Portraits of a city: Michael D. Williams
When Michael Williams – or ‘Voice’, as he likes to be known – first started his bike rental business back in 2001, everybody laughed. “When I got to the city I bought a bunch of cleaning supplies and started cleaning all the high-end businesses in the French Quarter,” he tells me, sucking languidly on a cigar. “Then I got myself together enough money to buy me one bicycle and I set it over there on that corner and started renting it out.” The corner in question is at the intersection of Barracks and Decatur, and this evening it exuded classic French Quarter charm, with horse-dawn traps trotting past local artists and coffee drinkers sitting out on the steps, all catching the last of the yellowing daylight. “Soon I had enough money to rent out three bikes, and I kept on working and kept on saving and eventually I got this store.”
The store may not look like much at the moment, but its gloomy interior (from which amputated bike parts loom out from the darkness) represents a sort of American dream, a defiant monument to what someone shunned by mainstream society can achieve through hard work and perseverance. Back in 1977, Michael, originally from Alabama, was sentenced to five years in jail (although he probably would have been out in one or two). He doesn’t mention what his crime was, although in the grand scheme of things it ended up being quite irrelevant, That’s because on his way to spend his first night in the cells he was discovered to have three marijuana joints in his pocket. At a stroke his period of incarceration quadrupled. He was nineteen. A full twenty years later, on Christmas Eve 1997, Michael emerged into a lonely outside world.
“I spent twenty years with people who killed their mommas and raped their kids, and one thing I learnt, after everything has calmed down, is that everybody still has a dream,” he says, nodding his head sagely. “And as long as you still have a dream you still have a chance.” So down he came to Louisiana, attracted by a gumbo culture and a city where anything seemed possible – crazy New Orleans, built on a raft of flood plains and smack bang in the middle of a hurricane belt. Nowhere else better embodied Michael’s life philosophy of rebounding from adversity, constructing a world out of nothing. After serving two more years in a federal prison for unresolved charges relating to his first conviction, Michael began building his own business.
The laid-back manner in which Michael tells his story, leaning up against a pillar and gesturing casually with his flamboyant gold-topped cane as he talks, doesn’t reflect the way his mind works. Ambitious, energetic and hard-wired into a million different ideas at once (some more realistic than others), this is a man who expects a lot more of himself than society expects of him. Hanging with beads and resplendent in jewellery and shades, he cuts a fantastically eccentric figure on the sidewalk – and his store is a fantastically eccentric presence within the local business community. Ostensibly a bike rental and repair outfit, it offers a plethora of services and schemes, the details of which are plastered in permanent marker over boards leaning up against the front of the shop. They include free bike rides for anyone who has visited the nearby St Louis Cathedral, special bike rentals for anyone from Texas, and of course the biggest pride of Michael’s endeavours – his fledgling law library.
“I’ve always enjoyed law ‘cos like I said, I was in prison for twenty years, and while I was in prison I studied law,” he explains. “And I thought to myself, you know every time you do business you gotta deal with law. So I opened up a law library.” Like his ‘Jobs for Guns’ programme, which aims to get disaffected and violent youngsters off the streets and into stable employment (starting with mechanical work at the bike shop), the motivation for the law library isn’t profit. In fact, if it ever gets completed, the library will be ‘donated’ for the use of everybody in the French Quarter.
The problem is that it doesn’t look like the library will ever be completed. That’s because tomorrow Michael will go to court, representing himself, to try and fight an eviction order that his landlord has brought against him. Katrina’s floodwaters didn’t reach the French Quarter but they managed to gut Michael’s store nonetheless. Devastation in other parts of the city caused a shortage of available residential and commercial property, sending rents everywhere soaring. And that means Michael’s corner store – or rather the building in which it sits – is worth a lot more today than it was a year ago.
“What’s going on here is that he wants me out the building so he can give the building to someone else at a higher price.” ‘He’, according to Michael, is the French Quarter’s biggest landowner and a month ago he announced he was ejecting Michael for alleged non-payment of rent, a charge that Michael denies and says he will prove wrong in front of a judge. “When I first rented this place it was dead round here, but now it’s coming back. So what he wants me to do is get out so he can push the rent right up.” The rent currently stands at around $2800 a month, but Michael – who has a valid lease for the property until 2008 – believes that the landowner wants to charge new occupants over $4000.
Michael suggested the landowner could buy out the remainder of the lease if he really wanted the property back, but the offer was turned down. “He’s trying to kill my whole project, my law library, everything. And he lives next door! He passes here every day. He just wants me to move out and lose everything, period. That’s morally wrong.”
With the number of different services he offers, Michael considers his business to be a company, rather than a store. That would make him the only black company-owner in the historic French Quarter, an observation he thinks is significant. “I’m the only one going through this,” he says, staring down the street. “I ain’t going to say there’s a racist thing going on, but I’m the only one this is happening to.” To try and raise awareness of what’s happening, Michael has been taking his bike and loading it up with photos and posters of the store, parking his one-man protest outside posh hotels in the Central Business District. “I produce programs like jobs for guns, I feed the homeless, I donate a law library to the French quarter,” he says angrily. “Those are the kinda things I do, and this is the richest man in the Quarter and he don’t do nothing. He don’t understand emotions or people, he only knows numbers. And when numbers don’t look right… that’s who I’m dealing with.”
Despite his insistence that he is being singled out for unfair treatment, Michael thinks that the attack on his livelihood is part of a wider, creeping process of gentrification in the city. “They’re commercialising here – that’s why they’re not putting up those neighbourhoods,” he says, referring to the shuttered-up public housing projects where residents are being refused entry into their own homes. He tried to raise the issue with Ray Nagin when the Mayor did a ‘walkabout’ down Decatur Street. “He walked right by me, anyone’ll tell you. I’m the only person on the whole strip here that had a Nagin poster up for the election – everyone else had Mitch Landrieu [Nagin’s white opponent in the mayoral contest] – and I said to him as he walked past, ‘Sir, I’m the only one here who supported you’, but he kept on walking,” Michael grimaces. “Then he got on TV and started talking about how he was gonna help people like me. But he walked right past.”
Michael’s personal story is hard to verify – more will become obvious after the court case tomorrow. But the trends he describes are very real. With rebuilding dominated by big developers, large reconstruction projects and higher rents are serving to squeeze out smaller, independent businesses for whom the costs and risks associated with returning are harder to bear. Whatever happens, Michael isn’t going quietly. One of his posters requests that passers-by invest $50,000 in Foot-Steppers, promising that it will become a multi-million dollar company within five years. Considering what he has accomplished so far, he might just be right…