Tuesday, November 21, 2006

He Forgot the Camaraderie

One of the most refreshing characteristics of New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina was the population's unveering focus on the practical matters of survival. We had neither the time nor the appetite for puffed-up academic claptrap or long, deliberative debates. Life was hard physically, but there was a bracing simplicity to it: The things necessary for our survival are to be embraced. Things that would impede us are to be discarded.
Jarvis DeBerry (in today's Picayune)

I had to scrap the pioneer days style recollection of shared nutria around the bonfires that sprung up along Bayou St. John that I had written -- it just wasn't funny. Neither was DeBerry's column; at least, I don't think it was meant to be.

It does explain some interesting columns that DeBerry has written. When DeBerry wrote that Douglas Brinkley attacked Nagin for crying, I assumed that DeBerry was either too lazy to read Brinkley's book or deliberately dishonest. After all, Brinkley criticized the mayor for hiding. I should have made allowances for the fact that DeBerry was too focused on survival to read Brinkley's book carefully. Even though Schroeder, who has a full time job and blogs as a hobby, tracked down the source of vicious Republican-funded attack ads against Landrieu before writing about them, I shouldn't have expected the same of DeBerry; a man's gotta survive.

Despite my longstanding dislike of DeBerry, there were serious problems with today's column. And I'm not just talking about the quoted paragraph. There's also the unintended irony of the headline:

Killing school would set bleak precedent

Yet he writes:
Holy Cross officials say the church building does not fit into their vision for the new campus. So if the building stays, Holy Cross doesn't come. If Holy Cross doesn't come, the neighborhood could transition from a dying neighborhood to a dead one.

I've heard similar arguments in favor of strip mining and it would set quite a precedent for other developers -- just threaten to take your ball and go home and you can destroy whatever you want. That passage is, in fact, the main reason for this post. I actually have no opinion on that particular building, but I do remember this advice from Charleston:
"If the building has good bones, fix it. If you start ripping things down, you're gong to lose the city."

DeBerry was writing about a fifty year old building, but that mind-set would make every structure built since the Civil War expendable.

Also, DeBerry seems to think that objections to demolitions need to be raised in what he considers a timely fashion. What type of precedent would he like to set there? DeBerry merely asserts that the objections were tardy, yet in two columns he hasn't addressed the issues raised by Mark Wet Bank Guide and others. If it's true that the "adequate" advance warning involved mentioning at a meeting, without putting it on that meeting's printed agenda, that would be a worrisome precedent.

Also, I'm appalled that anyone who writes that "the need to survive trumps all other concerns" is in one of three op-ed writers for the city's only daily newspaper. That logic could easily lead to most New Orleanians saying, "Hello, Houston." I can think of at least two ways it could lead to that, one literally, one figuratively. Think about it.

Like I said, I really have no opinion on this particular building, but I don't like the burden of proof being on the preservationists -- even for a relatively new building. Also, I've had problems with DeBerry since he spoke to defend Nagin during the election, after failing to speak up when pictures of flooded buses were making the entire city look bad. His first column on the subject appeared in late November or December of last year, after the Picayune had lost most of its national readership and long after the image had been seared into the national consciousness. Since the "Br'er Nagin"and "Nagin Wept" columns (not available on line), I'm probably permanently biased against DeBerry, but the assumptions behind this column would have been scary no matter who wrote it.

In addition to the Wet Bank Guide post linked above, Squandered Heritage, Building Big Easy and Maitri have more on this.

The relentless move to destroy this beautiful church is a shock to me. I grew up in this neighborhood. I went to the opening of this church, and spent many years there. It always was the focal point of the entire neighborhood, which most people called the Cabrini neighborhood, not Gentilly. The church was the glue that held it all together, yet now some people see it as the obstacle to the recovery of the neighborhood. Shame on the Archdiocese. I know of no other churches that they are intent on destroying. Why this one? It has to be about money, since Cabrini sits on a large tract of land.
It certainly is about money...although my understanding is that it's probably not as you think. I've heard from at least four Cabrini parishioners who would have been in a position to know (parish secretary, member of the parish school board, former Deacon, etc.) that the building was a "money pit" which has stretched the parish's financial resources since at least the '80s. Again, from Cabrini parishioners, I get the impression that the parish membership had begun to dwindle somewhat over the decade or so before Katrina, as the population of the surrounding neighborhoods began to trend older and as some of the long-time parishioners began to pass on...with their children deciding to live in the suburbs rather than in the "old" neighborhood. New families moving into the neighborhoods aren't always Catholic in the same percentage as the families they replace.

At any rate, the Archdiocese's determination post-Katrina seems to have been that SFC parish was "de-populated" to the point that it might be years, if ever, before it would be re-populated by enough Catholics such that it would be practical to reactivate the parish. It's "footprint" was apportioned out to those neighboring parishes that either remained more heavily populated or demonstrated early that their residents would be returning soon.

Even should the prayed for re-population of SFC occur, and it occur faster than expected, the Archdiocese still has to keep in mind that the church building (which seems to be one of the larger ones in town, seating-wise) would need to be maintained by an almost assuredly smaller parish for many years.

By the way...as far as knowing no other churches that will be destroyed...nothing has been said yet, but I understand there is to be a meeting Nov. 29 for members (former?) of my parish, St. Raphael. Rumors have been about for awhile that my parish's buildings are slated for conversion to housing for the elderly. And you know what? In this post-Katrina world, if reality is such that the land can be better utilized to benefit the city's elderly rather than as the center of a parish that, sadly like SFC, had seen it's rolls dwindling in the years prior to Katrina, then I'm OK with that. When given lemons......go hunting the sugar.
DeBerry was writing about a fifty year old building, but that mind-set would make every structure built since the Civil War expendable.

Or even older ones. I've been in an at-risk house in the Holy Cross neighborhood where the new additions are barge board...the original parts of the house pre-date barge board construction and the house is probably one of the oldest structures on the other side of the canal. It stands gutted and open and the owners are AWOL.
The post wasn't primarily about St. Francis Cabrini church. I couldn't resist the chance to make fun of DeBerry's survivalist prose, but I used his column because it gave a written presentation of the arguments that I've heard shouted on TV. I'm somewhat surprised that more people aren't concerned about the arguments used in support of the plan to demolish the church.

I can certainly understand that neighbors are worried about the survival of their neighborhood, but their arguments are reminiscent of the arguments that people in West Virginia use in favor of mountain top removal mining. I'm not comparing the demolition of one church to wholesale environmental destruction, but the arguments are similar. More importantly, if DeBerry is worried about precedents being set, I'm worried about lessons being learned. If Holy Cross gets its way by saying the project isn't viable without demolition, every other developer will know exactly what he needs to do to get his way. The upcoming disputes won't be between preservationists and developers, but between realists and uncaring obstructionists.

I'm hesitant to say this, but I was slightly reminded, only slightly, of the crowd that gathered at city hall twenty years to shout that their livelihoods depended on the casino. Although nobody shouted that loudly, other than Hedge-Morrell.
DeBerry, like everyone else in the neighgborhood, have decided that their properties have just tripled in value after the Holy Cross announcmenent. I think a lot of their anger is that they have properties that were suddenly worth a fraction of their Pre-K value, which just as suddenly became incredibly valuable (at least in their own minds).

And to answer Puddinhead, as I've said elsewhere, all churches are "money pits" unless they are built like a Holiday Inn meeting room. They cost a lot to heat and cool. The roof needed its once a generation recoating recently, but just about any building requires some maintenance. If you look closely at some of the reporting, a big expense was the maintenace of the flat roofs on the rectory, parish center, etc., buildings which no is is arguing should be saved (although the school buildings themselves, also by Curtis & Davis) also won a national aware.

In the end, Jarvis was just trying to protect his new Monopoly money home value, nothing more and nothing less.
I agree with you completely Mark, but I expect to see developers all over the city use the same tactic--if we don't get this demolition permit or zoning variance, the project is dead and your house remains worthless or you don't get the job.
That was one of the reasons I started the blog, the attitude that there is no compromise.

Everyone who was flooded has seen a drop in Real Estate values, including myself. If I let that govern my decisions I would be long gone.

I would hope there is a better argument for Holy Cross than Real Estate values.
My impression is that DeBerry is not a parishioner of Cabrini, so he may have no emotional relationship to the church, its architecture or the history of the parish. Thus, his selfish attitude can perhaps be understood.
However, this does not explain the ease with which the parishioners and the archdiocese have decided that the church, and the parish, are completely expendable.
Admittedly, the parish was not what it once was in terms of population, even pre-K, but that is true of many 1950-60 era churches and parishes in the city, and none of those churches and parishes have been jettisoned by the Archdiocese.
To my way of thining, this is the story, not the developer greenmail threat-nothing new there.
Mark, it has nothing to do with your Holiday Inn meeting room you keep mentioning, and everything to do with the building not having been built "like a church" with a pitched roof; the church itself has in the main the same flat roof that you attribute to only the school buildings. The three "barrels" only cover part of the building's area--the rest relies on a flat roof, with short vertical walls holding the clerestory-type stained glass seating the vaults over the flat roof. Ask any roofer about flat roofs...particularly those with vertical walls flashed into them. There are two kinds--the ones that leak now, and the ones that will leak the next time it rains. Curtis' reliance on such a large amount of flat roof in a region where 50+ inches of rain per year is common hints that perhaps in the case of SFC, unlike with the Rivergate, a little too much emphasis was put on making an architectural "statement" and not enough on practicality.

If the school buildings also won an architectural award, it can only serve to illustrate how little functionality is valued and how much "gee, that's neat" is over-valued when it comes to making the judgements. Finger-shaped, flat-roofed, completely glass-walled classrooms in the New Orleans climate? Designed such that you pass through some rooms to get to other rooms? With full-length glass wall for the elementary school kids to stare out rather than pay attention to the boring math lesson?

David...nice. Subliminally link the Holy Cross project to West Virginia strip-mining. Bill O'Reilly would be proud. I'm glad you "hesitate" to compare this to the demolition of the Rivergate to make room for a casino...before doing just that.

And (at least in the "architectural community") that's exactly what this is about. They were unsuccessful in their attempts to save the Rivergate, and now see this as a continuation of the same battle...whether or not this particular building merits those efforts as they felt the Rivergate did. And I'm all about preservation of historic sites and buildings...but as Patricia Gay of the Preservation Resource Center said, the building really has no "historic" value as far as they're concerned.

Mad, I think you've hit on the cogent point for this particular issue; so many of the SFC parishioners HAVE decided that, for this project, that building IS expendable. Frankly, I think for every Gentilly resident you can find who'll refer to the building as a "beautiful church" you'll find another who'd tell you they always thought of it as "one of those modern-looking concrete things they put up and call a church". I think the point to be extracted is that the building itself holds much less significance to the community in which it's sited than it does to the "architectural" community...and apparently to the blogging community.
puddinhead, for someone who accuses me of acting like Bill O'reilly, you sure do a good job of distorting what I say. I didn't say a damn thing about the rivergate. The first TV report I saw showed Hedge-Morrell in front of a noisy crowd demanding the demolition of the church, and I immediately thought of the crowd that intimidated the city council into voting for a gambling deal that gave everything to the state. Diffference was these people were in their own neighborhood and Hedge-Morrell was the only person who seemed to subscribe to the angriest person is right school of public discourse.

I had no interest in Cabrini, until I heard the arguments and emotion being used in favor of Holy Cross-- The opposition is all out-of-touch or elitist snobs who don't care that they're putting their aesthetic sensibiliies above the well-being of real people. Those are the arguments that were used in favor of a lousy(for the city) casino deal and are used in favor of strip mining. It always worries me when rich, powerful interests convince poor or working or middle class people that their enemies are elitists. Nothing subliminal about that, if you know anybody who reasons in a vacuum, without using any analogies, I'd like to meet him.

The article I specifically criticized was worried about a precedent. If Holy Cross' tactics are successful, it will set a precedent for dozens of similar projects around the city. As Mark acknowledged on his blog, none of them will be anything like the riverfront expressway, but the cumulative effect will be great.

Read the column, then read my post. DeBery's logic applied to the entire city should be scary to anybody.
But am I really distorting what you say, or just responding to what you appeared to say? Twenty years ago a vocal crowd (likely the same group that was turned out for the initial yes/no casino vote you apparently were referring to) also demonstrated in support of a vote to allow the demolition of the Rivergate, saying their livelihoods depended on the new casino. The Rivergate...a building of the same Internationalist Style (albeit a more typical example) as the SFC building, designed by the same firm. The argument that "we couldn't save the Rivergate, so now we have to save Cabrini" has been circulating since Mr. Verderber spoke up the other day. So the two instances are already linked in many places. If I assumed incorrectly that your comments were made with that linkage in mind, I apologize. As fot the indignation over the casual West Virginia mining reference...I don't apologize for that.

Councilwoman Hedge-Morrell...not one of my favorite people, or rather, one of my favorite political representatives. (She's always been pleasant the couple of times I've spoken to her in person.) But in this particular case I can understand the anger you sensed in the seconds-long excerpt from what she had to say that the local news departments decided they wanted you to see. She and her office put forth a lot of effort in gauging whether or not those living in the area the project would be located in by contacting the neighborhood civic associations and asking them to find if their individual neighborhoods back or oppose it. Her office also attempted to determine if it really was the will of the Cabrini parishioners to back the project as presented, as the Archdiocese was telling her. Those SFC parishioners who were able to be contacted said that indeed those present at the St. Pius meeting had voted overwhelmingly in favor of the project, and that while they knew of a few parishioners who opposed the demolition of the building, they knew many more who accepted that as part of the project and supported it. (I'd like to point out that contrary to the prevailing opinion on local blogs the SFC parishioners are not sheep who can be easily led into accepting a "false" either/or argument by "Their Betters" but are in fact likely among the more rational members of our city community and are perfectly able to set aside emotion while making difficult decisions based on fact. They likely don't need people from outside their community to explain to them how they should feel. I understand that sometimes it's difficult for those in the Uptown community and others who share their sensibilities to grasp that the "poor or working or middle-class people" of the rest of the city in general and of Gentilly in particular don't always need the benevolent intervention of their Uptown "betters" to keep them from making misguided decisions or being the unwitting prey of "rich, powerful interests" who use emotional pleas to steer their opinions, since as Mr. Verderber made sure to point out to us, we're "too uneducated to grasp the significance"...Come to think of it, exactly which part of town and which demographic is it that has most reliably fallen for that "the terrorists are gonna get'cha" emotional appeals of "rich, powerful interests" lately?)

Councilwoman Hedge-Morrell's office reached out to the rest of the community through Councilmen-at-large Thomas and Fielkow, as well as through State Rep. Peppi Bruneau's office to determine if the project was something the community as a whole supported or opposed. With the opinion thus gathered appearing to be vastly in favor, she along with the GCIA met with Holy Cross to discover what factors would influence the Board's decision between Gentilly and Kenner. It turned out that neighborhood demographics, as far as how fast the repopulation would occur, was HC's main concern with Gentilly. The Councilwoman brought Greg Rigamer on board to make a final presentation as to what the neighborhood could expect as far as repopulation and businesses should the $23-25 million project go forward...and it, along with the personal entreaties of at least one SFC parishioner, were two of the deciding factors in the Board's decision to remain in the City rather than move to the suburbs.

Months after the HC Board's decision was made public, and even longer after the proposal and site plans for the Gentilly site had been made public, Mr. Verderber stepped forward with his objection. Then, at the Tuesday press conference called by the Gentilly neighborhood associations (Holy Cross representatives intentionally remained uninvolved), Councilwoman Hedge-Morrell attempted to read a prepared statement of support before the media. Mr. Verderber and his students attempted to shout her down. The Councilwoman, as an ex-schoolteacher, undoubtedly had experience dealing with unruly students in her past, and continued at first from her prepared comments, although it was apparent she was growing angrier as the anti-project "Nobody called me and asked my opinion" shouts continued, and the "Be quiet and let her finish" shouts came in response, the Councilwoman finally angrily left script and felt the need to respond to some particularly inflammatory comments shouted her way. Of course, you know what footage made the best excerpt for your evening news.

As for Holy Cross' "tactics" setting precedent for dozens of similar projects...we can only hope so. Maybe no one made a personal phone call to you or Mr. Verderber about the project beforehand, but quite a bit of outreach was done beforehand to the surrounding Gentilly community by the neighborhood associations and to those SFC parishioners for whom contact information could be obtained (parish rolls listed home addresses and home phone numbers, largely currently useless in that area, and email addresses for those who have them) by the Archdiocese, and to the Catholic community of New Orleans in general through the Clarion Herald and by pulpit announcements at Masses across the City. As someone who sat in on the St. Pius meeting for SFC parishioners that took place back in July (http://catholic.org/clarionherald/issue/20060729/3.pdf), I can attest that from the beginning of the meeting Fr. Michael Jacques, appointed by the Archdiocese to advocate for the parish, made it clear that the parishioners themselves were going to make the final decision on the Holy Cross offer, not the Archdiocese, and that the offer on the table included the demolition of the current buildings. Those SFC parishioners I spoke with prior to the start of the meeting who'd received the email from the Archdiocese said they were already aware of this fact. That puts this situation way ahead on the "openess scale" compared to most projects that have occured in this city.
Puddinhead, I should probably just drop this because we're talking past each other and I can tell that you have real feelings about the issue. In the case of Cabrini, you seem to have many, perhaps most, of the facts on your side, but I'll let you debate that with Mark. Actually that's why I'm a little mystified by some of your comments and some of the arguments that I've heard in favor of the demolition.

I specifically criticized a column about setting precedents that said survival trumps everything and contained the following passage:

"Holy Cross officials say the church building does not fit into their vision for the new campus. So if the building stays, Holy Cross doesn't come. If Holy Cross doesn't come, the neighborhood could transition from a dying neighborhood to a dead one."

That's a helluva precedent. The column implies that the opponents are all well-off and states that they're indifferent to people who "need" the project.

That is the argument that's always used against both environmetalists and preservationists -- that they're all well-to-do people who put their aesthetic sensibilities ahead of the real needs of working or middle class people whose well-being is contingent on a project, a project that won't go forward if the people behind it need to make any concessions. I consider myself much more of environmentalist, but I'm often struck by the similarity of the arguments.

I don't know enough about Cabrini to have an opinion on this one demolition (read my post), but I do care about the possibility of a repeated pattern where developers convince people that their financial well-being depends on a project that's only being opposed by elitists. You have a good factual argument; you scare me with the talk of the people of Gentilly not needing their "uptown betters" to come into their community.

BTW, I did grow up in the Uptown area, by the larger definition of Uptown, near the corner of Carrollton and Claiborne. But not all uptowners grew up with priveleged backgrounds, nobody would have accused my family of being rich --possibly below the poverty level, I'm honestly not sure. I can think of active preservationists that wouldn't be described as rich (though probably nt that poor) either. But I'll give you the last word. Does Bill O'Reilly still say that?
David, how in the heck do I know what Bill O'Reilly really says? All I know about him is what I hear (or used to hear) on Keith Olberman and Al Franken's shows...LOL. And I'm somewhat aware of the fact that all Uptowners are not blue-bloods. In fact, I don't even really have any qualms with those who are...LOL. Muffy and Trey are as much a part of New Orleans as anyone else.

Look, we're probably a lot more alike than either of us realize at the base of it...well, maybe, maybe not, I guess..LOL. We just see this issue from two different places. You seem to see it as another chapter in the long-running American serial "The Robber Barons"; I see it simply as the individual attempt for a school to change locations.

I don't mean to scare you, but if you got the idea that I was saying that I didn't want people from outside of Gentilly to come into Gentilly, I did a pretty bad job of expressing myself. Consider the context and moment in which my comment was written. A couple of days before my wife and son were trying to discuss with Dr. Verderber the painstaking efforts that the Gentilly neighborhood associations and the Archdiocese had made to reach out to the community and parishioners to gauge their opinions on the project, and point out that of those who chose to respond the sentiment was overwhelmingly in support of demolition of a building that while some felt had sentimental significance for them as individuals, few felt had an incredibly important historical or architectural significance for the community as a whole. Dr. Verderber (now apparently shifted from his role as former SFC parishioner into that of the "Uptown better" I spoke of) responded by telling them they were just "too uneducated to grasp the significance". Now, I don't know about you, but if you just get finished telling someone about a general opinion among your community, and he tells you your community's opinion is invalid because they're not as educated as he is....that sort of fits the template of elitism, doesn't it?

Look, the people of Gentilly are probably as diverse as the population of New Orleans as a whole; it's not like we're all tribal or anything, attacking the outsider reflexively. We certainly welcome expert opinion on all manner of problems facing us and New Orleanians of many neighborhoods...as evidenced by Gentilly inviting Andres Duany to put together a group of some forty professionals from across the country for the first Gentilly Charrette. But I can tell you this...when Mr. Duany presented ideas during the public meetings that most in the audience felt were inappropriate for our neighborhoods, he simply said that that was why he called the ideas he presented "suggestions" rather than "dictates". What he certainly did not say was that we in the community were just too ignorant to understand what was best for us.

As for DeBerry's column about "precedents"...I evidently took something different from the piece than you did. Perhaps it comes from living (Gentilly), working (St. Bernard), and bringing my children to school (Lower Ninth Ward) without ever leaving what I refer to as "Demoland". No eight or ten hour day at work in an undamaged part of town...no going home to a thriving neighborhood after working all day in a ghosttown. So I read the passage you quote from his piece and say "Yeah...sounds about right." If I weren't so embedded into this issue, I think I'd still recognize Holy Cross' right to decide for themselves if either using the existing building or using just the area of the site minus the existing building fit into their plans, and would understand if they said "We determined that we'd need about 18 acres; we could have lived with 1 1/2 acres carved off of one corner. We can't live with several acres removed right where that building sits. Sorry, but we'll have to look elsewhere for 18 contiguous acres to suit our needs." I don't see it that they particularly OWE it to anyone that they would HAVE to use that site if the building must remain as is, and I'm sure that's not what you're saying to me. I further (again, probably from living for fifteen months in Demoland) don't see anyone else lining up for the opportunity to redevelop the parcel...but maybe there's stuff in the works that I don't know about. At any rate, DeBerry's not the only one to note a postitive effect just from the announcement of the deal; my son was walking the streets bordering the site a few weeks ago when he was trying to identify a couple of homes that the HC Key Club could offer to gut if the owner couldn't handle it on their own, and got into a converstion with a fellow whose home across the street from Redeemer-Seton was about half-way renovated. When he found out my son was an HC student told him how glad he was to hear they were buying the land. He said that he had two neighbors who'd begun their own renovation since the announcement, and who'd specifically told him that the thought of having the land redeveloped as a thriving high school rather than sitting and moldering across the street from their property was the "tipping point" that had made their decision to redo their homes rather than to ask for the LRA buyout and just get out of town.
I can't take anymore of this in-fighting. The real tragedy is that the Archdiocese has, once again (as it is doing now by trying to build a bigger stadium at Rummel in Metairie, and as it did in trying to close St. Augustine), chose an uncompromising route to achieve it's ends, and when it met with objection, it pitted one community against another -- hardly a Christian virtue.

I don't give a hoot, really, what happens to the church. I do sincerely doubt that the Archdiocese couldn't figure out a way to incorporate it into their existing plans. Nevertheless, if the church must be torn down, there could certainly be more done by the Archdiocese to listen to, and bring understanding to, those who which to preserve the church.

BSJD is right about one thing -- the process used to determine what should happen to St. Francis Cabrini ought to be a matter of concern to every New Orleanian who cares about preserving the heritage of this city -- whether you want the church razed, or preserved. No authority should be allowed unilateral control over these decisions about what to do with properties in question.
It's probably too late for anybody to see this, but thanks headinsand. The last paragraph sums up my feelings pretty well. And as Rummel illustrates, the Archdiocese is perfectly capable of acting like a big business.

Actually puddinhead, we're probably a lot alike, and I understand your position. I've heard both sides about how much notice was given and don't know what the story is. I do know that DeBerry is dishonest enough of an op-ed writer that if he were conservative he'd have hit the big leagues by now. My basic position is that we don't worry about process from the beginning, we're going to lose a lot in the rebuilding. When I read an emotional appeal on behalf of H.C., it led me to believe that the facts weren't on that side. Listening to Verderber, I don't get the impression that the facts are his side either. If it wasn't clear that my point was to object to the idea that economics (DeBerry said survival) takes precedence over everything, then I did a poor job of expressing myself.
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