Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Is New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin the Devil?

But of course he is (and how the Devil got re-elected in NOLA beats heck out of me).

Nagin, you'll recall, demonstrated his utter incompetence during the Katrina tragedy, first failing to orchestrate a timely evacuation, then vanishing, then doing his best to make political hay and, finally, stalling forever before he decided on a plan to disseminate the hundreds of millions (billions?) of federal aid allocated to the city.

The buck never stops with Nagin because, like bad managers everywhere, he can't or won't make good decisions about, well, practically anything. Instead, he delays, procrastinates, puts his finger to the wind, stalls some more and finally goes for whatever is the most politically expedient, and least burdensome to his personal time and space.

Nagin's latest fiasco: In a city where there's practically a murder a day, he allowed his police force to swoop in on a brass-band march in Treme, perhaps the cultural epicenter of New Orleans and possibly the oldest black neighborhood in the U.S.

The ugly story is recounted in a nicely detailed piece that veteran jazz journalist Larry Blumenfeld wrote for Salon.

The skinny: Twenty-four or so brass-band musicians, gathered to pay tribute to late Rebirth Brass Band tuba man Kerwin James, were parading in Treme on Oct. 1 when police showed up, grabbing instruments and wielding handcuffs. The cops arrested drummer Derrick Tabb and his brother, trombonist Glen David Andrews.

The cause: A single phoned-in complaint.

The city, with, of course, Nagin's blessing, has practically declared war on brass bands, charging exorbitant fees to groups wanting to hold second-line parades.

Why should we care about all of this?

Blumenfeld stated it nicely:

"When they busted up the memorial procession for a beloved tuba player, arresting the two musicians for parading without a permit and disturbing the peace, they didn't just cut short a familiar hymn -- they stomped on something sacred and turned up the volume in the fight over the city's culture, which continues amid the long struggle to rebuild New Orleans.

In that fight, Tremé is ground zero. Funeral processions are an essential element of New Orleans culture, and the impromptu variety in particular --- honoring the passing of someone of distinction, especially a musician -- are a time-honored tradition in neighborhoods like Tremé ... For black New Orleans residents who have returned to the city, these and other street-culture traditions -- second-line parades and Mardi Gras Indian assemblies -- offer perhaps the only semblance of normalcy, continuity and community organization left. In a changing Tremé, within a city still in troubled limbo and racked by violent crime, long-held tensions regarding the iconic street culture have intensified. The neighborhood, the breeding ground for much of this culture, has a history of embattlement. And now more of that history is being written."

At a press conference I attended during this year's Jazz Fest, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu extolled the virtues of Louisiana's artists and musicians, whose work, he said, generated an economic impact of (I think) hundreds of millions of dollars. Landrieu, you might recall, lost to Nagin in that post-Katrina mayoral election.

Nagin, one guesses, would be on the same page as his civic boosters and chamber-of-commerce type friends, who always hype New Orleans' culture -- its jazz, its street parades, its Mardi Gras traditions -- as a chief reason for tourists to come to the city.

So why, then, does Nagin, continue to make life so difficult for the very people who are striving to let that culture thrive?

It's simple, really (as Blumenfeld points out): The almighty dollar -- Treme is gentrifying, and the same developers/builders/gentrification profiteers who helped Nagin get elected the first time are investing big bucks in a neighborhood that wasn't flooded.

It's an old maxim in investigative journalism: Want to discover the truth about any perplexing issue involving government or business concerns? Just follow the money trail.

So, hey, WHY does Nagin, time and again, get a pass for his screw-ups, his incompetence, his arrogance?


Again, from Blumenfeld's story, here are the words of Rebirth Brass Band tuba player Philip Frazier, brother to James: "I've been parading in the Tremé for more than 25 years, and I've never had to deal with anything like this. I told the cops it was my brother we were playing for, and they just didn't seem to care. He's a musician and he contributed a lot to this city in his short life."

(Pictured, above, is the Rebirth, playing the Congo Square stage at this year's Jazz Fest)

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