Fire destroys Mid-City drug house

June 14, 2008

By Jonathan Edwards

A two-alarm fire ripped through a vacant Mid-City drug house Saturday morning and burned it to the ground.

“I was there, seeing all the smoke get darker and darker, and then the flames shot out,” Joseph said, who lives across the street but declined to give his last name. “Electrical wires was popping and s*** under that. It was a hell of a fire. I don’t know what caused it, but I know it was a big-ass damn fire.”


Joseph Brock

It took 50 firefighters 2 1/2 hours to control the blaze at the two-story building at the corner of Banks and South Gayoso streets. No other structures were damaged.

The vacant building was a well-known hub of drug activity, said community activist Jospeh Brock.

“Thank the lord!” Brock wrote in an e-mail to members of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization in the hours after the fire. “The drug white house on the corner on Banks Street & S. Gayoso is burning down!…with this house gone it will help with the bring down the drug traffic.”

No one was injured, and the cause of the fire remains under investigation.

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Award-winning project aims to create citizen-responsive government

June 13, 2008

Neighborhood Associations’ disregard of renters a roadblock to full citizen involvement, says project director

By Jonathan Edwards

The New Orleans Citizen Participation Project met today to jumpstart a grassroots efforts that would take decision-making power out of the backrooms at City Hall and put it in the hands of residents.

We have to have an open chain of information between government and citizens, said Khalil Shahyd, the director of the New Orleans CPP, when he gave an hour-long presentation to community leaders and activists from across the city.

Right now the decisions are already made, the contracts are already signed, things are already done before citizens have any chance for involvement, Shahyd said.

A formal citizen participation project “allows residents to be aware of the activities of government before they occur,” according to a pamphlet distributed during the meeting at the Beacon of Hope Resource Center in Lakeview. “It requires that neighborhood residents be enabled to take part in the planning process and monitor progress on public or private projects and programs.

“Instead of having people overflowing City Council chambers in distress about proposed development, residents will be made aware of all plans and be allowed to give input on those decisions that directly affect their community,” the pamphlet continues.

“It makes sure that what happens is what people want” Shahyd said. An issue arises or a proposal is presented—residents hear about it and decide if it is in their best interest.

The idea is not new, nor is it unique to New Orleans, said Shahyd. The PowerPoint presentation moved on, revealing a map of the United States. Stars started popping up on the screen, representing already-existing citizen participation programs: Sacramento, Houston, New York City, Baltimore—at least a dozen lit up.

Some of these programs have been around since the 1970s, but most were created in a “top-down decision” by a city’s government, Shahyd said. Local officials decided that their citizens needed this tool, and so they gave it to them. New Orleans will be the first “ground-up” approach, emerging from a collection of neighborhood groups.

“Our citizen participation program will be created by you. It is a people-driven exercise, and everyone is invited,” said Shahyd. “We hope that in six months to a year that we can create the first bottom-up, citizen-led democracy in America. It sounds like a lot, but we can do it.”

In the CPP model used in other cities, neighborhood associations are the grassroots forums where residents voice concerns over issues or make a decision passed down from city government, said Shahyd. He then attacked some New Orleans neighborhood organizations, though none by name, for excluding certain groups in their respective communities.

“We’re seeing a return to a land-based type of participation,” Shahyd said, referring to a time in early U.S. history when the right to vote required property ownership. “They’re not really operating as a neighborhood association, but as a homeowners association,” he said. The interests of renters are often ignored, said Shahyd.

Tension between homeowners and renters is not a new subject for Shahyd. He addressed them in an August 2006 interview as many New Orleanians were returning to the city after a Katrina-induced exile. On camera, an emotional Shahyd mentions an unnamed contingent of New Orleans residents who did not want renters, or rental properties, back in the city:

“We have to understand: whether you’re a homeowner or you’re a renter, it’s not because people own land, or because they own property that they want to come back,” he said. “But it’s because this land owns us; we belong to this land.

“And so young or old, crippled, blind, dumb and crazy, people want to come back to here, because this land is concrete, the soil, the river, the lake—everything—it owns us, and we belong to it. It has nothing to do with homeowners and renters,” said Shahyd.

Shahyd and the New Orleans CPP aim to use neighborhood associations, including the homeowners they represent, as the primary conduits of information between city government and individual residents. Open communication, Shahyd said, is the key to citizen-led decision-making.

“If citizens don’t have the relevant information, they can’t make decisions that affect their lives and their neighborhoods,” said Shahyd. A citizen participation project in New Orleans would increase government transparency and accountability, and would do so by creating a system where there is an open flow of information between elected officials and the citizens they represent.

Mike Murphy, the community outreach director for Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic, asked Shahyd how the project would acquire operational funding.

Many already-existing citizen participation projects are funded by their city’s annual budget, Shahyd responded. This, however, leaves them open to fluctuations in the political climate. Nevertheless, a similar project in New Orleans would probably acquire funding from the city budget, but Shahyd also said private funding was possible as well.

The New Orleans CPP is in the middle of a two-month campaign to inform city residents about their project and galvanize energy for their upcoming July summit after winning a $25,000 grant from the Seattle-based Case Foundation, according to a May 9 press release. Resident input at the summit, Shahyd says, will determine many key features of New Orleans citizen participation project will look like.

“The Summit will provide additional information on the concept of a formal Citizen Participation Program; more important, citizen attendees will begin the work of designing the CPP process going forward and determining how they wish to guide the project through the design and implementation phases.”

Neither Kate Parker, the president of the Faubourg-St. John Neighborhood Association, nor Jennifer Weishaupt, the president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, could be reached by deadline. Lifeblood Beat will continue tracking this story.


A journalist’s manifesto

June 11, 2008

By Jonathan Edwards

 

Scarcely a year ago, I stood arms akimbo, a newly minted bachelor’s degree in hand, confidently gazing across the panoramic horizon of infinite post-college possibilities.

 

I was going to grab the world by the horns, wrestle her to the ground like a rodeo cowboy and give her a big ol’ noogie until she squealed, “Olly olly oxen free!” and gave me what I wanted. The problem: I didn’t know what that was.

 

She ruthlessly jumped on my hesitation and indecision, got out of her prone position and punched me square in the face.

 

Like many cohorts of Generation Y, college graduation and the myriad career opportunities that would seemingly define who I would be forever and ever—this situation sent me into a paralyzing downward spiral of inaction where I languished for months.

 

I tried to lock myself away and hide from a world that kept pounding at my door, shouting, “This is your quarter-life crisis! Open up and tell us what you want to be immediately! You are a grown up!” 

 

A plumber, a cook, a retail salesman, a bartender, a six-month volunteer in post-Katrina New Orleans—I recently thought it would be fun to be either a taxi cab driver or a bike messenger—I have made a valiant effort to evade the Career Police. But they keep knocking, undeterred.

 

Like many baby boomers parenting their coming-of-age, Gen-Y youngsters, mine have been tirelessly supportive, and even my Greatest-Generation grandmother cannot be mussed into a cut-your-hair-and-get-a-real-job admonishment:

 

“You spent $60,000 of my money to graduate from UC Berkeley, and now you want to tend bar in New Orleans?” would have been a justified question coming from her.

 

<BEAT>

 

“That sounds great. I am so proud of you. I wish I had explored more when I was your age,” is what she actually said when we touched on the subject months ago over the telephone. It wasn’t a backhanded compliment either. She meant it.

 

Grandma’s understanding aside, the time for indecision and inaction is over. This article is not only my answer to the Career Police—“I am a journalist.  I am a writer”—but a statement of how I will use this blog, and where I think journalism should aim as a profession.

 

In his March 2008 New Yorker article “Out of Print”, Eric Alterman foresees the inexorable demise of the printed newspaper:

 

“[T]rends in circulation and advertising––the rise of the Internet, which has made the daily newspaper look slow and unresponsive; the advent of Craigslist, which is wiping out classified advertising––have created a palpable sense of doom. Independent, publicly traded American newspapers have lost forty-two per cent of their market value in the past three years, according to the media entrepreneur Alan Mutter.”

 

After deciding this dying industry was the place for me, I wrote a cover letter, brushed the rust off my resume and collected story samples from my days as a student journalist.  I sent it all to 25 newspapers in Louisiana and New England. 

 

My three-month effort to break into the business proved Alterman’s article right.  Readers, more and more, are going online for their news. This means less money for newspapers, which has resulted in layoffs across the country. 

 

With veteran journalists seasoned by five to ten years experience gunning for the few entry-level positions available, I have not had the chance of brushing up on my interviewing skills, to put it politely.

 

So I am online with Lifeblood Beat to report the pulse of Mid-City and New Orleans, the neighborhood and city in which I live. I am determined to take advantage of Alterman’s doomsday thesis instead of being crushed under the forces it describes.

 

While the tide is shifting on the subject, most American newspapers still insist that there is an Objective Truth—capital O, capital T—and that reporters function as the unbiased conduits of this Truth from an event to the page. 

 

I make no such claim. Lifeblood Beat is to be a space for professional-quality journalism firmly rooted in issues and interests relevant to my community: Mid-City first, New Orleans second.

 

I will research and interview and write articles. But I do not want people experiencing this blog to read its content as passive storages of idle information.  React, engage, debate, dialogue—I want Lifeblood Beat to be an active part of an active community.

 

Say I got it right. Say I completely missed an entire perspective relevant to an issue. Say that selling liquor at the Brother’s Food Mart will/will not adversely affect the surrounding neighborhood because x, y, and z. Say something. 

 

I know I will.