Saturday, September 07, 2013

Outdoor Recreation and Transactional Activism

There's a place on the Parallel Internet you might run into called New Orleans Bum Fest.  It's a collection of photos and anecdotes cataloging, but also making sport of, the foibles of the homeless population of Jackson Square.  I believe it's curated by some of the artists who work down there.

There's some absurdist humor in the posts often coming at the expense of the transients, but just as often aimed at the tourists who swarm the square, or at the city in general.  There are occasions when the observational humor isn't so funny or becomes overly mean-spirited. I suspect there are multiple page administrators which would explain the variance in tone. And the random comments from other internet users don't help matters.  But, for the most part, Bumfest is plain old fashioned workplace angst blogging.  Its main purpose is observational humor put to work as a relief from the grind.

For a comparable example, some of you may remember the famous, "Tard Blog" maintained by a couple of special education teachers back in the early 2000s. It was a periodic journal of daily challenges and annoyances these educators faced only with a little wry humor thrown in for coping purposes. It drew criticism for its harsh language and tone, particularly the choice of the word, "tard" which obviously makes people uncomfortable.  But the point of the exercise was never to disparage the students.  Eventually, the authors added the following disclaimer.
We understand that this site has upset LOTS of people, and honestly, that doesn't bother either of us.

In all seriousness, this site is not intended to mock the retarded, the mentally disabled, or the behaviorally challenged. The authors understand that these people have a difficult life, and sympathize with them. This site does nothing but catalog the funny happenings in a special ed classroom. If you think this mocks anyone, this is because you are bringing these prejudices to the site, they are not here to begin with.

Riti Sped phrased it as such:

"It's not as if we just seek out opportunities to make fun of retarded kids. I just report what I see them do. That is it. No cruel jokes, no embellishment, nothing. Well, maybe a few jokes, because it is funny, but nothing cruel. I love my tards."

And remember this before you criticize us...Riti is the one who gets up everyday and faces the problems of these children. She is the one that attempts to teach them how to function in the real world, that cleans up their poop and drool, that holds them when they cry, that helps them try and become something even when their derelict parents do not. She is the one that cares about them and helps them confront the world. Can you say the same thing?
A decade later, the "social media revolution" has evolved. Now that honest sarcasm of frustrated but well meaning people sharing every day gripes has been co-opted by professional snark media. The Gawker family of sites, to choose the most obvious example, specialize in mass-producing the conversational irony that came natural to ordinary people when they first discovered they could keep each other company on the internet.  I'm not saying the product isn't good. I still enjoy Deadspin as much as I ever have. But I'm not oblivious to the gimmick either. It invites valid criticism.  

Unfortunately the reaction against Big Snark also falls back on the drones who just want to talk about what's going on without being too boring. Legitimate casual internet conversation becomes conflated with the mode of  professional sarcasm designed to approximate it. And so we're reaching a point where no genuinely independent voice is considered valid anymore. Through the lens of this cynicism, individuals expressing themselves on the internet are either illiterate rubes given to racism or, worse, conspiracy theory or they're covert promoters being paid to manipulate people.

No doubt, the online media environment is more complicated than it used to be. But I hope we can resist the urge to shout down every non-credentialed contributor in response.  Professional media haranguing the amateurs in this way is akin to swatting a mosquito with a... well.. this.
Bumfest is just such a mosquito. Its proprietors don't seem to wish the homeless any particular harm but many of the commenters there certainly do.  It's not necessary to take offense at the page as a whole, but it's easy to see how just the right sort of haughty moralist might.

Or you could take the conspiracy tack. What if, for the sake of argument, we were to suggest that Bumfest is a professionally orchestrated media campaign?  It isn't, but watch how one might go about employing it as such. Just bear with me a moment.

This week the Vieux Carre Commission permitted a chain restaurant called Habana Outpost to open a new location at the corner of N. Rampart and Esplanade. Because we live in New Orleans, this was a highly controversial decision.

While the VCC's vote was a significant victory for Meenan, it is unlikely to bring the matter to an end. Attorney Sonny Shields -- who represents several neighbors of the proposed restaurant and was a fixture at all of the commission's meetings on it, questioning the legality of the review process and the project -- said he would consult with his clients on how best to respond.

Meg Lousteau, executive director of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates organization, a vocal opponent of Habana Outpost, declined to say whether the group will appeal the issue to the City Council. "We're going to regroup," she said.

During Wednesday's meeting, Shields said the VCC didn't have the right to approve the project since it is the subject of ongoing litigation. Several neighbors and the VCPORA group have sued Meenan over his continued use of a pre-existing billboard on the site. Their lawsuit, filed May 20 in Civil District Court, claims the billboard violates the city's zoning ordinance and that Meenan attached lighting and new signage to it without proper permits. The suit also says the billboard has "irreparably harmed" the neighbors' property values, is an annoyance and inconvenience, and interferes with their enjoyment of their homes.
I didn't have a strong rooting interest in the Habana stuff.  As a fan of the theater of civic engagement, though, I found this meeting fascinating.  For instance, you might not have fully appreciated the international diplomacy in play at this neighborhood meeting.  Luckily this man was on hand to set you straight.
Ron Bienvenue, who owns investment firm Louisiana Buyout Fund, told the commission before the final vote that by approving the project the panel could send a message to entrepreneurs around the world that Louisiana is open for business and a great place to pursue their dreams.

"Two weeks ago I was in New York trying to convince 100 employees whose average pay is $80,000 to relocate to Louisiana," Bienvenue said of his attempts to purchase the financial media firm The Street. "This issue kept coming up over and over again: Does Louisiana welcome outsiders? I assured them it does. People are watching, and I encourage you to support this project because it sends a very positive message to the country."
Holy shit, Vieux Carre Commission, the whole world is watching you.  Do not take your responsibility lightly.  Pursuit of dreams is at stake!

Wait, run those dreams by us again?
A New Orleans investor group is arguing for a stock restructuring and potential purchase of TheStreet, the online business media company co-founded by television stock picker Jim Cramer, host of the Mad Money show on CNBC. The New Orleans private equity firm, called Spear Point, which owns more than 2 percent of TheStreet's common stock, wrote the New York firm's board of directors arguing that the company's arrangement with preferred shareholders is suppressing value for common shareholders.

Spear Point started in January, founded by two veterans of the New Orleans entrepreneurship scene, Nic Perkin, who co-founded the Receivables Exchange marketplace for companies to trade debts owed by customers, and Ron Bienvenu, who runs the Louisiana Buyout Fund investment firm that focuses on buying companies and relocating their operations to Louisiana to take advantage of lower costs, a tactic Bienvenu described as "in-sourcing."
Just your regular mom and pop consumer debt re-sale operation.  Sounds legit so far.  Oh but they also sell
investment opportunities in... getting companies to move to Louisiana. But it's not weird at all. You see they focus on no-brainer moves like getting a financial services publication called "The Street" to move 1300 miles away from its obviously sub-optimal location on Wall Street.  
That might be what Perkin and Bienvenu will seek to do with at least some of the operations of TheStreet through their new partnership, which uses a strategy they call "transaction oriented activism," meaning they want to improve the financial success of companies not only by voicing their arguments as shareholders but by buying the companies, perhaps taking publicly traded companies private, or accommodating other sales. 
Okay so it's a little weird. But if you're giving these people money, try and remember you're not buying into an investment opportunity, you're becoming part of a movement. 

Whatever it was, it moved the commission.r  After Bienvenu's speech... and many other supportive comments... they voted 7-1 in favor of Habana. But that's not all the exciting business they covered that night.
Dr. Ralph Lupin is fed up with the “useless occupation” of the French Quarter by the shabbily attired and unsatisfactorily groomed “trash” that hang out near tarot-card tables in Jackson Square, the Vieux Carre Commission chairman said during the commission’s meeting Wednesday.

Lupin urged those present at the meeting to call the cops when they spot such loiterers.

“The only way that we are going to get any peace and quiet in the French Quarter is if we get help,” Lupin said.

Lupin’s comments came during the chairman’s address he gives at each meeting. He said he wanted to discuss the things he sees on his regular walks around the French Quarter.

“I am especially concerned over what I’ve been seeing recently and that is the occupation of sidewalks near Jackson Square by people who are using it as a place to sleep or whatever else they might have to do,” Lupin said. “I regularly wake up to go to surgery at 6 o’clock in the morning and I see these people out on the sidewalk.”

Lupin, a resident of the Quarter, said he intends to ask the city’s legal department to “review the laws that govern the tarot-card, or so-called tarot-card readers” who set up shop in Jackson Square.

“I am not opposed to tarot-card readers, not at all. But I am opposed to tarot-card readers who have six or seven chairs around a little table and those six or seven chairs, as I observed on my way over here this afternoon, are occupied by people that I hate to say I consider trash, but they are people who look like they are,” Lupin said. “They are ill-dressed, ill-washed. They are cursing. They are drinking alcohol. And I’ve heard they use drugs in Jackson Square.”

Oh dear. Where could we have heard that? Well we could have flipped on the local news stations who conveniently ran out this week to amplify Lupin's hysteria. Or we could have checked out the Bumfest page.  Which is why a cynic who didn't already know better might suspect Bumfest is part of what is apparently the latest campaign to "clean up" the Square.

But we do know better.  Not being conspiracy theorists we can tell the difference between a bit of online goofiness and an elaborate underhanded scheme. I'm not sure we can say as much for Bienvenu's investors, though.  And I suppose we can say even less for anyone who buys in when a "transaction oriented activist" proclaims a margarita mill is the skyline crane we've all been waiting for.  But then, when the board charged with tempering that sort of hucksterism is preoccupied with running the bums out of Disney any number of ridiculous ideas can slip  on past.

1 comment:

hog said...

I'm a haughty hog moralist. You're a weirdo.