million public-private partnership loan fund created to increase access to healthy, affordable food in underserved communities, spur economic development, and inspire innovation in healthy food retailing. The fund will provide financing to grocery stores and other healthy food retailers and distributors who meet a subset of skillfully developed program guidelines designed to move healthy food retailing forward in an affordable and accessible way and prioritize healthy choices from top to bottom. FreshWorks estimates that this fund will create or retain approximately 6,000 jobs.

Brown’s Super Store – Committed to building one new supermarket in Philadelphia and expanding one existing store in Chelthenham, PA
Brown’s Super Stores is a family owned and operated supermarket chain of Philadelphia area ShopRite supermarkets and was founded in 1988 by President and CEO Jeffrey Brown. Brown operates 10 ShopRite Supermarkets in the Philadelphia area, with five of his stores located in communities that were previously underserved communities. Brown will be opening one new supermarket in North Philadelphia and expanding an existing location in Chelthenham, PA as part of Mrs. Obama’s campaign. The state-of-the-art stores will feature several new innovations including a culturally inspired International Foods Department, Health Clinic, social service office and Pharmacy. Brown expects this expansion and new store will create approximately 325 jobs and serve 150,000 people.

Calhoun Grocer – Committed to building 10 stores in Alabama and Tennessee
Calhoun is an African American, family owned, small local chain based in Montgomery, Alabama. They serve areas in and around Mobile where their stores are often the only ones serving the community they are operating in. They are working to expand their reach and work on improving access to communities in the south who are underserved. As part of today’s announcement, Calhoun has committed to building 10 stores over the next 5 years in Alabama and Tennessee. Calhoun estimates they will create approximately 500 jobs and serve 10,000 people.

Klein’s Family Markets – Committed to opening one new store in Baltimore, MD
Klein’s Family Markets is headquartered in Forest Hill, MD and operates 7 ShopRite supermarkets in Maryland. They were founded in 1925 and have been operating supermarkets for four generations. Klein’s has committed to building one new store in Baltimore, MD and estimates creating approximately 275 jobs and serving 75,000 people. The state-of-the-art store will feature several new innovations including a culturally inspired International Foods Department, Health Clinic, social service office and Pharmacy.

A fact sheet on today’s announcement is available athttp://www.letsmove.gov/sites/letsmove.gov/files/Food_access_factsheet.pdf.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What’s Next after Retiring? A Story of One Woman’s Reflection and Revelation

By Denise Botticher

Almost a year to the day after her retirement from a high-pressure job with the City of New Orleans as its Chief Administrative Officer, Brenda Hatfield started her “What’s next?” The “What’s next?” came to her after achieving a successful career of nearly 45-years in public service and corporate business in addition to active involvement in the community.

What’s next for Brenda meant taking a full year to reconnect with friends and family before taking on a new adventure. “I really had never taken time to be free and relax without having a schedule or boss,” said Brenda. “The idea of retiring really frightened me because I had always worked. I’m energetic and goal oriented. The joke with my family was ‘She’s really not going to retire.’

Brenda isn’t alone when it comes to planning life after retirement and taking time to be with friends and family. According to a recent AARP survey of over 400 Louisianans who are 50-plus years in age, many said they, too, wanted to reconnect with loved ones. Thirty-eight percent said they were looking forward to planning vacations and traveling, and 20 percent said they were looking forward to pursuing their hobbies and interests.

While Brenda was cleaning out a drawer, she came upon pages of notes she had written outlining her personal vision. She unfolded the papers and reflected upon what she had written some time ago. Enjoy my home. Community involvement. Education.

“That’s when I started looking online for opportunities in Gonzales where I live. Late one night, I opened my email and saw an opportunity from AARP Louisiana. It was a recruitment piece to become Louisiana’s next volunteer state president. I said, ‘That’s it!’, and I immediately started writing my cover letter,” said Brenda.

After a competitive process, AARP appointed Brenda as Louisiana’s State President, the top volunteer leadership position representing nearly 500,000 members in the state. “I’m honored to have been chosen to lead the volunteer efforts in Louisiana for AARP,” said Hatfield. “AARP has been a longtime trusted partner and advocate for the 50-plus population in Louisiana on issues such as health care, long-term care, economic security and livable communities. I’m excited to work with AARP and help all Louisianans live their best life.”

Hatfield will serve an initial two-year appointment and will lead AARP’s Executive Council as its Chair. The council, in collaboration with Louisiana’s State Director and staff, develops the framework for the state’s strategic plan and implements planned activities and legislative initiatives in the areas of economic security, health and livable communities.

“I was serious when I said I wanted to find something meaningful. And I’ve found it,” said Brenda.

Do you have a story to tell about your “What’s next?” Please share it with us at www.aarp.org/shareyourthoughts.

Green it Yourself July Workshop

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

“The Budget Breakdown”

Citizen Training On The City’s Budget Process

Wednesday, July 13th, 6-8pm

Grace Episcopal Church

3700 Canal St.

Presented by the New Orleans Coalition for Open Governance

Pre-register by responding to this email or call (504)940-2207

Free and Open to the Public

This training, conducted by former New Orleans Commissioner of Criminal Justice, Bob Rhoden, is designed to help you understand the budget process and how you can have more influence on how your tax dollars are spent.

The City of New Orleans’ new budget process calls for public input on how your tax dollars are going to be spent across six result areas: Public Safety, Children & Families, Economic Development, Sustainable Communities, Open & Effective Government, and Innovation.
  • Did you know that 58% of the city’s budget goes to public safety? Are we spending the right amount of money on the right programs?

  • Does spending 3% on Children & Families, 2% on Economic Development, and 17% for Sustainable Communities make for a safer city?

  • Did you know that greater community input last year could have resulted in more money for Emergency Medical Services or a Spanish Interpreter for Municipal Court?

Monday, July 11, 2011

School Facilities Master Plan Prep Meeting

Training session for citizenry input in budgetary process set

By Matt Davis


The New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance is holding a train­ing session for citizens next week to teach them how, when, and where best to speak up so that their voices are included in the city’s budget process, which is already underway.

The coalition, of which The Lens is a member, wants to help citizens identify areas where their input can be effective in setting the city’s budget priorities for 2012.

“What we’re hoping to do is galvanize residents into working with more intention on the budget and giving informed input into budget allocation,” said Deborah Cotton, communications director for the coalition. “Right now the majority of the money is going to public safety, but it’s not clear whether we’re spending the right amount of money on the right programs.”

The session will be led by Bob Rho­den, a former city official who has experience, familiarity and contacts with the current budget planners in Mayor Mitch Lan­drieu’s administration. In advance of the meeting, the coalition also has been in communication with Norman Foster, chief financial officer for the Landrieu administration, Cotton said.

“He is helping us to think about our overall plan, how to look at the budget and find key strategic areas where folks can have the most impact,” Cotton said.

The Landrieu administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The session will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Grace Episcopal Church on Canal Street.

This article originally published in the July 11, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

The Politics of Public Education

By J. Samuel Cook

There is a saying in politics that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the table.

In lean times, when elected officials find anew their cost-cutting nerve, eliminating waste, fraud and abuse becomes a euphemism for cutting government services. Understanding this unfortunate fact of our political process, moneyed and influential groups who stand to benefit or lose from legislative sausage-making spend massive amounts of money to curry favor from decision-makers. There’s the oil lobby, which protects the interests of Big Oil. Then, there’s the gun lobby, which fights against any legislation they feel will infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of Americans. And then, there’s the ethanol lobby, which works to protect farm subsidies. The list of “lobbies” goes on and on, with each special interest group doing whatever it can to stay “off the table.” Usually, those efforts pay off.

Unfortunately, the most vulnerable Americans seldom employ powerful lobbyists who can maneuver the Beltway or descend on state capitols to press for favorable legislation for their clients. Of course, this leaves the disinherited altogether voiceless as movers and shakers make decisions which most often affect their lives. At the bottom rung of the political food chain, as usual, are our nation’s children. Louisiana, it seems, is no different. And while the state consistently ranks as one of the lowest in the nation for education, (ranking a paltry 45th for “best educated” states in 2010), it seems public education is low on Louisiana’s list of priorities. Recently, the Louisiana State House voted to cut $130 million from the state’s 2011-2012 operating budget. Of course, $11 million of those cuts fell squarely on the backs of the state-controlled Recovery School District and were in addition to more than $310 million in education cuts since 2008.

As if draconian budget cuts weren’t enough, a relatively new push for “private school vouchers,” funded as an appropriation from the state’s general fund, have become the latest craze in education reform. The vouchers, which pay up to 90 percent of a student’s private school education up to $7,562, assist roughly 1,943 New Orleans youth to attend private schools. While private school vouchers are not necessarily an evil, they are merely a panacea that obscures much larger systemic problems in education, particularly when measured against the backdrop of the harsh reality that the Orleans Parish School District and Recovery School District combined serve nearly 40,000 students. Altogether, the Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program (SSEP) assist a mere 5 percent of the total number of students who receive a public education in New Orleans.

And while groups such as the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Opportunities are lobbying the legislature to expand the program, 95 percent of public school students—the majority of whom are poor and minority—are being left behind. While it’s true that private school vouchers provide choice for low-income families, this push for education privatization, long a cause célèbre of conservatives, distracts from the pressing, important issue facing all Louisiana residents: how we fix public education in the state.

Even now, the debate rages regarding the return to local control of schools in Orleans Parish from the state’s Recovery School District to the Orleans Parish School Board. Education reformers insist that the Orleans Parish School Board, which has only overseen the city’s well-performing schools since Katrina, must put forth a plan which demonstrates its ability to maintain the academic growth experienced by previously-failing schools under the RSD. Conversely, there is a growing chorus among residents demanding a return to local control as a right of local governance. Teachers in Orleans Parish, having lost their collective bargaining rights, rightfully advocate for a bargaining agreement which recognizes their worth and validity to the educational process.

Their voices, however, are drowned out by those who wrongly claim that extending collective bargaining rights for New Orleans teachers would be too costly for the school system. On the whole, however, missing from the debate are the most important voices: those which advocate for the best education policies for New Orleans kids.

As Louisiana—and states across the nation—grapple with budget deficits and dwindling federal dollars, a single question arises: who will fight to spare our children’s interests from the chopping block?

Yes, ATMs are Taking Our Jobs: How Technology Can Create Unemployment

By J. Samuel Cook

When President Obama recently remarked during an interview with the Today Show that “when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller. Or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate,” his words became a running joke to conservatives, yet another exempli gratia that the community organizer-turned-president is blithely unaware of how the nation’s economy works. The chorus range out from conservative pundits ranging from Rush Limbaugh to Erick Erickson, accosting Obama for claiming, in a moment of stupor, that ATMs were responsible for the nation’s high unemployment (a quote Limbaugh claimed exemplified Obama’s “utter ignorance” and “insulting incompetence”; Phillip Klein of the Washington Examiner even suggested that “Obama doesn’t get ATMs or job creation”).

Indeed, Obama’s “ATM” remark, in which he suggested that structural issues with respect to the United States economy were responsible for slower-than-normal job growth, made for a good sound bite. And, properly spun, fit into the Right-Wing meme that the President lacks the business savvy to get the economy going again. Unfortunately for the Right, however, Obama’s remarks, to most economists, made perfect sense. Businesses are becoming much more efficient (and much more profitable) with fewer workers. And the advent of more sophisticated technology inadvertently results in greater efficiency for companies, which often results in fewer jobs for unskilled laborers. This effect is referred to as “creative destruction,” and for decades has been a rallying cry for conservatives.

Creative destruction, essentially, is what occurs when something new renders something old inefficient or ineffective. For example, the “assembly line” made famous in the manufacturing sector by Henry Ford, employed as many as 50 or 60 workers who each performed a specific task following its creation in 1913. Prior to the assembly line’s implementation, one worker took 20 minutes to assemble a single flywheel. Once Ford implemented the assembly line method, a Ford plant could assemble a flywheel in 5 minutes by breaking its creation down into 29 separate operations, thus employing 29 separate individuals for each task. By 1949, Ford had introduced the electric conveyer, which enabled production to increase its productivity from 429 cars in a nine-hour workday to more than 1,200 in a single day. Today, however, robots are largely used for welding and materials handling and assembly line workers, instead of focusing on a single function, are now responsible for multiple functions. Of course, these technological advances and increased manufacturing efficiency have resulted in fewer
manufacturing jobs for American workers. Today, manufacturing accounts for roughly 5% of American employment; a mere decade ago, it accounted for 10% of overall employment. For decades, American manufacturing provided a path to the middle class; today, it stands as a shell of its former self, an industry that while not dead is definitely on life support.
There are those who disagree with the President and correctly argue that new technologies naturally create employment opportunities for highly skilled workers. Indeed, in the manufacturing sector, there is a growing need for engineers and other individuals with advanced skills (such opportunities exist in sectors such as utilities, transportation, mining and agriculture, as well). As creative destruction has reduced the need for American workers in “blue collar” sectors, the new jobs borne of that process have required skills beyond those possessed by the workforce. When the automobile industry laid off thousands of factory workers at the height of the 2009 financial crisis, many of those workers lacked job skills which could transfer to other industries. Often, this is the quandary blue collar worker (workers who typically perform manual labor and earn an hourly wage) in an economic downturn. So while ATMs are not taking American jobs in a literal sense, the technological advances that often improve productivity and make labor conditions better for American workers often simultaneously result in less need for workers.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt and American Express CEO Ken Chenault estimated there are some 2 million jobs available in the United States manufacturing sector that are unfilled today because many American workers lack the advanced skills to fill them. A projected 3 million more such jobs are expected to become available as growing numbers of baby boomers retire in the next decade. This creates a significant void in the job market, and while younger workers (recent high school and college graduates) may be able to transition into the industry, baby boomers who find themselves out of work are faced with a difficult decision: acquire the skills necessary to return to the workforce or retire.

Politics is a contact sport, a rough-and-tumble scuffle whose participants expect to absorb their fair share of jabs. President Obama is no exception. But the structural issues of the American economy are so severe, so complex, they require putting aside the scorched earth politics that have come to define our political system and a level of intellectual honesty and serious unprecedented since the days of the Great Depression. If we’re going to win the future, it’s going to take a common sense of purpose and belief in American exceptionalism to put Americans back to work and get our economy moving again. Let’s hope Rush Limbaugh and Eric Erickson got the memo.

J. Samuel Cook is director of the 7th Ward Neighborhood Center. He is pursuing a Ph.D.
in public policy at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Southern University.

Did New Orleans Media Ignore Police Violence After Hurricane Katrina?

By Jordan Flaherty

Monday, June 27

This article originally appeared at Truth-out.org:


Opening arguments begin today in what observers have called the most important trial New Orleans has seen in a generation. It is a shocking case of police brutality that has already redefined this city’s relationship to its police department, and radically rewritten the official narrative of what happened in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina. Five police officers are facing charges of shooting unarmed African-Americans in cold blood, killing two and wounding four, and then conspiring to hide evidence. Five officers who participated in the conspiracy have already pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against their fellow officers.

Jose Holmes Jr. was shot several times, then as he lay bleeding an officer stood over him and fired point blank at his stomach. Two other relatives of Bartholomew were also badly wounded.

The shootings occurred on September 4, 2005, as two families were fleeing Katrina’s floodwaters, crossing New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge to get to dry land. Officers, who apparently heard a radio report about shootings in the area, drove up, leapt out of their vehicle, and began firing. Ronald Madison, a mentally challenged man, was shot in the back at least five times, then reportedly stomped and kicked by an officer until he was dead. His brother Lance Madison was arrested on false charges. James Brissette, a high school student, was shot seven times, and died at the scene. Susan Bartholomew, 38, was wounded so badly her arm was shot off of her body.

Danziger is one of at least nine recent incidents involving the NOPD being investigated by the US Justice Department, several of which happened in the days after the city was flooded. Officers have recently been convicted by federal prosecutors in two other high-profile trials. In April, two officers were found guilty in the beating of death of Raymond Robair, a handyman from the Treme neighborhood. In December, a jury convicted three officers and acquitted two in killing Henry Glover, a 31-year-old from New Orleans’ West Bank neighborhood, and burning his body.

From Survivors to Looters

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people around the world felt sympathy for New Orleans. They saw images of residents trapped on rooftops by floodwaters, needing rescue by boat and helicopter. But then stories began to come out about looters and gangs among the survivors, and the official response shifted from humanitarian aid to military operation. Then-Governor Kathleen Blanco sent in National Guard troops, announcing. “They have M-16s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will.” Warren Riley, at that time the second in charge of the police department, reportedly ordered officers to “take the city back and shoot looters.”

In the following days, several civilians – almost all of them African American - were killed under suspicious circumstances in incidents involving police and white vigilantes. For years, family members and advocates called for official investigations and were rebuffed. “Right after the hurricane there were individuals and organizations trying to talk about what happened on Danziger,” says Dana Kaplan, executive director of Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), a legal and advocacy organization based in New Orleans. “But their voices were marginalized.”

There is evidence that local media could have done a better job. Alex Brandon, a photographer for New Orleans’ Times-Picayune newspaper who later went on to work for Associated Press, testified in the Henry Glover trial that he knew details about the police killings that he didn’t reveal. “He saw things and heard things that proved to be useful in a criminal investigation. He didn't report them as news," wrote Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry after the Glover trial concluded.

Former Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan, who led an initial investigation of the Danziger officers, believes an indifferent local media bears partial responsibility for the years of cover-up. “They were looking for heroes,” he says. “They had a cozy relationship with the police. They got tips from the police, they were in bed with the police. It was an atmosphere of tolerance for atrocities from the police. They abdicated their responsibility to be critical in their reporting. If a few people got killed that was a small price to pay.”

Family members and advocates tried to get the stories of police violence out through protests, press conferences, and other means. Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, an organization dedicated to justice in reconstruction, held a tribunal in 2006 where they presented accusations of police violence – among other charges – to a panel of international judges, including members of parliament from seven countries. Activists even brought charges to the United Nations, filing a shadow report in February 2008 with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva.

But it was not until late 2008 that a journalist named AC Thompson did what the local media failed to do, and investigated these stories in detail. “It’s unfortunate that it took a national publication to really dig to the root,” says Kaplan, referring to Thompson’s work. “In New Orleans the criminal justice system has been so corrupt for so long that things that should be shocking didn’t seem to be raising the kind of broad community outrage that they should have.”

In 2009, after years of pressure from activists and the national attention brought on by AC Thompson’s reporting, the US Justice Department decided to look into the accusations of police violence. This has led to one of the most wide-ranging investigations of a police department in recent US history. Dozens of officers are facing lengthy prison terms, and corruption charges have reached to the very top of the department.

The Danziger trial is expected to last two months. Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso, and Robert Faulcon, the officers involved in the shooting, could receive life sentences if convicted. Sergeant Arthur Kaufman, who was not on the bridge, is charged only in the conspiracy and could receive a maximum of 120 years. Justice Department investigations of other incidents are continuing, and it is likely that some form of federal oversight of the department will be announced in the coming months.

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute. His award-winning reporting from the Gulf Coast has been featured in a range of outlets including the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and Argentina's Clarin newspaper. He is the author of FLOODLINES: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. He can be reached at neworleans@leftturn.org, and more information about Floodlines can be found at floodlines.org. For speaking engagements, seecommunityandresistance.wordpress.com.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Musicians’ Village: A Place of Tradition and Music for the Future

By Michael Gottwald

As I walked down Bartholomew Street with Margie Perez, a tall, graceful singer who lives a block away, stopped to show me a concrete slab where many of the Musicians’ Village’s most famous residents had scrawled their names. Little Freddie King, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Bob French, and others had marked the ground beneath our feet as theirs. I realized that I wasn’t just strolling down any New Orleans street. I was inside a kind of residential hall of fame of local musicians.

It was only five years ago that the Musicians’ Village, constructed on the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Alvar and Bartholomew streets in the Upper Ninth Ward, with the support of big names and nationwide reverence for the area’s musical legacy, gave New Orleans one of its most prominent post-Katrina rebuilding success stories. Habitat for Humanity, in partnership with Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis, began an initiative to fill homes that would be erected by volunteers on recently purchased land for musicians who were displaced by the storm. If they met the criteria and were approved, they would receive a reduced-rate mortgage, with no interest; this was a traditional Habitat for Humanity deal, but entirely oriented around the city’s most famous profession. Ground was broken, pictures were taken and doors were opened. To ask how it is doing now, one should anticipate an answer as complex as to ask how the city itself is doing now.

On the surface, the story departs from the city’s own. Unlike New Orleans as a whole, the Musicians’ Village is at maximum capacity. All the houses are built, and all but two are without an owner currently. There are no plans to expand beyond its eight- acre spread of 77 homes. The construction, which began on Roman Street, then reached toward the lake on Alvar Street, and the final blocks were completed on Bartholomew Street in the last couple years.

Margie Perez’s home on the 1800 block of Alvar was one of the first built; you can tell by the fact that the solitary tree in her backyard, planted like everyone’s in the neighborhood as a gift from the LSU Agricultural Center, reaches up to the sky just above those of her neighbors.

“I lost everything,” Perez told me, in regard to what Hurricane Katrina did to the downstairs apartment in Broadmoor where she lived before the storm. Margie, a singer-songwriter in multiple bands, and a regular act on Frenchmen Street, has become a sort of de-facto spokeswoman for the Musicians’ Village – a role that has allowed her to meet former President Jimmy Carter and President Barack Obama, and even took her to Denver for the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

A Musical Home

Homeowners who are approved are required to perform 350 hours of sweat equity in the construction of their home or other Habitat homes, in lieu of a down payment, and Margie takes pride in her experiences.

“I was involved in every step – except the roof. I got up on the roof once, and I said, ‘I think I’ll leave this to someone who has less balance issues than I do,” Perez said. She was also gratified by the fact that volunteers were coming to give a whole week of their time and their family’s time – sometimes their only vacation all year – to work on her house.

However, if one looks beyond the newspaper snapshots, Margie’s sense of ownership and home comes from a place that isn’t exactly what you would expect. Originally from Washington, D.C., she had actually been living in New Orleans for only a year before the storm. “Once I qualified for the house here, I said, ‘All right, I really got to step up. I’m a musician, and I was in a couple bands before the storm, but … if I’ve got a house here, I got to really represent,’ ” she added. “I started working really, really hard, and it’s stayed with me. I sing in a whole bunch of bands, and I get to make music with some incredibly amazing people, the way it’s supposed to be here.”

“Survivor’s guilt” is a term she threw out, as we strolled along the finely cut lawns, the uniform houses, and the pastel-colored facades, in what almost seems like a suburban utopia. She doesn’t just refer to the weathering of the storm; one must have good credit or no credit to qualify for a Habitat home; and, given the nature of the business, many musicians didn’t fit the bill. Margie has always had a second job to ensure against these problems, but the fact that several aren’t so lucky clearly weighs on her.

It’s almost hauntingly quiet on this sunny, humid day in June, as we greet young children on bikes and admire one of Margie’s neighbors’ solutions to a flower problem she’s having herself in her front yard. She hugs a friend she hasn’t seen in a while – Jesse Brunet, who lives between Houma and Pass Christian, Miss. The Musicians’ Village is home to Brunet’s godmother, who is renowned Voodoo priestess Mama Lola. Later, I’ll see Mr. Brunet, his wife, and two young people cleaning their boat outside Lola’s house.

As we walk down Bartholomew Street back toward Margie’s, she stops me and, whispering, invites me to listen. I hear the faint sound of someone practicing drums inside their home. It’s the only sound I hear besides police sirens off in the distance, and birds chirping.

Gabriel Velasco is a Venezuelan-born drummer in a number of bands in New Orleans, including, but not limited to Otra, Government Magic and Equal Opportunity Employment. He was living in a family home in the Irish Channel before the storm, and his story is in some ways the inverse of Margie’s, having experienced exclusion from good opportunities in the wake of Katrina. For almost a year, Gabriel sought refuge in California because it seemed that the only opportunities for musicians remaining in New Orleans were on Bourbon Street.

“Each club has, in my opinion, sort of a level of how they treat musicians and why they pay and what-have-you, and unfortunately some of the better ones took a little bit longer to reopen,” Velasco told me. He would have stayed in California, too, but his Habitat application was approved, and he came back to New Orleans.

However, three years to the day after he moved into his new home on Bartholomew Street, he had to move out. Why? Because Gabriel was a victim of the Village’s most unfortunate problem to date: the drywall issue.

Drywall Dilemma

It began with a handful of residents comparing stories about blackened wiring, tarnished silverware, and air conditioning units turning off. Some had heard external reports of corrosive Chinese drywall, and, checking the label on theirs, put two and two together.

According to Gabriel, Habitat first declared to him and his neighbors that the drywall in the Musicians’ Village was not of this type. Then, when they did admit that it was, he says it took some time to draw their attention to the symptoms that would show up in homes like his, despite negative test results.

Aleis Tusa, the communications director for New Orleans Habitat for Humanity, refutes this claim. “I feel like we’ve been as diligent as possible about that.” In Habitat’s defense, the use of corrosive drywall is a problem that has crippled the Gulf Coast and its builders as a whole region since the storm. “I think we went above and beyond what was expected,” Tusa said. “A lot of homeowners in New Orleans, in the Gulf Coast, their builders and contractors are doing nothing for them.”

But even Margie, although not a victim herself, spoke to the perception amongst her neighbors. “For a while there, residents were feeling that Habitat was doing more damage control than speaking the truth about what was going on.”

More than holding any grudges, though, they talk about it simply as a deeply unfortunate revelation. It’s also one that proves that even New Orleans’ most lauded post-storm success story is not immune to the shadow of apathetic, bottom-line mentality that hindered so many other recovery efforts. On a personal level for Gabriel, temporarily moving out of his home so that Habitat could remediate it just meant an uncomfortable change to his professional habits. “Here, I have a lot of drums, I have recording equipment that I record people with and it’s a source of income as well…. [I] went from 1,100 square feet by myself to two rooms, basically,” he recounted. “I started taking every gig I got called for, gigs I didn’t even want to do, just so I could stay up on my chops with the drums and percussion, because I couldn’t really practice where I was.”

Storage pods dot the curbs of the Musicians’ Village streets these days, but only five or six homes on the blocks are left to be remediated by this point, according to Tusa.

The Village Stands United Through Difficulty

Beyond the drywall, the neighborhood isn’t an exception to the problems of the area that surrounds it. Crime has always been an acknowledged fact of the Village, ever since some neighbors started playing music together under the name The Copper Thieves, in reference to the materials thefts during the construction era. It became more grave when a few months ago, a teenager staying in a house on the 1800 block of Alvar was shot and killed on his porch, in what was reported to be a targeted hit-and-run. Months prior to that, across the street (not part of the Musicians’ Village) there was another homicide.

Mostly, however, surrounding neighbors are pleased to have a concentrated area of homeowners in a part of New Orleans that seems to be just about 50 percent occupied. “It’s beautiful. It’s quiet. Everywhere has its problems,” sums up Sandy Ricard, one of a handful of residents who is not a musician, (her housing here was sponsored by Habitat before it was deemed for the Musicians’ Village). For a woman who lost her job, her home, and eventually, after illness, her parents to Katrina, she is just grateful that Habitat was able to find a place for her. “I think other places have far more problems than we have going on,” she says. She enjoys sharing wine, food and conversation with her next- door neighbor, a Brazilian musician named Ricardo.

The Village Brings Hope of Music for Tomorrow

Finally, on August 25, the musicians will have a long-awaited opportunity to further strengthen ties with the community around them as well as their own internal community. A much-anticipated project ever since its conception five years ago, the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, in the heart of the neighborhood, will provide recording studios, performance space and after-school classes for young people – specifically and exclusively kids in the Upper Ninth Ward. And the goal for these kids is lofty: “Mr. Marsalis has a vision for a jazz orchestra,” said Michele Jean-Pierre, executive director of the center. More than anything, though, this sprawling building, similar to the brightly painted wood-beam style of the homes around it, will give this five-year-old neighborhood a place to convene, see each other and share conversation and music.

Ms. Jean-Pierre was meticulous; too, in making sure that the design for the center’s use was organically conceived from its neighbors’ ideas. “We conducted focus groups and collected information from the residents on how they could best be benefited by the center…. From those focus group sessions, I went on to develop a work plan.”

When the center opens in August, it will be almost six years to the day since Hurricane Katrina left the Upper Ninth flooded and almost totally abandoned. As always in New Orleans, the sentiment in the Musicians’ Village in regard to the future is one of hope – hope despite tragedy, and despite the complications on the path to recovery.

Five years ago, the woman who gave Sandy Ricard her home in the Village joked with her about her admittance being contingent on a deal with Sandy’s musically inclined daughter, then 15-years-old. “She said, ‘If you just promise us that your daughter would be able to come in and help with the community center.”… My daughter, now [that] she’s grown, she wants to live up to her promise; she still wants to come in and help.”