No to Demo of Historical Canal St/Tchoupitoulas Buildings!

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For historical info and how to contact the City Council click here. The council vote is this Thursdsy, May 22.  Let your voice be heard!

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Saturday, 1/12/13: The French Quarter needs your elbow grease!

The Vieux Carré Graffiti Abatement Program, a donation-funded grassroots effort, needs your time and energy this Saturday, January 12, 2013! Please pitch in and support this fun and satisfying event — you’ll see the results of your effort immediately!

VCGAP Clean-up 1-12-13(Please click on the image above to link to the document.)

From the press release regarding this volunteering opportunity:

WHAT: Volunteer Graffiti Cleanup

WHEN: Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 9:00 AM – 12:00 Noon

WHERE: French Quarter, NOPD 8th District Police Station, 334 Royal Street

For those passionate about making the French Quarter graffiti-free, please sign up and be a part of this fun and worthwhile event! There are opportunities to serve as a group leader, as well as hands-on tasks to participate. With the tools and instructions in hand, volunteers spread out through the Quarter and remove as many graffiti marks as possible. Volunteers receive a work t-shirt (while supplies last), all cleaning products and tools for the cleanup, and are treated post clean-up French Quarter lunch!

With the upcoming major public events, the French Quarter Business Association and VC-GAP invite individuals and groups to volunteer on Saturday, January 12, 2013 to help rid public spaces of unsightly graffiti. The clean-up will begin with check in at 9:00 AM in the courtyard of the New Orleans Police Department’s 8th District, 334 Royal Street.

The French Quarter Business Association (FQBA), along with other prominent French Quarter groups, implemented a French Quarter initiative named Vieux Carré Graffiti Abatement Program, or VC-GAP, in the summer of 2010. VC-GAP hopes to eradicate the structures in the French Quarter of the illegal graffiti.

Graffiti is a real community issue that businesses, activists, residents, and volunteers are willing to face head on. Please join VC-GAP in the fight against illegal graffiti and the eradication campaign!

To volunteer or donate contact the FQBA office at 504-309-1423 or email graffiti@fqba.org

For more information, please visit our website: www.fqba.org. Donations to the effort are also graciously appreciated. Everyone can help!

In loving memory of Charlie: LAST CALL…

Charlie Smith, Jazz Fest Day 2 2009. Photo by Michelle B. Kimball © Preservation Resource Center, Advocacy Dept.

We’d met on an intermittently drizzly day in the heart of  the Vieux Carré in January 1992, when I’d stopped to check out the poetry he was peddling at Jackson Square. He watched me reading, not saying a word, then turned and rummaged through a couple of banker’s boxes and pulled a short story he’d written titled “The Girl in the Black Trenchcoat” from a manila file folder which he handed to me with flourish as a greeting gift. The story obviously wasn’t about me (as we’d not yet met), but it resonated immediately. I still have those three type-written pages in a box of keepsakes, safely tucked away.

We were kindred — he’d recognized it from the get-go, and I’m still grateful that I was smart enough to roll with it (despite my New-to-New-Orleans wariness) until I eventually realized that he was absolutely right. I’ve never been good about keeping in touch with people as time passes and the scenery changes, but I somehow managed to keep in contact with Charlie over the years in between then and now, and he welcomed me back when I returned to New Orleans.

If love were enough to keep anybody on this side of the daisies, Charlie would have been a formidable, wry, growling, mischievous, and lively raconteur forever — a one-man court jester/Greek chorus hybrid who’d never pull a punch when he had something on his mind that needed to be said out loud. This man was family to me; he’s the reason why I took up deviling local politicians and community figures as my most favorite sport, and his ability to speak the oft-overlooked yet simple truth of a situation will continue to inspire me. I was delighted when he decided to throw his hat back into the lobbying ring and by the artful descriptions he’d craft for his most recent clientele; as the only lobbyist inducted to date in the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame, he was truly legendary, unforgettable, and unique.

I’m happy that the last time we kept lengthy company (blissfully grazing at a pig roast party at Pravda on Lower Decatur), he got to see me use my two minutes of  unanticipated and impromptu face time with Louisiana State Senator Edwin R. Murray to my best advantage… Charlie just smiled and looked proudly amused as I excused myself from the conversation we’d been enjoying to address Sen. Murray directly after he’d taken the seat at our table across from me. Sen. Murray was visibly stunned (as if he didn’t know what had just hit him), and one could also see my date’s brain cells colliding as he watched me snap from relaxed & casual to being a political creature with a three-bullet-point agenda in the blink of an eye, securing a follow-up meeting on the spot. The guy I’d been seeing back then is history for all the right reasons (I remember noticing Charlie watching him quietly and I could see that he’d thought that the guy couldn’t keep up with me), but Sen. Murray hasn’t forgotten my name since, most likely because I’d been in Charlie’s company that evening.

I only knew Charlie after he’d paid his dues and cleaned up his act, and I loved him as I found him — I can only imagine who he’d been in the years prior from the stories he’d occasionally share. I’m pretty sure that I’d have liked him, had I known him “back when,” but I also suspect that I respected and admired him more for his having learned how to live beyond all of that. I think what I loved the most about him was that his smile always reached his eyes and I believe that this was true because of everything he’d experienced, not in spite of.

Here’s who Charlie was, in his own words from the introduction to his first poetry collection, before he chose a different way to go about living his life:

I was sitting, actually I was lying — passed out — drunk and stupid, in this place called the “Copper Bar” next to the Las Vegas Hilton at about three in the morning when this hooker woke me up and handed me my wallet. “You’re sure lucky I’m an honest hooker,” she said. “Don’t bother to count it, you’ve got $1,400 in there; I didn’t touch a thing.”

I thanked her and she said, “Look, it’s obvious to me that you don’t know shit from beans about Vegas or your wouldn’t have been so dumb as to fall out in this place. I’m off duty so what say I show you the ropes around town and you can throw me a chip every now and then… I mean, I just saved your ass $1,400 and all.”

She was right on all counts so we had a drink, and she showed me around Vegas. During the course of the night, or morning (there’s not much difference in a city that doesn’t recognize time), she told me her story.

She said she was a housewife in one of the Carolinas and, having read one too many Vivas or Cosmopolitans, had decided that she wasn’t getting her share of Life’s multi-orgasmic climaxes so she got together all the green stamps she could from her checking and savings accounts, left her hubby a note (just said “Bye.”), checked on a Greyhound Bus and headed to Las Vegas.

On arriving, she discovered that she really loved gambling and had no marketable job skills. It didn’t take her long to run out of money, so she turned to hooking for a living. Life can be hard on you anywhere, but in Vegas you’re operating at a higher rate of speed than anywhere else, and she was due to leave town soon. But, she told me, “At least I’ll have enough material for my book.”

I told her I also wrote, not books but poetry, so she told me what her title was going to be (with some people, titles come first). She said, “Since it’s going to be based on my life, I’m going to call it I GOT OFF THE BUS TWO YEARS AGO, AND I’M STILL WAITING FOR LAST CALL.”

To me, that’s the best title for hard living I’ve ever heard. The people I know, the street people, politicians, entertainers, bartenders, etc., are all waiting for the last call. I haven’t seen her book out so maybe she won’t mind me using her idea. She probably won’t see this book, either, so I guess we’re even.

This is dedicated to all the people who think what I write. The poems were almost all written in some confused state of mind, and a drunk that thinks in iambic pentameter can feel awfully silly the next morning when he looks at what’s been scrawled on the napkins, but that goes with the territory. I thought some of the poems would make great songs and had a flirtation with that idea, but nothing ever came of it. Maybe something will develop sometime or another.

Or maybe it won’t, but as Mr. Vonnegut might say, “So it goes.”

(From Still Waiting For Last Call… © 1987 by Charlie Smith)

Charlie’s Jazz Fest Cape, Jazz Fest Day 2 2009. Photo by Michelle B. Kimball © Preservation Resource Center, Advocacy Dept.

Thanks to the magic of the ether and pixels, some of Charlie’s songs can be enjoyed here: Charlie Smith’s Songs.

Via a post from Charlie’s daughter on Facebook: “The service will be held at Jacob Schoen & Son funeral home [3827 Canal Street, New Orleans] on Tuesday, March 6, 2012, with visitation beginning at 5:00 PM until 8:00 PM, and then a service held in the chapel at 8:00 PM. Black is always the first choice at funerals, but we think LSU apparel would probably best honor Daddy, so please feel free to break out your purple and gold. This will be an obviously sad occasion, but it should also be a time to celebrate his life. We are not quite sure about the charity to donate to in lieu of flowers, but will post that when we know.” (Me? I’ll be wearing a Jazz Fest shirt, celebrating my memories of Charlie when he’d wear a flamboyant purple cape inscribed in gold lettering with “Defender of Arts / Pets / Historic Preservation / Coastal Restoration / King of Jazz Fest.”)

In closing, I offer this from the poignant-yet-funny write-up by political editor Clancy DuBos of The Gambit titled “Charlie’s Way”: “I once wrote that if Charlie didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. Suffice it to say that Louisiana politics is cleaning up its act, which makes Charlie’s exit from the stage timely — but the story will be a lot less fun to watch without him.”

His obituary can be viewed here: Charles Leslie Smith — September 9, 1942 – March 1, 2012.

Unexplained Nostalgia on Race Street

Last Saturday morning I was delighted to see my favorite New Orleans home featured in Inside Out, the Home and Design supplement to The Times Picayune. I’ve driven past this house/compound on Tchoupitoulas and Race more times than I can count and always wished I could see inside so it was a treat to be able to see some of the rooms inside and read about the family who owns it. Problem is, as beautiful as the feature is, there wasn’t nearly enough photos of the courtyard that can only be glimpsed through the beautiful wrought iron gate facing Race Street. It left me hungry for more!

I’ve wondered about the family who lived there and was happy to learn how much they love the house. It’s owned by the Semmes’ family who painstakingly restored the compound that includes a townhouse, slave quarters and cottage arranged around a central courtyard. They bought the property about 30 years ago and Mr. Semmes says,

“When I started looking around here, there were many more old houses and warehouses than there are today, but it was clear change was coming. There was just this feeling that you wanted to reach back and hold onto it before it slipped away.”

When  I look at this place I feel kind of nostalgic in a way I can’t explain or describe. New Orleans is filled with beautiful historic homes – grand ones and humble ones – but there’s always been something special about this home for me. Over the past 3 or so years I’ve taken a few snapshots which I’ve posted here. I hope you like them as much as I do. (Click to embiggen.)

Guest Post: Lessons from Lower Mid-City

Driving along Canal Street lately, you may have noticed the emerging moonscape sprawling off across the landscape near S. Galvez Street.  It’s a striking change to see across acres and acres of dirt all the way to Tulane Avenue because until this past summer, the area was dense with blocks and blocks of historic housing.  It doesn’t look much like New Orleans at all.

For over a year, I’ve been chronicling the fight to save the Lower Mid-City neighborhood as well as the neighborhood’s ongoing demise to make way for the LSU/VA Hospital.  I was pulled off the sidelines in September of 2009 as I learned more and more about the hospital plans that appalled me.  I went down to see for myself what the “70 acres of blight” really looked like up close.  I found a neighborhood with quintessential New Orleanian architecture that was progressing in its effort to rebuild from Katrina.

To date, approximately 70 historic homes have been moved off the VA Hospital Footprint, the footprint that has been almost entirely cleared.  But it’s important to note that even as houses moved off the site for rehabilitation in other vacant lots around New Orleans (as demanded by citizens, facilitated by various entities, and funded by the city), demolitions have continued apace.  A similar number of properties, dozens and dozens of them contributing to the Mid-City National Register Historic District, have been demolished since May.

Across S. Galvez Street, crews continue to demolish historic buildings in the LSU Footprint – despite the fact that the University Medical Center Board is short on financing to build the hospital to the tune of about $400 million.  At present, there is no house moving plan for the LSU Footprint, unlike the positive effort we’ve seen on the VA Hospital side.

It’s also important to note that people still live in the VA and LSU Footprints.  Other residents have already departed after having their properties expropriated by the state.  Some sold out with knowledge that expropriation was looming in the background.  Some went to federal court when they felt that the state’s move to cut off utilities infringed on the ability to secure adequate compensation.  Whether it was an 80-year old veteran displaced to Metaire by the VA Hospital or a young family that arrived post-storm to help with recovery who bought a home that was ultimately dismantled, the process has been painful, ironic, and trying for many.

Looking back at what led to this unfortunate point, I would advise New Orleanians to heed the story of Lower Mid-City as a cautionary tale.  If urban-renewal-style mass demolition could happen there, it could happen in any neighborhoods in the city that are less than pristine.  The mass outry calling for saving Charity Hospital has seemingly saved the physical building.  But the structure remains vacant with no tenants planned despite polling that showed restoring hospital facilities in the Art Deco edifice was highly popular before demolition got underway in the neighborhood to make way for replacement facilities.

Neighborhoods weakened by the storm need to hold public, state, and federal officials accountable – and keep them from being blinded by the panacea of economic development and federal dollars alone.  In the case of Lower Mid-City, city officials imposed a moratorium on even repairing homes in the area in 2007, which led to a decline in property values and made blight a self-fulfilling prophecy.  These same officials called repeatedly for a “full public hearing” on the issues surrounding the hospitals, only to repeatedly refuse to schedule such a hearing.  State officials just don’t get New Orleans.  And federal agencies failed to change course under the Obama administration, leaving the completely inappropriate suburban-style hospital plans of the Nagin-Blakely axis intact.

We, as a city, can do better.  New Orleans’ historic architectural street fabric is an asset.  It’s what drew me to this city both before and after the storm.  It’s unique.  Future development in the city needs to be guided by a respect for historic neighborhoods and for the people who inhabit them so that growth is organic and sound rather than imposed like an alien force from above.

New Orleans is an old city, but not just any old city.  Based on the scorched earth policy playing out in Lower Mid-City, though, you’d never know.

– Brad V

Administrator’s note: Many thanks to Brad, our first male contributor,  for this provocative post. Please visit his blog, Inside the Footprint, for more information about the demolition of the Lower Mid-City neighborhood.

Annunciation Demolition Denied

The City of New Orleans Neighborhood Conservation District Committee has just denied the demolition of the historic Annunciation Catholic church in the St. Roch neighborhood.

Thanks to our own Michelle Kimball for tweeting the proceedings for those who couldn’t attend. Good job!

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More details on WWLTV.com.