The New Orleans Class Times Ten Sunday, Mar 6 2016 

I never thought it would come to this. Ten years ago this week, I traveled to New Orleans for the first time following the flooding wrought by Katrina. I spent a week with eleven strangers gutting houses in Chalmette, Louisiana. It was dirty, sweaty, heart-wrenching, and sometimes stomach-churning work. It was the best work I ever hated and it changed me forever.

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Chalmette National Battlefield, Chalmette, LA.

For the most, I spent the evenings, exhausted and contemplative. A great American city nearly destroyed and, in March 2006, who could guess what its future held. However, its storied past was inviolable. I spent several evenings, on a bench among the graves of Civil War era, African-American soldiers at the storm-ravaged Chalmette National Cemetery. On the open expanse in front of me, Andrew Jackson and a diverse army of militiamen, Creoles, free blacks, and Native Americans, defeated the British Army, replete with men who had vanquished Napoleon. What stories could that flooded soil before me, from Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi to the Seventeenth Street Canal, tell Americans about our past…and our future. Those ruminations gave birth to the New Orleans class.

When I got back to New Hampshire, I began laying the groundwork for the New Orleans course. I read as much as a could, listened intently, and tried to fill myself with knowledge about this mesmerizing city. It was not easy. It was not linear. It seldom made sense. But the was glorious.

In January 2007, I stood in front of 25 students in the very first New Orleans class. Unlike today’s students, they had with a mature level of cognition watched as the horrific events of August/September 2005 unfolded on the evening news. The tragedy was still warm. The images were still etched in our collective minds. And New Orleans’ future still hung in the balance. Nevertheless, they were subjected to my pedantic and text heavy PowerPoint presentations, yet they survived in good cheer.

Seven of my students travelled with me to the Gulf Coast that year. It was not yet part of the course, but I saw in their eyes the importance of being there. Of hearing the stories. Of seeing the damage. And of absorbing the culture through their eyes, their ears, their tastebuds, and their pores. Through their service and their experience they connected with something the rest of the class did not. And they were the better for it.

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Lower Ninth Ward, March 2006

I was asked to teach the course again and in saying “yes,” I asked if the service learning trip could be made part of the course. And to my surprise, I was told by the forward thinking head of the Honors program, which served as a part-time home for the  class, “of course.”

And I ran with it. It has not been easy. Initially, I depended upon a student organization to do most of the heavy lifting for organizing the trip, but in due time we both realized that we were at cross purposes. More recently, I am running the trip on my own with some excellent support from the College of Liberal Arts Dean’s Office, their Business Service Center, and the aforementioned Honors Program.

In the meantime, we have worked with number of different agencies in such places as New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, Slidell, LA and Waveland MS. We have slept in condemned schools, abandoned homes, condemned orphanages, churches, and community centers. We have worked with Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities, and most recently, lowernine.org. But ten years after the storm, the spirit and the love and the joy of the residents still move us. It is the greatest gift that we can receive.

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Madonna Manor, UNH housing 2009-2011, March 2009.

So this, the 10th New Orleans class, will have to stand beside the rest, and in some respects, that will be tough. Students will heading down by four minivans on Friday, March 11th and should be arriving on Saturday afternoon. We will try to cram as much culture in before we embark on a week of service. But among the sights and sound, the food and the music, it will be the goodwill and appreciation of the people of places like the Lower Ninth Ward that will find a place closest to our hearts. And I can’t wait.

It has been over ten years since Katrina. This will be my fourteenth trip to New Orleans since then. Including this year’s trip, I will have accompanied some 250 UNH students on their journey to help people far different from them. I have witnessed their joy, their recognition, and their growth in the process.

As I write this, I try to picture what I would have thought, back in March 2006, if I knew then then what I know now. New Orleans, along with its constant and new challenges, has survived until the next storm. Could I imagine teaching this course for the tenth time and getting something new and affirming out of each class? And would I, knowing the time that it takes, not just to keep the class and assignments fresh, but to budget, to plan travel, to secure housing, to guarantee work slots, to plan events, etc., be willing to keep it going. Here. Ten years out. I have but one answer to that: you bet.

But, I never thought it would come to this.

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Battlefields and Loss Thursday, Jan 8 2015 

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.

Today marks the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. It was nevertheless fought in Chalmette, Louisiana, and the battle, while an overwhelming victory, was arguably meaningless. As events unfolded, General Andrew Jackson’s ragtag, multicultural force annihilated a British force which had just defeated Napoleon, and decisively so; but because of slow communications, it took place weeks after an armistice ending the War of 1812 had been signed in Europe. Nevertheless, it marked the last instance in which a foreign army invaded the United States.

The quiet, green, marshy expanse of the Chalmette Battlefield means a lot to me. When I returned to New Orleans to volunteer in the months after Katrina, I stayed in a FEMA camp in the shadow of the battlefield. It was closed, having been covered by a dozen feet of water following the storm. The brick walls and some of the tombstones of the adjacent national cemetery had been toppled. But under the live oaks and among the quietude of the mostly African-American Civil War dead, I experienced moments of calm and contemplation after days of gutting nearby homes. Paradoxically, as I have found when I visited King’s Mountain or Gettysburg or Antietam or Yorktown, the battlefield provides solace. It is as if the telescoped hours of death, carnage, and horror were being neutralized by peace, by a counterbalancing aura of humanity. It is why I believe I love battlefields.

I try to take my students to Chalmette for that reason. It is instructive of the battle and with the correct interpretation, you can see the British troops, accompanied by the bagpipes of the Scottish Highlanders marching to their doom as Choctaw snipers, Jackson’s Kaintucks, New Orleans Creoles, and Jean Lafitte’s pirates efficiently exacted their revenge for the British burning of Washington. But the calm of this green plain, decorated with a variety of wading birds and crawfish tunnels, persists.

I felt that that first time in 2006, when it was more or less abandoned, and I last felt it on a rainy June afternoon in 2014, the last time I graced the grounds. However, in the future, that quietude will be disturbed by the subject of a column in today’s Times-Picayuneby New Orleans geographer Joseph Campanella. It will forever disrupt my sense of calm as a wander the battlefield.

Fazendeville, early 1960s.

Fazendeville, early 1960s.

According to Campanella, a free man of color named Pierre Fazende inherited a portion of battlefield in the 1850s, not long before the Civil War. Shortly after the war, in the bloom of Reconstruction, he sold off a strip of lots that ran perpendicular to the Mississippi to African-Americans. That strip of houses, shops, a school, a couple of barrooms, and other assorted buildings became the village of Fazendeville. While the promise of the forty acres and a mule never materialized in the post-war South, this little strip of land became a symbol of black ownership and independence.

The residents were proud of their attachment to regional history, as the community lay roughly equidistant between Jackson’s old fortifications and the mouldering graves of Civil War dead in the National Cemetery. And so they would remain for nearly a century.

Chalmette National Battlefield, 2013.

Chalmette National Battlefield, 2013.

The 1960s carried a couple of forces for change, one arguably noble, the other spawned of racism. If you do the math, 1965 marked the sesquicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. The worn, working class houses of Fazendeville lay about where British General Edward Packenham was mortally wounded during the British advance. Hence, the community disrupted what could be a tourist attraction for St. Bernard Parish, which played and continues to play second, third, or fourth fiddle to its neighbor and tourism magnet upstream. At the same time, in the midst of the Civil Rights era, racist politicians saw this as an opportunity to rid Chalmette of a black, working class enclave. By 1964, most houses had been bulldozed. The century-old community, the Battleground Baptist Church included, was cleared for a green, uninterrupted plain. Most of Fazendeville residents relocated to the the Lower Ninth Ward or to Violet, a community downstream from Chalmette. And needless to say, residents of all three: the Lower Ninth, Chalmette, and Violet, were inundated and displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Henceforth, I will take my student to the battlefield. And we will talk about the events that transpired on January 8, 1815. But, we will also discuss the events that took place in 1964.

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.