Monday, January 12, 2009

New Orleans. Rethinking Poverty?

Started, but unfinished
And that opportunity after the storm to rethink and tackle poverty in America in a new way? Ummmm. Yes, it is a catastrophic failure on a national level, but on a local level as well, with endemic corruption that could probably rival many places I have visited within the last year. Consequently, for a city that was almost completely inundated, New Orleans is being rebuilt piece by piece with heroic efforts from tons of people.
Local business in Lower 9th ward that serves some mean chicken
But, zooming out and thinking about this form a larger scale, is this really the best we can do? Is Global Green and Make it Right the best we have to offer? They make look, sound, and smell different, but at the end of the day, they seem like more of the same. Cost overruns and excessive technologies bump up the initial costs of housing for those who need it the most. High profile figures do their best to give money and wield their influence, yet at the end of the day, all of this is being subsidized and built in vulnerable areas. Housing was not the only thing destroyed, livelihoods were as well. If the housing is built, but the means to support those are not redeveloped, then the pattern of New Orleans will be repeated all over again, this time without a storm. Ronald Lewis, who is a lower 9th ward resident is fairly critical of the Make it Right project precisely because it is happening from outside the community. And because it is happening from outside the community, it stifles many possibilities for the community to actually take action and develop something that is of their true direction. It reminds of something someone described as ‘New Democracy,’ where people and communities are actively engaged in participation, they are asked their opinions, they are listened to, but at the end of the day, the end result is still the same, determined by those who set up the process in the first place.
The replacements of the public housing projects are reinterpreted in areas such as River Garden, built and defined by a prescribed notion of style, space, and livelihood made to look like a nice neighborhood under the mantra of HUD’s Hope IV program. Typically, these are mixed income, and the math NEVER lines up. Poor people get displaced, not only from housing units, but neighborhoods and networks as well.

River Garden
So, how then, do you really help jumpstart a community such as the lower 9th ward, and then allow it go on its own? Still working on that one.
But, there are many small scale efforts that are trying to get to the point. One of the projects within the Make It Right project was the Kieran Timberlake house. One of the architects described a much more holistic intention and approach with this particular model. The house is a prototype designed to transition from stick built construction to off-site fabrication, where a self sustaining local industry of component fabrication that could be maintained after the 9th Ward and surround­ing areas are rebuilt. Integrating broader social fabric and conditions into the process is a pretty good way to think about. And allowing the house to be easily customizable to allow the project to grow quickly seems like a good approach as well. This project seems to offer interesting ideas, but I have a fear many initial principles had been lost and it may remain as a one-off project?

Kieran Timberlake's Make it Right project
Another innovative example was the Project Home Again. This project is buying up people’s old flooded homes as they are and then selling them affordable new housing. As a group having the capital, they are able to invest more money into the houses and then resell them once there may be a demand in the area. Otherwise, most homeowners in this neighborhood would not be able to afford renovating their houses, much less be able to sell it.
Project Home Again
Tulane University has been very actively involved in the rebuilding, offering great bits of fresh thinking and young, idealistic, and hopeful creative minds and bodies to get down and dirty. Their work through the City Center has provided a number of wonderful examples and additions to contribute to the new identity of New Orleans. And there are countless quiet heroes working tirelessly on the ground, often in the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds. My host and good friend, who is a Rose fellow, is working hard to ensure that green can be affordable and accessible and understandable to not only low income residents, but low income housing developers.
So, while much of my commentary about New Orleans has been very critical, I do leave very hopeful, because this was one place where I felt that some of the problems we are now facing are going to change. This old guard, this old way of doing things, this status quo that has messed up things so bad as in the case of New Orleans, won’t last forever. And having met tons of young, energetic, optimistic, creative, and critical young minds and doers gives me great hope for what is to come. And I think the election of Obama was the first major step in that transition. And, as in many other places I have visited this year, the most vulnerable people persevere, move forward, and shape and build their environment to the best of their abilities, in spite of all the shit thrown in their faces. It is much easier to write and think about these issues from a distance, than trying to solve it and address it on the ground, everyday. I just basically looked and listened. So, mad props to all those quiet people DOING, trying so hard to offer new solutions.
Throughout the Lower 9th Ward, there are many signs that say “Roots Run Deep Here.” I finally really understand it. After seeing Trombone Shorty at Tipitino’s and dancing down the streets of Treme Sunday in a Second Line, I have realized how special this place really is. While I returned to back to my home country, New Orleans still felt like as rich and engaging city as any in the world.
Roots run deep

Second line


benedict said...

Hey - really good post, you might be interested to know it's being passed around the design community in the UK (which is how I found out about it) - where what you refer to as 'the new democracy' (that purports to emancipate people through 'participation' while actually moving away, in a rather non-egalitarian, technocratic-managerial way, from traditional procedures of representative democracy) is all the rage. I was wondering, though - who's called this 'the new democracy'? i'd be interested in following that term up. Cheers! Benedict Singleton

luke w perry said...

hey benedict. sorry for the delay. i have been finishing up my school work and the blog unfortunately has taken a back seat. i hope to slowly be resurrecting it again soon with some more posts from the US, especially related to the foreclosure crisis. regardless, i am happy to know people are still reading and finding it interesting. as for the term, "new democracy" i can't exactly remember who coined it. It migth have been an essay in the book "Architecture and Participation" do you know it? very, very good, by some british architects (peter blundell jones, jeremy till, etc). but, i will keep digging and let you know if i find anything. how are people challenging these new forms of participation?

benedict said...

Hi Luke - sorry for taking so long to get back to you, I'm writing my PhD thesis and when I'm not writing it, find it very hard to apply myself to anything that involves writing!

I checked out Architecture and Participation on Amazon at your recommendation, and promptly bought it... it's very good. So, thanks a lot for that! The 1960s Giancarlo de Carlo essay that starts it off is fantastic.

The problem with (what I call on my thesis) 'the community industry' is that it's really hard to critique. Partly, this is a semantic issue... 'community' denotes not just a social network or a group but one that is *approved of*. It's a powerful rhetorical tool: if you argue against it, you can be accused of being 'against' (a) 'community', like some kind of Nietszchean ultra-individualist pro-market conspicuous-consumption-frenzied lunatic. But the kinds of 'communities' communitarian philosophers (Giddens, Etzioni, Putnam etc.) talk about - who have deeply informed these kinds of corporate-governmental 'new democracy' policies - Don't. Actually. Exist. The 'communities' they write about are 'automatically' egalitarian and 'democratic', without any internal coercion or charisma effects going on, etc.

As for ways past this... well it's difficult. So difficult it's taking a thesis to do so! I'm writing a couple of papers at the moment - would be happy to pass them on to you if you'd like?

Thanks again


luke w perry said...

hey ben. yes, the dicarlo essay is excellent. stirs up the passions a bit. your thoughts are interesting, community, yes, is such a loaded word, even those working on against traditional power structures even use the term loosely and undefined in a lot of ways or as you put it automatically egalitarian, and why a lot of such ideas of community just remain as thoughts, not as actions....please send me on what you are writing about. would love to dig into it a bit more. thanks for sharing....

benedict said...

sure thing - will send you something. as soon as it's readable! would be interested in your comments :0)