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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