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Thursday, August 6, 2009

On Making Money, Or, Art Can Help New Orleans

The long, lazy days of summer are upon us, and it’s time to have a little fun—but it’s also a great opportunity to volunteer a bit of spare time for a good cause.

So imagine how cool it would be if you could combine the two...and even better, do it in a way that doesn’t take a bite out of your wallet...and even better yet, if it was something you and the kids could do together.

Imagine no more, because it has been done; which is why today we are going to be talking about lead in the soil of New Orleans, Operation Paydirt...and Fundred Dollar Bills.

So here’s what’s up: in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina all sorts of specialists went to New Orleans to see how they might help. Among those were environmental artist Mel Chin (who had previously participated in the GALA Committee’s project to “sneak” original works of conceptual art into the show “Melrose Place”).

Chin studied the community, and came to the conclusion that a huge problem existed that had nothing to do with Katrina: lead had contaminated the soil...and it was collecting in the blood of the children living there.

This is not good: lead poisoning in children has been linked to anemia, permanent nerve damage, mental retardation...and behavioral disorders that can result, literally, in a life of crime.

As it turns out, lead had been accumulating since the 1920s, either as lead paint scrapings or paint dust had fallen to earth or as the exhaust smoke from automobiles burning leaded gasoline settled to the ground. (It’s estimated that every year as much as five tons of lead were deposited in New Orleans’ soil as a result of the volume of vehicle traffic before leaded gasoline was banned.)

Hotspots exist throughout the city, but the worst contamination is to be found in the city’s Uptown, Downtown, and French Quarter Districts, with levels as high as 1200 parts per million (ppm) reported in some soil samples (levels below 150 ppm are considered “lead-free”).

The Department of Health and Human Service’s Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry reports that in 1993 nearly half of the city’s children (44%) were designated as “lead poisoned” by virtue of having blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL). 14% of the children tested had levels above 20 ug/dL, double the “not poisoned” standard.

“The disaster was in the soil before the disaster.”

--Mel Chin, March 2008

Are you thinking “I’m glad that’s not my city’s problem?” Are you sure about that? Boston, Baltimore, and Minneapolis/St. Paul are among the many US cities known to have serious contamination issues. (The locations most likely to be affected are older cities with higher traffic volumes.)

Until now, no one has been willing to provide the money to get a cleanup underway...and that’s where Mel Chin—and you, Gentle Reader—come into the picture.

Chin has begun a project that seeks to gather 3,000,000 “signatures”, if you will, to an “art petition” that he intends to present to Congress this fall in an effort to shake the money loose.

Art petition, you say?

That’s exactly correct: Chin wants you to create what he calls “Fundred Dollar Bills”, which are made from blank "templates" that resemble US $ 100 bills. You, the kids, and more or less 3,000,000 of your closest friends do your part by first downloading and then filling in the templates with designs, drawings, personal statements...pretty much any darn thing you can fit into a seven by four inch space...and then returning the completed bills to the nearest collection center.

The bills will be collected and transported to Washington, DC. Chin hopes to “exchange” the $300,000,000 represented by the Fundreds for $300,000,000 in real live Congressional appropriations to start the cleanup process in New Orleans (“Operation Paydirt”, as he’s calling it).

This had been promoted, in a big way, as a classroom project, and lots of schools and arts organizations around the country are joining in the effort.

“...we’re asking children [to produce the art] not because we want to use them, but they are the most affected by lead, and they have a right to have some expression in this.”

--Mel Chin, March 2008

The pickups are scheduled to begin in November, which means it’s time to get out the crayons, or gel pens (or, if you really take your conceptual art seriously, a garden pond pump, bucket, hose, sprinkler, and several colors of acrylic paint; the idea being to create the perfect Jackson Pollock effect), design some Fundreds, and let’s see if we can’t help make lives better for some kids that have been dealing with this for so long that some of them are today collecting Social Security.

So how about that?

A project that seeks money to clean up soil that is causing brain damage to the kids of New that, as far as I can see, is the truest form of “stimulus spending” there could ever be...and you get to help create the art petition that could really make a difference in deciding whether this happens or not.

All in all, that’s a pretty good way to spend a lazy summer day.

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