The late night before made for a slow start. I spent a while at McDonald’s, drinking coffee and using their free WIFI. The leaders got everybody up by 11am and a little after noon we were heading back into the City. It was probably the best day of the week: lows 70s, bright sunshine with a little breeze, especially out in the Lower Ninth where we started the day.

For the uninitiated, the drive east across New Orleans is a sobering experience. Many homes in the Upper Ninth are still uninhabitable and a large percentage of businesses there have not returned, even nearly five years later. And then you cross the Industrial Canal into the Lower Ninth. Large patches of weeds and slab foundations remain where houses used to stand. And as bare as that scene is, it doesn’t belie the devastation and profound remnants of human habitation left by the broken levee. Still, there is progress. In the shadow of the new levee, about two dozen news homes have sprung up, many constructed by Brad Pitt’s foundation Make It Right Nine. Even so, the modern, sustainable homes, while architecturally innovative are in stark contrast to what once stood, as well as to those still standing a few blocks away. I suspect this might be jarring to some residents of the neighborhood; at least those lucky enough to have returned. Nevertheless, it represents progress.

We left there to travel across town to the Audubon Zoo, where they were holding the last day of a two-day Soul Fest. The difference in the neighborhoods could not be more drastic, as we left weed strewn lots for oak lined streets lined by 19th century mansions. The disparity did not escape the students. And many tourists who visit only the French Quarter and Uptown neighborhoods can easily come and go and not understand the work, both structurally and socially that remains.

We braved lines of traffic and at the gate to get into the zoo. Most students had some time to actually see animals before jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and the Rebirth Brass Band closed the festival. The set was high energy and the crowd was exuberant and engaged. It did not really feature Mayfield’s considerable talents as he joined in with Rebirth’s standard repertoire and as much as I enjoy his gifts as a player that was all right by me. The set included trademark tunes like “Casanova,” “Do Whatcha Wanna,” and “Feel Like Funkin’ It Up,” among others. The zoo closed soon thereafter, but not before I snagged some samples of the soul food as the vendors closed shop.

The trip back downtown had similar traffic trials, but virtually everyone ventured to the French Quarter and/or Marigny for a brief while. I took advantage of the warm weather to walk the streets for good examples of ironwork and Creole cottages. At the Spotted Cat, I caught most a set from a talented bunch of young musicians named the “Loose Marbles.” The rhythm section was quite good, most notably the tuba player and pianist. Alas, fatigue set in and I returned back to the West Bank and Madonna Manor.

Within a half hour, everyone was back together under the same roof. Spirits were good, but the sun, long night before, and anticipation of a week of hard work set-in for everyone. It is quiet now, but that will change in a few hours as over two dozen students and I scramble to get ready and out by 6:30am, in order to make the trek to Gentilly for our first day of work with Operation Helping Hands.