Tuesday, October 9, 2012

An interview with ROBERTA GRATZ, urbanist and Nation magazine journalist

Roberta Brandes Gratz is an award-winning journalist and urban critic, lecturer and author.  Her newest book is The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Earlier works were the now classic The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way, and Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown.
She is an international lecturer on urban development issues and former award-winning reporter for the New York Post. Ms. Gratz was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2003 and in 2010 resigned from the commission and was then appointed by the mayor to serve on the Sustainability Advisory Board for PlaNYC.
In 2005, in collaboration with Jane Jacobs, Ms. Gratz and a small group of accomplished urbanists founded The Center For the Living City.  On November 5, The Historic Districts Council of NY (citywide) will honor her at the Four Seasons restaurant as their 2012 Landmark Lion.
After Hurricane Katrina, Roberta bought a shotgun in the Bywater so she could get the story on the city’s rebuilding.  She lives there half the year.
Q: Thanks for taking time out from your new book to talk about your experience in New Orleans.  What would your hero Jane Jacobs appreciate about New Orleans as an urban environment?  What changes have we made to our urban fabric that would she have deplored?
A:  She’d love the degree to which local people are involved in their own neighborhoods both working to rebuild them in positive ways and opposing inappropriate or disruptive changes when necessary. She’d also love the survival of corner stores and neighborhood shopping streets filled with pedestrian activity throughout the city, something all American cities used to have but lost.
She’d deplore the refusal to reopen the patient-ready Charity hospital after Katrina and its oversize, suburban-style replacement at a location guaranteed to undermine the downtown and causing the unnecessary destruction of a solid working class neighborhood. She would also deplore the gratuitous tear down of all the public housing undamaged by hurricanes when so much of it could have been creatively reworked to be safe, economically integrated and appealing. She would recognize a contradiction in a city over-dependant on tourism yet not genuinely committed to protecting its architectural and cultural legacy.

Q: Can you tell our readers the tale of how New Orleans defeated her arch-rival Robert Moses’ plan to build an interstate along the river on the edge of the French Quarter? Who were the heroes in that uniquely successful struggle?
A:  Local lawyer Bill Borah with the full backing of the Stern Foundation led that fight with a number of others willing to face down the biggest powers that be from New Orleans to Washington to make the right thing happen. New Orleans would have been destroyed by that highway, as so many American cities have been by similar projects.

Q: Of course the downside to that preservationist victory was that the interstate was moved instead to the heart of Treme and a 2 mile double alley of glorious live oaks were cut down to build the elevated expressway. Treme as an African American business district along North Claiborne died a not-so-slow death. I’ve been a big proponent since Katrina of tearing it down (as they did in the Embarcadero after the San Francisco earthquake). What are the pros and cons of that teardown?  And what do you think the likelihood of its being torn down?
A:  That is a myth. Moses original drawings show two roadways, not unusual for him. That idea, I suspect, has been perpetrated to purposely foster divisiveness.
The taking down of the I-10 is as good an idea as it has been in the other cities where similar highways have come down. However, I don’t yet sense a real concern for the displacement of people that would result nor a sense that a replacement roadway would provide appropriate space for the significant cultural uses that now occur under the I-10. Until those local activities are provided for in a new design and until there is protection in place for the affected residents and businesses, full local support for this idea will not be forthcoming.  It risks looking too much like a land grab.

Q: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” said University of Chicago arch-conservative Milton Friedman. HBO’s Treme seems geared up this year to explore the way developers made the most of things, not always in an above-board manner.  Can you share some of that story, the way developers exploited our crisis? Are there telling examples of how sometimes they were stopped?
A:  I’m really looking forward to Treme’s treatment of this issue.
The hospital and public housing examples are the most visible but all over the city structures have come down that shouldn’t have. Many have not only because of local watchdogs, particularly starting with Karen Gadbois and her blog Squandered Heritage that alerted the public to outrageous activities. That blog eventually led Karen and Arielle Cohen to establish The Lens, which has evolved into a fabulous investigative journalism outlet.
Clearly the northern section of the Lower Ninth Ward would have been toast without vehement local resistance.
Sadly, Treme is a current target of subtle and not-so-subtle developer exploitation with the feds aiding and abetting the process with the redevelopment strategy for the Iberville Houses. Iberville is a perfect example of the kind of quality that cannot be reproduced but could be upgraded, restored and added onto in order to create a dense, economically-integrated community.

Q: Surely one of our biggest blunders post-Katrina is our handling of the medical corridor: the decision not to fix Charity Hospital (for $500mm) and instead to tear down 17 acres (?) of mid-city to build a new medical complex (for $1.4 billion).  Is the LSU-VA/Charity hospital struggle comparable to the Robert Moses interstate fight?  Care to weigh in on those decisions? Is there hope it won’t be as bad as some fear?
A:  This is a classic Robert Moses-era scandal, reminiscent of the Urban Renewal-style that was supposed to be behind us, as I wrote in detail in  The Nation. This is especially tragic because of the quicker, cheaper alternative to modernize and upgrade the existing Charity that unnecessarily still stands empty. What a shot in the arm for all of downtown that would have been economically, to say nothing of the importance of the continued enviable hospital and teaching facility that is now history.
It will be worse than is feared, as the lack of construction funds continues and the draconian cuts to the state’s entire Charity Hospital and health care system. It is dire, to be sure. The disrupted lives of a neighborhood can’t be calculated.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your forthcoming book?  What went wrong in our return from Katrina and what went right? Who are some of your heroes in our rebirth?
A:  Ah, you’ll have to wait for the book for my view of what went wrong and right, aside from some of what I said above. That will be the essence of the story. I’m still very much in the information gathering and observation stage to give you conclusions.

Q: When can we anticipate your book?
A:  I have been busy interviewing what will add up to hundreds of people. I have never ceased to be the newspaper reporter/investigative journalist that I started out as several decades ago which means my work is ongoing. Plan on 2015.

Q: Tell us about your life in New Orleans? What have you come to like most about New Orleans? How’s the Bywater as urban environment?
A: I love the warmth and friendliness of the people most of all. Urbanistically, New Orleans is unique and I am very much an urban person. The scale, diversity, culturally vibrancy and all the other obvious things are very appealing.
The Bywater is a particularly friendly neighborhood. It has become increasingly popular with lots of local stores and restaurants opening. I love being a 15 minute bike ride from downtown. Sadly, I don’t think the city’s and transit authority’s next streetcar priority is St. Claude. This is so shortsighted. The city is more focused on tourists than on the resident and business taxpaying population that really keeps the city going. That mass transit access is the neighborhood’s real deficiency.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

An interview with LOLIS ERIC ELIE, New Orleans' ombudsman, documentarian, and storyteller

Lolis Eric Elie — writer, journalist, documentarian, screenwriter, and man-about-town — is a native New Orleanian and a resident of his beloved Tremé, the oldest African American neighborhood in America.  He’s done a terrific book on the culture of barbecue, Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, an equally impressive documentary, Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, and now is story editor for HBO’s Treme series, with fans all over the nation and which most everyone in New Orleans adores.

Lolis’ father Lolis Edward Elie was a prominent civil rights attorney who played a key role in the integration of New Orleans. He even played a personal role in the integration of Chris Steak House, a story I relate in the memoir:

The racial integration of Ruth’s Chris happened in a moment of … political power broking.  Despite her roots in Plaquemines Parish, I have often heard it said that Ruth’s Chris was the first fine dining restaurant in New Orleans where blacks felt comfortable.  Lolis Edward Elie, a member of the most important civil rights firm in the city, Collins, Douglas and Elie, broke the race barrier when he was brought to lunch by a conservative white politician who needed Elie’s clout in the black community.  The candidate was unlikely to secure support from a radical civil rights attorney, but Elie, a bon vivant, understood the good meal he was being bribed with.  The Public Accommodations Act had been made the law of the land a year before Mom took possession of Chris’, but, as throughout the South, the law took effect storefront by storefront.  Suddenly Chris’ dining room was in a tizzy.  A white oil man from the West Bank (adjacent to bigoted Plaquemines Parish) approached my mother and in that drawl bigots seem required to assume even if they were not born to it, told my mother, “if that boy ( two syllables) eats here (two syllables), I’ll never eat at Chris’ again (one and a half syllables: ‘uh-g’n).”  I imagine him towering over her five foot two inch frame.  ”There’s the door,” she replied.  I imagine her presence filling the room.  But it always did.

Q: Lolis, thanks for taking the time to chat with fans of New Orleans lore and culture.  When you were Metro columnist for the Times Picayune, I used to think of you as the ombudsman for the African American community (and the rest of us too!).  With your movie Faubourg Tremé you became for a moment its historian and documentarian.  Now with HBO’s Treme you seem to have become our storyteller.  What was it like to do a documentary about the cultural and historical importance of Faubourg Treme and then have HBO come knock at your door, seeming to agree with you?  What bottle of wine did you open that night?  And who did you share it with?
A: When I moved back to New Orleans after college, grad school and exile in Atlanta, I wanted to live in a neighborhood that looked and felt like New Orleans. I grew up in Carrollton in a ranch style house. Treme was a very different experience. Second lines regularly pass in front of my door. St. Augustine church is right around the corner and its history and influence is strongly felt in the neighborhood. But, as important as anything tangible, there is a sense in Treme that this is important ground, that this neighborhood, with its history of music in Congo Square, its tradition of the building trades (as both art and commerce) and its tradition of literature dating back to “Les Cenelles,” [A Collection of Poems by Creole Writers of the Early Nineteenth Century] all combine to make this a sacred place. Even people who can’t quote chapter and verse of the history of their community seem to understand that Treme, virtually alone among New Orleans neighborhoods, embodies something of the essence of black New Orleans and therefore of New Orleans.
Dawn Logsdon, a white New Orleans native who directed and edited the documentary, saw this more clearly than I did. When she approached me about the possibility of making a documentary about “Treme,” I thought it was a worthy project, but not necessarily one to which I was will to devote years of my already busy life. The initial vsion for “Faubourg Treme” was hers, but even that statement is filled with a kind of irony. We agreed that we would do a documentary about how the contemporary culture of this community was so rich. At that time poets Brenda Marie Osbey and Kalamu ya Salaam were living in the neighborhood. They were the contemporary embodiments of the literary tradition that went back to the various salons held in ante bellum Treme. My carpenter, Irving Trevigne, represented the generations of back men who made their livings in the building trades. Glen David Andrews, the trombone player, represented the extension of the music tradition, dating back to the pre-jazz antebellum days. We knew we’d have to include at least something of the 19th century history to put all of these modern developments in context. But, the more we dug into what was happening in the 1800s, the more we realized that that history was incredibly fascinating and relatively unknown. Of course, one of the most important historians of that period was Joe Logsdon, Dawn’s late father. We went far afield, only to return to her roots.

When HBO’s “Treme” called, it didn’t really hit me at first what it all meant. First of all, they invited me to be a “consultant.” My impression was that they were certain that they wanted to pick my brain, but perhaps not so sure that they wanted me to write for them. I don’t know. I’ve never asked them about that. I know that when I had dinner with David Simon, Eric Overmyer and David Mills, we dined at MiLa and I ordered a bottle of Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc. It’s one of my go-to wines when I’m unsure whether my dining companions are serious wine drinkers. Turns out it was perfect for the evening as none of my dining companions were wine geeks.

While the documentary Dawn and I did ended up focusing a lot on history, in some ways, “Treme” is the logical extension of that history. Indeed, in some ways it’s the fictional version of some of the ideas we had imagined focusing on before getting kidnapped by history. The fiction of “Treme” allows us to look at the personal lives of our characters and in so doing humanize the historical events that are the basis for the work we are doing. All of David Simon’s work draws heavily on real events. That approach helps not only from the standpoint of credibility with the audience, but also in terms of helping ensure that our fictions are guided by what did or could have happened.
Q: Can you comment on how those three roles interweave in your work: ombudsman or advocate, historian, and storyteller?
It’s funny to hear you separate the roles like that. You are right about it, though I don’t necessarily think of the roles as being separate. When I was writing for The Times-Picayune, I had to write three columns a week. One thing I told myself was that they wouldn’t all be brilliant or clever. But sometimes if I just wrote about something important, informed people of an event or person or history that they needed to know about, I would have discharged my responsibility to put something of quality in the paper, even if I fell short of eloquence that particular day. So, I suppose in that way, I did see various directions in which my own inclinations might guide divergent approaches to the column.
I was a very earnest kid. Too earnest for my own good. Back in 6th and 7th grade, when I was one of two or three black kids at Trinity Episcopal School, I would sometimes cry because of my inability to convince my uptown white classmates that Nixon was evil and the Vietnam War was wrong. Eventually I realized that crying was not an effective rhetorical strategy and that, even if I was right, it wouldn’t necessarily change the world. But art—storytelling in particular—was a way of creating entertainment that could succeed even if it didn’t change anyone’s mind. That is the spirit that informs all my work these days: try to make it entertaining, interesting, intelligent, engaging. Then hope that readers or viewers will be so enthralled with the work that they might also be moved to see the world more as I do. 

Q: The Tremé neighborhood is known for its rich musical history.  The 19th century Creole music tradition was centered there and the 20th century brass band tradition was born there.  A rich gene pool, it would seem.  Have you heard about the efforts by FirstLine Schools, the folks who brought us the Edible Schoolyard, to make music the focus of Tremé’s Craig High School?  Think that could work, a high school in Tremé focused on music?
A: FirstLine’s work in this regard is pretty new, so it’s hard to draw any conclusions yet. I always thought the New Orleans schools in general should take greater advantage of our musical traditions. Not because of my own love of music or my own belief that the discipline of music education can be broadly applicable. My point is that the community itself encourages and rewards musical accomplishment. You can’t march down the street in a band of students who got “A’s” in math. You can’t invite your parents to hear you recite Poe’s “Raven.” But your parents, friends, neighbors and siblings will all be very pleased to check you out playing in a brass band or marching band. The community values music. 

 Q: In Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong describes his excitement the first time he led the Color Waifs Home marching band through his old South Rampart Street neighborhood, the Fertel’s neighborhood as well.  We should use that value as a bridge to get kids to skills, in and out of the band room, that can help them make their lives fulfilling.
A: Exactly. Much about New Orleans has changed. But this abiding appreciation for the music exemplifies how this city has stayed true to its roots. The question is how do we build on that. Unfortunately, most approaches to improving education around here assume that our people and our culture bring nothing but ignorance to the table. We can all learn much from Armstrong's life. 

Q: You were at NOCCA with Wynton Marsalis and later his tour manager.  How did you escape a musical fate and find writing?
A: A musical fate escaped me. It became clear that I was a good student but not a very god musician. Unlike some of the other guys who flunked out of NOCCA because they couldn’t or wouldn’t do the work, I found the academic side of it relatively easy. I had no problem with the discipline necessary to learn the songs and theories that we were called upon to learn. The problem is that my musical abilities scarcely improved. I put in a lot of hours for a little result in music. In writing, things came easy. Which is not to say that the writing process in general comes easy. Writing complicated stories or essays or scripts, is difficult, slow, challenging work. But I feel that my hours are rewarded in writing in ways that they weren’t in music. My return on investment was pretty low.
Q: You’ve had a big role at the Southern Foodways Alliance, serving on their board and being a mainstay at their annual conference in October at the University of Mississippi.  This next conference will return to one of your favorite topics: barbecue. Excited about that?
A: It's been interesting to witness barbecue's slow conquest of America, and by extenuation the Southern foodways conquest on the Northern regions. These days you probably have a dozen different barbecue places in New York City, and other places not historically known for their barbecue are also attaining barbecue prominence. From a Southern Foodways Alliance perspective, this is further evidence of the extent to which Southern food is emblematically American. People from outside the region are finding good barbecue, slow cooked the traditional way, is damn near as exotic as Vietnamese soups or Ethiopian stews. 
In addition to this wider recognition of barbecue as both toothsome and important, there are some interesting movements happening in the barbecue world. Jim N' Nick's has been pioneering efforts to introduce heritage meats in all two dozen of its locations. Ed Mitchell, the North Carolina barbecue master, has been working in a similar direction. In addition to taking another look at the meat they're smoking, lots of the newer places are re-imagining and improving traditional barbecue side dishes. The single best place to study and enjoy Southern food is at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium. The fact that we are featuring barbecue as our theme this year is exciting indeed. 

Q: What’s next on your calendar?  I know there’s Treme, season 3.  Anything else brewing? 

A: My situation vis à vis “Treme” and television in general is sort of ironic. I’ve been writing for decades now, but this is my first time writing for television. Even now, after two and a half seasons, I have a lot more to learn. I’m always tempted to focus on the next project, at times to the detriment of the current one. But I’m really try to keep the current season of “Treme” as my priority. I’m still very much in television school. David Simon, Eric Overmyer and now George Pelecanos are the teachers. Job 1 at this point is to learn as much as I can from them.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

An interview with DONALD LINK, latest ragin' Cajun to bring local and sustainable to town

James Beard Award-winning Chef Donald Link was inspired by his grandfather to start cooking at a very young age. His path led through San Francisco kitchens and a stint as sous chef for Susan Spicer’s Bayona to establishing a group of innovative, acclaimed restaurants in downtown New Orleans including Herbsaint, Cochon, Calcasieu and Cochon Butcher. Cochon had been a lifelong dream for Chef Link, who seeks to keep true to his roots in the Cajun prairie west of Lafayette. Cochon features the foods and cooking techniques he grew up preparing and eating. Link has won many awards including Gourmet’s “America’s Top 50 Restaurants” and two from the James Beard FoundationBest Chef: South and Best New Restaurant (for Cochon). He opened a second Cochon in Lafayette in September. His cookbook is the real thing: Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana.

Q: The Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford MS gives a Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award to people who, like Memphis pitmaster JC Hardaway, have spent a lifetime pursuing their culinary specialty. You’re a bit young for that yet but that seems to be the spirit behind your work: keeping the flame burning. Tell us about your roots in Cajun country and some of the traditions you are keeping alive in your restaurants.

A: My dad’s family emigrated from Germany in 1881 bringing their sausage traditions with them. To this day they still hold communal sausage making days where several members of the community come together to make large batches of smoked sausage to split amongst themselves. They were also very instrumental in developing the rice business that Louisiana has today. My mom’s family was from southern Alabama. I had the privilege of growing up with my Grandparents’ cooking as they lived a half mile from each other. So I grew up with Cajun food from Granny and Southern food from Granddad. I watched how they grew their own food, hunted, and fished, and turn all that into amazing family meals. What most people talk about today as sustainable, local and all the other catch phrases being thrown around, is simply how I ate growing up. It was the only way. Those traditions of southern and Cajun home-cooked meals made with real local food is what we do at our restaurants now, it has always stayed with me that this style of cooking is real.

Q: Herbsaint is a Creole restaurant and Cochon a Cajun restaurant. Can you explain the difference for us? And, btw, for the non-locals, can you explain those names, Herbsaint and Cochon? 

A: I like to think of Herbsaint as a Louisiana restaurant with country French and Italian roots, or a country French style with Louisiana roots, either way. Herbsaint is named after the liquor Herbsaint which, before the turn of the century, was Absinthe. We chose this name for the era of New Orleans that it represents, a place where all walks of life came for the excitement of what New Orleans was. Cochon is more rooted in deep southern and Cajun traditions but not straight versions of them. Cochon (French for pig) uses old world techniques like whole hog butchery, smokers, wood burning oven, and of course all using local products.

Q: You're just opened a Cajun restaurant in Lafayette. Coals to Newcastle? Are there major differences between Lafayette cuisine and Lake Charles (the city between Lafayette and Houston)? And since everyone prefers the way their momma or grandmomma, dad or granddad, parrain (godfather) or marraine (godmother) made gumbo or sauce piquante, how do you plan to overcome that built-in resistance?

A: Lake Charles leans a little more toward Texas style when it comes to cooking, but still has plenty Cajun dishes: boudin, crawfish and gumbo. Lafayette is considered the heart of Cajun country. I think the best way to overcome any resistance is to create dishes their mom didn’t make. I by no means think I can compete with someone’s grandmother. No matter how good I make something, someone is going to have their way of doing it that they like. We are serving a smoked boudin that I think is phenomenal. I personally like the idea that there are so many different versions of boudin and gumbo. It would get boring real quick if they were all the same.

Q: Tell us about the new restaurant. Pretty setting, I hear.

A: The new place is in River Ranch area of Lafayette on the bank of the Vermillion River. We have lots of outdoor deck seating overlooking the river, and a terrace lined with salad greens and citrus trees. Inside we have high ceilings and lots of windows. And a very large bar. 

Q: You seem to be having a lot of fun on your internet project, Taste of Place, which takes you all over the country to hang out with pig farmers, fishermen, foragers and chefs. Something tells me this project, with all the other stuff you’ve got going on, helps keep you fresh and sane. For you, what’s the best part of doing Taste of Place

A: The best thing about doing the show is the people I get to meet. I’ve learned more about food in the last year than in the last 10. I’ve been able to incorporate a lot of what I have learned into our menus and what we have our farmers here grow. I’ve even gone so far as to start my own hog breeding. We have seeded 4 farms with Mangalitsa-Berkshire crosses and plan by early to mid next year to have a permanent supply of hogs for all the restaurants. All pork we sell will come from our hogs. On Taste of Place I’ve been able to eat the best of the best, from salmon in Seattle, to black sow hogs in Virginia, to fresh American Red snappers off the coast of Florida.

Q: Winner of the 2011 James Beard Foundations "Best Chef South," Stephen Stryjewski is the Chef and co-owner at Cochon. How did you meet? When did you realize, and how did he prove to you, that a New Jersey boy could carry on the South Louisiana traditions so important to you? 

A: Stephen brings to southern food what a southerner can’t, which is a new perspective. He really understands the soul of southern and Cajun without making replicas. Steve started out as a grill cook at Herbsaint, then on to sous chef. I knew right away that Steve had a special talent, so we started to look for locations to go into a restaurant together and eventually opened Cochon.

Q: You’ve been a big supporter of the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans at the Samuel J. Green school. Tell us about your involvement and experience there.

A: The best thing about the project is it teaches kids where their food comes from, something I think is lost for most children. I had the benefit of parents and grandparents who had gardens and I ate very well growing up. Most kids only know what they see in the grocery store. We all know that nutrition in this county has gone down significantly. Getting our next generation to be aware of what real food is and how to respect that will increase the well-being of everyone. Food is a powerful thing. Good food makes people happy, it’s one of the only common threads that everyone in the world shares.