Wednesday, December 17, 2008

YURP Profiles: Westley Bayas

By Isaac Arnsdorf

When Westley Bayas, who grew up in New Orleans, left for college, he said he never planned to come back. He fully expected to live somewhere else. But today he is the director of community outreach for Phoenix of New Orleans, a rebuilding non-profit named after the mythical bird that is reborn from ashes.

Asked what changed his mind, he answered immediately, “Katrina.”

He was a student at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge at the time. The gym was converted into a makeshift triage center, and Westley volunteered to help. “I realized I had to go back home,” he said. “I wanted to play whatever part I could to make it into the New Orleans I remembered.”

He remembers the look and the feel, the neighbors shooting the breeze on their porches. But after Katrina, he saw overgrown grass, and blocks and blocks of emptiness. He wants to help bring the old New Orleans back.

Hopefully a little better, he added. At Phoenix, he helps displaced homeowners get back into their homes. Now he expects to stay for the foreseeable future. “I need to stay,” he said. “I’m taking part in a lot of things to improve the city and push it in the direction that I want.”

As New Orleans rebuilds, it has opportunities for young people to get jobs for which they would not otherwise be qualified, to start businesses or to “blaze their own path,” Westley said. “New Orleans is a place where young people can come and prove themselves.”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I'm Just Here for the Gin and Horses

I spent Thanksgiving at the New Orleans Fair Ground Racetrack. I'm a sucker for showy hats, cigars, and horses, so the experience appealed to me immensely... despite making only $4.

Here is my writeup of the experience on the blog I edit (my day job), along with some semi-interesting betting analysis and news about how the racetrack is boosting New Orleans's economy.

The photo above was taken by Sean Gardner (a local) for U.S.A. Today. I'm the one with the cigar.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

YURP Profiles: John Moore

Isaac Arnsdorf, a student at Yale, is writing different profiles about YURPs. The first one is about John Moore. Contact if you would like to be profiled.

John Moore left New Orleans for college with no intention of returning. Then when Katrina hit, he thought it was the city’s death knell. He tried to convince his family to stay with him in Atlanta.

But they would return, and — in a twist of fate — so would he. John took a job with Global Green, an environmental non-profit developing affordable and sustainable housing in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Today he is an energy and environmental policy analyst in the city government’s newly founded energy unit.

John’s roots in New Orleans stretch back five generations to the earliest settlers of the city. But as John followed another family tradition — becoming a third-generation student at Morehouse — he thought he would leave the Bayou behind.

So did leagues of his peers. New Orleans’ population has been declining since 1960, and young people in particular were leaving the city en masse in recent decades. Katrina, John thought, would be the knockout blow.

But the opposite happened. Since the storm, young people have started flocking back to the city, including John.

“I felt like I had to return,” he said. “That’s what I knew I had to do, and I did it.”

John was in Atlanta interning for Southface, another environmental non-profit, when the storm hit. His family took refuge with him but were determined to return, despite John’s urging otherwise.

John studied architecture in college and helped develop an eco-friendly dorm. At a major conference of U.S. developers, he caught Global Green’s eye. They wanted him to join the Holy Cross Project, which partnered with Brad Pitt to sponsor a design competition for sustainably redeveloping the devastated Lower Ninth Ward.

At first, John didn’t want to go back. But when he realized all his family was returning, it wasn’t even a choice anymore, he said. His grandmother, aunt and cousins were all trying to rebuild their homes, and he knew he could help.

But the city he returned to was not the city he remembered. Surrounding by roving military police, he rode around the neighborhoods where he grew up. John said it was like looking at ghosts.

“It was a gut-wrenching thing to see all these neighborhoods destroyed,” he said, “like, the first place I hung out, or the first place I had a beer.”

Though John felt a sense of duty in his homecoming, in other ways he had to make some sacrifices. He had been accepted to architecture school in California, which he deferred to join Global Green. In some ways, he said, he had to put the rest of his life on the back burner. But that’s because he had a responsibility in New Orleans that came first.

His new job with the city runs through 2009, so he’s sure he’ll be in town at least that long. After that, he’s not sure where grad school or career moves might take him. He wants to be back in school by 2010. For now, he’s been working with Tulane as a consultant on sustainable construction.

As he returned to help his family recover, he joined of movement of young people helping to rebuild his hometown.

“I’m passionate about what I’m doing,” he said. “I feel like I have some effect. I want to see if I can push the ball forward.”

Monday, October 27, 2008

When You're Serious About Getting Stuff Done, and Eating a Homemade Bran Muffin

I dragged myself to the Orange Couch cafe (2339 Royal St.) last Monday with a hangover still lingering from the weekend and a yucky work deadline staring at me from an hour ahead.

I love sitting in New Orleans cafes (listening to gossip-masked-as-small-talk, making said gossip-talk with the few people I'm starting to recognize).

But that day I needed this place (which just opened two days prior) to part the thick fog of too much gin and bar bands.

I set up my laptop and spread the tools of my trade on a luxurious expanse of white table under the reassurance of everlasting wireless.

With other people on laptops around me, I felt like part of a productive brotherhood. (This is my brain on three jobs.)

Upon walking in, everyone realizes this place isn't from around here. (The owner, in fact, is from San Francisco.) But they go on to marvel at the light fixtures and order the highly-recommended mango black tea.

One guy even asked permission to have ice-cream with his coffee.

I rewarded myself for doing stuff with a piece of green-tea Mochi.

This was on the wall somewhere in the cafe. Look for it if you go there.

They're open until 10. I don't know if I'm cool enough to go there late-night (at least not without a serious beehive or maybe a jumpsuit), but here's what it looks like:


Monday, October 20, 2008

Getting My Hair Did

I hate hair salons: the $60 for a haircut, the "funky L.A. vibe," the stilted hairdresser-client prattle.

Every Monday at the R Bar, New Orleans provides a hair-cutting experience that involves none of the above:

As I folded my laundry last night and waited for 9 p.m. to roll around, I was nervous about two things: what $10 could do to my hair, and whether I would look like a loser sitting at a bar alone waiting for a haircut.

There were two people in line before me. I ordered my drink at the bar, marveling at the low price (my $4 drink would have been $7 in NYC), then tried my best to ignore the current haircut being performed.

Everyone else was more enthralled with the sex scene in the movie Fear being projected over the bar.

When it was my turn, the hairdresser summoned me from my bar stool, I gave a quick, jittery description of what I wanted, and the cutting commenced.

I never caught her name -- or any conversation at all -- but she did pause once to tell an inebriated regular named Dan (?) to get out.

Though I felt pretty cavalier gripping my gin and tonic while my hair flew in pieces behind me, I was taking mental stock of my hat and bandanna options.

I paid the $10 as advertised, plus $3 for tip, and sat back down at the bar to let my hair dry and pick some split ends out of my drink.

I received immediate, slightly beer-goggled, reviews from two gentlemen at the bar. One liked my style so much, he was thinking of having a seat himself.

When I got home, I thanked my mirror that it looked like this:


Juvenile/Troy Andrews NOLA YURP Fundraiser

Click above and click on the NOLA YURP ticket

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sweet Sweat

A week and a half ago, I pulled out of my street in Astoria, Queens and drove myself and my job 24 hours south.

With stinging culture shock and festering loneliness, my first priority here was finding a place to box.

My gym in Queens had been zealously air-conditioned, with polished water fountains and the latest elliptical wonders.

The Freret Street boxing gym I found here is ten times better:

There's no air conditioning, not even a merciful fan: you only go here when you’re very comfortable oozing sweat-rivers in front of others.

The owner Mike, a former New Yorker, is always perched on a picnick table blocking the main door.

On Saturdays he has a beer in hand. Last Sunday, he had a black eye.

“Bar fight,” he tells me. He didn’t win, he says, but that’s because there were two guys.

The speed bag is new, the stationary bike, a little worn -- but it gives you hell, especially to the overhead speakers cranking out Queen’s “Find Me Somebody To Love.”

Though almost everything here is straightforward/no frills, Mike frequently shows off the colored lights he strung along the walls.

“It’s like Vegas,” he explains.

The gym’s only shower was free when I finished my first workout, but I didn’t bother.

It felt too good to walk outside into the Freret Street fair, dripping in sweat, feel the breeze, smell the empanadas, guiltlessly throw down two, buy a little black slip-dress for $20, and walk back down Napoleon to catch the streetcar.

That same day, walking down Canal Street, I found the statue of Ignatius from A Confederacy of Dunces I'd been looking for since I got here:


Monday, October 6, 2008

Voting Day in New Orleans

Friday, October 3, 2008

VP Debate Party

Watch clips from the Debate Party on WWLTV

Here are a few photos from the debate at

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Last Blog. It’s dark/stark.

I have a lot to cover and my attention span has been hampered by a severe personality disorder called weakness of self worth and hygiene. I tread lightly.

The Mckenna Museum of African Art had an exhibition of local artist, Ayo Y. Scott, son of the late John T. Scott. The museum is in a beautiful Antebellum house in a quiet neighborhood Uptown. The place is worth checking out for it’s other installations alone, including a series of pictures from Africa during the 1960’s.

Ayo’s work was a lot of fun, much of the time not taking itself to seriously, which was nice, unapologetically bright colors and very recent pop culture references made for a casual viewing. He did have more serious work, as seen in this piece about the overall rebuilding process.

The curator of the museum, was excited about the opening and was drumming up support for future shows the gallery is planning on having. Keep track of the rotating exhibits, as this one was a clear success, and worthwhile investment of time.

Amelia, a fellow UMASS student has just moved to New Orleans, increasing our alumni viola presence 700%. She has been hired by the LA Philharmonic, pretty impressive stuff if you like music or the word viola. She was generous enough to invite me to the season opener at Loyola this last Friday. The place was packed, sold out I’m told and the grand opening of their old venue, which has been in a rebuilding phase since Katrina will be opening in December, that show is already sold out as well, but worth noting. So look out for the philharmonic, riding a wave of momentum with Amelia firmly in there somewhere.

Nate and I got back a little early on Thursday night, so he decided to meet up with a friend for some quality socializing time; this invitation was not extended to me. I sat in the house, tipsy and annoyed with lack of doing something, I have a habit of getting furious with myself if I feel I should be doing something as a young man on a Thursday night. Parlaying this aggression, I grabbed my camera and walked around the neighborhood, snapping pictures as I clumsily walked through the dark streets.

It was hot that night and I had left my pants at home, opting for boxer briefs. Ironically the pictures were not that great, and I can’t help but feel the best picture was the one not takin, me in my boxer briefs terrorizing the locals with my bright flash and slurred speech, but who knows?

Friday, the presidential debate party; which, after much fuss thanks to the Senator from Arizona, ended up happening. The event was at LePhare, a trendy, pricey bar in downtown New Orleans. Two projectors presented wall sized images of the two candidates in all their former glory.

I’d say about 200 people showed up, donations at the door were either directed to the Obama or McCain movement, and while I won’t divulge the end count, McCain would have trouble if he had to go buy something from the Gap.
Lot’s of people who are paying attention, it’s a scene.


Megan (above), one of the good guys.

The next day we were invited to a funeral service in the French Quarter. There was a second line parade that marched through the streets, picking up stray tourists like an interesting-thing-to-take-pictures-of snowball, present company included.
This was amazing. It was.

end second line.

Ate at Theo’s last night, had a Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil pizza, it was very good. I mean, it’s pizza, you know? Hard to mess up and hard to reinvent the wheel here, but this was definitely on the better end of the limited pendulum I allow for pizza places. Also helps if you’re starving.

National day of action at Lafayette square. They're trying to promote the increase of "green collar" jobs in New Orleans and beyond.

My plane leaves from Louis Armstrong International at 11:10 am this Monday, it’s a non stop flight on jet blue to Logan International in Boston, the place were I grew up. It’s perfect really, I’ve been away long enough that the time lapse in itself is reason enough to be welcomed like a hero.

But I am kind of a hero, after all I spent a month in New Orleans. The place that had Katrina, I went through a hurricane myself in Gustav. What are heroes? I don’t know the exact definition, but I’ve gotta be close. Taking pictures, going to parties and dealing with second hand smoke, I’m not going to win any awards or accolades apart from the ones I make for myself, but the story will grow in its fantasticism with time, the parties getting ever bigger, the second hand smoke ever thicker and you are in there somewhere I'm sure. thanks.