The Forgotten Ward Saturday, Feb 16 2013 

The Lower Ninth Ward was among the last parts of Orleans Parish to be settled. And along with areas like Lakeview and Gentilly, it is among the last areas of the City to be repopulated in the wake of the flooding following Hurricane Katrina. In fact with a population about 25% of its 2000 population, it is dead last.

The first time I ever entered the Lower Ninth was in March 2006, just  months after the flooding caused by the breech of the Industrial Canal. It was the first time anyone, including residents, was allowed to reenter this devastated neighborhood. I had come down for the first time to help with the cleanup, but I was totally unprepared for what I was to see. Nothing that I had seen on television in the wake of the flood could reflect the total, widespread destruction that I saw. Homes flattened and carried away by the rushing waters. Concrete slabs left behind; somber tombstones for homes, for communities, and for neighborhoods. Among the rubble were vehicles, household furnishings, children’s  toys and medical equipment, the forgotten detritus of a once vibrant community.

Lower Ninth, May 2006.

Lower Ninth, March 2006.

It was so total that I felt something meaningful had to happen. A lion’s share of the City’s deaths were from this neighborhood  The damage was so unspeakable. Truly something had to be done quickly and decisively to correct this travesty.  But, the people of the Lower Ninth were left to wait…elsewhere.

Tennessee and Galvez, March 2007.

I’ve gone back every year since then, accompanied by students from the University of New Hampshire. I always take them back to the intersection of Tennessee and Galvez, the spot where I first remember standing. I remember that day in 2007, once the students had wandered off to view the devastation. Nearly two years later. Nothing. Rubble had been cleared only to be replaced weeds. I sat on a stoop that once had been occupied by parents waiting for children to return from school. Hot tears of anger and sadness welled up. To this day, I don’t think I can separate the two.

Former President Bill Clinton,
Lower Ninth Ward, March 2008.

A year later, in 2008, we encountered news crews, Brad Pitt, and former President Bill Clinton. Make It Right Nine was underway and over the last few years, change is noticeable, but it is not enough. It is a fine demonstration project highlighting sustainable building, but given all of the money that has poured into New Orleans, it is but a token. Thousands are forced to live elsewhere and, to this day, the Lower Ninth is but a shadow of its former self.

This was made clear about a year ago, when the New York Times Magazine chose to publish a large article on the Lower Ninth under the rather insensitive title of “Jungleland.” Written by Nathaniel Rich, it began by emphasizing the neglect and accompanying decay. If the writer had every witnessed the rural infestation of kudzu, the rapid overgrowth would not have proven such a spectacle. For a community so ignored, the incursion of wildlife, vegetation, dumping, and crime should not have surprised anyone. Neglect does that. And facile sensationalism is not the answer.

Tennessee and Galvez, March 2011.

Me at Tennessee and Galvez, March 2011.
Photo by Sonja Loeser.

Thankfully, a community activist named Jenga Mwendo responded to the content and tone of Rich’s article. She takes him to task for not going after the root cause of institutional and governmental neglect; the many millions that have poured into New Orleans have not helped the most vulnerable. Former Mayor Ray Nagin, who allowed the bulldozing of the projects elsewhere, had little time for rebuilding the Lower Ninth. And while current Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been more responsive, his efforts have shaded towards removing blighted properties and paving streets (many of which were not paved before Katrina). Where was the support for former residents? Where is the housing or direct housing aid necessary to bring residents back.

Image from the Nedw York Times Magazine article, March 2012.

Image from the New York Times Magazine article, March 2012.

As Mwendo point out, aid was non-existent in the aftermath of the flood. Post-Katrina aid benefited those whose property was worth more than those in the Lower Ninth. In addition, government at all levels moved slowly to provide the amenities necessary to support the community. They had to fight for schools, libraries and city services. And to this date, the nearest grocery store is miles away in Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish. She points out that reporters, like Rich, need to peel away institutional neglect, longstanding racism, and the toll of longstanding poverty to truly understand why the Lower Ninth is where it is at today. Much good is happening, from Brad Pitt’s homes, to urban gardening, to sustainable development, but more help is needed for the community to come back, even to half of what is was before.

This year, My class and I will be working in the Lower Ninth. And I’ve done this long enough to know that as satisfying as it is, it is but a drop in the bucket. However, I am happy that we can contribute what we can to the rebuilding and development of this too-long neglected community.

The New Orleans Course Tuesday, Jan 22 2013 

Lower Ninth Ward, March 2006

Lower Ninth Ward, March 2006

Today marks the beginning of the seventh spring I have taught the New Orleans class. I’m having some difficulty with that realization, which may be because the course helps me mark the passage of time – there’s Christmas, then New Year’s Day, then New Orleans. Moreover, six classes of students and hard-working volunteers have become friends, graduates and colleagues.

Because I have a short attention span, the class evolves from year to year. The bones, the basic structure for the course remain the same, but from year to year there are changes in assignments, readings, and volunteer opportunities. The class dynamic likewise changes. And, as Hurricane Katrina grows smaller in the rear view mirror, New Orleans and the way we approach the storm have been witness to substantial changes, as well.

Removing drywall, March 2006

Removing drywall, March 2006

My first volunteer trip to New Orleans was in March 2006, a little over seven months following Katrina. I worked with some 1300 volunteers out of a FEMA camp in Chalmette, LA.  We were fenced in. We had armed guards. Lights out at 10:00pm. A Dollar Store was the only retail establishment open in all of St. Bernard Parish. We were surrounded by thousands of homes, virtually all unoccupied, most still damp from flood waters, and many permanently soiled by oil and petrochemicals. Trees and shrubs could not shake-off being submerged under brackish water for weeks and failed to emerge that spring. And one had to strain to hear a song bird or witness life of any sort.

We worked in teams of 10 to 12, gutting homes in and around Chalmette. Collapsed ceilings and insulation, moldy walls, fetid refrigerators and freezers, and the waterlogged belongings of once proud homeowners were removed, and houses stripped to the studs. With masks, gloves, and goggles we worked in the filth and humidity, revering breaks during the day and racing to the showers and laundry in the afternoon. The homeowners, who cared, came and cried. We piled what porcelain, photographs, or other belongs that could be salvaged in a pile for them to reclaim. It was the worst and hardest job I have ever loved.

Chalmette Battlefield, March 2009

Chalmette Battlefield, March 2009

To escape the confinement and crowds of the camp, I discovered the Chalmette National Cemetery and Chalmette Battlefield a short walk away. They, like everything else, were damaged by the federal flood and closed, but there was nothing to stop me from visiting. I walked through the graves of generations of soldiers, many of them African-American soldiers from the Civil War. I sat among brick walls crumpled by the flood. I stood behind the redoubt where Andrew Jackson led a rag-tag army of frontiersman, local militia, free blacks, pirates, and Native Americans into battle on January 8, 1815. On the plain that lay between me and our camp, that force defeated the British army that had months prior forced Napoleon into exile. It was there, nearly two centuries later, of course, that the New Orleans course was conceived.

Cafe du Monde, March 2006

Cafe du Monde, March 2006

On a couple of evenings I hitched rides into the City where I discovered Frenchmen Street, a musical antidote to the commercialized sleaze of Bourbon Street. Even as the City struggled to recover from the storm, traditional music was rising above the devastation.  On Mondays, red beans still boiled on the stove. Café du Monde had a banner proclaiming “Beignets are Back.” And as I sat on a bench on the battlefield and revisited the week in my mind, I thought: how do I share this profound experience, this new found realization with others?

I got back to Durham. I read everything I could find. I listened to musicians and genres that were foreign to me. Together with the rawness of my experience, the New Orleans class was born. A year later, in the spring of 2007, the inaugural class had to suffer through my attempts to share everything that I had learned using dense and wordy PowerPoint slides and drawn-out lectures. It was an act of love for me, but the mode of delivery must have been frustrating to them. At the same time, I worked with UNH-Alternative Break Challenge to organize several trips to work with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans over spring break. I invited my students to apply and join us.

New Orleans class students on Bourbon Street, March 2007

New Orleans class students on Bourbon Street, March 2007

Five of my students did just that and joined me with UNH-ABC; two others went to New Orleans separately during spring break. We stayed in Violet, LA and worked in the Upper Ninth Ward in and around what would become Musicians’ Village. I watched them work hard during the day. They met and talked to residents. They tapped their toes to music, they caught beads at parades, and they ate Creole food. They combined what we had learned in class with experience. It stuck. It had meaning. And they gained knowledge and understanding in a way that the other students in the class could not. A year later, I asked if the trip could become part of the class, half expecting for the answer to be no. But, I was pleasantly surprised; the trip has been a central part of the class ever since.

Mazant Street, Upper Ninth Ward, March 2009

Mazant Street, Upper Ninth Ward, March 2009

Now, the trip defines the class. Before the trip, I give them informational markers to provide reference for them once they get there. And while none of us have attained the fluency of a native, students have just enough history, culture, music, and language to be able to communicate. And boy, do they communicate. They talk to folks in the neighborhoods, the former gang member who recounts mayhem, as well as the great-grandmother who in late 2005 returned to a home in a neighborhood without power; to a City without an operating grocery store. They talk to the musicians about their craft, the waitress about her late, unfortunate incarceration, and they bring all of those conversations back to class. They process. They try to make sense of those threads and combine them with what they read in books and see in film. They make their own judgments. And ultimately, they learn.

And I get to watch the whole thing unfold; and learn with them.

FEMA Wednesday, Oct 31 2012 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was originally created by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and implemented by two two of his Executive Orders on April 1, 1979. It was created to bring federal assistance, materiel and coordination to emergency situations that were beyond the capability of state and local governments. Federal response would come only when local authorities declared an emergency situation and requested federal assistance. Initially, FEMA was brought in to assist in the response to toxic waste deposits at Love Canal near Buffalo, NY and to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident near Harrisburg, PA. Both instances showed the promise of the new agency, while highlighting areas in which the responses could have been better coordinated.

New Orleans after Katrina

The agency was not prominent under either President Reagan or his successor, President George H. W. Bush. This neglect was highlighted in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which devastated areas of southern Florida south of Miami. In fact, President Bush’s lackadaisical response to Andrew may have led to his defeat in 1992, even in the wake of his success in the first Iraq war. This lesson was not lost on his successor, Bill Clinton.

President Clinton brought in James Lee Witt, who had served as head of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. Witt revamped the agency to improve the response and mitigation process. This focus on emergency response was unprecedented in the wake of the Cold War when civil defense was geared towards man made emergencies. These efforts were not maintained by President George W. Bush, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11.

Following 9/11, FEMA, which had been a cabinet level department, was subsumed under the newly-created Department of Homeland Security. In 2003, Michael Brown, former head of the American Arabian Horse Association, was appointed to head FEMA. He protested the continued lack of funding of and and attention to the Nation’s emergency response infrastructure, although his protests went unheeded. Then, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

The Katrina experience highlighted the problems of outsourcing America’s emergency response. This along with a distinct lack of leadership ere contributed to the lack of coordination between FEMA and state and local governments. Moreover, the initial response and relief delivery was delayed with disastrous and deadly effect. The lack of preparation and shift to privatization was highlighted further in the aftermath. Local officials, the National Guard, and the military were prepared to collect the bodies of the more than 2000 American citizens who lay dead, but the administration outsourced these efforts to a private mortuary firm. Single-source contracts brought in expensive and deficient “FEMA trailers” which would later prove carcinogenic. I personally witnessed gross waste, as private contractors provided high-priced housing for volunteers who traveled to the Gulf to help in the clean-up. Under the auspices of Homeland Security, these camps treated volunteers from around the world with an atmosphere more akin to a prison camp than volunteer housing. The Bush presidency never recovered from the mismanagement of the Katrina response.

Governor Romney collecting food in Ohio

President Obama apparently learned from his predecessor’s mistake. He elevated FEMA’s profile within his administration and brought in emergency management professional, Craig Fugate, to run the agency. The agency has functioned admirably in responses to catastrophic tornadoes in the Midwest and Deep South, as well to last year’s Hurricane Irene, which left a path of destruction from South Carolina into New England. But that is apparently not enough to prove FEMA’s worth in the eys of many in Washington.

In the past three years, Republicans in Congress have sought budgetary offsets to pay for aiding American communities in need. In addition, their budget plan calls for drastic cuts to the FEMA budget. Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee has called for FEMA’s responsibilities to be allocated to the states or to private vendors. And just today, in response to the millions displaced by Hurricane Sandy, he collected cans of soup. Questions about FEMA funding went unanswered.

Please take notice. We are talking about collective responsibility. We are talking about taking care of our own. Cities without mass transit, communities without electricity, families who have lost everything — this might be us one day. Some critics point to FEMA mismanagement in the past, but if financial malfeasance demanded killing an agency, then the Pentagon should have been closed and boarded up decades ago.

Damge to the Jersey shore from Hurricane Sandy

We should have learned from Katrina; however ideology seems to obscure history, science, or common sense. The people of the Gulf Coast suffered greatly from previous efforts to privatize FEMA’s responsibilities. If we have any sense of of the common good, of what it means to be part of a civilized society, we should reject such efforts at this time. The people of the Gulf Coast were left to die, they were “outsourced” to places far from home, and tens of thousands still wait for their communities to be rebuilt. They have been patient and forgiving to an extraordinary degree. I wouldn’t expect the people of New York or New Jersey to show such understanding. And, as Americans, as caring human beings, neither should we.

Katrina, Hushpuppy, and Isaac: Seven Years Later Tuesday, Aug 28 2012 

Hurricane Issac

Oh, my mind is reeling. On Friday, I learned that my New Orleans class was going to be working in the Lower Ninth Ward next spring. In eight trips to New Orleans since Katrina, I’ve only had the chance to work in the Lower Ninth for one wonderful day. After a brief celebration, I’m now riveted to the Weather Channel and hoping for the best,as Hurricane Isaac approaches.

As I have noted before, I was in New Orleans a few days before Katrina hit. It was my third visit to New Orleans and the one in which I fell madly in love with this complicated and dysfunctional city. And that is what fixed my attention to Katrina and its aftermath. I watched from 1500 miles away, but I took it personally. Forget the architecture, the food, and the music (all of which I love deeply), I watched as the most gregarious and generous people in America took a direct hit from a storm and then the governments that were supposedly established to protect them. I, a 50+, overweight, college professor vowed at that moment to help try to make it right.

I have been back numerous times since then. In the grand scheme of things, it is an anemic effort, but I have gutted homes, cleared lots,  put up walls, scraped paint, painted homes, and cooked for volunteers.  I know it’s not much, but in recent years I’ve brought my students. And I’d like to think that this has made some small contribution to the rebirth of New Orleans and the Gulf. And just this year, while walking through the diverse neighborhoods of the city, I had the sense that New Orleans had finally rounded the bend in the river. While there is much to be done, especially in places like the Lower Ninth, I have begun to think that New Orleans has found its mojo.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

A couple of weeks ago, after much anticipation, I finally saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild,”  a post-Katrina, apocalyptic  film. I found it anarchic, dystopian, and difficult to watch. My wife left the screening after watching what she rightly considered abuses upon a child. I stayed.  The ending strove to pull this messy allegory together towards a meaningful conclusion. I left vaguely satisfied and much confused, and it took days for me to see the brilliance of it all. To me, it represented that in the midst of chaos, the forces of family, no matter how dysfunctional and ill-defined, and community, no matter how strange, can come together for the benefit of all. And the government or society cannot rightly legislate either.

And this, I believe, is a metaphor for New Orleans. Whether it the Uptown establishment or the Creoles of Treme or the working class folk of the Lower Ninth, they have a bond of proximity and purpose and they form a community. And in their own way, however slow-paced and impractical, they move to make things

St. Joseph’s Night, March 2011.

better. I look to the resurgence of the Mardi Gras Indians as yet another symbol of this. It represents a unique cultural affect that was nearly lost with the attack on working class, black New Orleanians, but bead by bead, drum beat by drum beat, they have collectively come back stronger than ever. And it was because they were forced to look extinction in the eye. They said no. And they responded. And from their example, and that of the social aid and pleasure clubs and the musicians, New Orleans learned a powerful message. You not only pick-up, you grow, and you move forward.

Hushpuppy, the pint-sized force of nature in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” survived and so will her neighbor, New Orleans. It has come too far not to. It’s spine is stiffer and more resilient than before. And while it is far from perfect (it wouldn’t be New Orleans if it were), it will withstand Isaac and, once again,  move on.

And I will be happy to add my small part to the process.

Bruce Returns to Jazz Fest Wednesday, Apr 25 2012 

“From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We yelled “help” but the cavalry stayed home
There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown
We take care of our own…”

–Bruce Springsteen, “We Take Care of Our Own” (2012)–


As Vice President Joe Biden might say, the upcoming New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival “is a big f**king deal.” Although I know from talking to friends and musicians in the Crescent City, the two big weekends of music are met with mixed emotions. It has become less about New Orleans’ indigenous music and more prone to corporate sponsorship. And while locals snap up brass passes and brave the heat and/or spring rains to be there, many consider April’s French Quarter Fest to be the real celebration of local music and the City’s musicians. But no one would have complained of such excess in the spring of 2006.

Lakeview, New Orleans, LA, March 2006.

April/May 2006. A few months after Katrina. Mardi Gras limped on, but early on many assumed Jazz Fest would not take place. Yet it did; it was a success. And things have grown to the point where few think back to those painful and uncertain times. Forget Mardi Gras. Forget Jazz Fest. Many were still wondering whether New Orleans itself would make it.

But the musicians came: Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews, Jimmy Buffett, Paul Simon, Lionel Ritchie and scores of local musicians. They all came back to the fairgrounds. Even Fats Domino, the reclusive native son, whom many feared had perished in his home in the Lower Ninth, made an appearance. And then there was Bruce.

Although just six years ago, it seems like a distant memory, but music critic Keith Spera recalls the appearance in a brilliant column in the Times-PicayuneIt was a time of uncertainty, but it seemed made for America’s troubadour for the dispossessed and down-trodden. And the stars seemed aligned because he was touring with his Seeger Sessions Band. Again, a nod to protest in a time of want and social upheaval.

Bruce and the eclectic band of roots/folk/jazz musicians played old tunes that seemed eerily current. They recounted times of war, times of trial, but most spoke of overcoming adversity or, at least, laughing in its face. And Spera recalled:

Springsteen performs at Jazz Fest, May 2006. Dave Grunfeld of the Times-Picayune.

In his most overtly political statement, Springsteen recalled his visit the previous afternoon to the 9th Ward. “I saw some sights I never thought I’d see in an American city, ” he said. “The criminal ineptitude makes you furious.” In response, he adapted Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” with new lyrics dedicated to “President Bystander”: “My old school pals had some high times there/What happened to you folks is too bad, ” he sang, mocking President Bush’s comments in the early days after Hurricane Katrina.

The set’s watershed moment, literally, was “My City of Ruins.” Originally written for his adopted hometown of Asbury Park, N.J., on Sunday he dedicated it to New Orleans. To a hushed audience, Springsteen closed his eyes and began: “There’s a blood red circle on the cold dark ground, and the rain is falling down/The church door’s blown open, I can hear the organ’s sound, but the congregation’s gone . . . the boarded-up windows, the hustlers and the thieves, while my brother’s down on his knees . . . now tell me how do I began again? My city of ruins. . .” And then the refrain: “Come on, rise up! Rise up!” Thousands lifted their hands to the sky. I wept, my wife wept. And we were not alone.

Bill and Stephen Ross, Madison Square Garden, April 2012.

Bruce returns to Jazz Fest once again this weekend, this time with his E Street Band (albeit without Clarence Clemons). I saw them a few weeks ago in New York and they were magnificent. Probably the best concert I have ever experienced.  They will be returning to the same venue in a City still beset by problems, but it is a long way from those uncertain days of 2006. There will be biting songs from his new and very political album, “Wrecking Ball,” as well as some old favorites. It may even include some of those old protest songs from the concert six years ago. It will be a great three hours of music and Jazz Fest will undoubtedly be well-sponsored and a success.

But I don’t think that it could ever have the impact of that performance in the wake of the flood.

Strength and Rebirth: New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Wednesday, Apr 4 2012 

Bumper stickers at the House of Dance and Feathers, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2012, Taylor Frarie

It was our last night in the city; the air was warm and the city was alive. Despite the fact that it was around one in the morning the city was showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. It was then, as we were heading back to the van, that Shanti asked me what my favorite part of New Orleans had been. I thought about it, and gave her my honest answer: “I don’t know.”  I asked her the same question and she told me it was the spirit of rebirth that the city embodied.

I digested this and realized how perfect of an answer it was. I was even a little embarrassed that it did not come to my mind. When she had asked me I thought of obvious things like the food, the craziness, and the music. I know these are all a major part of the city, but when it comes down to it, none of that would be there if it weren’t for the strong inner spirit that the people of New Orleans have.

Levee along the Industrial Canal, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2012, Taylor Frarie

Thinking about it brought me back to the Lower Ninth Ward where we had visited on Sunday, our first day there. I just remember standing there when we learned about the destruction and how all the houses we were seeing would have been completely submerged in water. I tried to take it in, to fathom the magnitude of the damage and horror, but I just could not. It was surreal, like none of it had happened. But I know it did.  Even when we saw where the levee broke, it still didn’t quite hit me, and I don’t think it ever will. No one can imagine such an event unless it happens to them, the rest of us just have to try to do what we can to help. And people did try to help, just as residents tried to help each other.

Today the Lower Ninth Ward, even though it has a long way to go, is looking infinitely better. I remember long-time resident Ronald Lewis telling us that one of the things that made him happiest was the sight of children playing in the street in front of his house.  This hit me and I thought it was a beautiful way to describe it. It meant that life was truly coming back to his home and neighborhood. At first, I was surprised to learn that not all of the efforts into helping the Lower Ninth were fully appreciated. For instance, the modern and energy-efficient homes built by Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” Foundation. But now I understand that many residents just wanted help getting back to their old lives, they didn’t want everything to change. They just needed some support to get back on their feet.

Cover of Dan Baum's "Nine Lives"

Although foundation support is mostly a good thing; I can see where the mixed feelings are coming from.  I think these feelings are embodied through a song written by Paul Sanchez for a musical based on the Dan Baum’s book “Nine Lives.” Ronald Lewis’s story is one of the nine. The chorus of that song states: “We were fine in the Lower Nine.” These words are drawn straight from Baum’s interview with Lewis. The song reflects Lewis’s exuberant pride in his neighborhood and helped me to further understand the feelings held by him and his neighbors.

As I walked down the streets of New Orleans for the last time, these were my thoughts. As music played and people laughed and danced and stumbled all around me, I knew that the city was once again a place of high spirits despite the tragedy and devastation that it had faced.  It took me some time, but I finally saw and realized that the spirit of rebirth was alive and well in New Orleans and I watched as it pulsed through the city. And maybe, I thought, this is my favorite thing too.

–Taylor Frarie–

The REAL Spirit of New Orleans Monday, Apr 2 2012 

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn…” –Jack Kerouac

Bead work from Mardi Gras Indian outfit, House of Dance and Feathers, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2012

Looking back to the weeks before my first trip to New Orleans, I remember being nervous and wondering what to expect from a city known for its indescribable culture. After spending one day in the city, I was hooked. Our first day experiencing New Orleans as a class helped me to understand the spirit and culture of the city that Bill had been trying to describe to us for the first half of the semester.

Our first full day in New Orleans, we started off by heading to the Lower Ninth Ward to visit Ronald Lewis at The House of Dance and Feathers, the museum located behind his house. The bright colors from the Mardi Gras Indian costumes filling the room made it difficult to look away. Each costume was created with beautiful beadwork and details. It is one thing to see them in photographs or videos but it is a completely different story to see them in person.

Lower Ninth Ward, March 2006

Once everybody had settled into the museum, Ronald shared some of his experiences with Hurricane Katrina. While I had heard a lot about Katrina before visiting New Orleans, I didn’t truly understand how it affected the city and her people until hearing Ronald talk about his experiences. He helped me to understand the depth at which the people of the city were affected. One thing he said really stuck with me. When asked about the response to Katrina and the progress that has been made over the past few years he said, “It not the hot story, but it’s an ongoing story”. This was a really great thing to hear right before we started our work with Habitat for Humanity. Living in a world filled with daily disasters and news stories, it is hard to remember that the problems that occur from these events persist long after the hype goes down and volunteering is not longer the popular thing to do. This concept resonated with me and was something I carried with me as I volunteered and hope to remember now that I am back home and far away from the damage of Katrina and the people of New Orleans. So often people jump on the bandwagon to support issues but forget about them shortly afterwards. It makes sense, but it is a shame.

New homes, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2012. Gabby Chesney.

After having spent a little time in New Orleans, I know I won’t forget. I am excited to explore ways I can get involved and support the amazing and spirited people affected by Katrina from a distance. Ronald’s words were inspiring and so truthful. His spirit and passion were contagious. I love people like that, those are the ones who stick with you and change your outlook. 
I think many of the people I met in New Orleans embody this spirit. A city is nothing without the people who fill it. The people of New Orleans, so filled with the spirit of life and music and resilience, are the heartbeat of the city. Throughout the week we heard stories of people who suffered greatly after Katrina but returned to the city with a strong spirit and sense of hope.

Gabby and Ronald, House of Dance and Feathers, March 2012. Gabby Chesney.

Those are the stories that made the week we spent amazing. Without the people, New Orleans would just be a picturesque city by the water. Once you add these eclectic and passionate people, you have a place that is impossible to forget and sure to change you in one way or another. 

–Gabby Chesney–

New Orleans: A Center for Entrepreneurship? Saturday, Mar 10 2012 

“New Orleans is the opposite of America, and we must hold on to places that are the opposite of us. New Orleans is not fast or energetic or efficient, not a go-get-’em Calvinist, well-ordered city. It’s slow, lazy, sleepy, sweaty, hot, wet, lazy, and exotic.” Mark Childress

I have used the quote above in my syllabus for several years now. It expresses prevailing, widely accepted wisdom. It is the reason much of the Nation looked askance as New Orleans literally drowned. They we lazy, exotic, and enjoyed life far too much. To many, they didn’t deserve to be saved.

However, recent evidence suggests that like a Fox News narrative, it is based more oral myth than evidence. I started seeing some rumblings to overturn this narrative a while back. I reported on it a little over a year ago in a posting entitled: “Dying City,” or “Brain Magnet.” In that post, I reflected on the contradiction of using raw population data, reflecting New Orleans’ population loss after Katrina (well, duh!), with the fact that New Orleans ranks number one in the U.S. in attracting college-educated youth. And, as a recent op-ed column in the Times-Picayune suggests, it is not all due to an influx of volunteers for Teach for America. Not there is anything wrong with that.

Walter Issacson photo, Times-Picayune, March 2012.

On Tuesday, March 6, 2012, journalist and native-son Walter Isaacson wrote a wonderful op-ed on this phenomenon. And for a multiply-challenged city that is approaching its tricentennial, he illuminated the error  of looking only at short-term trends. Nor, as he pointed out, should innovation be measured only by a balance sheet.

And this challenges my assumptions about my favorite city, but new perspectives, even if they ultimately prove you wrong are good. Right?

Isaacson convincingly argues that throughout its history, New Orleans has exemplified an entrepreneurial spirit. I mean, if you go back to the fact that due to its location, it is a city that should never have happened. But that is the crux of his argument. It emerged from an uneven colonial history, at best, to become the most vibrant immigrant community in the South.  It has, in succession, welcomed Haitian, British, Irish, German, Jewish, Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern Christian and Muslim, and most recently, Latin American immigrants, And the addition has made it a stronger and more vibrant community.

New, energy efficient homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, March 2011.

And then came Katrina, a man-made catastrophe that many feared would be the death knell for a city, nearly half of which (49%) lies below sea level. Ivisited a few months afterwards and it was difficult to imagine that it would come back. And as I write this from Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish, which like outlying areas of New Orleans, is not close to coming back to pre-Katrina norms.

But. As Isaacson points out, New Orleans had fallen into complacency before Katrina. It had watched it economy recede, and was willing to become the party city of beads, breasts and booze. So, who would have bet on a comeback for such a lethargic and tradition-bound contestant.

Instead, this week, New Orleans is hosting New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. And to Isaacson, every native who stood up and said “we are going to stay and rebuild” was a nascent entrepreneur.  It was an inspiration and it has attracted an unprecedented level of innovation and new ventures, many spawned by college-educated migrants to the Crescent City.

Look to the award-winning, albeit slow development of the Lower Ninth Ward. New Orleans is now a model for for our Nation’s reinventing itself economically and sustainably.

So it is not just the stubborn residents, but young MBAs from elsewhere who are driving an economic resurgence in New Orleans. So no longer is New Orleans, the semi-Caribbean step-child of America, it is the personification and bell-weather of American innovation. Its example may indeed lead us forward.

And I’ll be among the first to admit it: I was wrong. The emerging facts prove that I was wrong. And I believe in facts.

Humor Among the Ruins: March 2006 Friday, Feb 17 2012 

Artist George Rodrigue's Blue Dog Store, Royal Street, French Quarter, March 2006. The first Carnival after Katrina. In honor of Mardi Gras.

Storm damaged home near the Orleans Marina on Lake Pontchartrain, March 2006. Note the daylight coming through the damage to the first floor.

Hurricane Katrina Plus Six Friday, Aug 26 2011 

On August 20, 2005, after attending a conference in New Orleans, I took off from Louis Armstrong International Airport to return home. As we flew across Lake Pontchartrain I remember looking back to the strange, little city that I had ever-so-slowly grown to love. At that point, Katrina was a small tropical storm forming in the Atlantic. Little did I know that nine days later, it would change the city that I left behind forever.

Six years after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failure of the levee system, much of the east coast is waiting and watching Hurricane Irene as it inches northward up the coast.  As a North Carolina native, I know that there will be stubborn folks on the Outer Banks who’ll stay behind, because that’s what they do.  And I suspect that my alma mater, East Carolina University in Greenville, will be unofficial host to more than a few hurricane parties. However, during the intervening years, governments and emergency management agencies have studied and learned from the myriad of failed responses to Katrina. And hopefully, what they have learned will help reduce damage and loss of life from this impending storm.

And on this anniversary, we still need to  remember the people of the Gulf Coast. Six years, millions of volunteer hours, and billions of dollars in aid later, there are still communities and neighborhoods that will never be the same.  From New Orleans eastward to Alabama nearly 2,000 people lost their live in the flood and thousands more evacuated and never returned. And weeks later, along the bayous to the west, Hurricane Rita, prolonged the regional agony. Six years hence, much has been done, but there is so much more that needs to be done.

In the Upper Ninth Ward, this week’s opening of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music punctuates the end of construction at Musicians’ Village; however, hundreds of houses in the neighborhood have been torn down, while other blighted structures remain unclaimed and/or unoccupied. And this is true in varying degrees in neighborhoods throughout the City.

To this day, many of the streets in the Lower Ninth Ward are dirt, gravel, or broken pavement. Sidewalks, if they existed at all, are cracked and overgrown. On the sixth anniversary of the storm, New Orleans has secured $45 million to repair streets in the Lower Ninth and to assess repair needs in other parts of the City. So progress, albeit excruciating slow, continues.

And this is a victory for the past, current, and future residents of the Lower Ninth. As some proposed that the area be bulldozed and returned to wetlands, residents fought for their generations-old community; it was something that belonged to them and they fought to let others know that is was something worth saving. In August 2005 and afterwards, they were betrayed, not by nature, but by their own government. Nevertheless, they will gather this weekend to remember and celebrate, as neighborhood pleasure and social clubs, Mardi Gras Indian gangs, and brass bands come out, not just to recall the death and destruction, but to celebrate their determined survival as a community.

So, from Biloxi, MS, to Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish, from New Orleans East to Lakeview in New Orleans, and from Metairie, LA to the Texas border; residents will be thinking of and praying for those along the east coast. But in addition, they’ll be remembering what happened to them in 2005, all the while taking stock of their own survival, stubbornness, and resilience.

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