New City Blues: New Orleans’ Iconic Commune Sits at the Crossroads

We’re jazzed to have Derek back in the ranks of ANTIGRAVITY this month. He was the perfect person to share his perspective on Nowe Miasto, New Orleans’ longstanding communal living space and progressive anchor, as it looks to reorganize and work above the radar in a city where you pay to play (or work, build, live or even breathe). Besides offering communal living arrangements, a kitchen to Food Not Bombs or work space to Books to Prisoners, Nowe Miasto has been a special venue for live music and their shows curated very carefully, hosting artists like Quintron and Miss Pussycat, Thou, the Forgetters, Lightning Bolt and even Washington DC’s the Evens, who broke policy (they tend to play benefits exclusively for their hometown) to support Nowe Miasto after Katrina took her toll. A resident himself for several years, Derek has been in the whirlwind of it all.


Here’s the gist of it: in the spring of 1999,  three individuals–Alec Icky Dunn, Meredith Stern, and Brice White–began renting the first floor of what had functioned at different times as a furniture, construction, and storage warehouse. Their goal was a space founded on three interconnected themes–that of music, art, and activism–that included living and event space. Something akin to the vibrant social centers Brice and Icky had encountered while hitchhiking through Eastern Europe months before. And the three-story structure at 223 Jane Place offered more than a glimmer of possibility for such a vision. So they cleared out the first floor, cluttered with mountains of ancient junk (I mean even more than there is now), and set up a work trade arrangement with the proprietor for reduced rent. Just to give you an idea, for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of visiting, to this day, blueprints still lay piled halfway to the ceiling in an unused corner. Shana griffin, a black feminist activist and mother and integral part of the space for nearly eight years, has lamented so many “historical” relics lost to such frivolous ends. And I suppose when I think of their finite quality, like the felled forests of Mesopotamia, I see her point. I guess I just wasn’t pondering their lustrous potential whenever I was using them for posters, or as mats for cutting my hair…Anyway, beyond just clearing away the industrial refuse, the workload involved constructing a kitchen, bedrooms, and hosting the Crescent Wrench Library (the stock of which later became the Iron Rail) and cooking space for Food Not Bombs. Thus, Nowe Miasto, Polish for “new city,” was born.And it enjoyed some flourishing years. A rotating cast of residents, a few of whom went on to start local businesses and prominent organizations around the area, at one time called it home–as well as hundreds of others passing through.
Which segues into an important topic of tension. We see the predominantly white transient/radical/punk community, social pariahs and well-intentioned though many may be, still bear the mark of the civilized: moving to an area (specifically one inhabited by poor working class people of color) and not always making life better for the occupants who lived there prior to their arrival. Yes, gentrification…that slippery and shape-shifting of beasts. Nowe’s founders, aware of this dynamic, made a concerted effort to reach out to neighbors and not just be the weirdos at the end of the alley. Not to suggest that everyone involved in the project was white or identified with punk or anarchist subcultures; many did not share any of these identities. What developed organically over time was a collective will for something more intentional–more diverse in race, gender, and age make-up–than the mere “punk house,” beyond the “low-emission” mode of liberal white guilt. Discouraging friends from moving to the neighborhood and limiting the number of all-ages shows simply wasn’t enough. So measures were explored. Calling for meetings with neighbors to discuss ways to deal with the violent crime and drug-dealing going on in the next-door apartment building without involving authorities was one; members of the house seeking to establish themselves as the first Limited Equity Housing Cooperative (LEHC) in New Orleans could provide another example. But before hashing out visions for any longer-term strategy came the acknowledgment of the limitations inherent in renting from an outside landlord, and talk turned to purchasing the building. Supporters of Nowe Miasto offered forth inheritances, life savings, first-born children, etc.;and in June of 2005, the building was purchased for $150,000.Then in August of that year…do I even need to say it? Six feet of flooding downstairs, a portion of the roof ripped off, extensive mold damage…A disaster beginning with “k” and ending in “a,” delivering to the infrastructure of New Orleans what could arguably be considered a “KO.” Plans, for the moment, were kaput.

Nowe Miasto -- photo by Chris GeorgeThe building’s radical legacy could have ended here–but no. Here’s where I impart that, in this time of crisis, the heartbeats of the beautiful individuals who’d called this place home over the years came to resuscitate a battered and bloody warehouse and restore it to its former glory.  Which is not untrue. The reality, however, is less romantic: an assortment of folks in masks and hazmat suits gutting sheetrock, moving truckloads of destroyed possessions, and spraying de-toxifying agents from floor to ceiling for the next two years. Brice, it’s important to point out, was the sole remaining founder amidst the skeletal ruins. His name was also attached to all the paperwork.

Skip ahead to 2008. The warehouse entered a period of transition from a gutted shell to a re-emerging household. It had just hosted its first show since Hurricane Katrina, a magical evening with the Evens to raise money for the building—my first time ever stepping foot in Nowe Miasto, as a matter of fact, and still one of my favorite shows of all time. That night imbued an immediate sense of positivity, community and warmth; I’d been searching for that kind of space high and low as a punk rock kid nearing my final semester of high school. So it’s no surprise that eight months later I would be carrying a bundle of books and cassette tapes to a little corner of the second floor I intended to call my own. All was temporary, Brice told me over the phone after my preliminary “interview.” I don’t know how much he elaborated on the newly conceived Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI)* and its utilization of the concept of the community land trust (CLT), but he did make clear the bar on anyone constructing any “more permanent” walls, because sooner or later everything would have to come down for the massive renovations. “That could be six months from now, or it could be a couple years.”

True to nebulous form, it turned into four. And in that time, the house saw a much stabler and more cohesive residency. Finally, after a couple particularly brutal winters of residents shivering over space heaters behind little more than sheet forts, Brice retracted his earlier stipulation against insulation and sheetrock. And–maybe I’m just saying this on account of my living through it, or it’s actually credible–a new era in the building’s history began.

Unfortunately, beyond carving out our own comfortable living quarters, the “work days” we were supposed to have been consistently having tapered off. Sure, there was work to be done–no shortage of it. Was it that we simply were unmotivated, lacking that chemistry as a team to see jobs through? Or was it those vague, far-off plans for the Real Renovations, or the awaited designs from the Tulane eco-architects, holding us back from composing crude poetry with hammers across the walls, investing ourselves wholly and completely to improving our overall quality of life in the here and now? In any case, we did meet as a household semi-regularly to discuss ideas, air grievances, vet potential housemates, and just generally tried to live the ethos of communalism.

Meanwhile JPNSI was making behind-the-scenes progress: purchasing the abandoned apartment building next door, or the partnership with Tulane graduate students. But there came a turning point. Probably on no small account of that large chunk of lower Mid-City being declared under “eminent domain” and swallowed up by LSU, and the sobering implications this brought with it. Whatever the case, in 2011, JPNSI, who’d been engaging us on the re-imagining of the space, approached those of us living here with a strong encouragement: formalize ourselves as the Nowe Miasto “Housing Cooperative” (i.e., a LEHC) and begin move forward on this front in partnership with JPNSI.

Nowe Miasto -- photo by Gary LoverdeOn paper this looked like registering ourselves as an LLC, paying $25 to the State, and officially setting down some form of “bylaws” regarding our shared values and how we wished to exist together based upon said values. Or something like that. So began a series of meetings (both with and without Brice, whose simultaneous position as “housemate” and member of the JPNSI “board” often confounded things) to hash out long-term commitment to the project, what we all wanted, etc…

And the result, I’m sad to report, was something less than glorious: nothing.

I mean this in the most utilitarian sense of the word, not to disparage or delegitimize the very real emotions, frustrations, confusions, and misgivings pushing and pulling each individual like the tide in a hundred directions. I’d left town for greener pastures not long after these logistical meetings commenced, so moralizing at this point seems not only counterproductive but a smidgeon hypocritical. But in those meetings I did attend, you could cut the tension with a knife. There was an unfortunate amount of negativity and suspicion from one corner. I couldn’t really understand this, considering Brice and Shana (not to mention others who didn’t even use the space) had sunk thousands of dollars out of their own pockets and countless hours of their lives into the maintenance of this building we were basically reaping the benefits of. I’m hopeful that much of this has been cleared up without hard feelings. On my end, and I don’t think I was alone here, my brain was still reeling from the formal language, all the acronyms and what exactly was needed to move forward.

To our credit, though, I’ll say the purported will for collectivization was there. It was volition we lacked. A sense of definitive purpose–and a resolute feeling of ownership, perhaps?

I think I began identifying this the other day while hanging out at some friends’ squat. Everywhere I turned, the house members were actively getting shit done: hanging insulation in the attic, painting the common room, sanding a wall while listening to My Bloody Valentine. And I thought about how this embodiment of collective purpose was missing from Nowe Miasto: no one lulled into inaction by the prospect of grants or design plans from sympathetic grad students rolling in, permission (or at least perceived permission) needed from no entity but each other, no confusion in the face of interfacing bureaucracy.

But laying the blame solely on JPNSI would be unfair. I feel our dysfunction as a collective ran deeper. Maybe it really was just laziness or lack of imagination. Maybe the sheer dauntingness of trying to fix up 11,000 square with little money. Some may be quick to lambast Brice for fostering a dynamic of disempowerment, for masking his very literal ownership behind the cloak of collectivity and autonomy. And I may even agree–up to a point, affixed not too far in space. I’ll admit, despite hours of meetings and what I felt was the very concerted efforts on the part of Brice and Shana to be completely transparent, the overall framework and vision for the project was difficult to grasp; maybe the fissures were too great to bridge. Rotating the payment of monthly bills was a step in the right direction–if only we had taken it a hundred strides further. We can have all the communal fervor our skin can contain, but without the drive to actualize…well, maybe some of us took away valuable lessons in open communication and consensus-based decision making. I chalk it up to the specter haunting the punk house: after all, if it’s a consistent challenge to undertake projects so basic as cleaning the dishes, taking out the garbage, or throwing away the used roll of toilet paper (and assuming there is another to replace it with), then can you really get it together enough to renovate your house?

Nowe Miasto -- photo by Gary LoverdeIt is with a shamed bow of the head that I admit there was perhaps too much an entitled claim to “ownership” without much willingness to shoulder the responsibilities that come along with that. This is a classic predicament. We all know it. What happens in microcosm whenever someone breaks a shared power drill and fails to replace it. Petty to dwell on perhaps, but often symptomatic of larger issues surrounding trust and accountability. Culminating ultimately, in a dramatic flash of deja vu, in fellow housemates escaping to the safety of friends houses or the West Coast and leaving Brice to deal with the damage after Hurricane Issac! Maybe it wasn’t harsh as I’m making it sound–actually Dylan and Nathan both aided in fixing the roof in the midst of the storm. But my point is: hadn’t all of us known of that leak by the kitchen for months, running around with buckets and pots during heavy rains and then later neglecting to empty them? And more pertinently, did any of us really believe we needed approval from Brice or anyone else in order to call a roofer and get an estimate? Yes, I know–we’re busy, we’re broke. But could we not have all pooled resources–or heck, maybe even our own DIY repair skills–and come up with something? This is what I’m talking about, you know?

Well, in any case, maybe it was the straw that broke the camel’s back or plans long overdue finally entering a phase more actionable, but a decision was made: by the time this goes to print, the deed of sale for 223 Jane Place will transfer from the Jane Place LLC, of which Brice is part owner, to JPNSI. Not so drastic or surprising a transition–the one caveat being everyone has to move out. Dun dun dun. Part of this relates to “liability,” and the rest with the bigger picture of shoring the foundation and forging ahead with those planned renovations.

Well, fingers crossed for that last part, at least…

Currently, Nowe Miasto rests upon a faultline of precarity–a metaphor certainly not lost on anyone privy to the two recent structural engineers’ reports. But I’m afraid there are forces more insidious than structural collapse conspiring against us: namely that of the Biomedical Corridor, colloquially known as “The Abyss,” slated for completion by 2015. And the rumbling machines working day and night: the soundtrack to impending doom. Those seven blocks between Rocheblave and Claiborne, not long ago the site of historic homes and now-displaced residents, set to transform the fabric of this neighborhood into something barely recognizable. I mean, Candice told me the plan for the abandoned Robert’s on Broad is to be turned into some type of “low income” Whole Foods Market! Can you believe that? A Whole Foods–right there! The roof where I once saw Fischer Cat and a bunch of weirdo noise bands play a raucous generator show! An area where a fourth of the houses sit abandoned!

Yes, I’m afraid those pockets up till now ignored by big interests and subsequently less restricted may not be altogether spared the poison touch of “progress.” Most optimistic predictions at this point hinge on the city realizing it cannot support the infrastructure, and the Abyss languishing half finished and aborted for the next decade. That’s what I’m hoping for, at least. But in the instance that New Orleans defies historical precedent and actually catches up with the rest of the nation to become a real metropolis of the 21st century, Nowe Miasto’s longevity of “flying beneath the radar” may not carry it much further. Building inspectors, zoning crackdowns…It happened to the old Iron Rail and the ARK, and it’s probably only a matter of time before the tentacles ensnare Jane Place. Though I trust JPNSI will not capitulate as pitifully as 511 Marigny’s former owner…

But here is where swords clash: insurrectionist bravado meets “reformist” pragmatism, uncompromising illegalism sneers in the face of 501(c)3-status. Or maybe it’s inaccurate to frame it as this kind of mutually exclusive dichotomy. But as someone orbiting the fringes of insurrectionary anarchism, I guess I wanna say a couple things. Am I wary, on an ideological level, of asking for the State’s stamp of approval for political action? Fuck yeah. In my wildest, most seductive daydreams, radical infrastructure would stand defiant, conflictual, autonomous and dangerous, not co-opted by the benevolent stranglehold of “legitimacy.” Squats, and creating strong networks of squatters and supporters, I’d consider one example of what I mean. Self-organized space from which people work to dismantle the empire, and–when the powers-that-be finally feel threatened enough intervene–bare their teeth and hurl rocks from the barricades! Where moments of fracture in the capitalist continuum open up and those fighting for freedom and a more just world embody their desperate longings.

Nowe Miasto -- photo courtesy of Maddie RuthlessBut I also recognize these are not always sustainable–or effective or inclusive–solutions to problems posed by the State and capitalism encroaching further upon our lives. Privilege, I acknowledge, probably clouds my views and temperament on the subject. My friend and comrade Marika was breaking down for me recently her critique of what she calls the “male sexual response cycle” of contemporary social movements: in words less eloquent, I’ll say it involves the stage of initial arousal and buildup (outrage at injustice, going to meetings, organizing a protest, etc.), the climax (getting in the streets, confrontation with police), and finally the “refractory period” (jail solidarity, eviction, etc.) in which those engaged are temporarily unable to act any further. I mention this because it’s helped open my mind to ways of thinking about resistance based less on explosive displays of hedonistic fury and more on the continual work of long-term infrastructure-building and how this type of work can be revolutionary.

Like establishing permanent affordability of a neighborhood within the context of a neoliberal capitalist housing market.

Intentions define strategy. And I know, based on long conversations with Brice and Shana, theirs’ is very much anchored in permanent viability for low-income residents in Mid-City. In resident’s control over their neighborhoods and working to re-define peoples’ relationships and experiences to housing. I’m not even gonna front like I understand fully the ins and outs of their chosen strategy of a community land trust, beyond the basic structure: the organization, hypothetically controlled by residents who act as board and committee members, leases the land beneath homes to residents for a nominal fee; thus, by separating the value of the land from that of the house, it maintains affordability despite external forces and real estate fluctuation. Another aspect of JPNSI, as alluded to before, is the structuring of Nowe Miasto under the LEHC model, through which tenants–including those from marginalized communities as well families of people from these marginalized communities–can live somewhere secure and build equity as opposed to bleeding rent into the pockets of another. Even as someone critical of the nonprofit industrial complex and how it typically serves to maintains the status quo, I identify the value of a project utilizing it to ends I completely support.

Because the blatant reality is this: Mid-City, as well as New Orleans as a whole, is undergoing rapid transformation. Has been for a long time. The Diabolical Neoliberal Conspiracy* may have reached our shores even before the floodwaters tore through this ravished land and scattered all those “undesirables” from public housing, but these conditions certainly allowed it a strong foothold. Yes, for the architects of oppression, not a tragedy–but an opportunity. And now we see the rich developers seizing their piece of the pie, the spoils of war. Pres Kabacoff of HRI Management, who brought Wal-Mart and the “River Gardens” to Central City and the Healing Center to St. Claude, who–at a luncheon for the Committee for Economic Development–called New Orleans a “laboratory for transformative change.” And that edgy leech Sean Cummings, exploiting the graffiti counterculture to hipify his image and increase his profits, who disgustingly referred to the Bywater as a “green banana.” Oh, how I regret not spewing venomous phlegm all over that chic sweater when I had the chance that day on Esplanade! But don’t just take the word some militant reactionary; do some research for yourself on the respective plans for the St. Roch Market outdoor mall for yuppies or the extension of the River Walk to those oh-so-hip Rice Mill lofts. Or take a drive through the portal that is now the Bywater and gaze out at the Portland-esque strip of St.Claude–the pasty-faced young people teeming in and out of a dozen new cafes. Not unlike the curfews enforced by NOPD upon underage (black) youth in the French Quarter to make the area safer for wealthy tourists, the cycle of institutionalized poverty and racism perpetuates itself as the poor get displaced to pave the way for whiter faces and higher property values.

Or more specific to Mid-City, biomedical labs and upscale housing for out-of-town doctors. Brings frightening new dimensions to the phrase “New City,” doesn’t it?

I know I paint an apocalyptic picture, and let me say I believe New Orleans will weather this imperial storm as it has so many centuries hence. Pessimism, I must remind myself, is an emotion, not a philosophy. At least for Mid-City, we can rest a little easier knowing the oncoming deluge is not on account of squatters, punx or anyone from the peripheral “radical” communities. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the St. Roch. I mean, we all here remember that dinner where Brice and Shana all but lectured our friend about the dynamics of race and privilege as she prepared to open the squat down the street. And though I commend efforts to examine the individual roles dreamy young white kids play in displacing longtime residents in poor neighborhoods, I almost feel at this point–in Mid-City–it’s irrelevant. With a project as massive and incomprehensible as The Abyss slated for completion in the next three years, and Nowe resting right on the outskirts of its collossal footprint, the area will be altered so drastically it’s enough to evoke head-in-hands despair. Heck, I dunno, it might even be strategic at this point to encourage squatters and anarchists to move to this neighborhood! Short of prerecorded gunshots broadcast at varying intervals to scare away the bourgeois–or best of all options, the community land trust actually coming to fruition, that is…

I suppose this is the part where I’m supposed to eulogize, mourn the passing of a  long-running project that has offered myself and others so much. Blah blah blah. Clayton asked me to do this at our solstice/”Nowemaggedon” party the other night, but it just didn’t feel…well, it just didn’t feel right! Because in my mind we aren’t at the “end” of Nowe Miasto. Maybe the end of its raw incarnation, or the dissolution of its present collective body–the prospect of which I can say with deep sincerity I will be sad to see pass. Yes, the fact is, for better or worse, Nowe must cease to be for a time–and I count this as a blow to the radical community of New Orleans, sure. Not to mention on a personal level, the emotional void as I watch this once teeming building languish as an empty shell for the next two years, or four…Some have expressed concern for the disruption of “continuity,” a dampening of morale. That some of its magic might be lost to the sands of time. Certainly, with the closure of the ARK, and 90% of Iron Rail’s library still collecting dust in Nowe’s old darkroom, I can see how this looks like one more loss. So it might do well to remind everyone at this point that this won’t be the first time Nowe Miasto has lain vacant for years on end. And did it not return just as powerfully, just as majestically? Well, debatable, I guess, but humor me! Like Fiona Apple after her seven-year hiatus–and all the better and more experimental for it! And I have to say it: just for perspective, remember there are people who’ve lived in this neighborhood for several decades, not to mention those still displaced from Katrina, still struggling to come home.  Let’s not be short-sighted or self-absorbed about this.

No, I have full confidence in Nowe’s return. It will one day fling open those creaky metal doors, heavenly winged creatures will flutter outward, and that faint musty odor will be replaced by one sweeter than any ever known in Jane Valley. Something that will hopefully defy expectations, utilized by many more communities than the warehouse has represented in recent years. Maybe not by the time I’m old enough to apply for a Pell grant, maybe not without exhaustive outpourings of labor and drained savings. But I know its dormancy is simply that. My only mild concern is that–in its presumably properly renovated reincarnation–it may lose a little of that old ragged charm.

An inclination overwhelms me, to freeze in time this picture. The recycling in the kitchen overflowing after not being picked up for two weeks. The faint pungent odor I can’t quite place but vaguely smells like kitchen cleaner, or rotting fruit. The French press half full of coffee I’d probably drink right now, even though it’s after 11pm, if only there were nondairy milk. All these little living artifacts in a world that will be coming to an end in the next four days. The significance of which rests entirely upon the meaning myself and a few others prescribe it. Yet whose existence goes beyond our corporeal selves and whose continuation merits passing on.

I have no idea where my life will lead me in these coming years. Sad to acknowledge, but I may never call this place home again, even. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in or feel I have no stake in the future of this building, this neighborhood, this city. By no means have I cut my ties. If living beyond these boggy lands has offered any insights, it’s that my heart has known no truer, more enriching, home. I want this thing I’ve been a part of since age eighteen to live on with or without me–and hopefully long after I’ve withered away or become too jaded to care.

So here’s to the years behind us — and to the many more ahead…

**For more info on theneoliberal menace, I’d recommend reading the “New Orleans” chapter of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.


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