Dive into the archives.
- Nice to see you.
One of the most interesting and cutest stories I read this week was the case of a guy from the UK who bought an iphone that came preloaded with photos of the factory workstress who put it together. This one was apparently already chosen as phone’s desktop.
Sweet. Anyway, this got me thinking about all the photo essays and documentaries on Chinese sweatshop labor I’ve seen and how you rarely get a chance to see images of the workers as they would choose to present themselves. You’re aggressively encouraged to pity them and to admire the intrepid journalists who bring their stories to light. You see much fatigue and administrative neglect, but simple mundane and seemingly happy moments like the one above somehow never get included. And I think that’s a shame, because the default assumption of most of us is that Chinese factories are horrible as are the producers that subcontract to them. Knowing several people who manufacture in China, I know this is usually not the case, and I’m glad this girl shined light on that part through her adorable little piece of exhibitionism.
Given the hyped-up, scandal-centric nature of media these days, it’s important that people get a chance to present themselves on their terms, not exclusively through the distorting Babel Fish translation of outsiders who either paid to be there or are being paid to be there. That’s happening more and more of course, but there’s still a lot more to be done, and thankfully a lot of smart and generous people are working on it. Here a few recent examples: (As always, this is a random and thoroughly unprofessional inventory. If you know of any more please school me…)
“Touch Sight” Camera for the Blind
A little while ago I made a post about blind photography. All of the photographers featured in that were using more or less standard SLR cameras. I didn’t really question that until I saw an article about Samsung’s “Touch Sight”, a prototype camera for the blind that includes some ingenious features like a Braille display instead of LCD so the photographer can review her shots.
Here’s the project blurb from designer Chueh Lee:
Touch Sight is a revolutionary digital camera designed for visually impaired people. Simple features make it easy to use, including a unique feature which records sound for three seconds after pressing the shutter button. The user can then use the sound as reference when reviewing and managing the photos. Touch Sight does not have an LCD but instead has a lightweight, flexible Braille display sheet which displays a 3D image by embossing the surface, allowing the user to touch their photo. The sound file and picture document combine to become a touchable photo that is saved in the device and can be uploaded to share with others–and downloaded to other Touch Sight cameras.
The Scope Camera for Kids
Says the TED website where I found out about this project:
Inspired by James Nachtwey’s TED Prize wish, designer Bas Groenendaal shares this prototype camera with TED. The Scope camera has a fresh look and a singular purpose, he says:
To be used as a therapeutic instrument for underprivileged children, e.g. children living in (former) warzones. Children can take photographs and self-portraits in order to rediscover their environment and identity, and share their point of view with others.
With its open-steering-wheel design (you click the shutter by squeezing the sides), Scope invites a new perspective on picture-taking, removing the distance between the photographer and her subject.
Groenendaal took the Scope prototype to an asylum-seekers center in the Netherlands, where the kids quickly figured it out: “A funny observation was that the children used Scope to frame their own heads: hold the camera really close to their face and — while talking — look at everybody around them. The children seemed very conscious of themselves, their position, what they were seeing.”
Check out more of his work on his site basgroenendaal.nl
CatCam Camera for Cats
This is a simplest and most next level one of the bunch. CatCam is the genius stroke of Jürgen Perthold. Here’s his description of how the idea came about from his very detailed website Mr. Lee Cat Cam
Sometimes I have some challenging ideas, or crazy like some other people would say. This time I thought about our cat who is the whole day out, returning sometimes hungry sometimes not, sometimes with traces of fights, sometimes he stay also the night out.
When he finally returns, I wonder where he was and what he did during his day. This brought me to the idea to equip the cat with a camera. The plan was to put a little camera around his neck which takes every few minutes a picture. After he is returning, the camera would show his day. First I thought about transmitting live pictures from a remote RF camera, but the equipment is too expensive and battery consumption is too high.
So the idea was born and split into these parts:
* find small, lightweight, inexpensive digital camera
* develop a controller for the camera
* protect the camera from cat attack
* mount equipment to cat
Here are a few snapshots from his cat Mr. Lee’s day:
And you might think this is a joke, but this project has blown (the fuck) up. They’ve got crazy press from all over the world on the site. Here’s a piece from a German news show: (Only in German, but I think it has universal appeal)
- The Making of The Miseducation of
It’s hard to believe, but this week marks 10 years since the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the first (and only so far) solo album by New Jersey’s favorite rapper, musician, songwriter, producer, and film actress, Ms. Lauryn Hill. It was a worldwide smash, selling 8 million copies and winning almost as many awards. It proved she could thrive without her group the Fugees and secured Lauryn’s position in the pantheon of American music gods and goddesses.
I consider this album a masterpiece and a milestone record – not in Lauryn’s career (although it obviously is) but in my own life. Its release coincided with a period of intense happiness and open-heartedness for me. It was the soundtrack to Fall 98 in New York City and anyone who was there knows what I’m talking about. I usually resent people who try to possess music by tying it to a specific time and place. Truly great music speaks to experiences and emotions that transcend any single city or season (cliché I know but still true), and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill demonstrates that as well as any album ever made. But still, for me, at that time in that place, Miseducation was a much an album as a manifesto – a call to passion and fun and self-defense for people in a city that was stuggling to maintain its vitality against the stunting influences of city hall and free market. It was a struggle that, I recognize now, was more vital (and inadequate) than I realized at the time. So I’ll always feel a tinge of sadness when I hear Lauryn Hill’s music. But I’ll also always remember the love and the communication. And I’ll remember all the people from that time, friends and non-friends, who shared Lauryn Hill’s vision and answered her call to live life heart first.
Rolling Stone has a fantastic feature up now, on oral history of Miseducation made from the testimony of most of its creators. Check it here.
Here’s a sample, the telling of the song “To Zion”:
Jayson Jackson (former manager, Lauryn Hill): She called me and sang a verse of “Zion” and I was literally in tears. I went through that with her as a friend, Wendy Williams blowing her spot about her pregnancy on the radio. No one knew! It was definitely a Where’s Waldo moment ’cause no one knew who Lauryn was dating.
Rohan Marley (Bob Marley’s son/father of Hill’s five children): She ended up having a child from myself and ones telling her she need to abort the child. Those songs, it’s all her experience.
Che Vicious (formerly Che Guevera; producer): I’d gotten into a bunch of Spanish records. I lived in a brownstone in Brooklyn and there was this little studio apartment on the top floor that didn’t have air conditioning. I could only go in there for 20 minutes at a time to make tracks because it was too hot. And one of those 20 minutes is when I made “Zion.” I came in with the track and Lauryn teared up and said, “I have this idea to do a song about my baby and I didn’t know what the music should sound like until I heard that track.”
Nobles (producer/programmer): Out of all the records, “Zion” was her baby because it was about her child. Can’t nobody interfere with that right there. That drum roll inspired Kanye’s “Jesus Walks,” I know it did!
Commissioner Gordon: I remember the first time she sang “To Zion” to me I almost started crying on the spot. Che put together a drum loop and she came over right next to me at the board and started singing “Zion” in my ear. These circumstances she’s singing about I know first hand. I’m at the label hearing everybody say, “How’s this girl gonna get pregnant now?!” Then Carlos played his guitar in Miami at Circle House Studios. It was a swap. She wanted Carlos to play “Zion” and she did a song for Supernatural.
Here’s the song:
Lauryn Hill – To Zion
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But I don’t really believe in hanging too fiercely to the music of the past, even it is charged with as many auxiliary pleasures as this one. Lauryn sort of retreated from music and celebrity after Miseducation, and it’s not clear if she’ll ever fully come back. Towards the end of the Rolling Stone piece, a couple of very unnecessary shots are taken at Jazmine Sullivan, a 21-year-old singer out of Philadelphia whose style is clearly influenced by Lauryn’s but who I think shows a lot of potential and deserves support. So here is the song that a couple of Lauryn’s collaborators refer to as eerily Hillesqe. I agree that it’s no “To Zion”, but I think if there’s any message to take from Miseducation it’s that we have to take pleasure from where we can, according to our own needs and definitions. And the beat bangs so…..
Jazmine Sullivan – Need u bad
Update: A new Lauryn song is out and circulating. As they say in Japan, LET’S ENJOY!
Lauryn Hill – The world is a hustle
- My President Is Black (the VP is not)
I was planning to lay off the Obama posts til I finish my O-inspired mixtape, but then I got up a couple of days ago and found in my inbox the photo above and the mp3 of Young Jeezy’s Barack tribute “My President is Black”. The combined force of these two things made me rethink the policy. Then I went to dinner with my father tonight and he mentioned that one of the best things about the Olympics is that it distracts us from obsessing over the Presidential election. And I agreed, then I got home and opened up Google News and saw the great question of who will serve as Obama’s Vice President has been answered, and I figured it’s time to put the medals in the cabinet and get back into obsession mode. So here it is…
Word of warning: There are several aspects of this song that are going to make want to ignore the lyrics. That would be a mistake.
Young Jeezy feat. Nas – My President is black
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Heartfelt thanks to Amelia for the pic and Jimmy for the track. Fuck the naysayers, yes we can.
I realize that I’m in danger of turning this into some sort of Olympic blog, but fuck it, you can’t fight the zeitgeist. Anyway, I just wrote a little account of my trip to the Bird’s Nest for Art Review’s site. It’s a lot like something I would put on here, but this time I got paid. ((Michael Phelps fist pump))
What can be said at this point about the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games? They are awesome. They are big and pretty and well organized. Zhang Yimou’s shock-and-awe opening and the physical domination that followed slammed the door on 100 years of humiliation for the Chinese and signalled to the rest of us the passing of the torch (!) from the old superpower to a much older one.
For years now, the Chinese media have presented the Olympics as a kind of referendum on the nation’s status in the world. Now, based on the montages of awe-struck visitors and the gold medal count that scrolls triumphantly along the bottom of nearly every TV channel here, it is clear that the results are in: China in a landslide.
The Beijing Olympics’ televised image (provided by American network NBC) has been as slick and selective as Zhang’s intro. The viewer, here and everywhere, is exposed to majestic shots of the National Stadium (aka the Bird’s Nest) and National Aquatics Center (AKA Water Cube) detached from their surroundings, their neighours cropped out, either by camera angle or cloak of darkness. A jump cut brings you suddenly inside the stadium, where the world’s greatest athletes are busy straining themselves within some sort of rectangular shape, surrounded by thousands of flag-waving fans. Knowing the great lengths to which Beijing has gone to disguise its blemishes – a cluster of dilapidated buildings next to my apartment was walled off from public view a few weeks before the opening – and knowing that the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube are anomalies in Chinese architecture, I was curious to see what else is going on at the Olympic venues. What is there beyond the edge of our TV screens? I travelled to the Olympic Green a couple days ago. Here’s what I found:
Read the rest here.
- Jamdown moving
Well, to quote my man 80, What Usain?
Jamaica is running everybody out of the Bird’s Nest. They’ve even managed to interrupt the relentless stream of Chinese Olympic highlights that currently constitutes 80% of CCTV’s programming. Men and women of Jamaica, VERY FEEL feels you.
So to celebrate here’s “On the go” by Mavado, my favorite dancehall artist. He recorded it before the Olympics to hype people up (and sell sneakers) back on the rock. Seemed a little over the top to me originally. No more.
Mavado – On the go (faster than bullet)
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Oh shit update – I was just watching a replay of the 200M and realized Bolt’s theme song is Untouched by The Veronicas. That shit is hilarious to me. I’ve got to put that up for posterity.
- Shameless Plug 2
[image courtesy of divine-interventions.com]
I just arrived back in Beijing after months away, and a few of the things that I worked on before I left are coming out now, so I thought why not put together another one of those awkward self-promo posts to spread the word…
I haven’t been doing much freelance writing these days, but the last two articles I wrote come out this month in the new issues of Domus and AD magazine. The Domus one is about the new museum at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, designed by Arata Isozaki. The AD article is about the new residence of the Dutch Ambassador to China, designed by Dirk Jan Postel. Cop that!
The book MAD Dinner that I wrote about a while back is finally out. It took ages, and actually I’m not even sure if it’s in western stores yet, but they’ve got it in Beijing an on the publisher Actar’s website so….
Here’s a description form the press release:
MAD Dinner is the first book by the Beijing-based architectural office MAD. Organized around the metaphor of dinner table conversation, the book is a collection of ideas and opinions about topics ranging from politics to ecology to fame to the future. The dinner’s “guests” include people from all levels of Chinese society: a government official, hairdresser, migrant laborers, a doctor, a taxi driver, and a developer are all brought together to offer their views in an atmosphere of openness and exchange. MAD’s work is embedded in a series of extended conversations with international advisors, including the Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, British writer Ian Buruma, filmmakers Zhang Yimou and Jia Zhangke, and the artist Ai Weiwei. The conversations work in tandem with MAD’s proposals to create an essential account of the architect’s experience inside the fastest urbanization in world history. (2008, edited by Brendan McGetrick)
So as they say, the book emphasizes conversations. I learned a lot working on it, and got to meet a lot of cool people. Here’s a list of the MAD Dinner guests:
Hans Ulrich Obrist_curator/ 小汉斯_策展人
Yang HongJun_delivery man/杨红军_快递员
Zhu XiaoDi _ architect/ 朱小地_建筑师
Lao Dong_taxi driver/ 老董_出租车司机
Qu HongYuan_construction site foreman/ 渠洪源_现场工程师
Wang MingXian_art historian/ 王明贤_艺术史学家
Hu LiZhong_ doctor/ 胡力中_ 医生
Jia ZhangKe_film director/ 贾樟珂_导演
Ian Buruma_critic/ 亦安·布鲁马_评论家
Wang BaoJu_curator/ 王宝菊_策展人
Jiang QiHong _state-owned businessman/ 蒋启虹_国企领导
Shi Jian_critic/ 史建_ 评论家
Huang Yan _city governor/ 黄艳_首规委领导
Tony_hair dresser/ 托尼_发型师
Zhang YiMou_filmmaker/ 张艺谋_导演
Mies Van der Rohe_architect / 密斯·凡·德罗_建筑师
Cao Fei _artist / 曹斐_艺术家
Kuku_3D renderer/ 酷酷_渲染图师
Peter Cook_ architect/ 彼得·库克_建筑师
Lei Jin _model maker/ 雷进_模型师
Ma QinYun _architect/ 马清运_建筑师
Li MengXia_fashion editor/ 李孟夏 _时尚主编
And since it’s topical, here’s a selection from the conversation we had with Zhang Yimou, the director of the Beijing Olympic Opening that everybody’s raving about. I personally found the opening’s heavy emphasis on Chinese history a little clunky and against the internationalist spirit of the Olympics, but I think from what he says here, you can get a sense of why it ended up that way…
MAD: As director of the Olympic opening ceremony you seem to have the obligation to juggle many different representations – first a kind of traditional Chinese culture taken from imperial times, then the mass spectacle associated with the communist era, and then a future vision that gives the event a feeling of hopefulness and modernity. How will you balance these different qualities?
ZYM: It is not personal work but team work, and it’s relevant for so many people and their expectations. Just look at all the buzz about it on the Internet or as text messages – there are as many sarcastic remarks as [hopeful] anticipations. It’s indeed impossible to appeal to everybody.
Here’s how I look at it: this is doubtless a very, very important presentation, but you still have to stay calm and treat it as it is – it’s still just an entertainment show, and you need to follow the rules and remain sane. Yes, we Chinese think it’s a centuries-old dream come true, so we have to grab the chance and comb through our 5000-year history, but in the end it’s nothing but a one-hour show.
No matter how great you are, it’s not possible to tell a 5000-year story in one hour. What you want to do is to present the story in visual, aesthetic, and emotional terms. It would be ridiculous to expect anything more than a show from it simply because of the unprecedented anticipation. I mean, why don’t you just write an editorial piece instead of producing a show then?
So I think I have a proper attitude towards it, and I won’t be bothered with all of that. I know it won’t be perfect, but the most important thing is to be entertaining and innovative – we also want to have general appeal. We need to have a universal, humane perspective, which is able to strike a chord in, say, an 18-year-old African youth’s mind. He who knows nothing about China should be able to say, “I seem to know a little bit of the Chinese elements now.” These are all important. When facing such a complicated creative project, I think it helps to start by simplifying things.
Last, Becoming, a book I made earlier this year together with Ai Weiwei, had its launch event this week. It’s basically a collection of photos taken by Weiwei during the construction of Beijing’s new Air Terminal 3. For the book, I asked Weiwei and the airport’s designer Norman Foster to answer the same set of questions. I didn’t go exactly as planned, but there were a few points where I think the vast differences between the two men are spotlighted.
Here’s Norman Foster:
BM: What insight do you try to offer the students who work for you?
NF: Architects have a duty to design well and to design responsibly – whether that is at the scale of an airport or a door handle. The design process can question our assumptions about buildings and can reconcile needs which are often in conflict. That may mean breaking down social and physical barriers between user groups, or finding ways to bring different functions together under one roof. In that sense, design is a process of integration. The holistic thinking we apply to buildings applies equally to infrastructure – transport systems, streets and public spaces – the “urban glue” that holds a city together.
BM:What have students taught you?
NF: An amazing amount. Every year in the studio we have an evening when recent graduates show their work. The quality and intelligence of the work on display is extraordinary. Every person gets to present his or her work, and that generates a discussion. For me, it is one of the most challenging events of the year. Nobody stands on ceremony and the discussion can be very fast moving. If you begin by thinking you’ve seen it all and know everything, then you’re in for a very big surprise.
And here’s Ai Weiwei:
BM: What insight do you try to offer the students who work for you?
AW: To share the knowledge and to examine it.
BM: What have students taught you?
AW: The students told me it is very difficult to be a student.
LOL. Anyway, Becoming is also my first foray into graphic design, so I’m mostly excited about that. Here’s a couple of images…
And here’s a few of my favorite photos from the book. Click to enlarge…
- In Memory of Moses
I realize I’m way late on this, but I’ve been coach-ridden with Olympic Fever and just found out today that the legend Isaac Hayes passed away. I’m a huge fan of his work, both as an artist and as a songwriter for so many of the great Stax artists of the 1960′s.
It’s a little bit spooky for me, because I was just thinking about Isaac earlier today, when I was going through a hard drive and stumbled on this picture from my old apartment in Rotterdam, where the epic fold-out from his Black Moses album was basically the only decoration we had…
Here’s the beginning of his performance at Wattstax (the rest of it’s on youtube). I think this one shows not only the man’s superhuman soulfulness, but also the sense of showmanship and humor that led to his later incarnation as Chef on South Park.
And here’s a highlight from that era – Chef’s chocolate salty balls:
Yup. Check out more at the South Park Studios site.
Music-wise it’s so hard to choose, but here’s a personal favorite: the full-on nineteen minute version of ‘By the time I get to Pheonix’ from Hot Buttered Soul , an historic album and essential listening for anyone who enjoys pleasure.
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The Isaac Hayes song everybody knows is Theme from Shaft of course, so I’m not gonna bother putting that up. But check out Versions Galore, a cool new cover song blog, for a crazy selection of Theme of Shaft covers.
Isaac was also one of the most sampled artists around, and the Jamsbio blog has put up a nice little overview of a few of the most famous ones. Check it here.
*Serious Update* – DJ Wonder made a very thorough mix of original and sampled tracks for Shade45. It’s available on his site. Download this shit.
**Serious Update #2** – Producers Cookin Soul out of Valencia, Spain have just released Hot Buttered Soul: Isaac Hayes Instrumental Tribute via Nah Right. And man, it is good. Art in tribute to art. Get it now, get it here.
We’ll miss you.
- Favela Update
I’ve written a couple of times before about Favela Painting, an amazing project that my friends Jeroen & Dre are doing in Brazil.
They’ve spent most of the last few years making movies, music videos, and murals in Vila Cruzeiro, a
slums hantytown favelacommunity in Rio. The neighborhood became world infamous in 2002 when a journalist named Tim Lopes who’d been working undercover investigating a local drug gang was viciously beaten and burned in a roadside ditch. The incident caused a lot of employers to pull out of Vila Cruzeiro and the area still suffers from a reputation as an ultra-violent, almost uninhabitable place.
The Favela Painting project was created partly to counteract this image and raise awareness of the people who quietly endure behind the haze of shock stories and homicide stats. It launched in 2006 with ‘The boy with the kite’, a mural that Jeroen and Dre created together with local kids on the side of a building that eventually became the neighorhood’s first art gallery. It generated a lot of positive press for the area. Here’s one piece from The Guardian.
On the strength of that, last year Jeroen & Dre started working on a much more ambitious painting – a 2000M² monster depicting a carp-filled river, rendered in the style of Japanese tattoos and woodblock prints. The work is ongoing, but here are some of the latest pics…
This is a great project, one that deserves support. You can read a lot more about it on their website – www.favelapainting.com . There’s also an option for giving donations, which I know they’d appreciate.
- Recession Roundelays
As part of an ongoing effort to avoid all China and/or Olympic news stories, today I read an article on the state of the British economy. It’s mostly conjecture and graph interpretation, but I was touched by the following passage:
Denmark has the dubious distinction of being the first developed country to move into recession and the latest figures from Germany suggest that the economy may have declined in the second quarter. It is possible that the eurozone economy as a whole will have contracted during the quarter.
Having just been in the States, where all anyone is talking about is job cuts and gas prices, I think it’s clear that a large chunk of the world is heading for hard times. The music there has already started to reflect this, so I thought why not assemble a few recent recession-inspired songs in the hopes that they might soothe us or at least distract us. I’ll try to add more as new ones pop up. It’d be cool to get some from elsewhere. Share em if you got em…
No video for this one yet, but this is actually my favorite song of the three. I can not say enough about Ms. Janelle Monáe. I’m gonna make a tribute post to her one of these days. She is a true original, and I strongly urge you to check her shit out. She’s released a couple of EPs that are floating around cyberspace, but she signed to Bad Boy a little while ago, so hopefully she’ll take off properly soon. Her new album METROPOLIS: THE CHASE SUITE (SPECIAL EDITION) is dropping on August 12, according to her website….
- Fan Up New Orleans
“You know like I know, ain’t no city like N.O.” – Free Agents Brass Band
As I mentioned last time, I spent most of last week in New Orleans with my man Josh. It was a great experience and as a kind of recap I want to string together a few images and observations from the trip. I did something like this during my visits to Dubai and Inner Mongolia and it worked pretty well, but I’m a little hesitant this time, just because New Orleans is complex and, as George W likes to say, misunderestimated. Still, this blog is about bigging up things that I love, so better to just dive in…
This is the New Orleans most of us know, the New Orleans of postcards and shot glasses and novelty T-shirts that say things like “I got Bourbon Faced on Shit Street”. It’s the New Orleans I visited with my family as part of a two-day detour on the way to our much more hotly anticipated final destination, Sunny Orlando. This New Orleans is alive and well. Most of the French Quarter survived Katrina with relatively little damage, and even in late July, when most of the rest of city is abandoned due to the heat, Bourbon Street was packed every night with students, parents, soldiers, middle managers, and fun-loving people of all kinds trying to live their Mardi Gras fantasy on the cheap.
We didn’t spend much time around there so I don’t really want to dwell on it, but I do think it’s worth saying that without a doubt the best thing we saw in the French Quarter was Big Al Carson & The Blue Masters performing at a spot called The Funky Pirate. Big Al is a giant (mO_Om) in the NO music scene. He started out playing tuba in brass bands and eventually migrated to the mic. He is a great singer, a great performer, and for my money the sexiest morbidly obese man around. Here’s a short clip that captures a some of the vibe…
But, as I said, we didn’t go to New Orleans to see this side of it. To me the French Quarter is interesting mostly because of how successfully it collects, structures, and Disneyfies the messy cultural production of New Orleans’s other neighorhoods. The problem is that, now more than ever, NO is two cities – one for tourists and another one for its people – and most visitors don’t ever get to see culture behind the caricature. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t be so bad, just another case of American comparmentalization and binary thinking, but Katrina showed us the perils of this sort of disconnect and what happens when government allows it determine policy or division of resources. So I think it’s more important than ever to emphasize some other parts of New Orleans, starting with its most vulnerable, the Lower Ninth Ward.
We arrived in the Lower Ninth Ward on our second day in New Orleans. I’d heard of the neighborhood mostly because of the horrors that took place there after Katrina. The Lower Nine was the site of the city’s worst flooding and the backdrop for some of its darkest images – swollen bodies bobbing for days in oily brown water, people waving “HELP US” signs at news crews, toddlers in cages swaying in the wind as they were raised into helicopters… I’d heard that clean-up and reconstruction had taken longer in this neighborhood than any other, so when we showed up I half expected to see the same wreckage I’d seen in magazines.
But when we finally got there and started walking around, the atmosphere was completely different. The images I had in my head were now nearly three years old. The clean-up was done, but the place still remained empty. Empty and spooky.
And I guess this is the second, less obvious tragedy wrought by Katrina – after the failures of planning and response, now the failure to rebuild. In the years since it flooded, nature has reclaimed a large part of the the Lower Nine. A neighborhood that a few years before was emblematic of American inner city life now feels more like a village in the backwoods.
The few houses that did survive are still abandoned for the most part.
Their insides have been gutted, but I saw very little restoration happening anywhere. It’s hard to imagine their owners don’t want to return, but between the elongated clean-up period, the trauma of starting over, lingering suspicions about the levees, epic injustices at the hands of insurance companies, ongoing FEMA fuckery, and the enormous difficulty of living life in a community that didn’t have a supermarket or bank before Katrina and now has almost no social support system or basic infrastructure at all, there are too many reasons for them to stay away.
Pre-Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward was a sort of melting pot for all that is admirable and horrific in New Orleans. Its crime was legendary, but so was its sense of community. 60 percent of Lower Nine residents owned their homes, including Fats Domino, who never evacuated and had to be air lifted from his roof by the coast guard.
After the flood, the Lower Ninth Ward became a battleground for the many conflicting visions of New Orleans’s future. This is a very complicated and emotionally fraught topic, one that extends way beyond the scope of this little slideshow here, but if you want to know more check this New Yorker article by Dan Baum. A lot of good info on the Lower Nine in there.
Stories of people having their houses bulldozed without permission, predatory real estate companies buying up plots for below value, government schemes to turn the area into condos or golf courses or vague (program to be determined later) “green spaces” can still be heard, but it seems like most of the immediate threats evaporated with the billions the Bush administration promised but never delivered.
Long-term is something else though, because even if the New Orleans government’s enormous capacity for dysfunction and dereliction of duty makes any large scale development in the Lower Nine impossible, these same qualities may very well lead to the area simply atrophying and falling off the map.
But I don’t mean to be 100% gloom and doom. There are signs of revitalization in the Lower Nine. Construction is taking place, people are returning home. Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project is already bearing fruit in the form of some very, very easily identifiable eco-friendly homes on stilts. Former residents have returned and built their own homes in the native shotgun style.
One of the people leading the trickle back to the Lower Nine is Ronald Lewis.
Ronald is an activist and Founder, Curator, and Director of The House of Dance and Feathers, a museum dedicated to Mardi Gras Indian culture that he maintains in his back yard. We met with him on the visit and had a good conversation. I’ll post that up a little later. For now, the main thing that I want to emphasize about Robert (and this holds for almost everyone we met down there) is that he is a person who demands and accepts no pity. He is doing everything he can to get his community back together with the full knowledge there will probably never been any real help from the local or federal government. I think that his is representative of a heroic mentality that, for good or bad, New Orleans has instilled in its citizens through years of corruption and neglect.
To me this house says it all. It’s broken down, unlivable, whatever. But the message is: AMERICA NEEDS HELP. We’re going to be ok. We are survivors. America, you need to check yourself out.
Most of the rest of the trip we spent in and around the Bywater section of New Orleans. Most of it was spared from the worst of the flooding, but parts were still pretty badly damaged and today the area is a weird mixture of paralysis and rehabilitation.
Since so many of the structures survived, the marks left on them give a view to the frantic nature of the recovery efforts.
Not to mention the terror that preceded them.