The recent collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel on Rampart and Canal claimed the lives of three workers assigned to its construction—and injured many others. This titanic, entirely man-made and entirely preventable fatal disaster unfolding inside the mostly mummified French Quarter, the crown jewel of Louisiana, proves yet again that nothing is sacred to the engine of economic progress.
It is a small and sour irony that this doomed, shoddy skyscraper, now just one more expensive above-ground cemetery for tourists to gawk at, was inflicted on the birthplace of the preservationist movement. Fifty years back, French Quarter residents organized and rallied repeatedly to prevent the national highway system, with the blessings of the then-mayor, from running an elevated six-lane expressway through the Vieux Carre. Fifty years later, those preservationists who fought against density and height zoning waivers for the Hard Rock Hotel project were vilified by local politicians, developers, and all the common-sense advocates for growth and progress.
It’s not surprising that Mayor Cantrell now wants to raze the whole structure to the ground, since this murder monument indicts her entire political class. What a towering tribute to its enablers the Hard Rock Hotel presents, a great slumping sundial whose gnomon points to their collective moral lodestar, unquenchable greed. It celebrates the greed not just of its developers but all who collaborated on, encouraged, profited from, and rubber-stamped this deathtrap. The list of the guilty is long, and every name on it is written with the blood of the building’s laborers—for Mammon, whose temple this is, desires human sacrifice.
We’ll get to the Kailas family, Citadel Builders, and some of their cronies, but let’s look first at the specifics of how this horror came about and the rhetoric that surrounded it. If you ever want to know what the enemies of New Orleans are thinking, you needn’t look further than “The Hayride,” Scott McKay’s relentlessly debunked and discredited opinion blog, where he provides an ideological home to the worst of Louisiana’s alt-light frothers.
In a typically prescient 2012 screed, McKay insisted on the necessity of the Hard Rock Hotel development and mocked then-city-councillor Cynthia Hedge-Morrell for saying the proposed 200-foot project threatened “the integrity of the French Quarter,” writing, “It’s tough to figure how a building that isn’t in the Quarter could threaten its integrity.” The building is in the French Quarter, but being stridently wrong is part of the Hayride brand. Unsurprisingly, the pose of speculation was merely another on-ramp to McKay’s comfort zone, racist invective. “After all,” McKay continued, “if the nearby Iberville Housing Projects and the criminal element it spews forth into the Quarter hasn’t threatened its integrity, one wonders how a building which could be the home for 500-750 upscale residents with disposable income to spend in the Quarter could be a threat.”
I guess one needn’t wonder any longer.
“The politicians of New Orleans need to thank Kailas for his investment and apologize for inconveniencing, encumbering and delaying his project for so long,” McKay concluded. “[O]bstructionist idiocy which protects abandoned eyesores deserves to be punished by the market.”
This is the cudgel of progress, as wielded by a neanderthal; but it fits as comfortably in the manicured, paternalistic hand of Pres Kabacoff, a man also keen to demolish the New Orleans housing projects, who also spoke in bluntly racist language about their occupants. Out with the old (things that help people), in with the new (things that make me money)—that’s the mantra of progress. In an August 2011 hearing about the Hard Rock Hotel, Kabacoff was one of many who spoke on behalf of the project’s head, Praveen Kailas. According to the minutes, Kabacoff represented himself as someone with long-term financial interest in Canal Street and “implored the City Planning Commission to ‘help this gentleman move forward.’”
NOTHING BUT ROT
Have you ever encountered a really termite-eaten beam? It looks kind of like wood, but when you touch it, your finger sinks into papery crud; it’s comprised entirely of putrescence. That’s the case for all parties involved in the Hard Rock Hotel; anywhere you poke, you find nothing but rot. Because the Kailas family is one of metro New Orleans’ biggest landowners and developers, almost everyone’s in bed with them, including former Governor Jindal, whose various campaigns they provided with tens of thousands of dollars of donations, monetary and in-kind.
In just one year under Jindal’s tenure (2011-2012), the Kailas-owned Lago Construction firm got more than $1.5 million of taxpayer money through state contracts—contracts which, thanks to the hard work of WWL’s investigative team and David Hammer, we now know were variously improper and fraudulent. On dates they charged taxpayers for long days of public service work, Lago employees were instead laboring on the Kailas family’s multi-million dollar Bayou St. John mansion. You won’t find them there now, alas. In 2016, they sold that property to Metro Disposal CEO Jimmie Woods for ten dollars.
Lago has a history of being cozy with the state. In much the same way Louisiana politicians slide seamlessly between public office and oil-and-gas industry lobbying gigs, a gentleman named Mark Maier was simultaneously the head of a private consultancy firm that partnered with the Kailas family and the head of a Louisiana state government office, the Small Rental Recovery Program, that the Kailas family was defrauding.
Longtime Louisiana journalist Tom Aswell, writing in his “Louisiana Voice” blog, details the case of Tony Pelicano, a Metairie landlord whose building on North Turnbull Street had been damaged by the 2005 failure of the federal levees. In 2009, Pelicano was personally contacted by Maier and invited to become the first test applicant for a “forgivable loan” program for small rental property owners that would pay a contractor up to $75,000 to bring the building back into livability.
Pelicano was not allowed to choose the contractor who did the work, and when he met with Maier in 2012 to complain about problems with the work—construction change orders made behind his back, including substituting cheaper, non-pressure-treated lumber—he says he was threatened that “his bank note would be accelerated” and he’d be sued. After a third-party firm Pelicano hired verified the disastrous quality of the workmanship, Maier’s office contacted Lago, the Kailas company that Maier’s consultancy partnered with, to do its own inspection. Lago then issued a contradictory report dismissing Pelicano and the third-party firm’s findings.
Maier returned the favor a few years later. When Lago Construction was initially accused of stealing money from the Small Rental Property Program, Maier wrote a note absolving them of any wrongdoing, and the state’s investigation was dropped.
Alas for the forces of progress, the feds weren’t convinced by Maier’s note. HUD continued to investigate, and the U.S. Attorney’s office eventually filed charges. When Praveen Kailas admitted to filing fraudulent invoices worth $236,000, the judge agreed to go below the recommended sentencing range since, in her words, Praveen was taking “the fall for family members involved and not charged.” This slightly delayed development of the Hard Rock Hotel, but only slightly. Praveen just handed it off to his dad.
Mark Maier has kept out of the headlines since then, though seekers of guidance can still listen online to his 2015-2016 radio show “Principle Matters” where this paragon of piety “shares views on business from a Catholic perspective and explores ways to carry Catholic-based principles into the workplace and beyond.” The show’s co-host, stockbroker Michael Olinde, was fired from an investment company in 2017 for “making false statements” and, on October 8 of this year, was suspended and fined $5,000 by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Like the book of Proverbs says, “A wicked messenger falleth into mischief.”
IT SHORE FEELS GOOD TO ME
For a brisk read, I recommend the July 2019 U.S. Inspector General’s report Louisiana Did Not Properly Oversee a $706.6 Million Hazard Mitigation Grant Program Award for Work on Louisiana Homes. The title gives you the gist, but it’s a fun post-mortem for a program that was, in the words of WWL’s David Hammer, “haunted by fraud and abuse by contractors and program officials, creating massive waste that led the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cut off funding.”
Louisiana’s FEMA-funded home-elevation program was created in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita with a mandate “to elevate or reconstruct eligible structures to comply with local floodplain ordinances.” In short, it offered to use federal money to subsidize Louisiana home-raising.
The program was a bonanza for scam artists. The Kailas family were among many pigs at this trough; brothers Praveen and Naveen Kailas created the whimsically-named “Cajun Elevation and Shoring” company to cash in on it. According to a July 2011 Times-Picayune article, “Boom in home elevations is resulting in some shoddy work, experienced firms say,” Cajun Elevation used all kinds of tactics to push sales. A television ad that the state later obligated them to discontinue promised “Cajun Elevation and Shoring can send you on a cruise while we elevate your home for free. Aiyeeee!”
When a competing elevation company used a hidden-camera sting to record Naveen Kailas acknowledging fraudulent business practices, the state finally stepped in, delivering the well-connected contractors a slap-on-the-wrist, month-long suspension from the program.
AVN Construction was another operation in that same lucrative government-funded home-raising/leveling/shoring niche. They made the news in 2013 after a Lakeview home they were raising collapsed, injuring several workers. According to one of the multiple lawsuits filed in response, the cause was an AVN Construction subcontractor improperly removing steel beams. In 2018 AVN Construction became Citadel Recovery Services, with the same logo as Citadel Builders, managed by Citadel Builders’ President Denzel Clark.
Citadel Recovery Services now focuses on lucrative FEMA contracts elsewhere in the Caribbean, doing disaster recovery construction work in Puerto Rico and other locales damaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. According to some Google reviews, Citadel has issues paying its workers. “Tricked a bunch of men to come to the virgin islands [sic] with promise of work, pay, per diem, and housing,” says one reviewer. “In all honestly this company and any others involved appear to be defrauding the government’s FEMA program and leaving workers and homeowners to suffer alike.”
Another review said, “Every day there is a promise of pay, and every day a new excuse about why that promise is not met. These men are working hard… completely without pay, being told lies day after day… then asked under duress to sign contracts that would (illegally and unenforceably) cede any rights they would have to rectify the situation, or ever get paid.”
A third read simply “Constant excuses on why they cant pay employees in the us virgin islands.”
As reported in June 2019 articles in the Virgin Islands Free Press and The Virgin Islands Daily News, a subcontractor of Citadel Recovery Services was responding to withheld pay by filing liens against hurricane-hit homeowners who’d received the FEMA-funded construction services.
The Daily News described the tactic as “a last-ditch effort by subcontractors desperate for compensation,” but the Governor of the Virgin Islands said it was “ruthlessly using storm victims as a means to an end,” and the director of the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority decried it as “an intolerable tactic being used against hurricane survivors who do not owe these contractors any money whatsoever.”
TWAS EVER THUS
In this context, we can see that the deadly horror at the Hard Rock Hotel, down to the systematic mistreatment of workers, isn’t exceptional. It’s how the powers-that-be run their show; they’ve been doing this for ages. Big business destroys homes, lies, cheats and kills, and the state serves as a mediating force to ensure you and I don’t do anything about it.
I see many parallels between the Hard Rock Hotel collapse and the BP Oil Disaster. In 2010, BP’s systematic negligence led to the immediate death of 11 oil rig workers, the poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico—first with oil and then with unprecedented quantities of the toxic dispersant Corexit—and still-unfolding consequences including health problems for coastal workers and loss of shrimp and oysters.
Because of the complexity and seriousness of the BP disaster, we were told, only BP themselves had the resources to address it; the solution was in their hands. Then, as now, there was an effort to focus everyone’s attention on the abstracted technical challenges of the catastrophe and various goofy fix-it schemes, away from unproductive distractions like blame.
While BP lied about the seriousness of the situation, the U.S. Coast Guard functioned as BP’s private army, acting at BP’s behest to keep locals and journalists from documenting the disaster or witnessing just how much oil was on the beaches. Our wise leaders demanded the public’s calm and patience. It was an accident, an anomaly. Only a few politicians would denounce BP, and the loudest of them, like Billy Nungesser, only did so until they got enough dirty money to go quiet again.
Shoalgrass, now a union organizer, wrote a 2010 article for the Raging Pelican called “Murdered at Work: The Deepwater Horizon Massacre.” His essay further bears out the parallel. Shoalgrass details how “workers had clashed hours before the [oil rig] explosion with a Scrooge-like management unwilling to use the proper materials to ensure safety. The workers resisted using materials they considered to be cutting corners. They stood up for themselves and the rest of us in the Gulf, but they lost the battle to a BP official who told them ‘This is how it’s going to be.’” Just so, we’ve begun to hear of workers within the Hard Rock Hotel project who had their concerns about safety ignored; I suspect we’ll hear of more.
When the late Dr. John spoke at a 2010 Jackson Square rally against BP, he called BP murderers, and asked, “Why are the perpetrators of the crime still in charge of the crime site?”
Mayor Cantrell may yet come out strong against the developers who murdered these poor New Orleanians at the Hard Rock Hotel site, but right now she’s actively in cahoots with them: Citadel Builders and their staffers remain in charge of the crime site, working hand-in-glove with the government agencies and contractors brought in to fix their colossal, fatal fuck-up.
Mayor Cantrell thus far has reserved most of her public ire for members of the public who’ve questioned or disagreed with her, lamenting the “downright disrespectful” impatience of some locals displaced or put out of work by the disaster. This echoes the surreal second term of Ray Nagin who, after losing his marbles and winning reelection, seemed to fancy himself a sort of Sun King, the living embodiment of New Orleans possibility. Anyone who criticized him or his actions was “hurting the recovery.”
This misidentification of the very actors destroying New Orleans with the interests of the communities they prey upon is a key component of the Gulf South power structure.
Oil and gas and their lackeys rely mostly on the carrot and stick of “jobs” to bamboozle us (despite modern pipelines and refineries being so high-tech they bring almost no jobs). “Jobs” is why we should allow their carcinogenic hellscape installations, and “jobs” deters us from taxing, regulating, or holding them accountable for environmental catastrophe. You must give the oil and gas industry everything, or you’re threatening the livelihoods of their employees—just as New Orleans must give tourism everything. Dance, monkey! Smile, scrape, approve the zoning waiver, clean the bedsheets, welcome the camera: we’re a tourist economy!
To understand the role tourism plays in our lives, we must see it for what it is: an extraction industry. All of the great economic enterprises in our corner of the world have claimed the high ground near the river. First it was plantation slavery, then the timber industry, then the oil and gas industry, and now finally tourism. No other force could induce city government to wrest riverfront access back from the port and transport business. Only the sycophantic desire to give tourists everything could spawn the futuristic, hyper-surveilled, hyper-restricted “Crescent Park” in the Bywater, public money used to make an Instagram backdrop for the transient inhabitants of the soulless, termite-mound AirBnB poshtels and condo towers that Sean Cummings and company are constructing.
Similarly, community groups pushed for a rails-to-trails Lafitte Greenway for years, but the project went nowhere until Sidney Torres, HRI, and the Kailas family had secured all the adjacent real estate. Then it became a priority, then a reality, and now an LED-soaked dystopia in which every perche d’arpent bristles with cameras, a heavily patrolled panopticon.
The St. Roch Market was rebuilt with food-desert grocery grants and given for pennies to tech-bro grifters as a highly profitable tourist trap. Transport funding was funneled into the Rampart Streetcar to Nowhere—a new airport is built—all for tourists! Everything for tourists, or rather: everything for those positioned to profit from tourism.
Here, the state only exists to abet industry. This ranges from the banal realm of laws to grittier examples, like rural Sheriff’s Deputies choking out pipeline protesters on private property and ICE strategically raiding Mississippi poultry plants after workers filed suit over exploitative working conditions. A worker on the Hard Rock Hotel who spoke to the media has also been kidnapped by ICE; funny how that happens.
State laws against local minimum-wage increases ensure the tourism industry rakes it in while its workers make a miniscule wage. Similarly, the oil industry clears billions in profits and we see nothing, or at most some insulting token gestures—here and there a prefab children’s play structure slapped together in the shadows of the refinery, a company-branded sop for whatever minor fragment of the townsfolk aren’t confined to bed with leukemia.
Tourism also melds with oil and gas, since these big companies also subsidize the endless grind of Louisiana festivals, events that double as campaign advertisements for the industry’s paid-for politicos. Similarly, tourists love all the big, expensive funky “local” art and art galleries subsidized by the Helis Foundation, the charitable offshoot of a fracking company.
Looking back at the BP oil disaster, no one was ever held responsible. A few wimpy regulations were nominally imposed, then rolled back. Nothing changed. These industries that so casually and routinely kill their workers, and not always via a spectacular collapse, will likely continue doing so… unless prevented. The government will sternly, condescendingly uphold this status quo.
There is good news, though. When you go a little ways up the ladder, there really aren’t that many names. The silver lining of oligarchy is that ultimately only a very few people are in charge. Atop all this misery and destruction sit a small handful of humans—a few big developers, a couple suburban construction honchos.
No one passingly familiar with our region’s history could make a good-faith argument that a government-run “impartial” investigation will resolve this. Outrages like the Hard Rock Hotel collapse will continue. They will, if the trend lines speak true, accelerate. The same few developers will continue to strip-mine New Orleans for tourism, and no legal mechanism will stop them. Our government and laws exist to serve their interests and provide them cover.
But can they be stopped? Sure! And, once you acknowledge the necessity of stopping these murderers—once you understand the future of New Orleans depends on it—it then becomes merely a question of courage.
top photo by Dan Fox