Social justice, continued

by Yule Heibel on September 3, 2005

About that social justice thing I’ve been on about in the last coupla entries…

Check out the New York Times’s In Manhattan, Poor Make 2¢ for Each Dollar to the Rich by Sam Roberts. Yowza. Does anyone think this is sustainable? Even tv (the opiate of the masses) conks out at some point — in Russia they had revolutions bent on overthrowing this kind of inequality. To whit:

The top fifth of earners in Manhattan now make 52 times what the lowest fifth make – $365,826 compared with $7,047 – which is roughly comparable to the income disparity in Namibia, according to the Times analysis of 2000 census data. Put another way, for every dollar made by households in the top fifth of Manhattan earners, households in the bottom fifth made about 2 cents.


The loss of good-paying jobs, especially in manufacturing, “has meant that the ‘hollowing out’ of the middle of the income distribution continued at a rapid pace,” the institute, a union-backed research group, concluded. It said the number of families earning between $35,000 and $150,000 declined by 50,000 from 2000 to 2003 while the number that earned above $150,000 and below $35,000 increased.


Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said the income gap, which in Manhattan has historically been large, can endure indefinitely.

“The elites, the top sliver of the income scale, can drive consumption and investment forward while the bottom half slogs along,” he said. “If inequality had embedded within it its own seeds of destruction, it would implode sooner than later. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Many who have fallen behind have a skewed notion of their prospects for upward mobility.” [uhhmmm, they’ve been watching too much tv, ….”who wants to be a millionaire”….??]

Manhattan, he said, is “an amplified microcosm” of conditions elsewhere in the country. [More…]

It’s really amazing. This is not the way to be moving forward — it’s unsustainable.

Meanwhile, here’s an interesting, dispassionate comparison of the Japanese 1994 rebuilding response to the earthquake in Kobe and why (and how) rebuilding in New Orleans is essential:

Like New Orleans, Kobe is a major international port city. “The port of Kobe was the largest container port in Japan. There was a huge amount of money put into getting it back up. And while a lot of that business did come back, other business went to other ports” while the city was rebuilding its infrastructure. As a result, [Rob Olshansky] said, Kobe today has about 70 percent of its former level of port traffic.

“Another lesson from Kobe,” Olshansky said, “is where to locate temporary housing. They need to try to keep communities together, and they should also try to have those people who have nowhere else to go as close as possible to their original homes.” The rationale there, he said, is based on the expectation that “the port and tourism industries will be back up within a year, and once they’re going again, people need to be nearby.”

Still one more lesson – learned from Kobe and Los Angeles – he said, is that “those with fewer resources have more problems with recovery.” Those most at risk, he said, include “the unemployed, the underemployed, small-business owners, the elderly and renters.”

“In all these past disasters abroad and in the U.S., the immediate money goes to rebuilding infrastructure and temporary housing. That’s a good thing,” Olshansky said, “but in the longer term comes other issues, and we don’t deal with those right away. The people with means – and insurance – will ride things out. Within one to three years, most of them will move back into the city. But small-business owners can’t wait that long.”

As an example, Olshansky points to sidewalk sandwich vendors and other entrepreneurs who went under in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster. “The less well off need money thrown at them right away, but that doesn’t happen. There’s no mechanism for that.” “And that’s one of our conclusions from the study: We need to get people thinking about recovery planning. And we need to get people thinking about having mechanisms in place to get immediate resources to people most in need.”

Those conclusions link to a final lesson Olshansky promotes for municipal officials and citizens committed to improving disaster-recovery policies and practices: recognizing the value of hiring planners who can help develop long-term solutions by working directly with community residents, in the neighborhoods.

“They need to put money into having a planning process, having employees paid to get residents together and communicating,” he said. “If they’ve had community organizations involved in planning, if they have those networks established, they can contact those people – even with those who’ve moved elsewhere temporarily.”

And, as it’s happened in the initial phases of post-Katrina recovery, “communities are going to be operating more and more over cyberspace.” Olshansky emphasizes that the need for employing trained planners in New Orleans is “not just our generic idea – but in fact, one of the most innovative and successful actions taken in Kobe.” [More…]

Uh-oh. What he is saying applies equally well to my hometown, Victoria, BC, which is due for a major earthquake and is reliant on small businesses….

As for Louisiana, for anyone laughing at the idea that tourism is going to be back and running in New Orleans within a year, check out today’s column in the Toronto Star by Rosie DiManno, Doors never closed at this Big Easy bar. Sorry, I’m not going to quote the whole thing (did that with her column yesterday), so register already and read it online. (It’s free.) She writes about going for beers at Johnny White’s Sports Bar in the French Quarter, which survived the storm intact. The bartender, Joe Bellomy, even had enough food to weather things out, but now he’s faced with having no electricity or running water. But he has customers. Beer is $2.50, water $2. No gouging. There are customers, they talk:

Suspected corruption and the incompetence of officialdom are taken for granted here. Everywhere, people rage at the slow, disorganized response of emergency relief efforts, although — with little information filtering in — nobody knows much of what’s happening in the more severely-stricken parishes beyond New Orleans, where presumably first response efforts have been focused. And, while some remain harshly critical, there was much cheering in recent days for Mayor Ray Nagin, who tore a strip off the federal government for failing New Orleans so profoundly in its time of need.

“He’s got my vote,” said Bellomy.

More bitter is the reaction to Dennis Hastert, the Republican House speaker who has recommended that New Orleans just roll over, that the Crescent City rebuild from scratch and become something else entirely. Maybe something more GOP blue than sensually bluesy.

“Hastert,” snorts one tippler. “Rhymes with bastard.”


While it may seem, at first appearance, that all of New Orleans is either under water or ruinously trashed — palms and cypress trees uprooted, brick buildings crumbled, power lines downed — there are areas of the city that have survived with minimal structural damage. The French Quarter, or the vieux carré, must have been watched over by the gods and goddesses of Bacchanalia, who would not allow such an elegant and historical district — a place devoted to pleasure — to be wiped off the face of the earth.

The graceful wrought-iron balustrades have withstood Katrina’s fury. Antoines, where Oysters Rockefeller were invented, stands as solidly as before. The charm of the patio at The Court of Two Sisters — established in 1832 — is undiminished behind filigreed gates. Preservation Hall may look a shambles, but it’s always been thus, with its cement floor and worm-eaten planks for seating.

Here, amid the flesh parlours and the honky tonks, the now-silent zydeco cribs and the jazz clubs, the heart of the Big Easy is still beating.

In Cajun-speak — the patois still spoken by the descendants of Acadians who were expelled from Nova Scotia by the British, settling in the Louisiana bayous — they say: Laissez les bon temps rouler. Let the good times roll.

These aren’t good times, of course. They’re dreadful times. But the French Quarter, at least, rolls with the punches.

Yesterday, several restaurant owners and publicans were busy sweeping up glass, ripping off shredded plywood and bundling up branches. At Tony Moran’s, a famous Italian eatery, two workmen cleared debris, frustrated by the lack of power that prevented them from attempting a serious clean-up.

“If we had some power, there’s really no reason why we couldn’t reopen almost right away,” said Michael West, taking a break for a po’boy sandwich.

On the second-floor veranda of a block comprising peeler bars and blues clubs, property manager Zach Tamburrino is trying to establish order out of chaos.

“Won’t be an overnight process, getting up off our knees, but it’ll be faster than most people think. I bet we’ll be back to complete normal by next Mardi Gras. But those politicians up in Washington, and the state officials, have to get off their behinds. The French Quarter generates the biggest tax revenues for Louisiana. They’ve got to understand that, without us, there is no Louisiana.”

At the Blues Club, George Miller rattles off a list of things officials could be doing to ease the plight of the displaced: “There are military bases all around here that have been closed down. Why can’t they let these homeless people stay there? The barracks are still available.”

The 71-year-old ex-Air Force man continues: “We’re right on the river. Why can’t they load up some barges with food and water for those poor people who are going hungry? Why can’t they make food drops like we did in Berlin?”

This is the spirit and feistiness in New Orleans. [More…]

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