New Orleans Entrepreneur Washed by the Atlantic

Jul 21, 2009 by

I just finished a fawning article in The Atlantic touting the revitalization of New Orleans via the importation of young entrepreneurs, a self-styled new “creative class” for the city. The real subject of this glowing in-flight magazine puff piece is Sean Cummings, a young real estate developer and the appointed director of Reinventing the Crescent, the quasi-public program funded with public dollars to extend the landscaped an open riverfront from Poland Avenue to Jackson Avenue.

The piece starts on a bad note: “[a] city nearly destroyed by forces of nature nearly four years ago.” What struck New Orleans was no more a force of nature than the explosion of the Space Shuttle or the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. Referring to the Federal Flood as a natural disaster is a good indication that the author is clueless and comfortable to remain so. We are not disappointed by this assumption.

The article gives us the basic business page resume details–started up a web-based clearing house for entrepreneurs and investors, not in itself a bad idea, and declared one of his unflooded properties “Entrepreneur’s Row”. It now houses nine start-up business (six of which he is an investor in) that are flourishing, we are told, because each has identified “macrotrends”, a concept so fresh and novel that Google cannot define it. One of these on-line business–The Receivables Exchange–allow cash strapped business to auction off uncollected receivables at a discount. It is, to a business struggling with cash flow what pay day loans are to employees struggling with cash flow. Another, Free Flow Power, looks to cash in on proposals to harness the river’s current to generate power. (Perhaps you noticed the prominent place of the current turbines in the recently published drawings for the first part of the proposed Reinventing the Crescent).

The article breathlessly mentions another entrepreneurial example, The Idea Village, explaining how that enterprise works to link entrepreneurs with flood-ravaged neighborhoods. Perhaps they hope some of the good will of the Idea Village approach will rub off on the articles subject, as that paragraph sits plunk in the middle of a what amounts to profile of Cummings (who is not, except in shared press clippings on entrepreneurship in new Orleans, in any way associated with The Idea Village). But Cummings isn’t locating his start-ups in the Ninth Ward, no, he’s renting out space in one of his unflooded properties, and buying up properties to add to his own and his family’s holdings near the first phase of Reinventing the Crescent.

Cummings fairly points out in the article that the city has languished economically for a century under its current business leadership. No one can reasonably dispute this. What rankles isn’t Cummings enthusiasm for making a buck. What galls is his gushing enthusiasm for (and the writer’s swooning description of) what he calls the “creative class-led transformation of New Orleans” now that “there’s a real in-migration of artists and entrepreneurs.”

Wow–artists, in New Orleans–who could ever have imagined?

If Cummings vision for the Bywater riverfront comes to fruition I wonder what will happen to the current population of struggling artists and musicians who currently live there? Where will they, or their working class neighbors who staff the downtown service industries and frequently commute to work by foot or bicycle as much from necessity as some enthusiasm for the environment, where will they all live when Cummings’ plan leads to the gentrification of their neighborhood?

It won’t matter to Cummings. His vision is not the artists of today, the ones who make the culture people come here to live for. He can import what he needs. This is exactly the sort of nonsense that fired me to write the Wet Bank Guide blog almost four years ago.

Things start to get fuzzy when Cummings doesn’t have the sense to shut up and just bask in the writer’s admiration, but starts to try to explain his business concept. In addition to his magical macrotrends, he suggests that a low cost of doing business here enables entrepreneurs to flourish. “”Folks on a start-up wage can live a good life in New Orleans–not just a hand-to-mouth existence.” As someone who relocated back here after the storm, who had had first considered relocating elsewhere and had looked at other markets’ real estate and other livings costs, this is complete bullshit. Anyone living in this city knows (or should know) how much more expensive just about everything is here: real estate, insurance (property and auto), groceries, utilities.

Perhaps if you are politically connected enough to be appointed head of the quasi-public New Orleans Building Corporation, changed with spending $250 million public dollars on building the river-front parks, some of these problems just disappear. I am curious myself which state’s license plates he has on his car (an easy way Orleanians dodge taxes and more important ruinous car insurance rates; they register their cars out of state).

People who live here and would like to get in on some of that low cost of living we all remember from before the storm may suspect he’s basically a happy con man of the sort most widely successful business people must be to prosper. The writer will have none of that:

“Some long-time residents are wary of any planned transformation of their beloved city–particularly one being led by a wealthy real estate developer appointed to his quasi-public position by a city government with a long tradition of corruption…

After spending time talking with him, I must say that any doubts sparked by reading public criticism about him fell away as I absorbed the earnestness of his passion for the city. I consider myself a fairly good judge of character, and Sean strikes me as a highly intelligent and creative thinker–a man of admirable integrity driven by an honorable mission…”

The writer’s opinion seems to swell up just by contact with Cummings, who told one of his current partners that if he located a business in New Orleans he would “double the number of entrepreneurs” in the city. If this were really an in-flight magazine I think I would need the barf bag about right now, but wait: it’s not. It’s The Atlantic. Uh, can I borrow that waste basket over there? Thanks.

What really drove me over the edge reading this is the entire idea that the recreation of New Orleans will be the result of the influx of outside entrepreneurs and artists Cummings will bring to us via macrotrends and that wonderful low cost of living. It is the way the article treats us ungrateful clods who populate this city and who are “wary” of Cummings.

It trivializes the fact that there is a city here almost in spite of the big dreamers with other people’s money, the anxious carpetbagger class Cummings represents. There is a city here for Cummings to find ways to make money in not through any buzzword magic but because hundreds of thousands of people who came home on their own dime, who rebuilt on their credit cards while they fought with and waited for insurance or some compensation from the government for what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers destroyed.

Fuck entrepreneurs who quote Steve Jobs: if you want heroes for your waiting room read I have a suggestion: the people of New Orleans, what I used to call The 200,000 on Wet Bank Guide. They are the people who are reinventing a city all around you, Mr. Cummings. You’re welcome to snap up as many crumbs as you can, but if it weren’t for them you’d be in Portland or Austin hustling your little dodges. And if you picked up and went to one of those cities tomorrow, no one here would notice.

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28 Comments

  1. Ed Blakely may have left us but his spirit lives on.

    Also, for a while after the storm, we had a “Carpetblogger” problem. I think they’ve been replaced with Twitterbaggers.

  2. Well said and well done sir.
    I dare those poncy kids to stare down the Crips on their door step like I have had to do. Or meet them late at night in their new quasi-public park ground.

    Let them come and go, I say.
    As you pointed out, we won’t miss them.
    For all it’s wonder & glory, there a bit of Deadwood here.
    And that’s not just an Idea Village.
    It’s a also graveyard.
    It takes more than money & business plan to make a life in New Orleans, these days. I tip my hat to one & all who live here and make it work.
    Those are the heroes.
    They make the City that lives and breathes.

  3. It’s the continuing “Austinizing” of New Orleans. Keep Austin Weird In Austin.

  4. It’s the continuing “Austinizing” of New Orleans. Keep Austin Weird …. And Keep It In Austin.

  5. We need less of this sort of opportunistic BS and more people like Brent McCrossen over at Audiosocket. He’s a New Orleans native and an old colleague of mine who just moved his company to NOLA after living up in the Seattle area for the past ten years or so.

    I can state from personal experience that Brent has integrity, something sorely lacking in the carpetbaggers and scalawags that have surfaced since the levees failed.

    Of course Brent worked to get where he is today….

  6. Ken Wheaton

    Always ticks me off to see a white-washing go down like that — especially as I know people who moved OUT of New Orleans not because of crime or slowness to rebuild but because it was such a crap deal on cost of living.

    But let’s not white-wash the other side, either. After all, a chunk of that 200,000 DID re-elect Nagin and have been known to keep the same corrupt chuckleheads in power both before and after Katrina.

  7. Hey Ken, a chunk of the 200,00o did vote him back in. Including quite a few who still do not have to live with the consequences. That does not by any stretch mean that those of us there, and expatriates like myself, will quit the fight.

    Due to the woefully broken system of education in the city, combined with endemic racism and chronic extreme poverty, informed voters are rare.

    Facts, transparency, and the stamina to keep pushing for change are the weapons in our arsenal. I grew up in a family that has practiced law in NOLA for over 200 years. Many judges and politicians in that woodpile, almost exclusively blind adherents to conservative views. As a result I have a clearer idea than most how broken our political system is.

    The willful ignorance and misrepresentation of New Orleans and the problems it faces is our worst enemy after the political class. Media hacks like this bozo do nothing to improve the situation.

  8. I wonder if he would sit for an interview with local bloggers, so they can ask him the tough questions about cost of living and in-migration.

  9. I’m just glad to see that , finally, “there’s a real in-migration of artists and entrepreneurs.”

    When I started the Skull Club Gallery in the Marigny over a decade ago, all I dreamed of was some rich white kid to come here show me how much better it is to just ‘import’ artists and entrepeneurs, rather than do all the work yourself & support local artists.

    Thanks God Massah come ta show me the way.

  10. wow! this was a great post!

    thank you WETBANKGUY.

    and now, i’m gonna go back and read it again. :)

  11. Still having trouble actually commenting on The Atlantic article itself, but my big thing is, if Cummings is so intent on keeping up with the current trends in New Orleans, why does he still have a link on his entreprenurial site to an interview with Jim Bernazzani, who left town a while back? If he’s got any ears to the ground, they must be completely deaf.

  12. WetBankGuy

    Fixed a couple of my trade mark tipos.

    • KamaAina

      Don’t feel bad, Wet. Even before the “forces of nature” bilge, the piece itself starts off with this gem: “New Orleans has always been a most unconventional of American cities.”

      So for once I get to play grammar Nazi with somebody else — a 150-year-old American institution, no less!

  13. seide

    Spot-on commentary. Thanks.

  14. jonathan

    I hope there are more supports for entrepreneurs. They are people with great ideas and courage, just don’t block the opportunities.

    NOTE FROM THE CURATOR: I have removed the “girls gone wild” style web link from this comment. In no other way has it been edited. Jonathan, you are welcome to contribute but spam links will not be tolerated.

  15. bob

    I haven’t read the article so I am not going to comment on it, only your commentary about it. Are you really against having a public linear park constructed along the length of Bywater and the Marigny to connect with Woldernerg Park? That is the message that I got and it seems very regressive and backwards to me. How does a park threaten anybody? Right now we have one of the most beautiful parts of all of New Orleans cut off and restricted from public use or view. Absolutely nothing is there now. I am curious why you apparently feel so threatened by this park which I think is one of the few common sense progressive plans for land use in New Orleans ever. If I misunderstood you and you don’t oppose these plans I apologize.

  16. Thanks for chiming in. Personally I am in favor of creating green space in the city, I think it is essential. the thing that spurred WetBankGuy to contribute this post is delineated in the following excerpt from above:

    [quote]
    “But Cummings isn’t locating his start-ups in the Ninth Ward, no, he’s renting out space in one of his unflooded properties, and buying up properties to add to his own and his family’s holdings near the first phase of Reinventing the Crescent.

    Cummings fairly points out in the article that the city has languished economically for a century under its current business leadership. No one can reasonably dispute this. What rankles isn’t Cummings enthusiasm for making a buck. What galls is his gushing enthusiasm for (and the writer’s swooning description of) what he calls the “creative class-led transformation of New Orleans” now that “there’s a real in-migration of artists and entrepreneurs.”

    Wow–artists, in New Orleans–who could ever have imagined?”
    [end quote]

    I’m all about new technology and entrpreneurship in the city. As stated earlier in this comment stream I think my colleague Brent over at Audiosocket (which is on the cover of this month’s Entrepreneur Magazine) is a terrific example.

    The problem, as it is so often in New Orleans and other cities, is the attempt to “game the system” for inordinate personal gain. Just as we did after the Civil War we need to be vigilant of those who would adopt that approach.

    Please hit us up with further questions if you have any!

  17. @ Bob;

    While I frequently come across as a surly curmudgeon, and frequently am one, I in no way meant to criticize the idea of a green space from Poland Avenue, all the way up to Jackson.
    I have, in fact, complained about the idea of the Chicken Freezer bisecting that very plan.

    What I resent is an outside realestate investor gewtting plunked in to a position to influence this, and then scooping up properties that will be directly and economically benefitting from this same progress.
    It used to be called ‘Carpetbagging’.

    I think park gropund along the river would create a Sylvan Theater of Nature, and provide a much needed repose from our urban neighborhood, particularly for the new breed of bohemian parents who live in the Bywater/Marigny corridor. The childrens’ play ground at Marky Park is perfect example of this.

    Furthermore, Cummings insistence that ‘importing artists’ is the way to revitalize these neighborhoods really pisses me off.
    The Bywater/ Marigny corridor is one of the hottest art spots in the world right now, attarcting Prospect One, The Andy Warhol Society and the new Orleans Fringe Festival, all who arrived here due to local influence and dedication, celebrating home grown art.

    I, myself, have run an alternative gallery space in the Marigny for over a decade, all wihtout Mister Cummings importation of ‘real art’.
    The very notion that we need some trustfunder for Connecticut or where ever to ‘guide’ our artists development is simply ridiculous.

    He’s cashing in on what has been painstakingly built with blood, sweat & tears over a long and greuling period.

    Buying up property in an area his ‘position’ allows him to develop with city funds, should be investigated, at the very least.

    As for his idea of ‘real artists’, he can kiss my ass.
    I don’t give a flying fuck how they did it Up North.
    New Orleanians rock New Orleans Art just fine.

    • bob

      I got your point and agree with most of it. Gee we seem to run in the same circles from what I have read. Which gallery in Marigny are you referring to? I always thought Cummings was a local and I agree that he probably has some conflicts of interest in his current role and self enrichment is always a strong possibilty. The flip side is that he has spearheaded this plan and it is in general a great idea and if he can make it happen I will support him absent any other reason not to. I completely agree that we do not lack great local artists in all mediums and that it is an underutilized and over looked resource in New Orleans that is begging for dignified commercial exploitation (not always an oxymoron). I am really dissapointed that Mitch Landrieu ditched his mayoral hopes in favor of higher pursuits as he is the one politician who really understands how the arts can be successfuly utilized as the economic engine of the New Orleans economy. When Jindal beats Vitter and Mitch ends up governor maybe we will get some benefit. I gave up on the whole carpetbagger concept after Katrina. Anyone who wants to come here, love New Orleans and contribute is welcome (to a point). It is our insular nature that has held us back for so long. Our “city leaders” have done nothing for this city for a couple of centuries. It is usually outsiders who have driven change here and we are a port city that has always relied on an influx of population from elsewhere to sustain it. Sorry for the long rant and keep up the good work on this site.

  18. I am *not* opposed to turning more of the riverfront into green space. I just want everyone to think of the (un)intended consequence that most of the people in the Bywater today are liable to be driven out of their homes and across St. Claude once the construction is over and the gentry start to move in.

    I think some of that public money should go toward giving everyone with a lease or even a letter from landlord (if they’re month to month) a little something for being displaced, if only a couple of hundred to help rent a truck.

    And for business owners along Frenchman to think about the loss of all our business when it turns into another tourist strip because most of their local customers have taken their trade somewhere down St. Claude.

    And if it all becomes a twice-a-year visit graveyard of out-of-towner owned condos something like swaths of historic, post-Hugo Charleston, well: don’t say some of us didn’t warn you..

  19. Mark, you beat me to it.

    After the area is greenspaceified and the out-of-town “artists” begin the migration and the new strip malls that are cleverly designed not to look like strip malls are installed, Bywater will certainly look like a “viable” area for commerce.

    The inevitable Wal•Mart will only displace a “few” residences, but the convenience of not having to frequent multiple local retailers will more than make up for that. And of course there will be plenty of Starbucks, Wendy’s, McDonalds and Olive Gardens to fuel you as you shop.

    And of course, the Wal•Mart will be a godsend to those of you remaining in the area as it will allow you to save plenty of money for your increased rents. For those few who will suddenly be priced out of remaining in the area, you’ll have that beautiful park to sleep in.

    Except that it will probably be filled with Jackie Clarkson’s “bum-proof” benches. And you’ll have to find a good hiding space during the day for when they eventually erect fences and gates around the park in order to close it at night, a-la Jackson Square, but hey, it’s a necessary step since the NOPD is far too busy “catching” criminals with their broken crime cameras.

    Or am I just being morose and alarmist? Surely that scenario could never happen here? I mean, Wal•Marts and Starbucks in Historic Districts? I’m pretty sure Mayor-Elect Cummings would never allow that to happen…

  20. Thanks, M.
    Now you’re really scaring me.

  21. Christ, I hope they don’t put in those benches.

    And I think he’s right: I’m sure it will be locked up at night like all of our other parks because the NOPD are too busy enforcing the No Prints rule on the fence at Jackson Square.

  22. STYBORSKI FOR MAYOR

    :D

  23. Hmmm… Apricot/Styb in 201o?

    But seriously, there’s some interesting info out there.

    City Business took a look at Cummings in February of 2008 regarding possible ethics violations. ( http://www.neworleanscitybusiness.com/viewStory.cfm?recID=29972 ) Initially, the Louisiana Board of Ethics ruled that there was a conflict of interest, then after Cumings appealed, decided that they didn’t have enough information to rule at all. Later, in May of 2008, the LBE unanimously decided that Cumings did not have a “substantial” financial interests in the project and allowed him to keep his job. Yay.

    Here’s the deal: Interests conflicted or not, Cummings would still profit. If the LBE said he was fine, then he simply moves forward. If they found “substantial” conflicts, he would have to recuse himself, but the only thing he would lose would be a monthly paycheck. His properties would still benefit from the added residency and traffic in the area. Win/Win for Sean!

    Of course, Cummings job was never truly at risk. He has plenty of support from the movers and shakers in our community:

    “I’m glad that people are looking to see if there’s a conflict because I’m so proud of Sean because everything he does is without conflict… Here’s the finest kid ever… He’s an asset to this community.”
    -John Cummings, Sean’s Daddy and co-owner of some of the dozens of properties in question.

    “I think Sean is doing this properly in terms of getting this first opinion and supplemental opinion.”
    -City Councilman Arnie Fielkow, who also sits on the Board of Directors of the NOBC.

    And of course, he was appointed to the post back in 2003 by Mayor C Ray Nagin who also happens to be on the NOBC’s Board of Directors. Two other members of the Board are Xavier President Norman Francis and Councilman Cynthia Willard-Lewis. There are supposedly three “private citizens” who also sit on the Board, but the NOBC website does not mention them by name.

    Sean’s daddy also says that “some” of the family holdings are as much as “eight blocks away from the development.” Wow. Surely no conflict there. Unless you can tell the difference between these two statements:

    1: A charming condo just blocks away from the crumbling Glidden Paint factory.

    2: A charming condo just blocks from the new Riverfront Wonderland.

    The difference is about $1000/month on your rent, kids.

  24. Stbbie, you should turn that into an HC post. I’m serious!

  25. Looking into it.

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