Spring Break 2016 Tuesday, Mar 8 2016 

In a few days we will be heading to New Orleans to volunteer with lowernine.org during spring break. And I don’t underestimate the sacrifice that you are making when compared with what some of your fellow Wildcats will be doing at the same time. The work itself will be memorable. You will be tested. You will learn new things. You might for an instant wonder why you are there. But I can guarantee that you will come away with an appreciation of a great city, the challenges that it faces and, more than anything, a love for the people who live there.

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Orientation with Laura Paul, lowernine.org, Lower Ninth, March 2013.

In addition, your leaders and I are planning activities to fill the time when you are not working. And we think you’ll like the results of our brainstorming. Here are some examples of what is store for you, that is, after that 1600 mile drive from New Hampshire:

Saturday, March 12th – arrive in NOLA early afternoon; go directly to Irish Channel St. Patrick Parade; check in @ Community Center afterwards; dinner with your group;

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Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade, March 2013.

 Sunday, March 13th – Jazz mass @ St. Augustine’s, 10-11:30am (optional); Keep ‘N  It Real Second Line (schedule TBA); dinner at Lil’ Dizzy’s, 5:30pm; Hot 8 Brass Band@ Howlin Wolf, 10pm (entrance covered);

Monday, March 14th – Arrive @ lowenine.org, 8am; lunch on the Mississippi River levee in Holy Cross; French Quarter Scavenger Hunt, 8-10pm;

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French Quarter Scavenger Hunt (finale), March 2013.

Tuesday, March 15th – Visit to Chalmette Battlefield @ lunch, weather permitting; and visit to Bayou Sauvage, after work:

Wednesday, March 16th – House of Dance and Feathers, lunch or after work; cookout at Laura Paul’s house, 6pm;

Thursday, March 17th – Downtown St. Patrick’s Parade, Royal Street, starts at 6pm; Rock and Bowl, Zydeco Night, 9 pm (entrance covered);

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Glen David Andrews with UNH students at the Rock and Bowl, 2008

Friday, March 18th – Backstreet Cultural Museum, after work (entrance covered) and St.Charles Streetcar to Carrollton and dinner at the Camellia Grill;

Saturday, March 19th – Cleanup at the Community Center; Bill’s breakfast with scavenger hunt winners (my choice); Saturday morning in the French Quarter in its glory; Congo Square Rhythms Festival, Armstrong Park, 11am (free).

Sniff, sniff. Head back to New Hampshire.

 

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    Members of the 2015 New Orleans class with Errol and Esther Joseph, March 2015.

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Rainy Days and Tuesdays Wednesday, Mar 12 2014 

For the first time in years, we had a full bore, no doubt about it rainy day. Needless to say, our group did not go back to siding Steve’s house in Backatown. Instead, we went to John’s house on Deleray Street, literally across from Jackson Barracks. The other groups were already working indoors, therefore work would not be affected — or so we thought.

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John’s house

John has been renovating this house for about a year. He has done a loving and meticulous job at bringing out its beauty and promise. However, working alone, he literally hit the wall when it came to, we’ll, the walls. Between installing awkward sheets of board, taping, mudding, sanding, etc. it is extremely time consuming and not a one person job. And that is where lowernine.org comes in.

We were able to bring a group in of largely inexperienced students to do work that takes a while but is easy to learn. While the guys installed Sheetrock, the rest of the group worked throughout the house doing multiple layers of prep work. It didn’t take long to see substantial progress made. Both John and Bob, our crew chief, seemed pleased. The other grounds continued to work at tiling and installing Sheetrock in other parts of the Lower Ninth.

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Chalmette National Battlefield

And while we worked in poured. Clearly, this would not be a levee lunch day, so I proposed we meet at the Chalmette National Battlefield. Even in the rain, we could go through exhibits and drive around the site of the Battle of New Orleans. Inauspiciously my car was parked on the side of the street in what had become a five inch deep puddle. As a result, I had to remove my shoes in order to get into the car. The battlefield, which is marshy on the best of days, was not much better. We ate lunch; some walked around in the rain and mud; but evyone got a lay of the land, at least.

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Ronald Lewis with students

Everyone returned to their respective tasks and had productive and rewarding afternoons. About four we broke for the day to make our annual pilgrimage to Ronald Lewis’ House of Dance and Feathers. And just as in our visit to Kajun’s pub, it was useful that we had just finished reading Nine Lives. So, they got to meet Ronald AND gain a better understanding of the lace where they are working and staying.

Everyone went back and cleaned up. We ate our first dinner at Camp Hope which was not bad. After dinner everyone descended on a small Baskin Robbins in Chalmette where they overwhelmed the poor young woman running the place alone. They were patient, and from what I understand, tipped generously. Some went back to Camp Hope to chill while the rest of went into the City.

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Aura Nealand and the Royal Roses

I walked about for a while before settling in for a couple of sets at the Spotted Cat. It has become so crowded I don’t get there as often as I used to, but one of my favorite New Orleans musicians, Aurora Nealand, was performing. It was crowded, but not wall-to-wall people. Her band was tight and she was her bright and exuberant self on the clarinet and soprano sax. A wonderful close to a day that some might call a washout, but to us, it was anything but.

lowernine.org Tuesday, Mar 12 2013 

The first day. Stowing belongings while half asleep. Putting together lunch with 30 fellow students and strangers. Getting to lowenine.org late because of erroneous information. Rain. Wind. Uncertainty. It had all of the makings of the worst start to the work week ever. But it was not.

From past experience, the worst thing that can happen is to get to work that first day to find that they are not quite sure what to do with you: “Well, we would use you on this and that, but we already have a crew on this and that. Wait a few minutes while we figure this out.” I understand that this is the product of spring break, when organizations are awash with volunteers, but it is hard to communicate to students who have anticipated this moment for months. Working with lowernine.org was not like that.

Orientation with Laura, lowernine.org, Lower Ninth, March 2013.

Orientation with Laura, lowernine.org, Lower Ninth, March 2013.

We huddled together in the cold by the banana trees, waiting for our assignments. Laura introduced herself and the Lower Ninth. I think the reality of what the people here have faced Katrina really became a reality to the students. A wall of water. Weeks of flooding. 100% of the housing in the ward ruled uninhabitable.

Within 30 minutes we were spread out around the Lower Ninth. Shoring up flooring in an old double shotgun house. Preparing to install insulation and sheet rock in a home in the Holy Cross neighborhood. We spent the day ripping up linoleum and carefully removing baseboards to make way for a base and a tile floor through one half of a home on Gordon Street. We were almost exactly a block over from Ronald Lewis’ backyard museum on Tupelo Street, which we will visit after work this afternoon. Happily, I think most groups will stay on site and task throughout the week, which should provide them a sense of what a week’s worth of work can accomplish.

Removing linoleum, Gordon Street, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2013.

Removing linoleum, Gordon Street, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2013.

Even after seven years and nine visits since Katrina, the abandoned, overgrown homes and empty lots are haunting. The Lower Ninth is only 30% occupied. Government neglect, corporate racism, shady contractors, and socioeconomic realities have combined to create a perfect storm of dysfunction. And the people here have to live with. Still, most of what happens, comes from agencies like lowernine.org with volunteers like us.

We got to know the homeowner immediately, which is an important connection with the neighborhood and why we are here. And more importantly, for the students, we got to meet his 92 year-old father’s dog, Oreo. Work went in spurts, but it is clear we are readying for more work intensive tasks down the road.

Chalmette Battlefied, site of the Battle of New Orleans (January 1815), Chalmette, LA, March 2013.

Chalmette Battlefied, site of the Battle of New Orleans (January 1815), Chalmette, LA, March 2013.

We took a short break for lunch. Visited the corner grocery across the street. And several snoozed in the van. Afterwards I visited the other groups to see how their day was going. Unfortunately, work was easy compared to the confusion of organizing shower opportunities, with limited access to belongings, because of the afternoon program at the All Souls Church.

To avoid the confusion, I decided to take a short trip over to the Chalmette National Battlefield and Cemetery. Sam, one of the leaders, and a couple of students in her group, Jenn and Anna, came with me. As it turned out, we arrived just before closing, but one of the rangers gave us directions to park outside of the gate at the cemetery, which we did. The weather had thankfully cleared and the walk under the live oaks, surrounded by the mostly Civil War-era graves was quite moving. And I reminisced about that first March after Katrina, sitting under those same oaks, reading, thinking, and coming up with the idea for the New Orleans course.

IMG_0274We came back to All Souls and I cooked a batch vegetarian red beans and rice while, Theresa orchestrated two beautiful salads. I think sitting down together and eating took the edge off of a frustrating post-work experience.

Most of the students went into the French Quarter for beignets and cafe au lait. I literally walked the Quarter. I took Royal from Frenchmen Street and crossed to Canal, returning by Decatur. It was cool and not very crowded, unlike the Spotted Cat, which was packed. As a result, I decided to head over to Kajun’s Pub on St. Claude. It was on the way back across the Industrial Canal and one of those places I’ve meant to visit for years.

From all appearances it is a simple neighborhood bar, which on the edge of the Marigny makes a very interesting neighborhood. Its story is one of those wonderful tales that flow through the pages of Dan Baum’s wonderful book, Nine Lives, which chronicles the experiences of nine very different New Orleanians from Hurricane Betsy through Hurricane Katrina. And beside Ronald Lewis, one of my subjects is bar owner Joann Guidos. I won’t go through the details of Joann’s life journey; you should read the book for that because Baum does a much better job of it. Suffice it to say, she has built an environment that is the triumph of acceptance and tolerance; one that stayed open through Katrina due to her grit and many gallons of fuel for her generator.

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Chalmette National Cemetery, Chalmette, LA

I talked to the bartender, a history major at the University of New Orleans; naturally, we do make the best bartenders. She asked what I did and I told her about my job and my teaching and this class and that we are using Nine Lives, and on and on. She turned away to wait on another customer and furtively called upstairs for Joann to come down and meet me, which she did. And it was a most delightful experiences.

We talked about her path, the bar, and the book. I hated to leave, but it was getting late. She offered to meet and talked to the students in the class, which I am seriously considering, and I promised to come back over the weekend.

Potholes and pitfalls notwithstanding, it was a good start to the work week.